Whatever Happened to Stephen King

by Rude Cyrus

Rude Cyrus reviews Lisey's Story.
There was a time when Stephen King was my idol. I bought his books, listened to the audio tape adaptations, and was eventually inspired to become a creative writer one day. Now that I’m older (and more cynical and bitter), I’m starting to see bigger and bigger flaws, especially in his most recent work. I was willing to forgive this, at least until I read the utterly bullshit conclusion to The Dark Tower (that’s for another time), and I reached a breaking point with Lisey’s Story.

Lisey (pronounced “lee-see”) Landon is the widow of famed writer Scott Landon – I don’t think there’s been another author that’s written so much about writers as King – who passed away due to pneumonia. Lisey finds herself cleaning up Scott’s study and reminiscing on the many strange occurrences that filled Scott’s life. Meanwhile, she must also contend with a crazy, obsessed fan named Jim Dooley and her mentally unstable sister, Amanda.

600 pages. 600 pages of turgid prose and annoying characters. 600 pages of digression, flashbacks and unnecessary details. This is one of the most poorly-written novels I’ve ever read, and considering the dreck I’ve forced myself to peruse, that’s saying a lot.

The first problem lies in the writing itself – King’s writing has always been touch-and-go: some of it is quite good, at other times it’s awful. I don’t mean awful in an “I don’t understand what’s being said” kind of way, but in the “how can a human being put this shit on paper” way. Here’s an exact quote from the book, describing how Amanda had cut her hands while Lisey’s other sister, Darla, was distracted: “All while Darla had been on the toilet, doing no more than whizzing a little lemonade and blotting the old bush…”

I dare you to read that sentence aloud without cracking a smile or wincing in disgust.

Then there’s the terrifying threat Dooley utters when intimidating Lisey to turn over her husband’s unfinished work: “[I]f it dutn’t happen in a certain run of time, I’m going to come to where you are and I’m going to hurt you. I am going to hurt you places you didn’t let the boys to touch at the junior high dances.”

Then there’s the sickening vocabulary Scott and Lisey use, substituting “african” for “afghan” and “smucking” for “fucking”, or using the phrase “strap it on” when getting serious (which makes me think of a strap-on dildo, but that’s how my diseased mind works), or using the expression, “Jesus, Mary, and JoJo the carpenter”. I have a question: who the fuck talks like this? I’m sure there are married couples that develop a private language, but not to this extent. Scott even calls the bathroom “El Poopatorium”. Jesus!

The second problem is one that King always struggled with: overwriting. Everything in this book is examined in excruciating detail, down to what’s written on the blade of a silver shovel, or where Scott bought his desk, what the weather was like when he bought it, the personality of the man he bought it from, the size of the desk, and so on. While these things do have some importance later, you’d think King was describing the launch codes to a goddamn ICBM.

Next are the endless flashbacks. I can safely say that three-quarters of this book consists of flashbacks, and half of them aren’t even Lisey’s! Usually Lisey flashes back to a conversation with Scott, and he flashes back to his childhood – which means we have a flashback within a flashback. It’s like a fever dream, only not as entertaining. There’s a point where Lisey lies on the floor, bleeding and in pain after being tortured by Dooley, pondering the situation she’s in, and then goes on to have a sixty-page flashback.

There’s an annoying tendency for the characters to interject their thoughts into the narrative with a non sequitur. Like this:

“As Velma strolled through the garden, her eye fell on the luscious strawberry bush strawberry shortcake that blossomed over to her left. She made a mental note to pick a few later, before moving forward again. Just ahead was the old wooden shed (take ‘em behind the shed and shoot ‘em) where she kept her tools.”

It’s not so much “stream of consciousness” as it is “stream of schizophrenia”. It’s annoying and it’s jarring.

