A Constant Reader’s Reflections on the Work of Stephen King by Chad Clark
Two Constant Readers in Conversation : Tony Jones interviews Chad Clark
In a recent post we reviewed author and Constant Reader Chad Clark’s incredible multi-year odyssey into the work of Stephen King Tracing the Trails. Chad read every King novel in sequence and reviewed them all in his blog, which has now been adapted for his latest book. For King fanatics (known as Constant Readers) this is essential reading and easily the best and most readable non-academic book ever written about King and his astonishing output.
Ink Heist were delighted to have the opportunity to catch up with Chad for this detailed and formative interview about completing this huge undertaking. Thank you to regular Ink Heist cohort Tony Jones and Chad A. Clark for providing us with this insightful conversation that is essential reading for any King fan.
INK HEIST: Which Stephen King book would you recommend most to non-horror fans? I’ve had a lot of success with ‘Joyland’…
CHAD: This is a great question and one I have been bouncing around my head for a few days. Joyland is a good choice and for much of this time, I thought my answer was going to be Hearts in Atlantis. The only thing that stopped me was how some aspects of the book can’t really be fully appreciated unless you have the backdrop of The Dark Tower to draw from. The revelation finally hit me this morning and I think my final answer is going to be The Green Mile. It’s a rich story with a ton of emotion and complexity and the characters are some of the best I’ve seen from King. It’s a rare example where both the book and the movie are really great. While not what he typically writes, I think The Green Mile nicely shows off a number of King’s stronger talents.
INK HEIST: I often think teens start with the wrong Stephen King book. They’re too keen to jump straight into either ‘IT’, ‘The Stand’ or ‘The Shining’ when actually ‘The Long Walk’ is a truly great and often neglected novel with strong YA leanings and one which has been hugely successful in my school library. What’s the first one you would recommend to a teen or a King newbie and why?
CHAD: Well my introduction into Stephen King’s universe was Eyes of the Dragon. So, I suppose if we were talking about a younger reader, I would still suggest that one. It has some nice fantasy elements to it but also still with some of the harder edges of Stephen King’s writing. If I was talking to an older reader, I think my choice would be Misery. It’s a shorter book so there is less of a commitment and I think it’s a good introduction to both King’s use of characterization and perspective. It’s a creeping thriller that showcases some brilliantly brutal scenes that I think are indicative of King’s style. It’s a masterful example of how a story can be made gripping when locked inside the point of view of one character.
INK HEIST: Trooper Daniels, your psychopathic killer in your novel ‘Winward’, has no backstory. Bearing in mind most King villains do have back stories, were you not tempted to fill in some of the gaps regarding Daniels? Does Daniels recall any King villains for you?
CHAD: Winward was heavily influenced by Stephen King’s Desperation, which is one of my favourite King titles of the nineties. Collie Entragian is a fantastic villain and at the time when I read it, I was actually a little disappointed that the book took a supernatural turn and Entragian faded into the background. I had the idea in my head of a real gritty thriller set in this isolated small town and the result of that long percolation was what you got in Winward.
It’s true that I don’t devote as many pages and words as King does to the backstory of my characters. It’s not necessarily from a lack of interest or willingness on my part. Honestly, my style of storytelling is shaped largely by what other things are going on in my life. Living with two young kids and a full-time job, as much as I would love to write a book that has the breadth of a book like Desperation, it would likely take me five years to do so and I just don’t have that kind of stamina. Thomas Harris might be able to get away with putting out one book per decade but that’s not going to work for me. Novellas are ideal for me because it’s a length of book that I can realistically put out, even with all the other obligations I have in my life.
I’m also a big fan of the immediacy of the moment as I think that drives a lot of great horror. I want to put the reader right there alongside the protagonist in whatever situation is going down and when you’re in that mode, it’s just difficult to communicate information without jarring the pace of the narrative. In my opinion, not knowing can be scarier than knowing something.
INK HEIST: If you had the opportunity to rewrite one of the endings of a King novel which one would you choose and why? I think it’s trickier to answer than it looks, as there are a number of overall books that just did not grab me, rather than particular endings….
CHAD: The easy answer to that question for me would be Gerald’s Game. I think that book would have been much stronger if the narrative had stuck to what did or didn’t happen on that bed. King included a quite long epilogue that in my opinion wasn’t needed. In fact, I think much of the more abstract elements of the story were damaged by making them less ambiguous.
