When I first discovered Stephen King as a kid in 1988, he had three audiences. There were the horror junkies whose sallow faces were mainly consigned to pulp fiction conventions and hobby-shop cabals; there were the more upstanding types who made guilty forays into his oeuvre while on vacation; and there were the legions of adolescents (male mostly) graduating from Silver Surfer and Incredible Hulk comic books who were not yet forced to read the literary canon that would oppress them later in high school.
Since those days, King has found an unlikely fourth audience: a morbidly curious intelligentsia. The same author who got his start selling stories to nudie magazines like Cavalier and Swank has since the mid-90s been a frequent and celebrated contributor to The New Yorker. The readers of that magazine, it seems, have been eager to read some of King's slightly less gory, profane, or scatological offerings, and King has seemed eager to vie for the esteem of more discerning members of the reading public.
Of the 14 stories in his latest collection, Everything's Eventual, four of them were New Yorker pieces. The rest were previously published in fantasy and horror magazines, or, in one case, on the Web. The most notable story is "The Man in the Black Suit", which garnered King the prestigious O. Henry Prize in 1996. In it, an elderly man recalls meeting The Devil as a young boy. Lucifer is no wing-flapping beast, but a dapper gent with a smooth radio announcer voice "who had walked out of thirty miles of trackless western Maine woods in a fine black suit and narrow shoes of gleaming leather." The horror comes from watching the enormous malevolence of such a being start to punch its way through this facade, and the boy desperately pretending not to notice so he might be allowed to escape their dialogue alive.
There are other twisted imaginings here. In "Autopsy Room Four", a man completely paralyzed and rendered mute by a snake bite must somehow convey to the coroners that he's alive before they pry open his ribcage for their post-mortem examination. Good, squirming-in-your-easy-chair fun. In the title story, a disaffected high school dropout uses his paranormal powers to assassinate his targets through cyberspace. The narrator's chummy, slangy voice immediately invites the reader into his darkly seductive world. For one hour, I was completely transported.
That said, there are patches of mediocrity in this collection, stories that are just too stale or tedious to corroborate King's status as a master storyteller. King has a bad habit of overwriting and overexplaining, too. Some of his stories are prefaced with his own comments about them, such as "I like . . . the unexpected shift in tone, away from humour and towards sadness and horror." Other times, a story reaches a logical conclusion, but King has tacked on an afternote where the character explains what he did for the rest of his days. A little carefully applied ambiguity would have been most welcome.
All of this suggests that Stephen King is too hamfisted to attain enduring success in high literary circles. While that might nag at King, I'm sure it won't bother the majority of his fans. They just want what King does best: devising elaborately ridiculous eviscerations, immolations, and mastications that scare or embarrass us into shakily laughing at death. ò
Matt Sturrock is a contributing editor to Books in Canada.