But the biggest problem with the novel is that, despite the title, this is not Lisey’s story. No, it’s Scott’s. Everything Lisey does is related to her husband, even in a tangential way, from confronting Dooley, to cleaning out his study, to breaking her sister out of catatonia, Scott is there every step of the way. It all has something to do with how Scott and his family have a psychic bond with an alternate reality called Boo’ya Moon (ugh), and, as a result, are filled with “bad-gunky” (ugh!) that slowly transforms them into insane, half-demon monstrosities. It’s even more incomprehensible than it sounds. In an attempt to prevent this, Scott’s father would frequently have his sons partake in “blood bools” (don’t ask) that involved bleeding out the bad-gunky, kind of like what a medieval barber would do to someone with imbalanced humors. Incidentally, if my spouse ran out and sliced up their hands because I yelled at them for being late (like Scott), I’d phone an asylum; Lisey takes it all in stride.

That’s another aspect that always pissed me off about King’s writing: many of his characters (mostly female ones) are either victims of child molestation or parental/domestic abuse. It stands to reason that these are the kind of issues you’d explore in a drama or horror story, but King’s used it so many times that it’s become a cliché, not to mention rather creepy.

After Lisey takes care of Dooley, she discovers Scott left her a package with a message titled “Lisey’s Story”, which is a bit of a misnomer, considering it’s all about Scott and how he buried a pickaxe in his father’s head. Seriously, how big do your balls have to be to name a 600 page novel Lisey’s Story and make it almost entirely about her famous dead husband? This is supposed to be about Lisey, Stephen, not Scott. Even after the main plot wraps up, we still have to read about Lisey reminiscing about Scott, because it’s always about him, always about this whiny, self-centered douche bag and his fucking boring problems, stop writing about him, stop writing so goddamn much in general SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP!

A better name for this book would be Stephen’s Bullshit, since that’s exactly what it is. I don’t know what happened to Stephen King – maybe the fame and money went to his head, maybe he’s run out of stories to tell, or maybe he’s gotten lazy. Whatever the reason, it’s a grueling task to read, a borefest from beginning to end. Even after years of exposing myself to the worst the Internet has to offer, I’m still staggered.
Themes: Books, Horror

bookmark this with - facebook - delicious - digg - stumbleupon - reddit

Comments (go to latest)
Sonia Mitchell at 23:30 on 2009-06-30
Sounds utterly awful, and at the same time I have no trouble at all believing King could write any of it. I tend to enjoy a fair amount of his work in the no-effort race-through-the-story sort of way, but even when he's on form it's often easy to pick hole if one's inclined (though I don't tend to. I can forgive a lot if I enjoy the book). When he's off-form it's just an open invitation to savage his writing.

Since his accident has crept been crow-barred into so much of his work, with his preoccupation with what might have happened if he'd died, this book seems almost like a natural progression.

(I feel your pain on The Dark Tower. A while back I hinted that the Reading Canary could tackle it, and Arthur ruled himself out with haste. Might be down to one of us one of these days to disect where it went wrong.)
Arthur B at 00:06 on 2009-07-01
What happened to Stephen King? I'll tell you what happened to Stephen King! You see, an aspect of Randall Flagg was dispatched by the Crimson King with a sacred mission: to eliminate King from this life so that the great posts that uphold the roof of creation would crumble and all the awful old ghosts would make their way back into the world. Off drove Flagg in a devil truck with a mind of its own and a heart full of cold hard hatred for the one author whose work keeps the cosmos on the right and true course. When struck by the fender of that terrible vehicular beast King fell into a deep coma in which the part of his brain that was devoted to being Richard Bachmann died and was possessed by a spider lizard from outer space. For weeks King couldn't write, couldn't concentrate, couldn't think without the chattering of the beast, until a chance encounter with a turtle prompted him to remember the time him and his friends ran a man train on a school friend in a filthy sewer. Suddenly, King realised that the psychic part of his brain had fallen asleep at that time to preserve him from the Freudian-Lovecraftian horror that lurks behind the blissful facade of suburbia and only through reactivating them could he defeat the Bachmann-spider-Flagg part of himself. Getting into his car he put on his favourite King Crimson album to counteract the influence of the Crimson King by presenting him with the sonic reverse of himself and put the pedal to the metal, driving across the post-apocalyptic wastelands of New England to the car dealership where Flagg's truck now sat waiting for teenage boys to seduce with its wicked curves and lascivious paintwork. It was not to be, for King purchased that truck with a wave of his chequebook; a few thousand dollars was enough to convince some underage hookers of his acquaintance to smear their menstrual blood, that sweetest and most precious of the lunar psychic fluids, all over the fake leather seats, in preparation for the ritual of exorcism. King raised his mighty sledgehammer above his head and bellowed HE THRUSTS HIS HANDS AGAINST THE POSTS AND STILL INSISTS HE SEES THE GHOSTS, and bringing it down on the engine block shattered a spark plug which flew out of the casing of the truck, smacked into King's head, and went straight through his skull and out the other side, taking with it the part of his brain that was occupied by Bachmann and the Dark Half and It and Randall Flagg and the Crimson King and the Tommyknockers and curing his insomnia once and for all.

