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Wednesday, November 15, 2017

My Kindertrauma: Wonderful Sausage from "More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark"

How about a change of pace? Let's hit the pause button on films and go for some literature.


Now, I've never found reading very scary. It lacks the visual punch and timing. The best you can get is a sense of dread. I know some people say that when your imagination takes over, things are scarier. But for me, I know I have nothing to fear from my imagination -- it's in my head, the monsters can't affect me there. It's only as scary as I can make it. Lovecraft can't stop me from giving Cthulhu a flowery hat like Mrs. Nesbitt.

But sometimes at night, when the shadows are on the wall, and something pricks you just right... ideas can't be controlled so easily. The right combination of gross-out, terror, and fear leads to nightmares. Case in point: "Wonderful Sausage" from More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.


This was another procurement from my mom's college horror class. Why do I subject myself to these things? Was it a way to try and get closer to my mother? Was I just warped to begin with? Were sources of trauma becoming sources of arousal for me -- the product of living a quiet, boring suburban life and this was my way to get safe thrills? I'll never know.

Anyway "Wonderful Sausage" combines child abduction (which I touched on in Poltergeist III) and cannibalism. There's also the horror of everyone enjoying it. I think something in my German roots was also attracted by the sausage. The fact that there's little explanation behind the killer's motivation makes it more intimidating. There's no introspection, no thinking moments (as one expects from a campfire tale), it's just a thing that happens -- a guy snatches up men, women, children, puppies, kittens (not my cat!), kills them, and makes them food.

I remember one night laying in my bed, trying to sleep. Insomnia is a terrible thing, and I often had it. Usually a result of a fast and deep mind, made worse when toxic thoughts run around your head. And the shadows on your wall start to look like a butcher holding a limb over a sausage grinder. It was the same sort of thing that happened after Creepshow -- my window looks like the Creeper is standing there, like a hallucination. Half-there, half-not.

Monday, November 13, 2017

The Books I Read: September - October 2017

This is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp

In a word, melodramatic. In many other words...

The tone of this story skews so heavily feminine it's distracting. I'm not saying femininity is a bad thing, but an event like this is going to have a lot of different reactions from different people. It's supposed to be about a real school shooting, but it's so cheesy it doesn't feel real. The narrative is split into the perspectives of four victims in four different situations. One is the ex-girlfriend of the shooter, another is the sister of the shooter, another is that sister's lesbian girlfriend, and last is the trouble-making brother of the lesbian girlfriend (do you see how relationshippy this is?). Two are trapped in the auditorium with the shooter, the brother is trying to get them out, and the ex-girlfriend is ROTC and running for help.

The sister, who I guess is the main character because she's the closest to the shooter and has the most to lose, is obsessed with dance. Her dead mother was a dancer. Dancing is the "only time she feels free." And of course she's going to Julliard. Maybe it's because I'm not a dancer, but this feels like such cliched rhetoric. See any dance movie or book in the last ten years. You cannot combine Bowling for Columbine with Step Up. The shooter makes his sister dance on stage, like he's the Joker. Don't you want to mix it up a bit and make her want to be an astronaut?

And there's way too much thinking. Four different narratives + limited amount of time (about an hour) means minute by minute breakdown of each POV. In high-risk situations, there is NEVER this much thinking going on. No thinking about the past or "why does he like her and not me?" high school junk. That all drops when you're just trying to survive. Even with the wordiness, the lack of detail is appalling. The author never even mentions what kind of gun the shooter has. Is it a rifle? Shotgun? Handgun? Automatic? That's an essential detail, to know what kind of damage can be done, what the stakes are. I'd venture to say the author didn't research school shootings, instead opting to make a soap opera around a dramatic event.

There is so much Lifetime-worthy drama cheese it's embarrassing. The name of the town is Opportunity, and the author never lets you forget it. Lines like "the sky feels endless" and "she looks so beautiful" and kissing a guy during a crisis like at the end of Speed. Is this really your biggest concern with a gunman? Was there kissing going on during Columbine? Because I read that book and no one reported any post-tragedy romance. Add in a nice dose of parent abuse, sexual assault, and all the other things you expect from a "serious" YA novel about "serious issues" that it seems everyone deals with on a CW show. This is not worth your time. Read Columbine by Dave Cullen instead.


