America’s former horror master Stephen King has been striking out a lot lately, and not just on Twitter.
I recently read one of his latest novels, Billy Summers, and was struck by what it revealed: an author trying to replay his greatest hits that never should have been hits in the first place.
King rocketed to fame off of 1974’s Carrie, about a girl from a devout Christian family who gets bullied until finally snapping. She uses her telekinetic powers to rain progressive, feminist fury down on the ignorant townies and her “oppressive” family.
King’s various works span genres but tend to explore nostalgia, trauma, internal torment, and supernatural struggle.
King has (or at least, had) a knack for plotting and drawing the reader into sympathizing and identifying with his protagonists. He’s gone noticeably downhill since being hit by a van in 1999, but the real question is this: How did King and others of his ilk ever get so famous in the first place?
Feel-Good Leftist Pablum
King creates a false moral complexity and conflict in order to almost always have the hero come out against the big bad ignorant adults or mean conservative people who deserve to get what’s coming to them.
The vast majority of his protagonists are tortured writers or individuals who have to defeat the past ghosts or current demons of injustice and horror in some way. Alternately, they are young people struggling to understand the horrible injustice of the adult world.
The writing is insufferably self-righteous if you understand what King is actually doing in almost all his books, but that’s exactly his talent and why he became famous. This is voyeuristic pseudo-moralism that reinforces a progressive absolutism.
The bully is always the intolerant religious creep, never the alternative hippie kid. The bad guy is always a beer-belching macho man or a twisted killer, never a soft-spoken artist. The hero is always misunderstood or internally conflicted, never truly irredeemable or disgusting.
By couching childish wish fulfillment and hate in crime, horror, fantasy, and the supernatural, King hit a sweet spot in the literary market and has kept tapping that same well year after year by providing high-fructose sociopolitical corn syrup for those who want to be told their worldviews and prejudices are all true.
His writing consistently betrays the attitude and indoctrination of a simplistic, sneering, arrogant progressive underneath the outer layers of plot and theme.
It’s something that once-popular leftist authors like John Grisham also mastered: creating engaging plots around simplistic moral messages such as racism being bad, the death penalty being cruel, or great wealth leading to corruption.
Here is an extended page-turner set in Maine, or a fantasy world or a crime story that confirms everything you already believed about how the world works but takes you on some twists and turns along the way!
Everybody enjoys going on an adventure where they already know they’ll end up back where they started by the end, only with even more evidence that they were right all along.
Like a convincing prosecutor, King draws readers into the reality of his usually writer protagonists, eventually bringing the reader around to inhabit these characters’ moral realities and identify with their desired outcomes.
The Proof Is in the Pudding
Take Billy Summers, which I mentioned, as a case study of exactly this phenomenon of rinse and repeat.
Summers was King’s last big novel, a crime caper put out in 2021 about a USMC veteran-turned-hitman who loves the work of French writer Emile Zola. He pretends to be stupid so he can outwit his mob employers, but he’s actually a sensitive, internally conflicted genius trying to get over his memories of Fallujah. Like so many of King’s protagonists, Billy Summers is a writer, or at least becomes one.
He ends up having to pretend to write a book as part of a cover story for embedding himself at a location ahead of time to be able to carry out a highly-paid hit on a man whom some powerful people want dead. In the process, Billy ends up finding his voice and discovering the true “war” of writing honestly and being able to finish what you write. Cringe.
Without giving the whole plot away, Billy Summers repeatedly targets Trump, MAGA conservatives, and “Trumpian” idiots, saving its worst characters to play the role of what is essentially an extended revenge fantasy against Fox News.
But don’t worry, because the guy carrying it out is stopping rapists and helping a bright young girl. He’s also a veteran and a hero. And he has a moral compass that he tried to keep strong even when taking paid hit jobs, but now he feels bad about it.
We’re told Billy doesn’t care about politics and finds it stupid, supposedly, and King builds a rapport between us and Billy where he’s a decent guy with a kind heart who doesn’t want no trouble, man.
But we still find out how ignorant Billy finds a local landscaper who doesn’t like illegal immigrants but has illegal immigrant Mexicans working for him. And we still are treated to Billy’s hookup with a local woman who has pro-abortion stickers on her car which he finds very “brave” since they’re in a red state and she’s standing up for her convictions.
Yes, how “brave.”
Plus, Billy is finally becoming a writer and getting his true feelings out on the page and coming to terms with the horrible childhood tragedy that led to his first killing (childhood trauma is a favorite King trope to start the ball rolling, usually with an alcoholic dad or horrible mean man of some kind who eventually needs to be taken down in various other personages and manifestations).
Yet again, another King trick: slowly torquing reality through his protagonist by presenting a number of neutral or accurate observations and touching, authentic interactions the character has and then slowly poisoning their deep authentic experiences with the introduction of “bad” people. The effect is that readers subconsciously take in the character’s observations as neutral or valid, rather than the thinly-disguised commentary of King himself.
Being a Trumper is ignorant and evil, according to King, who makes sure to have his character be apolitical but just be forced to notice how horrific and horrible wealthy, old, white, conservative men are. What a coincidence!
Ironically, Billy Summers even includes ruminations on how good and bad are rarely simple or easy to label in a person — yet then does just that by labeling conservatives as stupid and brainless troglodytes at best or scheming evil psychopaths at worst.
This is the King formula, and it’s the junk that publishers keep trying to force on audiences. Billy Summer and most of King’s works are not novels, they are the moralistic ramblings of a man who thinks he’s sophisticated but has a highly simplistic idea of the world.
Billy Summers was followed up by King with last year’s Gwendy’s Final Task and the dark fantasy offering Fairy Tale. Previous recent releases like 2019’s The Institute and the 2020 short story collection If It Bleeds were deeply unremarkable and poorly executed.
With King’s next novel Holly set for release this September, all I can say for those still holding hope is that you have far more faith than I do.