In a response to a recent post of mine which included some disparaging comments about two of Stephen King's novels, Jahsonic suggests that my criticism is "for a large measure based on content related rather than style related criteria."
Nothing could be farther from the truth. As Jahsonic concedes, I would hardly be enthusiastic about the film versions of Carrie and The Dead Zone if I objected to their "content"--by which I assume Jahsonic means their horror/fantasy narratives, the supernatural occurences the novels are "about." My dislike of these two novels, as well as much of the rest of King's work (although not all--The Shining is a passably good horror novel, and I like the screenplay he wrote for George Romero's Creepshow), is based almost entirely on "style related criteria." I think Stephen King is a bad writer. More precisely, whereas Brian De Palma and David Cronenberg (as well as John Carpenter in his adaptation of Christine) treat the "content" of the source novels with exemplary style, are nothing if not great cinematic stylists, as a writer of prose fiction Stephen King has no style.
Jahsonic quotes Susan Sontag on invidious distinctions between style and content: "It would be hard to find any reputable literary critic today who would care to be caught defending as an idea the old antithesis of style versus content. On this issue a pious consensus prevails. … In the practice of criticism, though, the old antithesis lives on, virtually unassailed. Most of the same critics who disclaim, in passing, the notion that style is an accessory to content maintain the duality whenever they apply themselves to particular works of literature." Presumably I was guilty in my original post of inappropriately cordoning off style from content in King's fiction, in order to assail the latter. But it's precisely because I cannot so easily separate style and content that I find his fiction hard to take seriously. In fact, it seems to me that it is Stephen King himself who is guilty of detaching style from content, of not understanding that the two ought to work in concord and not at cross purposes, which in my opinion they too often do in his books.
At best, King's prose is blandly functional, a "plain" style occasionally gussied up with pseudo-colorful idioms. Here's a passage from The Dead Zone, describing the accident that sends Johnny Smith into a coma:
There was the sound of smashing glass. A huge gout of flame stroked its way up into the night. Johnny's head collided with the cab's windshield and knocked it out. Reality began to go down a hole. Pain, faint and far away, in his shoulders and arms as the rest of him followed his head through the jagged windshield. He was flying. Flying into the October night.
Dim flashing thought: Am I dying? Is this going to kill me?
Interior voice answering: Yes, this is probably it.
Flying. October stars flung across the night. Racketing boom of exploding gasoline. An orange glow. Then darkness.
His trip through the void ended with a hard thump and a splash. Cold wetness as he went into Carson's Bog, twenty-five feet from where the Charger and the cab, welded together, pushed a pyre of flame into the night.
Until all that was left seemd to be a giant red-and-black wheel revolving in such emptiness as there may between the stars, try your luck, first time fluky, second time lucky, hey-hey-hey. The wheel revolved up and down, red and black, the marker ticking past the pins, and he strained to see if it was going to come up double zero, house number, house spin, everybody loses but the house. He strained to see but the wheel was gone. There was only blackness and that universal emptiness, negatory, good buddy, el zilcho. Cold limbo.
Johnny Smith stayed there a long, long time.
Does anyone want to defend this as good writing? When it's not straining after poetic phrasing that just lies limply on the page--"A huge gout of flame stroked its way," "His trip through the void ended with a hard thump," "revolving in such emptiness as there may between the stars"--it presents us with awkward repetitions--"up into the night," "into the October night," "pushed a pyre of flame into the night"--and just purely embarassing expressions--"Reality began to go down a hole," "only blackness and that universal emptiness, negatory, good buddy, el zilcho." King is trying to describe an extraordinary event as vividly as he can, but his relentlessly routine language simply isn't up to the task.
Here's another passage depicting Johnny's post-crash psychic abilities:
Johnny stopped suddenly and stiffened like a dog on point: "here," he muttered. "He did it right here."
Images and textures and sensations flooded in. The copper taste of excitement, the possibility of being seen adding to it. The girl was squirming, trying to scream. He had covered her mouth with one gloved hand. Awful excitement. Never catch me, I'm the Invisible Man, is it dirty enough for you now, momma?
Johnny began to moan, shaking his head back and forth.
Johnny's power of "second sight" is this novel's primary "supernatural" device (as are similar powers in other of King's books), but it's really hard to accept it with a straight face, much less experience it viscerally as a gateway to "horror," when the writing is as flat and listless as it is in a passage such as this. King renders the most extraordinary (and inherently incredible) occurences in the most ordinary kind of language, although it's hard to know whether he employs such language deliberately--in which case it's a very poor choice for bringing scenes like this to life--or whether this is just King's conception of what the language of fiction should be like, in effect the best he can do given the assumption that "content" is everything, style much less than even an afterthought. Ultimately, Stephen King is a realist despite himself, and despite his genre, as the burden of his prose style seems to be to present his characters and their predicaments in as transparently "lifelike" way as possible, adhering to conventional methods of plot, setting, and characterization even when the plot features outbreaks of "unreal" events and the characters find themselves in the most outlandish of situations. Paradoxically, however, his pedestrian prose fails to make his creations seem "real" in the manner demanded of works that violate the suppositions of ordinary reality: by making the depicted world a vivid, aesthetically transformed alternative to that reality so beguiling it makes those suppositions irrelevant.
Thus I just can't agree with Jahsonic that Stephen King's novels qualify as "transgressive fiction," fiction that "transcends everyday life" and "makes you curious of what life can and can’t be about." King's novels don't transcend everyday life so much as they make the strange events they portray seem almost as prosaic in the way they unfold as anything else in the routine of human affairs. And, in my opinion, they certainly don't make us "curious of what life can and can't be about." Their "content" is so perfunctorily related, so lacking in texture, that they only make us more aware that life will never be like that.
Nor can I agree that in the long run King will rank with other ostensibly "popular" writers such as Charles Dickens. Dickens's books still reveal to us a writer of prose that is vibrant, surprising, and transformative, that makes the long-vanished world of Victorian England as alive as it could have seemed to those who belonged to it--probably more so. King's fictional worlds are already dead (except when they are revived and reinvented by more talented filmmakers), done in by a prose style that withers on the page.