Wizard's Bane by Rick Cook
(unfinished)

Boring as hell. I thought it would be a cozy fantasy like A Computer Programmer in King Aragorn's Court. I wanted to see how you could decompile magic or turn the Council of Elrond into a stand-up meeting. But no, it's a bunch of walking and walking and nothing happens.

A girl guides the guy through the woods and it's boring. He only regards the girl for how hot she is, always looking down her blouse. The girl is a bitch throughout, complaining how he doesn't have the stamina to hike or knowledge about dangerous magic stones. The guy doesn't regard anything with wonder. There's dragons and elf kings and magic, and all he's worried about is being cockblocked. He doesn't even try to impress her with knowledge of the future.

The only reason I made it to 46% was because it was a short book. But once it decided to take a chapter to tell a story within a story, I was out. I barely cared if the main characters lived or died, you're not going to pad pages with someone else's tale.


Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King

The book is a straight and true narrative that deviates very little from the movie, plus Stephen King-isms (twangy blue-collar metaphors that seem more at home in the Appalachians than Maine). But the movie is still better. The cinematic-ness adds emotion and removes unnecessary elements. Stephen King can produce material that results in good movies, as long as the makers of that movie are chosen well.


The Shamer's Daughter by Lene Kaaberbøl

This is the cozy fantasy I was looking for. Well, maybe "cozy" isn't the right word, but it's well written. Good characters, good conflict, and good setting. Said premise is that "shaming" is the magic here, which really means looking into the subject's eyes and making him feel guilty enough to confess his crimes. Sort of like Ghost Rider's "penance stare", only it's in Eragon. That's a solid premise in itself, but the characters are interesting enough to carry it, especially when it becomes a murder mystery and political throne-grabbing.

It reminded me of Far Far Away in terms of style. Maybe that's the translation at work. There is no slowness (maybe because it's YA, which also means it's not too long), and I see potential for storylines in the next sequence. Characters are not douchebags and no one holds an idiot ball, but there are a few trappings, like evil princes and dumb peasants. It's one of the few books of a series that makes me want to find out what happens next.


Writing Magic: Creating Stories That Fly by Gail Carson Levine

Levine is the person who wrote Ella Enchanted. I liked that book so much I wanted to check out her non-fiction book on "how to write". I thought, by the title, it would have to do with specifically magic and fantasy, but no, it's writing in general. That's not a bad thing.

This is one of the better writing books I've read. Liked it more than "Bird by Bird" (but that's not a high bar to jump for me). The focus is on prompts and exercises (i.e. you learn to write by writing). It also never wears out its welcome. Some books emphasize sentence structure and adverb placement -- too much nitty gritty. This one doesn't care, and it shouldn't. It's wants you out there and producing.

However, it is definitely skewed toward younger audiences. Middle school and high schoolers will get more out of this book than I did from Stephen King's "On Writing".


Danse Macabre by Stephen King

I was hesitant on reading this, worried it would be out of date. (It's as old as me!) There have been a lot of... advances? (I don't know what you'd call them) in horror that no one could have predicted in 1981: slasher franchises going mainstream (e.g. Freddy Krueger action figures), J-horror, psychological horror (like Black Swan), torture porn, home invasion films, indie horror (e.g. The Blair Witch Project), the second rise and decline of zombies. Enough time has passed that now we have meta-horror for all those tropes (e.g. Scream and The Cabin in the Woods).

Nonetheless, much of it still holds up, to my surprise, because it's really all about roots. And those roots take place in three things--films, TV, and books. It takes examples from timeless phenomenon like B-movie monsters, anthology suspense, and Lovecraft books. Each reflects the time period they were born into. And it's all delivered with Stephen King's tight and witty prose (he was still high in these days so his writing is still good). It's the kind of book that might be assigned in an "Introduction to Horror" college class. Plus, it contains some of the missing biographical elements from "On Writing".

However, I don't think it's required for any horror aficionado. There's a lot of examples from the 50s-70s that maybe influenced King more that it influenced everybody. Read this if you're a fan of Stephen King's style. You get to see him put on his college professor hat. But there are more current books that do just as well.


