The brilliance of Stephen King
By Jim Poling
Published Nov. 2, 2017
This being Halloween week I have Stephen King on my night table. Nothing is spookier than ghostly autumn moonlight spilling through the bedroom window onto the horror master’s words.
Tonight, the master’s words have placed me in an old model Mustang speeding down a dark country road with George Staub, who is smoking and talking about Riding the Bullet, and of course – death. Cigarette smoke is leaking through the stitches on his throat, and the inside of the Mustang smells of grave dirt and formaldehyde.
King is underrated when people refer to him as the master of horror. He is the master of storytelling, master of imagination and a master of writing, whether it be horror or not.
I am not a horror fan but I love reading King’s writing, especially when it is about himself and his writing. Reading the introductions to some of his books, or On Writing, his 2000 book about the writing trade, is like sitting in a kitchen having a beer with him. (He no longer drinks because he is a reformed alcoholic-drug addict).
Reading the personal stuff puts you inside King’s head. And, when you are inside a great writer’s head, you begin to learn a lot about writing.
Some serial writers keep churning out the same formulaic stuff. Sell more books, make more money, become more famous. The stories begin to sound the same, with different places and different names.
King is unlike others. He keeps experimenting, looking for ways to keep his writing fresh. Besides novels he has written screenplays, radio scripts, TV series and even a musical, Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, with John Mellencamp.
“I like to goof whiddit, do a little media cross-pollination and envelope pushing,” he wrote in the introduction to Everything’s Eventual, a book of his short stories. “It’s not about making more money or even precisely about creating new markets; It’s about trying to see the act, art and craft of writing in different ways. . . .”
He certainly does not need more money nor more fame. He has sold roughly 350 million books since 1974 when Carrie was published and has earned hundreds of millions of dollars.
Despite all his fame, money and busy writing life, King continues to write short stories, a genre that has been in the death rattle stage for some time. He writes one or two a year to help keep his craft fresh.
He says writing short stories is not easy or even pleasurable sometimes. It’s not like riding a bicycle, but more like working out in the gym.
Once a staple of any reading person’s life, and a feature of many high-profile magazines, short stories are nearing extinction. Their popularity peaked in the first half of the 20th century and has been declining since.
Popular magazines such as The Saturday Night Post, Harper’s, The New Yorker, and Esquire published one or more short stories in each issue. Short stories were so popular that writers actually could make a living from them. Magazines paid so well for them that novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote them to pay his many debts.
King has published a dozen short story collections, the latest being The Bazaar of Bad Dreams released in late 2015. It is a mix of new writing and stories already published in magazines.
The collection includes writing tips and biography. Each story has an introduction with his comments on how and why he came to write it.
“There’s something to be said for a shorter, more intense experience,” he writes in the introduction to The Bazaar. “It can be invigorating, sometimes even shocking, like a waltz with a stranger you will never see again, or a kiss in the dark, or a beautiful curio for sale laid out on a cheap blanket at a street bazaar. . . . Feel free to examine them, but please be careful. The best of them have teeth.”
Some people say that the Internet will help to save the short story. I’m not sure how but I hope something does.