You're probably familiar with the term "Jumping the shark." It became popular in the late 90s and early 2000s as a way to pinpoint when something good went wrong, and it refers to the moment when the long-running sitcom "Happy Days" definitively downhill, in an episode where anti-hero Fonzie is waterskiing in California, preparing to do a jump, and there's a shark in the water. The shark lunges for him and he jumps over the shark. From that point on, the show was just not good.
For Stephen King, that moment came with "The Tommyknockers."
To be sure, some people claim Stephen King's writing is every bit as good now as it was when his first novel, "Carrie," came out in 1974. Each of his books has been a best seller, and each has included comments from critics saying it's his best book, or his best since "The Shining," or "It's scary great fun!" (which is always odd, because not all of his books are meant to be scary. But as a person who grew up reading Stephen King, starting with "The Shining," I can tell you when things started to turn, and that was the three books, "The Tommyknockers," "The Dark Half," and "Needful Things." (Spoiler Alert: some commentary will include parts of the books and/or the ending).
Honestly, those books aren't all bad. Nor are all of the books since then. But those books mark the turning point where things started to go bad. Look at the books immediately leading up to them:
Thinner - I devoured it, did a book report on it, got an A.
It - his biggest book at that point. A true monster. I carried it with me constantly, reading a page or even a paragraph every spare second I had until it was gone. Loved it. Despite the length, not a word wasted.
Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three - I loved the first one, and this was a worthy follow-up. I still think the first two books are the best in the series. I couldn't wait for the next one.
Misery - One of my favorite Stephen King novels, because it has no supernatural elements whatsoever. It's a very simple plot, concisely written, and terrifying as Hell. I happened to be reading it while recovering from knee surgery and taking pain meds every few hours, so for me that always made me relate to central character Paul Sheldon more. Then came...
This book actually came out the same year as Dark Tower II and Misery, making it quite the year for fans. King had put out three books in one year before, and they were all good. In fact he did it in back-to-back years. 1983 had Christine, Pet Sematary, and Cycle of the Werewolf, while 1984 saw The Talisman, co-written by Peter Straub, the fantasy Eyes of the Dragon, and Thinner, written as Richard Bachman. So in 1987 there was no worry about stretching things too thin, it was just more goodness coming faster.
And it wasn't terrible. Looking back, King himself has said "It's an awful book" that marks the effect substance abuse had on his writing, and there are references to the effects of abuse in the book. King has said the book would be better if it was shorter, and that may be true, but overall I thought it was weird but not good.
The premise is that residents of the small town of Haven, Maine begin to act strangely due to an object under their town being uncovered. Some display telepathic abilities. Some begin to perhaps mutate. There are a few disturbing scenes I recall, but mostly I wasn't getting into the on-again off-again love story between the two main characters, and I was getting pretty sick of King's depictions of small town Maine people, ayuh, I was. Several of his best books - The Shining, The Dark Tower, and Misery among them, went outside of Maine, and others had only bits about the quaint salty townsfolk, with the primary focus being on a couple, a family, a character, whatever.
For the first time I began to fill a bit restless and ill by one of his books, not due to depictions of tentacles coming out of someone's vagina, or of a man being forced to ingest a bottle of Valium at gunpoint, but because it just wasn't good. When the climax of the book comes, as the object is determined to be an alien spacecraft, which then launches into space, taking most of the town with it, and killing the others, I was glad to see the characters die, and glad for the book to end, but I was left empty, not wanting more.
The Dark Half
King put out no books in 1988. This was only the third time since his first book came out in 1974 that he had a year without a book. The most recent year had been 1985, when he was focused on It, which came out the following year. He has said he dealt with his substance abuse issues after The Tommyknockers, so it seemed he was coming back rested and ready, and indeed The Dark Half started out as classic King. I was madly flipping the pages again. My friends who also got a copy as soon as it came out talked with me daily about cool scenes and especially the villain, George Stark, one of the most violent, evil ass-kickers ever depicted in a King book.
The problem was the ending.
The book addresses King's use of the Richard Bachman pen name in terms of a story. King wanted to know if his name was selling books, or if his books were selling themselves, so he put out 5 novels under the name Richard Bachman to determine if they, too, would be monster best sellers. By the time Thinner was released, people realized he and Bachman were one and the same, but he had started writing certain books for Bachman, others for himself, creating a disparity. The Dark Half depicts an author who also writes under a pen name, only to find that his pen name has come to life and is killing people, much in the way people would be killed in the books he wrote. Excellent concept right? So how do you wrap that up, when your pen name is a brutal killer who knows everything about you because he's also you?