Fata Morgana by Steven R. Boyett and Ken Mitchroney

It's a marathon, but a good one. The story is a basic portal fantasy (a B-52 crew flies into another dimension), but you feel like you're there: all the detail about the plane, the crew's lives, how they interact with each other, the equipment, and the war. It got me excited about World War II (there is a lot more detail about World War II stuff than the fantasy world) and balances description with plot.

The fantasy elements are underwhelming. It's a standard domed city, a flying mechano-dragon, bad guys in the other domed city across the wasteland, the man from the past falls in love with the woman from the future, and so on. It's all very sixties Star Trek or H.G. Wells "The Time Machine". Nothing exceptional. Mundane even. I kept waiting for the thing that made the world extra-special and unique.

And I have a hard time believing that any of the crew could help with anything mechanical in this world. It would be like a watchmaker fixing my iPhone. Besides that, some threads don't go anywhere (like the whole chapter dedicated to the new crewmember's "story" of his haunted plane), making the book unnecessarily long. I hate when that happens.

The magic comes from the plausible character development. It's a satisfying read and entertaining, but make sure you can handle some World War II history and mechanics.


Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

John Green's latest. How could I not read? If you're looking for a remix of "The Fault in Our Stars", this is not it. It's not a romance. It takes the romance elements out and focuses more on the character's disease. Only this time it's not cancer, it's compulsion disorder/intrusive thoughts. A mental illness that the main character neglects to resolve.

The primary plot driver is extremely unimportant, so there won't be a lot of twists and events. What exists is the thin thread of mystery--the lugubriously rich father of an old childhood friend disappears to escape indictment. Our two heroines hope to find him and earn a reward. Our POV character is not the main driver of this story--that's her friend. But it retains the same peculiarity and quirkiness that Green is good at. It's closer to Paper Towns, but minus the insufferable pining over a crazy girl. Green also fixes the mistake where his teenagers speak way over their vocabulary range, like college freshman milking every damn page from a thesaurus to sound smart on an English paper (e.g. Augustus Waters).

It's more of a character study, like "Looking for Alaska" was. In that, the pathology was someone with an unredeemable crush on a real-life MPDG. Her, it's someone broken by anxiety and mental illness, self-centered (not because of ego, but because OCD does that to a person) and unable to have relationships because of that. Green says that the best thing you can get from books is to "imagine humans complexly" and I think he does just that in a package that's fun to open.

Will it become a classic? I wish I could say it's likely, but I wouldn't believe that myself. It probably won't make you cry, but it will make you understand. And I think that's a better achievement.


Beyond the Castle: A Disney Insider’s Guide to Finding Your Happily Ever After by Jody Jean Dreyer
(unfinished)

This did not deliver on what I wanted. I wanted anecdotes about working at Disney. Stories about dealing with douchebags, cast member affairs, triumph of the storyboard room. It sounds like this woman has worked nearly every job, seen every facet of the company. You'd think there'd be dozens of anecdotes about that. But no. This is more of a self-help book, full of quaint little lessons and morals and life advice.

There are anecdotes sprinkled in, but most of it is stuff you could learn from the IMDB trivia page of any Pixar movie. It's far more thematically about being the best "you". And entirely too much focus on "giving yourself to God". That's where it lost me--all the strong Christian overtones, saying God wants you to be happy and using Disney stuff to illustrate that. Disney wants you to be happy, because happy people give you money. I'm not under any illusion that Disney isn't a business. It gives you a lot back for your dollar, but it wants your dollar first and foremost.

I stopped reading when it spelled "Lotso" (the antagonist from Toy Story 3) as "Lostoso". If you can't proofread well-enough, especially regarding a Disney term, then I'm done. It's minor and stupid, but, hey, that's why they call the camel back-breaker a straw, not a brick.


The Selection by Kiera Cass

Oh, boy, where do I start with this one. I'm afraid this might turn into another 5,000 word rant like "Wild" or "The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer" or any of Jackie Morse Kessler

I guess I'll start with expectations, the blame for which I shall receive none. It shall go to the marketing team and author. The description makes it sound like a cross between The Bachelor and The Hunger Games, which I was fine with. The ceremonies and reality TV part of The Hunger Games was my favorite. I'd like to see what happens when that's expanded to a whole universe. But the author is doing her best to make it feel like a dystopian YA novel/clone of THG, but it doesn't get any more savage than a Disney Channel original movie.