But because chopping fifty pages off the end isn’t technically “rewriting” it, I’m going to say The Mist. It’s a brilliant novella but the end kind of just dwindles away. While there is an air of despair and desperation there, for me it was just a little to vague and open-ended. And for as much criticism as it has received, I think the film managed to find a much stronger ending point.
INK HEIST: I’ve always seen myself as a Constant Reader and have read a lot of fantasy but have definitely struggled with the ‘Dark Tower’ series. One of the things I picked up from reading your book was the large number of references to the ‘Dark Tower’ in King’s wider horror fiction I was just not aware of. Why do you think King plants so many ‘Easter Eggs’ as you call them?
CHAD: The Dark Tower isn’t for everyone. There are some who argue that you aren’t a “real fan” if you don’t like the Dark Tower but that has never been my attitude. There’s plenty of King to enjoy outside of that universe.
The use of Easter eggs is common (although maybe the term itself isn’t as widespread) and it’s something I’ve always appreciated about King’s writing. For me this was always the equivalent of Hitchcock making appearances in all his films. It’s a way of putting his stamp of ownership on them. It’s also a great way to boost your community of fans by giving them something to geek out on. And while some fans take this farther than I would myself, crafting a spider’s web of threads connecting every book to each other, I’m fine with the notion of everyone appreciating the books in their own way. I tried to make this evident throughout the reviews that while I have my own opinions, I think one of the greatest aspects of King’s books is how there is so much room for us to take what we will from these stories. Some fans place every one of his books on a grand, pre-conceived canvas. I can’t bring myself to take it that far but anyone who shares my love for his work is aces in my eyes.
INK HEIST: British novelist James Smythe, who wrote the excellent ‘The Machinist’ had a blog on the major UK newspaper ‘The Guardian’ called ‘Rereading Stephen King’ he seems to have given up the ghost at ‘Chapter 33: Rose Madder’. The project started in 2012 and seems to have ended in 2015. It’s funny that he seems to have quit around the time King was in a definite lull, which your comments would also back up. When you were getting into the project did you find any stage of King’s career slightly daunting? Or ever think of quitting yourself? I think there were a number of books from this period you were reading for the first time….
CHAD: Getting into the mid-nineties was unexplored territory for me. While I had read some of his more notable recent titles (11/22/63, Under the Dome and Duma Key) I had very little sense of him as a writer, beyond his classic period. When I started the project, I wasn’t sure I would be able to finish. I didn’t know if it would end up taking me a decade. I had already turned away from King’s writing once before, so I had no idea if this would prove true again.
I was happy to discover that my departure from Stephen King books in my twenties was likely more a result of reading less overall. In college I got my first television that was my own as well as my first VCR’s, DVD players and video game systems. It was just too hard to overwhelm the movies and television that I was more interested in watching.
So even though there were books in the nineties and beyond that I liked less, once I was started, I never really thought about quitting. Overall, I would identify Regulators, Lisey’s Story and Full Dark, No Stars as the only ones where I felt like I was dragging myself back to the book somewhat. But even then, I didn’t feel like the project in the larger scheme of things lost steam.
INK HEIST: I really liked the way you gave little summaries of all the short stories and developed the work featured in your original blog. Actually, I thought because they were short stories you were more critical than with some of the novels! Overall though, your knowledge of King’s huge short story output is way deeper than mine. For any readers who are unfamiliar with his short stories, could you pick out two of your favourite stories from each of his collections?
- Night Shift –This is going to be the hardest one for me as it was my favorite collection, but I’ll give it a go. This may change from day to day but today I’m going to go with Children of The Corn – a great creepy tale in a setting I’m a big fan of. Tiny, isolated pockets of society with their own rules and lifestyles. And for my second choice I’ll go with One for The Road, a cool and dark return to the events of Salem’s Lot. Beautifully creepy atmosphere.
- Skeleton Crew – I think I’m going to stick with one of the two stories that were my favorites, even back in Junior High School, The Mist. It’s an exciting novella with some scary imagery and even though I’m not crazy about the ending, the heart of the story is a brilliant microcosm of society under extreme pressures. And my second choice isn’t even a choice. Survivor Type is one of my favorite short stories overall, so terrifying in the brutality of the narrator’s situation. It’s a wicked story and I love it.
- Nightmares and Dreamscapes – First off, Dolan’s Cadillac is a great novella of revenge that for me just oozes essences of great Edgar Allen Poe. And Rainy Season was so bizarre it’s impossible for me to not love it. An idea that shouldn’t work at all, but King managed it beautifully.
