Stephen King's Generational Handicap

This year, my first endeavor in summer reading is Stephen King’s IT. Upon viewing the record-breaking trailer for the book’s 2017 film adaptation, I simply had to read it, despite its daunting length. As of the time of this writing, I have 250 pages to go.

So far, I hate it (no pun intended). For one, the length has every reason to be daunting because it is entirely too long for what it tries to accomplish. Second, it isn’t written very well, which is the catalyst for my third reason for hating it: it isn’t very scary. Stephen King, dubbed "The indisputable King of Horror" (TIME), "dark and sinister" (Washington Post), and "a possessed figure" (L.A Herald Examiner), isn’t so much scary as he is silly when it comes to his writing in IT. A book so well-renowned as blood-curdling, it is too monotonous to inflict any real terror for me as a reader. In some sense is safe to say that the work gained its popularity due to the 1990 miniseries of the same name starring Tim Curry. The popularity of said miniseries is likely what green-lit the upcoming remake in the first place. For now, I’m not going to judge the film for it’s quality based on its source material or my own speculation, as it has yet to release.

I will admit that I have a soft spot for King, which is another excuse for why I decided to read IT in the first place. His nonfiction work, On Writing, is without question the reason why I ever aspired to take up penmanship. The book is, in a sense, both a humbling manual for writing and King’s autobiography, and is a book I have recommended to countless people. This was the first Stephen King book I ever read, so, naturally, I expected everything he had put to paper to be a masterpiece; his critics would agree. The first fiction Stephen King work I read was The Shining. While I didn’t find it strikingly terrifying (as the review blurbs on the back cover indicated), I still found it to be a good read. I would later go on to read Carrie and 'Salem’s Lot, and I felt they were just as good if not better. My most dangerous takeaway from all three of these books is that I considered them to be top-tier literary quality due to the amount of credit I gave King for On Writing. I thankfully read plenty other works with literary merit before reading IT

My reading of IT has made me realize just how bogus King’s reputation as both a writer and a horror writer can be. This doesn’t mean that all of his works are "bad", per-say, but I will address this later. A simple glance at his reviews by some of the most world-renowned journals of the late 20th century gives the impression that King will go down in history as the Charles Dickens of our time. He certainly already has from the standpoint of financial success. But is this reception completely bogus, or is it just my opinion? Well, first and foremost, it is my just opinion, but more importantly, many agree with me on this matter. There is a growing number of people who are willing to admit that Stephen King isn’t all that his fans or the press make him out to be. While this could mean that general opinion of his work is shifting, I believe it has more to do with the age of his readers. As of this writing, I am 18 years old, nearly 19. I was not alive when Carrie released in 1974, and I have been raised in an entirely different climate of horror. What needs to be considered isn’t as much the fact that Stephen King’s works are bad, but that they don’t age well. 

The reason I and many others don’t find King to be scary comes down to a simple statement: What was scary then isn’t scary now. It also certainly isn’t scary if the same formula used to inflict horror in 1974 is still being recycled to this day. In order to understand this, we must take a brief look into the history of horror.

The modern use of the word 'horror' in storytelling is often associated as a genre. However, at the very heart of the word is an emotion. "Bobby is lost in the woods and no one is around to find him." Bobby may as well be in horror. Horror has always been a medium of storytelling ever since humans conceived the idea of ghost stories, and then conceived the even greater idea of sharing them around a campfire. The dawn of horror in literature and as a genre was seen in the late 18th century with gothic literature. This isn’t to say that horror wasn’t an element used in literature before then, but this was where the genre began to appear most frequently with the intent of creating a macabre, chilling atmosphere. At the time, this was exactly how authors of the genre terrified their readers, creating atmospheric horror rather than slashing murder and gore. Gothic writers of the 18th and 19th centuries included Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe, and much later in the early 20th century, H.P. Lovecraft. 