The first red flag was all the telling in the first chapter. Exposition, exposition, exposition. Not even infodumped in a clever or interesting way, just *plop* there it is. The universe is described to us like it was a textbook.

And then it's nothing but cliches. I swear to god, I thought I was reading the Dystopian YA twitter account. Society's in a caste system that sorts people because of course there is. Her family is poor. It includes a little sister and an overbearing mother. There's a love triangle between the guy she left at home and the guy society expects her to pair with. There's rebels and a dictatorship and interviews and dresses and a Cesar Flickerman and my god did this author create anything on her own? I know "everything is a remix" but at least use some unique ingredients (how about The Hunger Games with dwarves?).

For a book about thirty-five teenage girls competing to marry a prince, it's surprisingly chaste. Like a Mormon version of Survivor. Getting a kiss is like winning the lottery. I would think, in a competition where the prize is you and your family being set up for life with money and power and royal titles, there should be boobs flopping out all over the place.


No one acts plausibly, least of all the main character. She doesn't want anything, she's just along for the ride. She doesn't take action, action happens to her. The only thing going for her is "feistiness" compared to the other snobby upper-class girls. She's not even really competing with them--she sets herself up as a confidante, but of course, this means the prince likes her best. As a result, there's no conflict. They're all trying to help each other, instead of figuring out who your friends an enemies are. It doesn't even conclude like a normal book. It just ends--there's no climax, no build-up. It's like they just cut it off at 300 pages so they could call it a series.

Surprisingly, I'm not depressed that this book got published. I am depressed that readers rated so high. It's so shallow and cliche. I kept reading because I was waiting for that "more"--that reason it garnered such attention. But it never came. And that's three hundred and thirty-nine pages of my life I won't be getting back.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

My Kindertrauma: Poltergeist III (the puddle scene)

So I already mentioned Poltergeist in my "Faces of Death" entry, but here's a scary scene from a movie I never saw. I'm still not sure if I've ever seen it.

In 1988, Poltergeist III was released. It includes a scene where Carol Anne is running through a parking lot, then stands in a puddle. Two demon hands grab her and drag her down into the water. But her two older siblings* find her and catch her in time. Unfortunately, THEY are dragged into the puddle as well. The whole thing ends with a vacant, quiet parking lot.

Now I didn't see Poltergeist III (I'm still not sure if I ever have) at its release. Obviously my parents had better sense than to take a quiet sensitive boy like me to any horror movie in a theater. But HBO (cause of more than one other kindertrauma) frequently aired Behind the Scenes vignettes between films. They decided showcasing the special effects behind that scene was good to air between Fraggle Rock and Braingames (I don't think they actually did this, but this is what I caught while channel flipping).


Holy shit, that is some freaky stuff for a seven-year-old. Christ, if that happened no one would ever find you ever again. Would you be dead? Or trapped in some hell dimension forever? Not even stronger near-adult people could save you. And it wasn't just you that got dragged down, but so did your loving brother and sister*. And I lived in Minnesota--one year later Jacob Wetterling would be kidnapped, reinforcing the scene in my mind.

*Actually they are Carol Anne's cousin uncle's daughter from a previous marriage and her boyfriend, but A) who cares B) what seven-year-old can make sense of that relationship -- Spaceballs was clearer in that regard C) that information does not come across in the clip I saw.


I'm not sure if I always had some "thing" about drowning--it seemed a scary way to die because it was slow. There weren't enough cars around my neighborhood to make being hit by one a possibility. Death by choking wasn't likely, since I was always eating around adults and there was that miraculous "Heimlich maneuver" everyone kept talking about.

But drowning seemed a likely death, especially given all those warnings around pools, how frequently we went to the lake, and the ease you could be overlooked flailing around with all the others playing. Hell, water's supposed to be good for you and you could drown in an inch of it. Not to mention it seems slow and painful. Not like a car accident where it's sudden. You can feel your life draining away as you go under, both hope and oxygen fading.

Add to that the periphery of Heather O'Rourke's (Carol Anne's death), this incident is equal parts terror and dread.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is Stuck on "Acceptance"



There are approximately six hundred and fifty concurrent Marvel movies and TV shows going on right now. Earth number 199999 has no shortage of colorful characters who have seen an amalgam of bizarre circumstances. Aliens coming out of portals, super soldiers fighting red skulled Nazis in World War II, people becoming big green monsters and insect-sized ant-herders, sentient robots lifting up cities and Norse gods turning out to be real.