Unfortunately, this also destroyed the part of his brain he uses to write.
Rude Cyrus at 04:10 on 2009-07-01
the time him and his friends ran a man train on a school friend in a filthy sewer

Yeah, what the fuck was with that part, anyway?
'It' was the scariest book I ever read until it became the stupidest book I ever read. I gave up the Dark Tower series when the forth or fifth book came out that was a chapter longer than Atlas Shrugged. Fuck that boring noise.

I suspect King gets abducted by the grays from time to time. If only they'd stop bringing him back.

I do like the comic book writing by his son,Joe Hill. Not sure what his pictureless writing is like, but will give it a go soon.
Wardog at 09:25 on 2009-07-01
Dear God, this sounds terrible.

Is there any chance that the constant referencing of Scott a deliberate act to emphasise the way her life has been totally dominated by him... or is it just The Last Five Years all over again.

I haven't read much Stephen King - I've Misery, which I thought was actually rather decent, Carrie which did nothing for me at all, and The Green Mile, which was exactly the same as the movie. I've read half of the first book of The Dark Tower but sanity set in and I stopped.

What happened to It to drive it from scary to stupid? Or were you just no longer 10 when you read it :)
Arthur B at 12:53 on 2009-07-01
What happened to It to drive it from scary to stupid? Or were you just no longer 10 when you read it :)

OK, you know the bit in my rant up there where I go on about underaged gangbangs in sewers?

That happens in It. Because the girl realises the boys need to calm down if they're going to get out of there, and the magic space turtle will guide them out if they are able to express their love for each other through fucking knee-deep in shit.

That's not the only stupid thing in It, but (IMHO) it's the scene where the stupidity hits critical mass.
http://sistermagpie.livejournal.com/ at 17:12 on 2009-07-01
Part of me still doesn't believe that scene in It actually happened. It's like that mass-hanging of children in Jude the Obscure. It makes you keep flipping back and forth to make sure you're not missing something that would make it not quite so crazy.

While I liked It up until then I always pretty much have a whole rant on the Beverly character in general. It's a book about a bunch of "loser kids" but the girl has to be a multi-talented supermodel fashion plate looking for a wimp to save her. Ugh.

Anyway, yeah, this sounds bad. I sort of fell off the King wagon years ago, feeling stampeded by all the words. But one thing that always bugged me were those intrusive italicized non-sequitor thoughts his characters tend to have.
Rude Cyrus at 18:38 on 2009-07-01
It's a book about a bunch of "loser kids" but the girl has to be a multi-talented supermodel fashion plate looking for a wimp to save her. Ugh.

Don't forget that she was abused by her father and her husband. I've tried to make it through "It" several times, but when your story is roughly 1200 pages long...you lose interest before the halfway mark.
Is there any chance that the constant referencing of Scott a deliberate act to emphasise the way her life has been totally dominated by him... or is it just The Last Five Years all over again.

It's neither -- see, Lisey and Scott were in LOVE, to the point where they never had any arguments or conflicts after they were married. I think King thinks it's romantic or something for Lisey to focus all of her attention on Scott.
Viorica at 19:14 on 2009-07-01
Stephen King is one of those people who I have a lot of respect for as a person, but not so much as an author. I've only ever read Carrie and a few chapters of The Tommyknockers. For the former, I think you kind of have to be a miserable teenager who dreams of bloody veangeance being wreacked upon the people who bully you. It kind of loses its appeal after you're out of high school.
http://sistermagpie.livejournal.com/ at 19:31 on 2009-07-01
Have you see the movie Carrie? I think it's fantastic. One of the best done of his work. I think he himself even said that the movie got rid of a sturm und drang in the original he could never lose.

