Thursday, February 24, 2005

Stephen King: His Stories, His Success, and His Advice

Stephen King doesn't count among my popularly rated authors. In fact, he's down there with absolutely nobody else, because I enjoy the works of all the other authors I have read (except, perhaps, for Robert Jordan). Reading is more a holistic experience than a linear task. Keeping that in mind, Stephen King's wonderful stories continue to astound me in their genius, and his endings continue to incense me.

His writing style has nothing spectacular in it, he uses common parlance, which is probably a good thing, because he's a bestselling author God knows how many times. It's not usually his writing style that I have a qualm with anyway, despite its mediocrity, but his endings. I've read two of his books: The Stand, Complete and Uncut, and The Eyes of the Dragon. I have also watched three of his stories adapted to movies: The Shining, directed by Stanley Kubrik, The Green Mile, directed by Frank Darabont, and Dreamcatcher, directed by Lawrence Kasdan.

Needless to say his stories are scary, and they are also very nicely developed. The Stand, all 1200 pages of which I read with great ease was a wonderfully gripping novel about a post-apocalyptic Earth (something I had been fanasizing about a lot since childhood), populated by a select but polarised (between good and evil) population that survived a genetically-enhanced disease outbreak by random selection. All the evil people go to the West Coast of the United States, and all the good people go to the East Coast (there's no point moaning about taking the United States to be the centre of the world, he's an American novelist, let's cut him some slack).

The story itself was brilliantly developed, if I may say so myself. In "The Stand," he introduces minor characters halfway through the story for several pages at a time, and then kills them in a most untimely manner, which offers a level of realism and tragedy to the whole post-apocalyptic scenario. He also develops some of the greatest and finest protagonists and anti-heroes I have come across in stories. My one qualm, however, are his endings. He seems insistent on not letting his villains die proper deaths.

Spoilers Ahead. At the end of the Stand, the story effectively ends by one of Randal Flagg's (the villain) own cronies, who happens to be a pyromaniac, blowing him up with a nuclear weapon that Flagg assigns him to find, for the final showdown with the GoodGuys. However, it seemed the ending wasn't sufficient for King, and the story terminates with a scene with Randal Flagg somewhere in the Caribbean or some African island with torn clothes, and black people worshipping him. This ridiculous and anti-climactic ending is consummated, to no good effect, with an illustration.

I figured I would give Stephen King a second chance, and so I read “The Eyes of the Dragon.” Well, what do you know? It's a villain with uncannily the same characteristics as Flagg, and again the villain does not die, but gets recycled into another realm, where the main characters go for a final showdown.

I have been informed by a Stephen King aficionado that apparently, that particular villain appears in several of Stephen King's novels, and that he plays a much grander role than what is implied in the two books of his that I read. I suppose I can respect the concept of having a character that seems to transcend between a modern-era, 20th century novel (The Stand) and a fantasy-style, almost Tolkien-esque prehistoric, mythological setting in the Eyes of the Dragon. However, to add such an ingredient into your storytelling at the expense of the finality a reader is to experience by finishing a book is not very wise.

In addition to not liking the endings of his stories, despite liking their story development, the movies adapted in his name are also sorry excuses for films. Stanley Kubrik's "The Shining" is counted among the top scariest films ever created, but I must absolutely and completely disagree. The film itself is missing something very fundamental: a story. Of course my main beef here is with Stanley Kubrik and not with Stephen King, so I will leave it at that. Dreamcatcher, another film adaptation was also a complete disappointment.

The problem I have with Stephen King is actually his talent. He has an uncanny ability at developing characters that are such marvelous pieces of fiction, you can't help but fall in love with them. The potency of his character design is so strong, I believe it blooms through, even in the sorry excuses for movies that come out in his name, like Dreamcatcher. Here is a movie with a beginning so grand, you expect something you will remember for years. Yet, by the end of the film, you find yourself lamenting the waste of 2 hours of your life to watch a story that has no deeper meaning beyond parasitic aliens killing their human hosts and crawling out of their anal pores. I find that not only unacceptable, but unforgivable!

One adaptation I find very much redeeming to Stephen King is The Green Mile, which I believe is a brilliant and touching movie about a big, seemingly mentally retarded Black slave, accused of raping and murdering two young girls. Although the message he was hitting for is somewhat lost on my Muslim psyche, the movie was well-executed, and it managed to pull the Hollywood trick of making you feel deeply for something that could be seen as somewhat superficial.

A recurring theme I find in Stephen King's books is one of holding secrets within mentally retarded people or children. In "The Shining," it was Danny, the child with his little finger friend who seemed to somehow know his father would go mad and attack him and his mother. In "The Stand," it was Thomas, who is one of the main heroes and one of the few that survive till the end, and he was completely mentally retarded. In "Dreamcatcher," it was Duddits, the one who saves the day by killing the aliens, and in "The Green Mile" it was John Coffey, the imposing gentle giant with a magical ability to heal and read minds. Quite interesting, really, but it gets old.

In any case, regardless of the misgivings I may have with his style of storytelling (and the fact that my familiarity with his works rest on two books and three movie adaptations), he is counted as probably the most successful American author in history. As such, when I came across an article titled "Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully: in Ten Minutes," I took notice.

He gives some nice pointers. The fact that his stories don't agree with me should, I guess, in no way interfere with what he perceives to be how he got where he got, since nobody can deny, he's a bestselling author.

As for me, I've given up on reading what Stephen King calls "the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries": Stephen King, Tom Clancy, Sidney Sheldon, et alii.

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I write essays in my spare time on things that are important to me. The ones that I feel are any good, or make any sense, I put them up here. :)