So why do they keep considering stuff "crazy" when they learn the overarching plot/maguffin?

I watched The Defenders a little while ago and there's a scene where the four of them have one of the bad guys tied up. They're interrogating him on his evil plan, getting that sweet sweet exposition. Said evil plan is to use Iron Fist to break down a wall and get some kind of black water that lets you come back to life or something. And Jessica Jones says something to the effect of "this is crazy, why should we believe this guy?"

Um, have you taken a look around lately? Bulletproof skin, blind ninja, glowing fist, and you yourself have super-strength from no known cause. In the most recent hours you've seen people you thought were dead walk around and kick your ass. Not to mention all the weird stuff you've already seen on the news.

Not exactly a buried lede

Is it really appropriate to call anything bollocks anymore? It's a cheap writer ploy to give a little conflict, but at this point in the MCU, it's a ridiculous thing for anyone to think. If I were in her place I'd be saying, "Immortality goo? Sure, sounds legit."

There's just too much that's happened--even just the stuff that's been revealed to the public--for anyone to dismiss the improbable (especially if you're one of the recipients of said improbableness).

People take it all for granted when you've got clean energy thanks to a guy flying around in a suit of armor. But when is enough enough? I say it's now. And anyone saying "this is crazy" needs an idiot check.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

What is Saturn from "Beetlejuice"?

So here's a question I've been wondering about since I was seven years old. What the hell is that place in Beetlejuice with the desert and the two-faced sandworms and the moons and time apparently moving faster?


What do we know? Well, our first glimpse happens when dead-Alec Baldwin walks off his front porch. The camera whips around weirdly and he's there. It's like he's on a different world--dark blue sky, green planet, weird stone coral-like structures (I assume they're stone). Something is moving in the sand, something serpentine.

He spends about five seconds there. Then dead-Geena Davis pulls him back on the porch and tells him he was gone two hours. But this is dismissed quickly for other revelations. I have no idea how she pulled him back on the porch. Was he just standing on the step? Staring into nothingness all that time?

Another time, dead-Geena Davis tries to leave the house. Dead-Alec Baldwin follows her. They both end up on "Saturn" and are immediately separated. They can't even see each other, like they're miles away. But somehow they find each other, and rediscover the door back to their house. This is the first appearance of the sandworm, which they narrowly avoid thanks to a well-timed Davis slap (precursor to The Long Kiss Goodnight?).

* Seems like time moves differently whenever they're not in the house. After they draw a door and meet with Juno, they find the family totally moved in, and they've been gone three months. So it's not just the sandworm place. Are they part of the same plane of existence, just different locations?


Next, when we finally meet Beetlejuice and he's making his pitch (was this all a precursor to Michael Keaton's role in The Founder?) and he says "Look, you've been to Saturn! Hey, I've been to Saturn. Whoa, sandworms, you hate 'em, right?" So that means it's a place common to all dead people (also exemplified by the fact that dead-Genna Davis rides one into her house). Also, how does Beetlejuice know by looking that he's been to Saturn. Does that "look" mean "look at you!" or "look here, buddy"? Also, Beetlejuice can teleport people there? </huh?>



Okay, so WTF is this place? Is it a planet? That's what I thought as a kid, since I didn't know any better. They're being transported to the planet Saturn. But that doesn't explain the time-movement, the sandworms, the door, the lack of rings, the fact only dead people can see it, that it's a gas giant with no solid surface or breathable atmosphere.

Is it some kind of underworld? Saturnus is the romanization of Cronus, the titan that was the father of all the Greek gods until Zeus fooled him. He was a symbol of wealth and agriculture (but so was just about everything) and time. Except for that last one, I don't see the relationship here.

In the cartoon, the sandworms live in... Sandwormland, which is below the "Neitherworld" (Beetlejuice's realm).