- Everything’s Eventual – This one’s the easiest of the bunch. Autopsy Room Four is terrifying and had me cringing the entire way through. And The Road Virus Heads North is a fantastically dark tale that is like a boulder rolling downhill in the way it builds up to its conclusion.
- Just After Sunset – It isn’t what King is generally known for but The Things They Left Behind is one that has stayed with me. Despite my misgivings over the use of 9/11 as a plot point in the story, I feel like King was respectful and ultimately was trying to deal with his feelings around 9/11 as opposed to using it to sell books. And A Very Tight Place was a fun and gross novella.
- Bazaar of Bad Dreams – Bad Little Kid was a fun story involving the paranormal and a brilliant offering of either a string of events, cursing a victim to a life of tragedy or the gradual fraying of an insane mind. You make the decision. And Summer Thunder was just outstanding. A brilliant and grim post-apocalyptic tale.
INK HEIST: Your book featured a couple of chapters when you discussed your favour films based on his books and I sensed you getting a big prickly in defence of the ‘Dark Tower’ film which you liked. I took my daughter to see it on the cinema and we both thought it sucked something awful. Is this individual taste pure and simple, or am I missing something? Perhaps if I had read the books?
CHAD: I didn’t mean to come off as prickly and I am totally sympathetic for those who didn’t like the film. I actually made an effort when I revisited and edited this piece to tone it down a little as I think my frustration at the time was more evident. There has been a ton of criticism levied at the movie and I think a fair amount of that criticism is deserved. I enjoyed the movie (obviously) but I don’t have any investment in trying to talk people into liking it as well. Honestly, I think that if you had read the books you would have been less likely to really enjoy it. I am also definitely not in the camp of people who say, “Oh, you didn’t like it, you must be racist.” Beyond a loud, but small group of detractors, I suspect that most people who didn’t like the movie had perfectly valid reasons.
I think the studio shot itself in the foot by being so secretive about the film during pre-production. Because I think their intention was to create a single film that captured the spirit of the series without necessarily being a strict adaptation of the stories from book to book. And personally, I think that’s fine. The main narrative of the Dark Tower series spans seven books and several thousand pages. It would be highly unlikely that a studio would sign off on doing a three or four movie deal on the back of a series that is targeted at adults. This was a movie inspired by the Dark Tower, as much as it was putting the saga on the big screen.
INK HEIST: Another thing your book does incredibly well is put into context how easy it is to find out about books in these internet days compared to days gone by, where a fan might not know about a new novel until they saw an advert in a bookshop. An example you made was the connection between ‘The Regulators’ (1996) and written by Richard Bachman and ‘Desperation’ (1996) by King and the connections between the two books which were published at the same time. These days the internet would be all over that juicy tip-bit. You must have put a lot of background and anecdotal research into making each article much more than a review?
CHAD: I suppose in some cases I put in some time to research a bit about the books and what was going on with King. But I also wanted as much as possible to ground things in the context of the books themselves, so as to see the progression from title to title. I didn’t want to prejudice my reactions too much by seeking out information that wouldn’t necessarily have been available to me at the time. Sometimes, after reading a book I might go on a little Google trip to satisfy my own curiosity but for the most part I tried to keep this on the level of the stories and how well they were able to reach me.
INK HEIST: Considering you managed to sneak in new releases such as ‘Elevation’ which came out after the blog project was finished, why did you miss out ‘Danse Macabre’? Wouldn’t it have gone nicely alongside ‘On Writing’?
CHAD: I don’t know if I can give a really coherent answer as to why I left Danae Macabre out of the project. I actually haven’t read it and I guess a small part of me kind of holds on to the notion that there’s one King book out there I haven’t read. I suppose part of my concern would be that it would feel somewhat dated. He carries on a discussion of his influences but this was also published prior to two major life events for him – getting sober and his car accident. Who’s to know what King would now say about his influences, compared to 1981? It also seemed a touch out of place in the course of examining his evolving style to review a book of him talking about himself. Both this book and On Writing seemed to be largely biographical so I guess I didn’t think it was necessary to do both. And since On Writing was so much more relevant to me personally, I felt like that choice was called for.
INK HEIST: Throughout the book you repeatedly make very clever observations which I often agreed with or had never thought of. One I agreed with was the fact that you thought Bill Hodges was shoe-horned somewhat into ‘Finders Keepers’. As sequels go, it was certainly a strange one, featuring a different villain, do you think it would have worked as a stand-alone novel without Hodges at all?