The arrival of film in the 20th Century brought a whole new approach to horror as a genre. Though adaptations of gothic writers' stories were always adapted to film, horror movies weren’t popularized until the 1950’s. The post-World War II "Red Scare" saw an exodus of whimsical themes in film and a shift to exploration of the unknown; fear of the unknown, to be precise. Monsters both big and small were selling tickets at picture shows across the world, and horror films would continue to evolve throughout the decades. Monsters became more creative, and later the "monsters" we all feared became just as human as us, manifest as cold-blooded killers. Films became gorier as practical effects improved. By the ’70’s and ’80’s, horror became more psychological, though traditional monsters were no strangers to the big screen, even if they were on the decline. With changing culture, horror film continued to adapt with the 1999 release of The Blair Witch Project, the dawn of the "found footage" sub-genre. This style was executed in wildly popular films of the new millennium, most notably Paranormal Activity. In the modern age, quality horror is almost purely psychological, but also situational or practical. Sometimes, simply placing characters in a terrifying situation, such as surviving a savage post-apocalypse, or escaping a kidnapping, is all that is needed to rack one’s brain. 

The repeating theme in the history of horror is that the genre had to evolve. Horror couldn’t keep doing the same thing over and over again or it would no longer serve its purpose. It evolved physically, such as from literature to film, but it also evolved in its storytelling, getting more graphic and tangible. Tactics also die out. Many horror fans of today complain about the number of jump-scares Hollywood uses to write easy films. Sometimes films are nerve-racking based on their subject matter and the time they are released. The political climate of the current decade is largely why The Purge films managed to be so frightening, and thus so popular. 

What doesn’t change is that works of horror almost always have to stay relevant to the times, and often fall victim to becoming products of their time. It’s a genre that isn’t easy to make timeless. Sure, there are countless stories and films which will always scare us, but works of this status are rare. We can always look back and gain some enjoyment from monster movies of the 1950’s; we can enjoy their effects, and admire a style of filmmaking from days gone by. But do they scare us? Only rarely. There aren’t many films from before the 1970’s mentioned in the 21st century which people are scared of, unless age or nostalgia factors in. The ones which still manage to frighten people are more rare the further we look into the past. 

This raises one big question: How did Stephen King’s horror stories manage to succeed long after the great gothic writers were in their graves, and amidst an ever-growing and adapting climate of horror films. King’s ability to exhume popular horror in literature, given the time, must have been quite the accomplishment. Again, however, what was scary then isn’t necessarily scary now. Though many of his works may be great books, they aren’t necessarily gut-wrenching for a reader of my age raised in the current horror climate. 

Firstly, horror has changed drastically since King’s debut in the ’70’s. I grew up in the age of jump-scares and the current horror climate is that of psychological and situational terror. Secondly, horror is much more democratized in this day and age. I’m not the biggest horror fan when it comes to film, but it’s easy for anyone to unintentionally view a horror film trailer in a movie theater which is miles more frightening than the effects a novel as a whole can produce. For me, this occurred numerous times before I even turned ten. Also, it’s easy for anyone to view horror films with the click of a button thanks to Netflix. Horror has also entered a new vein in TV since the days of The Twilight Zone with new shows like The Walking Dead, American Horror Story, and countless others. Simply put, horror in this day and age is more available than it was at King’s debut. When King’s work first released, horror films were confined to the walls of the theater, and kept out of reach by over-protective parents. There was no Netflix, so they weren’t as easy to come across. I have no doubt that my generation is perfectly capable of experiencing fear from a book, and even enjoying King’s work. The problem is that so much horror is at our fingertips that King doesn’t come off as scary to us as he would to an unsuspecting reader in 1974. 

Now, though it is certainly clear that horror adapts with changing times, it doesn’t mean that the genre, or Stephen King, can’t be timeless. 

As mentioned earlier, The Shining was the first of King’s fiction I ever read. Though I didn’t find it grippingly blood-curdling, I did find it atmospherically frightening, much like the style of many of the gothic writers. The Shining was chilling because its characters were isolated, far from civilization in a seemingly haunted place, and one of their own was unstable. Though there wasn’t a strikingly frightening scene like in Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation, I was on-edge the entire time. Unfortunately, the buildup didn’t lead to the best payoff. Carrie, my second King book, also kept me on-edge. While it is a well-known and aged story even for those who haven’t read the book, the way King presents it is clever. He alternates between traditional storytelling and written evidence of eye-witness accounts. It keeps the reader wondering how the characters got to the ending, even if eye-witness POV has been used in literature before. Though the only book of Stephen King’s original trio which I consider to be truly scary is 'Salem’s Lot, I still feel that all three of them are well-written books. This also brings up the question of whether King’s works need to be viewed as horror. He’s written great stories, just not all of them are scary, per say.