Here's a quote from the TV Tropes - Headscratchers page: "[Wikipedia] says that in an earlier draft, it was called Titan rather than Saturn (which might explain the giant moon in the sky: that's probably Saturn itself), and that might still work, since Betelgeuse says "you've been to Saturn" (he didn't say they've been "on" Saturn, so maybe he meant the Saturn moons).Here is that Wikipedia quote: 
"Skaaren's rewrite also altered McDowell's depiction of the limbo that keeps Barbara and Adam trapped inside of their home; in McDowell's script, it takes the form of a massive, empty void filled with giant clock gears that shred the fabric of time and space as they move. Skaaren had Barbara and Adam encounter different limbos every time they leave their home, including the "clock world", and the Sandworm's world, identified as Saturn's moon Titan."


So I guess we could call this place Limbo, like in Dante's Inferno, but this doesn't explain the deal with the sandworms who... eat ghosts? Is the place one big Pac-Man level? (But not really, since Beetlejuice survives getting devoured by one?)

What the hell is this place? I wanna know!

This is more of a limbo than anything.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Why Developers Should Not QA


The new hotness in software development is Kanban. Kanban's like an assembly line. As soon as one person's done working on a thing, they shove it along the conveyor belt to the next, like manufacturing a car.

But sometimes things bottle neck at one station or another. So when that happens, you take the people who have free time and put them on something else. They don't do as good a job as the worker dedicated to that station, but it's better than nothing. In the software engineering world, that means Business Analysts can do QA and development. QA does development and software analysis. Developers do QA and build business requirements.

This is a mistake.

At least for developers. Business Analysts could be taught to QA -- they know what the software is supposed to do. QA could build business requirements -- they just need to know how to to make documentation. But no one can do development. People spend their college careers learning software engineering (like I did). It's a special skill, like writing a novel. It's what I was trained to do. I was not trained to do QA. I was not trained in Marketing Information Systems. I am the guy who does the coding.



And like writing a novel, I cannot proofread my own work. I am too close to the material. Things will slip my grasp because I am too close to the material. We're talking about small things in the big picture. They'll elude my eyesight because I'm not looking for them. I wrote the thing -- I know it's doing what I think it should do. But what's I think it should do may not be what the QA or BA thinks. That's okay, that's why we have those positions. And even they won't always catch everything. Just like you may not have caught the double "to" in the last paragraph.

And just so we're clear, we're not talking about a developer finishing code and sending it down the line without ever seeing if it runs. A good developer should check against the requirements. But we're talking about testing that comes before the code is approved for production. We're talking quality control. And that's rooted in how it might break.

I know why this works, why it's stupid, and how to make it one line.
In a perfect world, we'd get it right the first time. But this is not a perfect world. All writers make mistakes (and they usually find them after the book has been published). In the publishing industry, a writer does not edit his/her own stuff. That is what an editor is for. An editor will see the plot holes and inconsistencies that did not occur to the writer. They will find the missing word and the misplaced apostrophe. Same as in development. No developer can spot everything because, if we had, we would have removed them. It's not like we make mistakes on purpose or because of laziness or lack of knowledge.



Development is a high level task. You are trying to translate a human set of instructions into computer-speak. The complexity of this means not thinking so much about the simple things -- they get reduced to generalizations. Just like how when you write, you don't think about how certain words are spelled. But in QA, that complexity is removed. If the developer tries to do QA, the brain will stay in that complex mindset. You can't trick it into pretending you're seeing this set of steps for the first time. We will always fall into the habit of testing it to the code. We test how it works instead of how it should work.

And then there's the things like misunderstanding requirements, the lack of objectivity, deadlines rushes. We are not the normal guy. A QA tests like a "normal guy".

It's too hard to be a good developer and QA and business analyst all in one. That's why they are separate jobs. It's not just about skill, it's about having different mindsets. A good developer thinks "how do I make this work". A good QA thinks "how can I break this?"

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Is Stephen King Getting Worse or Better?


Stephen King's going to go down in history as THE novelist of the late twentieth century. More than Dean Koontz or John Green or Danielle Steele. They even made a horror movie about him. I'm not talking about a documentary or his directorial debut (and finale) Maximum Overdrive or a thinly veiled pastiche like in "In the Mouth of Madness". I mean he was the subject matter. He's ceased to be a person, but a brand. That's what I call being part of the public consciousness. Not even J.K. Rowling has that (yet).


