Sunday, March 3, 2013

Why am I no longer a "Constant Reader?"

Thanks to Marian Allen over at Literary Agents Hate Kittens who gave the best answer as to why I'm no longer a fan of Stephen King:

"You and I have discovered his Dark and Terrible Secret: He. Can't. Write. Endings." 

That's also the short answer.

(If you haven't already, please look at my post about the top five lessons about writing I learned from Stephen King for some furhter background And thanks to everybody who's replied to that post both here and on various communities on Google+)

Aside from On Writing and some referencing to Danse Macabre, I haven't read any of King's works since I finished the The Dark Tower series sometime in 2007.  As I shared in the previous post, I became frustrated with how the series ended, especially when he chided the reader for wanting to read the ending. This is the "infamous warning" that some of you might know about. Some responders understood my frustrations (like Marian Allen), others like Digital Orc (yeah, that's what happens when I combine D&D and writing into one blog...ha!) want do know why if I had enjoyed many of King's previous books, why did Dark Tower VII: The Dark Tower get me to jump ship?

It's a fair question. Those who are content with the short answer should stop reading now since they'll be spoilers (And yes, I see the humor in me giving warning in a blog post where
Furthermore, here's another caveat which, I admit, may undermine my authority: I have only written one book, and I'm not through editing it yet. While I've been writing fiction off and on since I was seven years old, I've only recently "gone pro" (as Steven Pressfield would put it), in the last six months. So make of this what you will.

Oh yes, one more thing: I am not trying to dissuade you away from Stephen King's fiction. This are just my own insights from reading many of King's books since the mid-1990s up until 2007.

All right? Are your ready?

Here's the long answer:

In my mind, the Dark Tower series fell far short of being Stephen King's Magnum Opus. I still consider The Stand to be King's best work. Even more than that, I felt that King had wasted my time. The series had quite a few memorable moments. As I read, I tried to look past him just throwing in whatever idea came to mind to push the story along and certain plot inconsistencies that he tried to write around. Yet the last book ended on a whimper, and his warning to the reader just rubbed salt on the wound.

The first book in the Dark Tower series was the best. It was surreal. It established who Roland was and the Man in Black. Yet beyond that the series started to fray plot-wise, with random things like Blaine the Train, having the Man in Black being Marten Broadcloak/Walter, and Randall Flagg all being the same person. And the a strange incubus/succubus thing that took the seed from Roland and Randall Flagg and turned around and impregnated Susanna with Mordred. (I had to look up the Wikipedia article to remember how this exactly happened. It's more screwball than certain Greek and Roman myths I can thin

 It's a stretch that strains my suspension of disbelief. King, at that point, had borrowed heavily from his other works and other sources, like The Wizard of Oz.

I didn't like how King wrote himself into the story. Yes, others like Dante, have done so in the past. Please keep in mind though that Dante was a comedy, ending happily more or less. King writes tragedy, and underlying all tragedies is a certain amount of realism that maintains the suspension of disbelief. Sure, a storyteller is a liar. A storyteller makes stuff up. The audience knows this, yet wants to be raptured by the tale. Inconsistencies, however, can disrupt the suspension of disbelieve. The farther into the series, the more inconsistencies we find. The later books when farther away from what the plot first book "The Gunslinger" established. As I read through the series I passed these over. After all, I was not a prolific writer and I understood that years would often go by between each book, initially. I gather that King wrote the final three books between 2001 and 2003. During The Song of Susannah, I recall, King wrote himself into the story, having Roland save his life after the car accident. This was followed by the awkward, "oh, you're my creator moment." Yes, fine, King was dealing with nearly dying. Yet it "broke the fourth wall" so to speak. Others like, Dante Alighieri, have wrote themselves into the story in the past. Please keep in mind  Dante's Divine Comedy was... a comedy, having a happy ending, more or less. King writes tragedies. Heroes often die at the end of tragedies, so I wasn't expecting the series to end on a positive note.

Yet I expected better.

I expected some kind of final showdown between Roland and Randall Flagg/Walter/the Man in Black (whoever the hell you want to call him). Instead I got newly born Mordred tearing out Randall Flagg's eyes, killing him. So let me get this straight: Randall Flagg, the guy who survived a nuclear blast in The Stand: Complete and Uncut, who had been staying one step ahead of Roland throughout the series, who had even admitted somewhere along the way that he'd been inside the Dark Tower itself, gets killed by what's essentially a giant spider. Even worse, if Mordred is supposed to be more powerful than Randall Flagg, he should have gotten better ending than he deserved. Roland shoots him and he falls into the campfire, burning to death.

