‘Billy Summers’? Yes, I’ll probably get around to reading it

A few of you have emailed to ask if I’ve yet read Stephen King’s latest novel, Billy Summers.

The short answer is: not yet.

Here’s the longer answer. I was a rabid Stephen King fan in the mid-1980s. I mean: rabid to the point where I spent a year (1984-5) devouring everything he’d written to that time, and reading virtually nothing else.

Then I read It in 1986, and I noticed a change in his narrative style. Let me explain.

King’s early novels—‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, Carrie, Christine, The Dead Zone—are all written with a disciplined narrative style, and fast pacing. His first short story collection, Night Shift, includes some of the best short genre fiction ever written. Read “The Lawnmower Man”, “The Mangler”, or “Trucks”. There is not a single wasted word in any of these stories.

Then around It, King shifted to a much more verbose, more meandering style. I remember thinking at the time that It was about three hundred pages too long. That was probably me being generous. It was more live five hundred pages too long.

I have since struggled to finish some of Stephen King’s more recent books: 11/22/63, Doctor Sleep, The Outsider. I was unable to finish Under the Dome, Cell, Dreamcatcher, or Lisey’s Story.

Right now, I’m midway through his 2020 novella collection, If It Bleeds. I won’t lie: I’m struggling with this one, too.

No matter what I think, Stephen King is still one of the most commercially successful writers in history. That means something.

A writer can sometimes catch a wave simply because a particular editor or publishing company really likes his or her work. Garth Risk Hallberg’s debut novel, City on Fire, was published to great acclaim in 2015, and at a large price tag for the publisher. But the book received very mixed reviews from critics and readers alike, the consensus being that it was over-written and overly focused on literary navel-gazing. Hallberg hasn’t published much since then.

But that’s one flash in the pan. Stephen King, by contrast, has been commercially successful since 1974. I was in the first grade in 1974. I’m now in my fifties. That puts his long career in perspective.

The simple explanation is that Stephen King’s work has changed since the mid-1980s. He’s acknowledged that himself. I prefer the earlier Stephen King. I know plenty of people who prefer his later stuff.

Moreover, I am no longer the same reader that I was in 1984 or 1986. I was in my teens then; and I’m now creeping toward late middle age. Perhaps Stephen King and I have simply grown apart.

King still pleasantly surprises me once in a while. I did like Joyland, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, and Mr. Mercedes. I enjoyed all of the stories in Everything’s Eventual, and at least half of the stories in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams. I also found Full Dark, No Stars to be quite entertaining.

So I am by no means “done” with Stephen King. The early reviews for Billy Summers are strong, and I’m intrigued by the book’s premise: a troubled Iraq War veteran turned hitman, carrying out one final assassination.

I’ll almost certainly get around to reading Billy Summers…eventually. But right now, there are just too many other titles on my TBR list.