But art changes over time. Simply because people change over time. Steven Spielberg doesn't make the same kinds of movies he used to. Metallica's first album Kill 'Em All has a different style than Load, which has a different style from Death Magnetic. And don't get me started about The Muppets.

It's not all internal (meaning experience and skill). It's mood, tone, technology, and situation. It's the outside world and the inside world. It's your mother dying or a civil war or a drug problem. Long story short, people change, so their art changes.

Stephen King's been a non-stop train, publishing 1-2 books a year and countless short stories. But he's not as "big" as he was in the eighties. Neither was he ever known for quality. He had a "People's Choice" sentiment going on. Most of that is due to the nature of the genre (as in, if you write in a genre, critics ignore you). People still talk about It and Cujo and The Shining. Nobody talks about Joyland or Cell. Even Under the Dome  became a TV series, but you wouldn't know it unless you were paying attention.


While thinking about "On Writing," my foundation for "how to write", his advice seems to contradict his actions. And not just in his old books, which might contain rookie mistakes. I'm talking about now. There are so many of the same tropes and cliches in every book you can make a drinking game out of them. Harold Bloom accused him of "dumbing down America" when King won the 2003 National Book Foundation award. He's been accused of overwriting, inflating the word count to make his books into doorstops, and making the customer feel like he or she got more for their money. This article, taking a snippet of a 2014 book, does better justice to my thesis.

So here's my question: Is Stephen King getting worse?

You would think that the more experience you have, the better at something you get. However, the bigger you get, the more "yes-men" around you. They think your shit doesn't stink so they pass everything along because A) they know it'll make a buck or B) if they say no, they'll get fired. There's fewer gatekeepers, fewer filters. If I was given the task of editing Stephen King, I would be very hesitant on suggesting any corrections. The man must know what he's doing, he's published so many books.

So let's go to the data. Data never lies, right? I want to know if Stephen King's trending up or down. Does he have a place in the world of stories today, or is it simply that we remember his name?
YEARTITLEGENREGOODREADS RATINGGOODREADS REVIEWSLIBRARYTHING RATINGLIBRARYTHING MEMBERSNOTES
1974CarrieHorror3.933820003.729500
1975'Salem's LotHorror3.992480003.9410000
1977The ShiningHorror/Psychological Horror4.188360004.1115000King moves from ME to CO
1977Rage*Psychological Thriller3.8230003.38747King moves back to ME
1978The StandPost Apocalyptic4.344740004.3314000
1978Night Shift+SS3.961130003.86300
1979The Long Walk*Psychological Horror4.11800003.843400
1979The Dead ZoneSupernatural Thriller3.91400003.777000
1980FirestarterScience fiction3.851490003.646600
1981Roadwork*Psychological Thriller3.59200003.841200
1981CujoHorror3.651680003.436700King's intervention
1982The Running Man*Science fiction3.81680003.632400
1982The Dark Tower: The GunslingerFantasy/Western3.983740003.8615000Was originally written from 1977-1981
1982Different Seasons+SS4.341390003.986500
1983ChristineHorror3.731580003.536100
1983Pet SemataryHorror3.912960003.729100
1983Cycle of the WerewolfHorror3.62360003.392000
1984The TalismanFantasy4.12870004.047200
1984Thinner*Horror3.671370003.415300"Richard Bachman" is unveiled
1985Skeleton Crew+SS3.93880003.775900
1986ItHorror4.194920004.0813000
1987The Eyes of the DragonFantasy3.92820003.827500
1987The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the ThreeFantasy/Western4.231600004.111000
1987MiseryPsychological Horror4.113560003.949900
1987The Tommyknockers Science fiction3.48960003.336500First book written after sobriety?
1989The Dark HalfPsychological Horror3.741000003.566000
1990Four Past Midnight+SS3.9820003.715700
1991The Dark Tower III: The Waste LandsFantasy/Western4.241370004.0810000
1991Needful ThingsHorror3.871620003.697500First book written after sobriety?
1992Gerald's GameSuspense3.471060003.295700
1992Dolores ClaibornePsychological Thriller3.81990003.645700
1993Nightmares & Dreamscapes+SS3.9590003.694300
1994InsomniaHorror/fantasy3.791100003.677500
1995Rose MadderFantasy3.66760003.485400
1996The Green MileFantasy4.421920004.238400
1996DesperationHorror3.81000003.596800
1996The Regulators*Science fiction/horror3.64540003.374600
1997The Dark Tower IV: Wizard and GlassFantasy/Western4.241220004.079400
1998Bag of BonesGothic fiction3.871380003.717900
1999The Girl Who Loved Tom GordonHorror3.561030003.446500King's car accident
1999Hearts in Atlantis+SS3.8710003.666000
2001DreamcatcherScience fiction3.591230003.326600
2001Black HouseHorror3.99450003.785400
2002From a Buick 8Horror3.42500003.294800
2002Everything's Eventual+SS3.94680003.756900
2003The Dark Tower V: Wolves of the CallaFantasy/Western4.171100004.038300
2004The Dark Tower VI: Song of SusannahFantasy/Western3.98970003.877800
2004The Dark Tower VII: The Dark TowerFantasy/Western4.271050004.147800
2005The Colorado KidCrime fiction3.28220003.22400
2006CellHorror3.641540003.458600
2006Lisey's StoryHorror3.65550003.65900
2007Blaze*Crime fiction3.66300003.462800
2008Duma KeyPsychological Horror3.93800003.895800
2008Just After Sunset+SS3.85380003.713600
2009Under the DomeScience fiction3.892030003.847800
2010Full Dark, No Stars+SS4.03700003.963400
201111/22/63Science fiction/alternate history4.293060004.27400
2012The Dark Tower: The Wind Through the KeyholeFantasy/Western4.15470004.072000
2013JoylandCrime fiction/mystery3.9830003.92400
2013Doctor SleepHorror4.11170004.063300
2014Mr. MercedesCrime fiction3.921510003.852700
2014RevivalCrime fiction3.75690003.691700
2015Finders KeepersCrime fiction4.03660003.971600
2015The Bazaar of Bad Dreams+SS3.92290003.911000
2016End of WatchCrime fiction4.09470003.911000
* published under the pseudonym "Richard Bachman"
+ short story collection