CHAD: I think Finders Keepers definitely could have worked as a standalone novel. Hodges is present but I wouldn’t say he adds anything crucial to the plot and save for the very end there isn’t much in the book that’s germane to him, either. As far as Hodges’ story goes, I think you could read Mr. Mercedes and immediately go into End Of Watch and not lose out on much. Now Finders Keepers does establish more of the universe of those books that was carried on into The Outsider so in the grand scheme of things I think it provides more of a function if not to Hodges himself.
INK HEIST: The next question is a bit similar… You wondered whether ‘Doctor Sleep’ could have been written as a sequel as an after-thought or a publishing/marketing decision? If a few tactical deletions which reference Dan Torrance’s father and the Outlook Hotel the novel could easily be just another novel about a guy with a supernatural gift. Your thoughts?
CHAD: Yeah I discuss this in my review that Doctor Sleep only feels like it has a peripheral connection to The Shining. With very little changes I think King could have made this book stand completely on its own. I think King had a great opportunity to craft a powerful follow up, using addiction as the emotional tether between Danny and Jack. As it is, he just kind of rushes through and leaves it too far at the edges of the narrative. I think this needed to be completely grounded in the universe of The Shining or not at all. As it kind of strikes out into a middle ground I think it was less successful as a sequel.
INK HEIST: For Constant Readers who might not have read the ‘Dark Tower’ books (I was not aware of this) there is a major character called ‘Stephen King’. Could you explain your thinking behind this and whether you thought it worked?
CHAD: Stephen King wrote himself into the saga as a character in Song of Susannah. I suppose the idea was to put Roland into the position of having to confront his maker. The story of The Dark Tower bounces from universe to universe so I suppose it would be expected that the characters at some point could burst free from the fiction itself and come face-to-face with the man at the keyboard.
I have no idea how much of what Stephen King the character says is grounded in King’s actual experiences. I thought it was a cool, meta twist for the series to take and in a sense made the books a kind of nexus at the center of all King’s creations. I do think that this aspect of the book has been the victim of a certain amount of over-interpretation but that’s just the opinion of one lowly Constant Reader.
INK HEIST: Returning to ‘Easter Eggs’ for a moment, of which there are countless references to in the many novels, are there any such references which you feel just don’t work or fall flat?
CHAD: I thought that making Insomnia and Black House so heavily rooted in Dark Tower references was a bit of a mistake. I can sympathize with the motivation to give a conciliatory offering to all the Dark Tower fans that had been waiting for the next books. But in another sense, it effectively closed aspects of the book off to those who hadn’t read the series. And I don’t know if the references really added that much to the books they appeared in.
Most of the time I think his references work as they should. It’s a reward for the reader who is familiar with his work but if you aren’t, the scene in question can still be understood. I think in the case of these two books, the references are taken so far that they induce as much head-scratching as anything else.
INK HEIST: Do you think if Stephen King creates a supernatural villain he will expect his Constant Readers to often presume he is a version of Randall Flagg? In your book you mentioned a couple I was unaware of (or forgotten), for example, that the kids in the short story ‘Children of the Corn’ worship someone who sounds suspiciously like Flagg?
CHAD: Honestly, I think a lot of that is mostly fan speculation. And I don’t mean that as a criticism, just that I think sometimes he’s seen as having more forethought than maybe there really is. I tend to doubt that he really envisions these infinite little wormholes from one book into the next. I honestly think he just enjoys placing little winks at other titles. But again, one of the great aspects of his books is the freedoms people must enjoy them however they want. I would never take that away from anyone.
Also, and I made this point at a few junctures but even a great writer like Stephen King isn’t immune to some recycling at times. You don’t write that many books without doubling back over yourself a little. Sometimes it’s as simple as books feeling similar because they were written at nearly the same time. In the end, my point would be that Stephen King is the only one who can speak to what his intentions were with any given project. It’s fun speculation to engage in but in the end, speculation is all it really is.
INK HEIST: You mentioned that viewers of the brilliant film ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ who read the novella it is based upon ‘Rita Hayworth’ may well be disappointed. I tend to agree, it’s a stunning film version of a good novella. Could you list us your favourite five King novellas?
CHAD: Apt Pupil
The Road Virus Heads North
Secret Window, Secret Garden
INK HEIST: What do you think is the most underrated of Stephen King’s novels and why?
CHAD: The one Stephen King book I love that I don’t see getting much attention is The Dark Half. Maybe because I’ve taken more attention to the progression of his career, the book seems to me to be so perfectly placed in King’s life. For an individual suffering through the agony of recovery and breaking the hold of addiction, I can completely understand how he could come to write a book that feels so angry and violent. I’m not really sure why the book flies under the radar as much as it seems to, especially since it was one of the highest selling books of the year it came out. Whatever the reason, many a King fan I’ve met haven’t read it and I think that’s a shame.