Oh, but the story doesn't end there. Roland still has to find the Crimson King and the Dark Tower.Yes the Crimson King, who got inside the Dark Tower, who's supposed to be more powerful than the Six Elementals he commands, more powerful than Randall Flagg. But at the end the Crimson King doesn't attack Roland with magical powers--he uses "sneeches,"  whirling throwing stars. Yeah. And then the painter (whom Roland just so happens to encounter along the way) just paints the Crimson King out of existence (I'm certain he took this idea from a fairytale, but I can't remember which one).

I should have stopped reading at the chiding and warning near the end of the final book. King warned that all endings are disappointing. When a person is on a great journey, that person doesn't want the journey to end. But I felt that there would be a grand finale, a final conclusion, which would leave me wanting more (like good endings do).

When I shared my thoughts about this post and the series to my girlfriend, she asked: "Why didn't you just stop reading?"

But I didn't. I mean, it's Stephen King, after all. How bad it could be?

Bad. Really bad.

He resorted to time travel and the "and then I woke up" to essentially start the series all over again. Beginning writers often use the "it was only a dream" technique when they've written themselves into a corner. When Roland got pulled into that door at the top of the Dark Tower and appeared back in time in the desert chasing the Man in Black at the beginning of The Gunslinger, he "woke up." I'm not a fan of time travel, especially in a tragedy. Isn't the point of a tragedy is that disaster cannot be undone and must me faced?

After finishing the series, my first thought was:

"Why did I even bother?"

Yes, the journey is more important than the ending, as King chided to his readers. Yet the ending should not be disappointing. The Dark Tower has the most minimus opus of an ending I've ever read.  King is a great writer. He knows how to develop characters and put resonance in his writing. He can build and build a story. But then, at times, and especially in the Dark Tower series, he doesn't know how to end it. Maybe I was expecting too much, maybe not.

In any case I haven't read any of King's fiction since.


  1. Not having being attracted to King's work, I'm not familiar with the Painter scene, but the way you describe it makes it sound like the LSD scene in Zelazny's Sign of Chaos from his second Amber series.

    1. It comes from somewhere. I just don't know where. I remember now that one of the Final Fantasy videogames had a character would could paint monsters out of existence. And the Final Fantasy series took all kinds of stuff from history, literature, and legends.

  2. I wonder if his method (as described in On Writing) of not having a preordained conclusion and discovering the plot through the characters isn't the main cause of what you consider poor resolution or denouement.

    Also, what about his short stories? Perhaps his style is better suited for such. I thought his recent Full Dark, No Stars anthology was good. Endings included.

    1. Perhaps you're right.

      I've read a couple of this short story/novella compilations. And those were usually pretty good, like Different Seasons and Night Shift. Nightmares and Dreamscapes was pretty good. And I really liked Hearts in Atlantis.

      While I've enjoyed his longer works, often there comes a point when I'm reading them when I've asked myself: "Okay, where the heck is going with this?" And then were he goes makes go: "What was the point?"

      The Dark Tower series, I guess, would that on that "what's the point?" scale but dialed to an 11.

  3. King pissed me off with the ending to "Dreamcatcher", which I read in early 2008 and I haven't read anything by him since.

    As for the Dark Tower series, I enjoyed it through "The Wastelands" which was the Blaine The Train book. "Wizard and Glass" was ok but it was a detour I wasn't interested in making. I haven't read anything in the series since though I picked up "The Dark Tower" while at my town library's book sale with the intent to read it someday. But that someday hasn't come.

    I've heard many a complaint about how the series ended. Not wishy washy whining over minutiae but objections based on solid arguments. I'm stuck with this question: "Do I really want to invest so many hours reading an 840 page door stop if the end is only going to piss me off?" So far my answer has been "no".

    I liked the idea of him tying all of his books together through some cosmic web of alternate universes, but it seems as if the web got tangled and cut and patches were made that stole the beauty of it all and turned it into a kludge. My son would say, "Epic fail." I'd rather not read it and come to that very conclusion.


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