Here's our base data. Genres were taken from Wikipedia, which is authoritative as anything else with regard to categorization of art. Now let's plot these data points.



Well, this certainly... doesn't answer any questions. The GoodReads ratings trend slightly down but the LibraryThing ratings trend slightly up. And neither in any significant slope. I'm comfortable saying the quality of his work (as rated by the people) has remained consistent through his career.

Again, this is not scientific. Some of these people voted for Trump. And, from this view, the spikes vary wildly. Note that not one goes higher than 4.4 and not one goes lower than 3.2. But as a writer, that's a comfortable wheelhouse to be in.

So we've determined no change in how his books are rated. Mr. Mercedes is about as good as Pet Sematary. But how about the number of people picking up his books?



Ah, we see some trends here. But the data skews downward for a reason. Forty years have passed since Carrie. That gives people more time for people to pick it up than Duma Key (2008). So the downward line doesn't necessarily mean people are dropping King from their reading lists.

Or does it? When was the last time you heard someone talk about him? Not in the "fine legacy of a horror writer" sense, but "what have you done for me lately?"

Here's a thing I want to point out. Somewhere between 1987 and 1991, King got sober. I'm not sure which was his first sober book (one source said The Tommyknockers, another said Needful Things) but note that point in time on the graph. No book except for The Dark Tower 7 (the final book in the series) and Under the Dome (which had a big marketing campaign behind it) reaches above 200,000 readers. So the quality didn't change, but the number of people who cared did. Did his content change with his sobriety? Was the bloom off the rose? I feel like something happened, but I don't know what.

Here's another interesting thing to note -- Stephen King's not really writing horror anymore. In the last ten years only three books (that weren' short story collections) were horror. More were categorized as crime fiction. Does that mean King's sick of horror? Or he's experimenting? I dunno. But I don't think we'll ever see another Misery or The Stand again.

Does King care? Probably not. I wouldn't care. I would consider it a blessing. He's made it. He still makes bestseller lists, for both old and new books (It is up there right now, thanks to the movie). And now he can write whatever he wants to. No deadlines, no pressure. Not even George R. R. Martin can say that.

Does any of this data-mining prove anything? I guess it proves that, contrary to what I said before, maybe a person's art doesn't change as much as we think.