After dinner a few nights ago I told my husband, “I’m writing an article about how Stephen King’s newer stuff kinda sucks in comparison to his older stuff.” To which he replied, “What IS Stephen King’s newer stuff?” Exactly.
As a hopeful writer, it would be unwise and downright wrong to bad mouth Stephen King. It would be like a newbie priest taking a dump on the work of Jesus. The key argument that I’m making here is that because King is such an icon and spent his earlier career forming an entire genre and defining what modern horror means, his earlier work is on a pedestal even he can’t live up to. I mean, all of the Victoria Secret models are hot. Some are just hotter than others.
King has published over 60 novels in his lifetimes, countless short stories, poems, essays, and non-fiction work, but what we know him best for are his iconic earlier novels, particularly those that came out in the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s. In 1974, King came onto the scene with Carrie, a terrifying story about an ostracized teen with a psychotically religious mother who happens to have telekinetic powers that she uses to seek her revenge on the entire town. He quickly proved that his writing and his storytelling were no fluke with the subsequent publishing of Salem’s Lot, The Shining, the short story “Children of the Corn”, The Stand, The Dead Zone and Firestarter all before 1980. It is these works that shaped our modern definition of horror and supernatural fiction. King rivals some of the publishing powerhouses like Dean Koontz, Danielle Steel, and James Patterson, but what sets him apart from these writers is that King does not follow a formula in his writing, and each of his works is as creative and uniquely creepy as the one before it. This could be one of the reasons that some are quick to call King’s later work less impressive than his earlier work. King doesn’t stick with a formula. He is a prolific writer, not a formulaic writer. Some readers want to see Carrie or The Shining or Cujo in all of his books, and they are upset when they get something totally different. His most recent work, a mystery novel called Mr. Mercedes won the 2015 Edgar Award for Best Novel from the Mystery Writers of America. It might not have given the reader the same jarring effect as It, but that doesn’t make it less impressive.
In his early work, King cast the mold, and as he evolved as a writer instead of pouring into the same mold over and over, he chooses to break the mold and write from scratch. Sometimes his results wow audiences, and sometimes they don’t, but his ability to imagine completely new worlds and stories is hugely impressive. His later stuff isn’t worse or better, it is just no longer iconic. If we think about the most impressive, artistic trailblazers of our time, we celebrate them for their initial contribution to the arts: what they did that changed things forever. But what keeps them relevant is their ability to change and grow. With that being said, you can’t pick up Doctor Sleep and except to get Salem’s Lot, in the same way you can’t listen to David Bowie’s Blackstar and expect to get The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.