The legendary Stephen King is a kind of literary Paul Bunyan. The size of his readership, the mass of his writing are immense (154 written works are listed on his official website, stephenking.com). So is the fortune he has earned from writing, and perhaps his literary ambition, but this is difficult to grasp, since he sometimes refers to himself as the “American Dickens,” sometimes as the “Big Mac and large fries” of American literature. King bestrides American writing with one foot in sci-fi fantasy and the other in a kind of minutely observed populist hyperrealism. His Dark Tower series is marked with a kind of all-encompassing Tolkienesque urge to create an extensive parallel world, and in his endless series of other stories large and small, the ordinary American landscape—often his own new England terrain—populated with everyday Americans, tips over into graphically depicted horror, suspense, parable and allegory. Mixing the vast and the narrow, the well-known and the unsuspected, as well as the technically impossible, he has forged ahead to create a new vision, which, as Magistrale points out, tends to scramble cultural levels.
The question remains: is this literature? Can it be literature if the “style” cannot be analyzed in depth, at length? King’s prose is full of brand names, slang, non-elevated limited-vocabulary language and the almost documentary minutiae of lives that could be boring if they were not skewered on a story line involving ghost cats (Pet Sematary), the vengeful attacks of rabid two hundred pound dogs (Cujo), cars that go crazy (Christine), repulsive space-driven monsters that weasel into people’s guts and kill from within (Dreamcatcher). King’s people are very often plain-living mid-scale or trailer-park New England WASPs, and the novels are plainspoken, dressed down, without discernable—or, even worse for the critic, definable—“style,” so much so that the author, despite his highly visible and audible paratextual persona, seems almost to disappear behind his story like the omniscient “narrator” of a non-auteur film. Somewhere not too far north of Boston, the highly-educated ex-professor King’s unstoppable “voice” is that of a non-Brahmin, non-erudite, but also non-quaint storyteller whose vision has to be described as a kind of “magic realism” à l’américaine: violent, sentimental, profuse, wholly unpretentious, getting down to the business of building the big bones of the story, fleshing it out with images. Details, yes, but hold the frills. Terror in his work takes on the look of home style Destiny, metaphorizing the sudden unpredictable dips into trouble that any life can take, allowing the reader cathartic expression of the fear of death that walks beside us. To a certain extent, King’s characters are “sinners in the hands of an angry God,” swept up—and often away, or out—by stories informed by a relentless Puritan outlook.
The real complexity of King’s work lies in his non-linguistic effects, artfully constructed on several levels, the meshing of images and rushing events, not in the lace-making or fireworks of language. It is perhaps a kind of cinema of the printed page, awakening fear, pity and recognition in the reader to create strong effects of identification and suspense: these “horror” stories are works of adventure literature dealing not with the South Seas or swashbuckling pirates, but with the shopping malls, backyards, woods, wastelands, bedrooms and coffee machines of the State of Maine. A cultural phenomenon, perhaps betokening some general shift, is obviously afoot: new forms of study and analysis of these works of art (note that I do not say here “cultural products”) are needed. King’s form is not exactly that of the novel, but something plural and hybrid, a mixed media performance fusing the films, the books (even a pay per chapter e-book serial), and the authorial persona in a kind of signature intertextuality which redefines the limits of what a “text” should be, pushing this towards the blend of star and several stories (diegesis, repertory of previous fictions, “life story” paratext) which typifies the film event.
I mean to suggest that King is important, and should be studied, but at the same time, King is widely popular, everybody’s writer. Mandarins are not at home here. The easily accessible works are democratic, translatable (except for the non-globalized brand names when these occur) and intensely adaptable to film. Indeed King himself has directed (not with distinction), written screen adaptations of his works, even acted on occasion. Between 1976 and 2003, seventy-plus King works were adapted for the screen. Films like Dead Zone (David Cronenberg), The Shining (Stanley Kubrick), Misery (Rob Reiner) have given sterling opportunities to master directors and actors and sometimes entered into the classical corpus of American film (as defined by scholarly attention, not by the AFI list of the best 100 American films).
Which brings us at long last to the very useful but not wholly laudable book under review, Hollywood’s Stephen King. Professor Magistrale, “premier King scholar in America” according to one of the blurbs on the back cover, is also a specialist in Edgar Allan Poe, the Gothic and the modern horror genre. He has written other books about Stephen King, including two volumes in the Twayne’s United States Author series, edited a volume entitled “The Shining Reader,” and other collections of stories and critical essays, many of which are now out of print but available through secondhand booksellers on line. This book combines wide knowledge, a fairly high level of inquiry, and clear well-annotated prose. Magistrale’s choice of quotations gives a good idea of other people’s opinions and thus serves as an introduction to the (fairly sparse) current range of scholarly books on Stephen King.
