Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Stephen King's New Novel isn't very novel

What the fuck happened to Stephen King?
His latest “horror” novel will be called Under the Dome. Here’s the description:

On an entirely normal, beautiful fall day in Chester’s Mill, Maine, the town is inexplicably and suddenly sealed off from the rest of the world by an invisible force field. Planes crash into it and fall from the sky in flaming wreckage, a gardener’s hand is severed as “the dome” comes down on it, people running errands in the neighboring town are divided from their families, and cars explode on impact. No one can fathom what this barrier is, where it came from, and when—or if—it will go away.
Dale Barbara, Iraq vet and now a short-order cook, finds himself teamed with a few intrepid citizens—town newspaper owner Julia Shumway, a physician’s assistant at the hospital, a select-woman, and three brave kids. Against them stands Big Jim Rennie, a politician who will stop at nothing—even murder—to hold the reins of power, and his son, who is keeping a horrible secret in a dark pantry. But their main adversary is the Dome itself. Because time isn’t just short. It’s running out.

Huh. Where did I see that done before?
Oh yeah. The fucking Simpsons Movie. Didn’t the entire town of Springfield get trapped under a dome after Homer dumped pig shit into the lake? Didn’t the town fall to lawlessness and violence? Wasn’t it because of a sick and twisted politician? Didn’t it eventually come down to Homer and Bart saving the day?

You’re probably not as hurt as I am by this weird sort of hollywood-esque lifting of an idea, but Stephen King was a huge part of my life and to watch him blatantly take another old, tired, hackneyed idea and somehow churn a bestseller out of it (and probably take home an award for it) is a sad day indeed.

You see, I’ve been a King fan for nearly as long as I could read. I can’t remember the first story I read by him, but I do remember my dad reading stories from Night Shift to me when I was young and impressionable. Sometime later I began reading everything I could that had the man’s name on it, gobbling up one after another, raiding the library for everything they had (not to mention building substantial fines when it took longer than two weeks to finish them). I remember being excited when my family moved because we began going to a different library and I had a different cache of Stephen King books to reap and enjoy.

Not long after that, at least while in grade school, I began writing stories of my own, nothing memorable, but stories nonetheless, ones mainly based on Stephen King’s style and voice. I remember one that hung off of the “moons and goochers” scene in King’s Novella The Body (later made into a great film called Stand By Me directed by Rob Reiner). I was still reading King all the time and had little or no patience for anyone else, especially when I learned one of my mother’s co-workers was a huge King fan. I asked for King books for Christmas and my birthday, and usually used my money to buy new ones or replacements of library books I’d read so I could re-read them. I read and wrote stories over and over again until I reached high school.

Nowadays kids read Harry Potter or the Twilight books but back in my day it was R.L. Stine with his Goosebumps series. I read his these, usually polishing them in a day or so but usually they ended in a disappointing M. Night Shyamalan twist and were formulaic as hell.

But Stephen King’s stories weren’t as simple to crack. Jack Torrance wasn’t just a cookie-cutter bad guy, he was fucking complicated. Annie Wilkes didn’t just lock Paul Sheldon up in her house because she was the bad guy, there was more important things going on. She was a character you could feel, someone who actually taught Sheldon a thing or two about how his readers read his work, and (definitely) how serious they can be about it. Carrie was sympathetic to be sure, but was also so pathetic you could actually see hating her just a little, maybe even just enough to laugh at her at the wrong moment. Louis Creed was always my favorite character from a writer’s seat, and if you’ve never read Pet Semetary, let me tell you, no story ever showed me how even love itself can be a persons largest downfall.

These stories had bad guys who were more than just cookie-cutter shadows on the wall stumbling along behind the protagonist, but instead felt that they were doing right, that they were the good guys. Not even the good guys were always good guys, sometimes they had to kill an entire town just to get where they needed to go.

But somewhere the needle started to stray. The first time I noticed it was Needful Things. It followed into Delores Clairborne, was slightly stayed by Nightmares and Dreamscapes, then reaffirmed with The Green Mile, his second book about prison in the 50’s.

Maybe you know what I’m thinking of. Somehow King’s stories lost something. He no longer has the urgency he had in his writing. When he wrote The Shining, he wrote it because he had to do something, he had to beat back the demons, had to show you where they hide. Now he writes because he’s got nothing better to do between visits from the kids.

The Green Mile
is good, has heart and is meaningful but I think it’s his last really great book mainly because it was a serial and this forced him to write quick and dirty. After that we have what begins what I consider the New School Stephen King, the one who wins awards, the one who writes a lot but doesn’t say as much, the one who is more conscientious of what he wants out of the story and thereby makes it less interesting.

An example, is perhaps in order for those who may hate me at this point. In On Writing, King’s awesome book about the technical (and not-so-technical) parts of the craft, he says that when he was writing The Shining, he believes his drug-addled mind was trying to convey the power of addiction over the family. However, in The Green Mile, he saw in his editing that his miracle inmate paralleled Jesus Christ, so he changed the character’s name to John Coffey, thereby making the it more obvious. By changing the name, King made the story more about the message (John Coffey is like Jesus Christ) than about the story itself (a man with magical powers is imprisoned and changes the lives of his captors). Early King would not have done this, because Early King was about the story, not the message.

Plus, what happened to the horror, man? The last time King honestly frightened me was when Annie Wilkes took care of the kid cop outside of Paul Sheldon’s window. Or maybe when Gard discovered what was in Bobbi’s shed.

The surprises are gone, too. Tell me you didn’t know what was going to happen to Ted in Hearts in Atlantis sixty pages before it happened. Dreamcatcher had a twist worthy of M. Night Shyamalan (but not Stephen King) and The Dark Tower lost it’s luster after King decided to reference Harry Potter (Specifically, Wolves of Calla and it’s Snitch grenades). The only surpirse I got was the one at the end of Bag of Bones, but only because I suddenly had a Goosebumps book in my hands complete with Deus Ex Machina and a rushed ending with no heart.

It’s sad to watch your hero die a weird death, sadly unaware that he has become a joke of himself. Stephen King was once my very favorite person, the person I strove to be, the one who made me want to write. Now I find I can’t even pick up his books for the sad fear of what kind of pandering I’ll be subjecting myself to.

Enjoy Under The Dome, Mister King. I can’t.

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