You have him taken away by sparrows.
You read that right. Birdies come and grab the bad man and fly away with him. The birdies are summoned by the protagonist, who uses a bird call to summon them.
Now granted, it was implied at some point that sparrows have something to do with evil creatures or whatever, but after reading every one of King's novels to date, I read that ending and thought it was the stupidest excuse for an ending I had ever read. You might as well have had the hero force feed Stark an industrial-sized can of baked beans and have Stark fart himself into space. In fact, it signaled the start of a problem I think King started to have, where he just didn't know how to defeat a powerful villain, a problem he also had with Needful Things.
This book came out two years after The Dark Half, and in the year between King put out the revised version of The Stand as well as The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands. The new version of The Stand not only restored sections of the original novel that had been cut for length, it brought the novel forward to the present time, making it a complete revision, and making it his longest book ever, even bigger than It. And like the original novel, the new version ranks among my favorite King books and among my favorite books of all time. But it was written during his initial period when every book was amazing, cover to cover.
Meanwhile, The Dark Tower III wasn't as good as II, but at this point he knew it would be an ongoing series. He wrote it like a next chapter, not like a book unto itself. It's good, it ends in a cliffhanger making you want more, but he didn't have to have a definitive ending. Needful Things did, and it sucks.
Like The Dark Half, Needful Things starts with a great premise: an antiques shop called "Needful Things" opens in the frequent King setting of Castle Rock, Maine. The proprietor, Leland Gaunt, is a charming old guy who asks for favors for the items his customers find, rather than cash. What he has, they really want, it's usually something they have always wanted and never been able to find, or something lost but never found. The catch is, what Gaunt asks people to do, these tiny favors, begin to have an impact on the quiet town, and chaos ensues, lives are ruined. Eventually the town sheriff, who happens to do sleight of hand magic tricks as a hobby, realizes that Gaunt is at the center of all the problems, and he confronts him. It also becomes apparent that Gaunt isn't quite human, he's more likely a demon in human form, and what he's doing is procuring the souls of the townsfolk.
So once again we have a compelling story with an excellent villain. I really liked Leland Gaunt and as I turned to the climactic scene I wondered how, how, could this be resolved when the sheriff is nothing more than an ordinary man?
Why, just do a card trick!
That's right, do a card trick, and for no apparent reason a ball of blue light will rise from the cards, release all the souls, and chase the demon man away. Of course.
So I was left feeling empty again. Great all the way through until a very fluffy cop-out of an ending
The turning point
From that point on, things were touch and go beween me and Mr. King. I liked Gerald's Game, which was reminiscent of Misery, and the next few books after that I thought were fine, but overly long. The Green Mile was excellent, perhaps because he wrote it as a series of small books, so he had to stay concise. Then came Desperation, which was the first book I couldn't finish. I just didn't care. Same with The Regulators. I got them as a two volume set that came with a book light. I loved the book light, couldn't get into either book.
Then things got worse. I loved the Dark Tower books, and as you recall, III ended in a cliff hanger. So I was dying for IV. But when The Dark Tower IV: Wizard and Glass came out, 6 years later, it didn't provide the resolution to that nail-biting cliff hanger ending. No, this book was a story taken out of chronological order, and it features Roland the Gunslinger telling his friends a story from his past around a campfire. Ultimately this story doesn't affect anything about the series, and in my opinion, it was a complete waste of time. Some have said it's their favorite book in the series, but I've had plenty of people share my opinion as well. And I can tell you this - in my 14 years working at a used book store we had a hard time keeping the Dark Tower books in stock. Except for that one.
After that book, I started getting choosey. My family used to automatically buy the new King book(s) for me every year for Christmas and my birthday. I told them not to bother. I still hadn't been able to force myself to read two of them, and the last Dark Tower book actually made me angry. No, get me the new Joe R. Lansdale book, or a hardcover Sandman graphic novel, or any of these things, but don't put any other King in my house unless I ask for it, and I probably won't.
It was a good call. Those hardcovers are pricey, and now even the paperbacks will cost you $10, and more often than not I've taken a pass on them. I've enjoyed a few, while others, like Cell, seemed promising but dragged on and on until I flipped to the last chapter to see if the ending was going to be what I thought it was, and was, then I tossed it aside unfinished. The shark has remained jumped.
About the Creator
Gene Lass has been a writer for more than 25 years writing and editing numerous non-fiction books including the Senior Dummies line of books and five books of poetry. His short story, “Fence Sitter” was nominated for Best of the Net 2020.