Magistrale starts with an interesting but somewhat shapeless interview with Stephen King, in which the author reveals [p. 7] that he usually possesses a fair amount of control over his films; he usually retains ownership of the sources, keeps control over the final cut, and then takes a percentage of the box office on the films (this is perhaps the latent justification for labeling everything discussed in his pages as a work of King). Then he goes on to examine a wide selection of adaptations according to “shared similarities of themes, characters, motifs and narrative designs” [p. xviii] *. He does not treat them all with equal attention. Although I enjoyed Magistrale’s discussion of Cronenberg’s Dead Zone, which he relates to The Raven by Poe, it seems to me that the film’s references could have been more fully discussed: I personally see that film in the Capra tradition, as a fable about the common man elected to save democracy. And I felt that short shrift was given to Needful Things, which makes the authors (King and the film people) heirs to Stephen Vincent Benet and Thornton Wilder. And Magistrale doesn’t always carry the developments through to their furthest point: while locating one center of King’s interest in groups of children, he fails to point out the Christ surrogate role that one of these children is frequently called upon to play (in The Body/Stand by Me, for example).
The big problem is that although he does selectively point out additions or changes made to the King sources in these different adaptations, in discussing the films of Stephen King, the scenarios of which are infrequently written by King himself (only eight of these screenplays were actually written by King), Magistrale sometimes fails to point out in detail just how much of the King touch has marked the works he studies. Magistrale does honor the needs of context, and briefly situates the works of King within trends in American pop culture, teen flicks, and working-class serials like Roseanne, for example. But he fails to thoroughly analyze the works as films, and does not as a matter of course analyze the director’s input. He also fails to deal adequately with reception, and does not fully explain why some films are great, others mass market fodder. Big ideas, theory are not deployed. What makes one King source more adaptable than another? Magistrale tends to lump together under the great brand name contributions from various sources and winds up working on a subject which does not in fact exist. There should be a product warning: this is not really a book about Stephen King and film, but rather about a group of films that carry the famous name in some capacity, the themes of which are organized and made coherent; as if only the similarities, and not the differences, between the various works bore any weight.
Of course, the sheer volume of King films and books is unmanageable, and it is difficult to give an overview enumerating several recurrent themes, and at the same time to do justice to individual works. It is also difficult to specialize both in literary fiction and film. Magistrale’s book is a useful primer. He lays bare the moral topography of King’s world and isolates certain themes (machinery run amok, for example) that illustrate the strong current of social criticism that irrigates this world. Magistrale wisely announces:
But the problem remains that in this book, the texts presented as being the works of Stephen King, are not pure “signed” works, and sifting out the “visual text” which is King’s from myriad other elements of films adapted from his works sometimes results in dubious conclusions. For example, Magistrale devotes a long section of his book to Kubrick’s The Shining, the subject as he points out of over a hundred scholarly articles and book chapters. But is this a work of Kubrick or a work of King? The screenplay of The Shining was written by the director (with Diane Johnson): how much of the finished film’s brilliance is due to them, or to the production design of Roy Walker or the acting of Jack Nicholson, and how much to the initial canevas of King? The author himself was so dissatisfied by Kubrick’s appropriation of his story that in 1997 he resurrected and put into production for a television miniseries the screenplay of The Shining he originally wrote, rejected by Kubrick for his film. King’s books are indeed visual, even cinematographic, but why then do his own screenplays so often fall short as films: this is one question Magistrale fails to develop.
Stephen King’s œuvre is certainly a new kind of text. This is also true of the subject matter Magistrale sets up, a new kind of subject, but less coherent. Stephen King’s career took off in 1974 when Carrie was published and two years later brought to the screen by Brian De Palma. It therefore seems natural to think of every book as a potential film and every film as being to a great extent the dramatization of the book behind it. But books and films are not the same esthetic objects and one of the obvious distinctions between them is that the book is under the control of a single author. Not so the film, touched by many hands even when an auteur is supposed to orchestrate the whole. The basic premise of this book is thus confused and confusing: Magistrale seems here to be explaining Stephen King at several removes and bringing together elements that should be more fully treated separately before being fitted together into what can seem like fairly arbitrary interlocking wholes. This is a pity: Magistrale knows a lot, and his style is not obtuse. This is a rich book, brimming over with interesting observations, even though it often fails to push them into consistent and coherent form. It should be read, because it can teach us about King, and there are few experts at work on this big theme. But it should not be the only book we read.
*The chapters highlight archetypal child, mother, and father figures, as well as “heroic codes of survival,” and “technologies of fright.” A final chapter deals with television miniseries based on King’s work, “a contemporary version of the B-picture” [p. 77]. back