I’ve got a shelf in the spare bedroom that’s overloaded with musty vintage Stephen King paperbacks, stacked up high. I like to think of the man as our modern Charles Dickens, a spinner of ripping yarns who’s managed to be insanely popular and yet also, kind of great at what he does.
In his nearly 50-year-career, he’s written an astonishing 80 or so books – novels, story collections, rare limited editions and pulpy crime novels that use horror to get at the truths of the human heart. Some are better than others, but his batting average is pretty darned good. Everyone loves The Stand, but how about a good ol’ creepy underrated tale like From A Buick 8?
Many years ago now, I set off on the insane task to do a complete brief review of every Stephen King book (leaving out the oddities like limited editions and children’s books). I began this all the way the hell back in 2009 on my old blog, and as King keeps on scribbling, I keep on updating it. It’s been two years since my last round-up and there’s still more King to examine! Long may the King reign. Here’s the sixth and latest Complete Succinct Reviews of Stephen King, from 2015’s The Bazaar of Bad Dreams to 2021’s Later.
Bazaar of Bad Dreams: A Stephen King short story collection is like grabbing a big ol’ pile of vintage EC Comics and diving into an assortment of creepy, haunting little gems. In some ways, the short story is King’s best showcase, because if an idea hasn’t quite worked, there’s another dozen within to grab you. So it’s a mixed bag by nature – the (mildly dated) e-reader-themed piece “Ur” is a grabber, but the poems here, um, aren’t really King’s forte. But I automatically knock up a big thick story collection a half-grade for its sheer bountiful pleasures, and this one’s got many to offer. Grade: A-
End of Watch: The climax of King’s “Detective Hodges” trilogy, with one of his more enduring groups of characters – ageing ex-cop private detective Bill Hodges, autistic savant Holly Gibney and psycho killer Brady Hartsfield. The down-to-earth duo of Bill and Holly have made for some of King’s best and most humane writing in recent years, and while this final book of Bill’s adventures gets a little over-the-top – turning Hartsfield into some kind of evil supervillain rather than the slightly more believable lone madman of Mr. Mercedes – it’s still an enjoyably twisted tale and a fine capper to the series. Grade: B+
Gwendy’s Button Box: A short novella co-written with Richard Chizmar, this tale of an unloved young girl is a kind of spin on “The Monkey’s Paw,” where a mysterious stranger gives a random person an incredibly powerful strange box. Aimed a bit more at the “Harry Potter” crowd than King’s typical work, it’s a quick read that feels more like a sampler aimed at fans who haven’t tried the hardcore King yet. In a collection it might feel a little less puffed-up, but as a slim novella it’s a little forgettable. There’s apparently a sequel by Chizmar I haven’t read and a third book by King and Chizmar on the way, so I might need to revisit this one soon and see how it holds up. Grade: Probationary B, incomplete.
Sleeping Beauties: This one has a good hook but fails to meet its potential. All of the women in the world suddenly disappear, leaving a world of men behind in chaos. Where have they gone, and why? The tone in this one – a collaboration between King and his son Owen – feels curiously inert. While there’s some good ideas about men and women here, they’re delivered in a ham-handed fashion, and the story heavily relies on some fantasy storytelling which doesn’t quite work. I hate to blame it on the younger King, but this just doesn’t feel quite like a Stephen King book. Sleeping Beauties is overlong, but worse, unlike some of King’s other brick-sized books, it’s often boring. Grade: C-
The Outsider: A grim, satisfying murder mystery. A young boy is murdered and all the evidence points to an amiable little league coach even though he is convinced of his innocence. Is there an “outsider” somewhere who’s able to mimic him and commit the most horrible of crimes unpunished? While it gets a little bogged down in one of King’s trademark kind of enigmatic magical climaxes, for the most part this is a terrific read about a man who’s sure of his innocence despite all the evidence, and the devils that lurk inside us all. Grade: A
Elevation: This brisk novella about a man who keeps losing weight might sound like a remake of the far more gruesome Thinner, but it’s more of a fable about a person trying to make peace with his life in an imperfect world. It’s a quick read with some good heart, but a little clumsy in its moralising, so it falls somewhere squarely in the middle of just adequate King-land. Grade: B-
The Institute: It’s inevitable you start to repeat yourself a bit after 50+ books. The Institute has heavy Firestarter vibes with a dash of The Shining, all about young children with mysterious powers taken away to a secret institution. It’s a paranoid, chilling book and you’re left rooting for the young victims of the “Institute.” But while it’s a compulsively readable tale, it doesn’t quite linger in the mind as strongly as King’s similar works. Grade: B
If It Bleeds: Some of my absolute favourite King books have been his collections of hefty themed novellas like Different Seasons and Four Past Midnight. This one is a more oddball grouping of odds ’n’ ends – the “Detective Hodges” trilogy coda “If It Bleeds,” a good ol’ fashioned scary morality play in “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone,” a rather goofy monster tale in “Rat,” and the best of the lot, the highly experimental “The Life of Chuck,” a man’s life told backwards. It all averages out to a decent bunch of yarns. Grade: B+
Later: I do love the “Hard Case Crime” imprint King has lent some of his pulpier work to in more recent years. It’s a chance for King to be short, sharp and mean, and Later is one of his better pulp efforts, the story of a kid who can “see dead people.” Being King, this is a lot gnarlier than The Sixth Sense. A tale of twisted obsession that calls back to It and King’s recurring theme of young people with special abilities being manipulated and abused, it’s not deep, but it’s solidly entertaining, and ends on a resonant, bittersweet note. Grade: B+
And let’s not forget, the rest of the Complete Succinct Reviews of Stephen King series:
Part 2: The Dead Zone to The Bachman Books
Part 3: The Talisman to Insomnia
Part 4: Rose Madder to Under The Dome