INK HEIST: You spend a bit of time on your favourite film adaptations of King’s work and I would agree that ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ is a rare example of the film bettering the source material. Of the King material not yet filmed (novel, short story or novella) what would you like to see on the big screen or as a television series?
CHAD: My dream would be to see The Dark Tower series adapted as an animated series. Something dark and gritty, along the lines of Heavy Metal. I think that would solve a ton of the inherent problems with adapting the story. You could take more time, the age of the actors wouldn’t be an issue, the effects of the landscape could be done brilliantly. Animated stories don’t necessarily have to be done for children and I think it’s a medium that would be great for those books.
INK HEIST: I’ve already said that other projects on King such as this have fallen by the wayside or never even got off the ground. It’s big talk. Now that you can truly say “I did it!” What next? What other horror authors out there are worthy of this kind of treatment? Not necessarily by you!
CHAD: It’s funny because I had been thinking now and then if I would ever want to do another project like this one and if so, which author would I choose? I think Clive Barker would be a natural choice but I think other writers would be better suited for that one. I’ve loved what I read of his but a lot of his writing also goes over my head at times so I don’t think I would be ideally suited for reviewing it.
I’ve considered doing something like this for Anne Rice. I was a big fan of hers as a kid and as with King, at some point I just kind of drifted away from her. In this case however, I don’t think I would make it through. I recently tried re-reading the vampire series and I couldn’t get past the fourth book. I’m just not the kind of reader that responds well to her anymore. She has a rich grasp on language but the books are too dry for me. Too much word salad. I’ve thought about Dean Koontz. He certainly has the breadth of career to justify a project like this but I’ve been way too hot and cold with his books. He’s actually written one of the few books I’ve put down in anger and left behind.
The one name I have thought of that might actually be an option that I could consider taking on (after a long break) would be Robert McCammon. I read and loved several of his books growing up and I think I would enjoy seeing the development of his style. Still, being pragmatic, there is one overreaching factor that makes me feel less likely that I would take on a project like this again. That would be that going through Stephen King’s bibliography has a biographical feel for me, as these books came along at such crucial junctures of my life. I can’t think of another author for whom I feel this way.
INK HEIST: What value is a SK ‘recommendation’ or ‘endorsement’ on a book these days? Once upon a time it was a big deal, but not he seems to recommend so many I no longer pay the attention I once did. What do you think?
CHAD: I don’t pay much attention either but I think his recommendations still carry a lot of weight. He has a huge platform on Twitter and a ton of fans who follow along with him. I’m not going to name names because I don’t want to come off as petty or jealous, but I can think of specific authors who have definitely benefited from a few well-timed tweets from King. Back in the day when I was still participating in fan groups on Facebook, I would sometimes see people in real time expressing their intent to check out a new book that King had just endorsed. So even though the social media aspect does dilute his individual endorsements, I suspect that the authors in question still benefit from having their name come flying out from King’s Twitter handle.
INK HEIST: To finish off Chad, one Constant Reader to another let’s compare our all-time Stephen King top ten……
- The Long Walk 1. IT
- Pet Sematary 2. The Stand
- The Stand 3. Under the Dome
- Misery 4.11/22/63
- The Shining 5. Duma Key
- The Green Mile 6. The Dark Half
- The Dead Zone 7. The Shining
- IT 8. Pet Sematary
- Joyland 9. The Green Mile
- The Dark Half 10. Four Past Midnight
INK HEIST: Chad Clark thank you very much for joining us. Shane Douglas Keene, Rich Duncan and I would like to thank you for answering our questions so thoroughly. It has been an absolute pleasure having you on the site and we would like to wish you the best of luck with your fascinating journey through the literary career of Stephen King.
Check our detailed review of Tracing the Trails: A Constant Reader’s Reflections on the Work of Stephen King right here.
About Chad A. Clark
Chad A. Clark is an author of dark-leaning fiction, born and raised in the middle of the United States. His road began in Illinois, along the banks of the Mississippi and from there he moved to Iowa, where he has lived ever since. From an early age, he was brined in the glory that is science fiction and horror, from the fantastical of George Lucas, Gene Roddenberry and Steven Spielberg to the dark and gritty tales of Stephen King and George Romero. The way from there to here has been littered with no shortage of books and movies, all of which have and continue to inform his narrative style to this day. For more, check out www.cclarkfiction.net