Don't forget that she was abused by her father and her husband.

But of course! And yes, that was totally annoying. The guys all lose their problems. Beverly, whose one flaw was her father's abuse, naturally recreates that with her husband.
Arthur B at 19:58 on 2009-07-01
I generally don't trust King's assessment of the filmed versions of his work - he didn't like The Shining, after all - but he happens to be right about Carrie. It's a lot more fun than reading the book.
http://sistermagpie.livejournal.com/ at 20:03 on 2009-07-01
Did you see the version of The Shining that King himself wrote (I think?)? It was imo really terrible. I could understand him not liking some things about Kubrick's version since it's very different from the book (so just great as its own thing imo). But I was a lot less ready to sympathize with that given that miniseries version.
Arthur B at 20:19 on 2009-07-01
All I remember of the miniseries is that it tried really really hard to include all the material from the book. Which is the mistake that Kubrick didn't make; unfortunately, King has never quite manage to grasp the difference between the mediums. Think about it: just about all the really great adaptations of his work out there - The Shining, Carrie, The Shawshank Redemption - just happen to be the adaptations he meddled in the least.
http://sistermagpie.livejournal.com/ at 20:49 on 2009-07-01
I remember the kid was also awful and for some reason they made him older--probably thinking he'd be easier to direct. But as a result he made no sense. He was far too old to understand things on Danny's level (and certainly too old to not be able to read, especially with everyone saying how bright he is).
Arthur B at 21:12 on 2009-07-01
I'm always surprised in the film by how good the child actor is. You'd think that, given Kubrick's famously over-the-top perfectionism, that he'd find it hard to work with a kid but he's able to get some properly brilliant stuff out of him.
Jen Spencer at 13:38 on 2009-07-02
Unfortunately, this also destroyed the part of his brain he uses to write.

You forgot the bit where Cujo comes and pees on his prone form as he's rolling around in brain-dead delirium. :)
Arthur B at 14:49 on 2009-07-02
You forgot the bit where Cujo comes and pees on his prone form as he's rolling around in brain-dead delirium. :)

"I think he's really wrecked himself this time, It..."
http://kaskait.livejournal.com/ at 19:06 on 2009-07-02
King...there are no words.

He is akin to Rand in a way...only teenagers can love him. The IT train was a stunner but I still kept slogging through his work. I only stopped after that short story where the protagonist had to eat himself to survive.
Arthur B at 19:20 on 2009-07-02
King...there are no words.

I thought the problem was that there are words.

And words and words and words.

And words and words and words and words and words and words...
http://sistermagpie.livejournal.com/ at 21:25 on 2009-07-02
I thought the problem was that there are words.

And words and words and words.

And words and words and words and words and words and words...

And one of those words is poopatorium.
Arthur B at 21:30 on 2009-07-02
I thought you were joking about "poopatorium" and then I googled it.
What happened to It to drive it from scary to stupid? Or were you just no longer 10 when you read it :)

No. I was 16 or so. :?
Others have commented about the eff fest fem fail, which was barfy, but for me the stupid entered the page the same way it entered the screen in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Audience Skullfuck. Not by nuking the fridge, or Shia swinging on vines a la George of the Jungle, but with greys! Except that in It the alien known as It, was a spider who happens to be best friends for never with astorturtle. It was wise to keep that off the jacket flap.

Maybe the ending will be rewritten for the possible upcoming movie of It. Really..

and then I googled it.

It could also be found in a more recent review here.

Arthur B at 23:17 on 2009-07-02
Clearly my mind wouldn't accept the reality of the situation without two independent sources.

King's inability to write has been scientifically established through peer review...
Wardog at 09:33 on 2009-07-06
The horror, the horror [of the writing], it's just too much to bear.
In order to post comments, you need to log in to Ferretbrain or authenticate with OpenID. Don't have an account? See the About Us page for more details.

Show / Hide Comments -- More in June 2009