Yet this also makes me question how the gothic writers like Stoker, Poe, and Lovecraft managed to write such horrifying stories and be timeless, yet King’s age horribly. I haven’t met anyone who wasn’t at least slightly chilled by The Raven, The Tale-tell Heart, or The Fall of the House of Usher. I’ve read Dracula, and I found it unsettling despite having been written over a century ago and using such dated language of its time. I even have a Lovecraft Cthulhu anthology of which I’ve only read a six-page story and I found it eons more enjoyable, frightening, and interesting than the 908 pages I’ve read of IT

The works of these giants go to show that horror literature doesn’t have to be a product of the times. I’ve already examined how the subject matter of stories King writes don’t necessarily mix with readers of my generation. This leaves us with how his writing style has aged, or maybe how it’s just plain bad. 

The Shining, Carrie, and 'Salem’s Lot are all written well. IT isn’t. Where King’s writing flaws are at the forefront in IT, they are simply nuanced in his original trio. I, for one, can’t track how the nuances of King’s writing style have adapted over the years because I haven’t read all of his works. However, it’s clear that King became obsessed with use of a plain flawed style of writing which basic high school English classes teach to avoid. 

He goes into entirely too much detail. IT has dozens upon dozens of moments which would be scary if King didn’t take so much time explaining events as they happen. This includes excessive sexual detail, which is not only awkward to read, but has me convinced he’d rather write erotica instead of horror. King also uses an unnecessary amount of swearing in his writing. Sex and swearing have their place, but just because they are used doesn’t make the work edgier or more literary if they aren’t executed well. Oftentimes his de-facto means of chilling gore is use of blood, but just because blood is present doesn’t make me sick at my stomach. His supernatural entities are hard to understand and oftentimes just plain silly, his expression of internal thought is always awkward, and he has a knack for dated pop-culture references. 

I’m not saying that King’s original three works are devoid of these issues; they were most certainly present. It just seems that between The Shining and IT his writing style took favor with his flaws. Again, I can’t comment on anything else he’s written. I’m simply making an observation based on what I’ve read, and gathered observations of fellow readers. 

It all comes back to my original statement: What was scary then won’t always be scary now. I can’t say whether his seemingly poor and lengthy writing style was considered scary as hell in the ’80’s because I didn’t grow up in the horror climate of the ’80’s. King’s work may have been spine-tingling for his day, but my generation isn’t as likely to find his stories as much as a disturbing because we’ve been raised in such a different climate of horror, both in style and availability.

Even for a casual fan of horror like myself, I can already tell the genre is going in new, innovative directions. There is a new app on the market which tells gripping thrillers by allowing readers to scroll through text message threads. I’ve seen demos of the concept in ads, and I was honest-to-god shaken, yet interested in what they were doing. Given that filmmakers are having to try harder and harder with innovative ways to tell stories and get audiences to the box office, our obsession with technology could lead to a new form of storytelling. We are so familiar with something such as text threads that it could be the next shift in the medium as we know it. Even if not through this app, it is inevitable that horror and storytelling will manifest itself in a new medium sooner or later. Literature will have to find a way to compete. Stephen King, if he is still around, would likely go into further generational decline.

Though I have mostly criticized King for his writing style and subject matter of his stories, he is the first to admit some of his flaws. He understands that some of the supernatural elements in his works are far-fetched. Simply the fact that he acknowledges this makes him the better man, and, though I’m clearly no stranger to criticizing him, adds to my respect for him which I’ve already developed from On Writing. Again, he isn’t devoid of investing, and even scary stories. I love The Shining, Carrie, and 'Salem’s Lot. Any fan of sci-fi or fantasy won't deny his contribution of The Dark Tower series. Other smaller works like Needful Things, Pet Semetary, and his short stories get countless recommendations from readers.

So, I won’t go so far as to say that his reputation is conceived out of nothing, or lack or talent, or that it is subject to a history of good reviews from journals which have critiqued him since his debut as a writer; he will always have his moments of notability. But as a millennial born long after his heyday, I can’t deny the fact that I will always have a generational divide with readers who grew up with what are considered his best and most terrifying works. On top of this, his writing flaws can’t go unnoticed. Unfortunately, it seems that for King, though an icon in his own right, a great deal of his work will fall victim to the passage of time. For someone born too late to enjoy him for who his is (or was), let's just say we have a complicated relationship.

-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; June 2017