Book Review: 'Stephen King is Richard Bachman' by Michael R. Collings


For over twenty-five years, Michael R. Collings has reigned as one of the most prolific and respected critics in the Stephen King field.  A former Associate Professor at Pepperdine University, Collings' earliest works were published through the important small literary press, Starmont House, which specialized in critical looks at speculative fiction.  Between 1985 and 1987, Collings wrote or co-wrote six books on King for Starmont House, including a slim volume titled Stephen King as Richard Bachman.  In early 1985, the literary world at large was abuzz with the news that Stephen King had written five novels under the pen name Richard Bachman; while books such as Discovering Stephen King (edited by Darrel Schweitzer) and Douglas Winter's The Art of Darkness devoted essays and chapters to the phenomenon, Collings was the first to expand his study to a book-length work.

In 1996, King announced that his new novel, Desperation, would be published concurrently with the new Richard Bachman novel, The Regulators.  Collings' book, which discussed Bachman's career as a finite thing, was instantly dated.  If the concept of Richard Bachman was going to be an ongoing concern, a new take on the phenomenon was warranted … including a shift into present tense.  Stephen King as Richard Bachman becomes Stephen King is Richard Bachman.

This overhaul revises and expands Collings' definitive work, critically examining each of the first six Bachman books – Rage, The Long Walk, Roadwork, The Running Man, Thinner, and The Regulators – and placing them in context with King's larger career.  Collings argues that Richard Bachman's work functions as parallel to King's, but is also helplessly inextricable from it.  The recurring themes and motifs that define Bachman books – isolated main characters, explicit sexuality, and a "countdown" structure, among them – crop up in work under King's name, albeit less prominently.  While it's easy to find common ground in the twin novels Desperation and The Regulators, Collings also compares and contrasts Rage and Carrie (high school novels featuring outsider types and sudden, fatal violence), and looks at how a book like Cujo feels more Bachman than King – "assert[ing] the actuality of horror among the commonplace."  Thinner, Collings argues, bridges the gap between Bachman's style and King's style, reveling in King's beloved brand names and asserting itself as a horror novel at the outset.

The biggest change here is a chapter devoted to The Regulators, the novel that brought Richard Bachman back from the dead.  Collings examines it and Desperation together; bringing new light to his arguments about King's and Bachman's intertwined careers:

"differences between The Regulators and Desperation far surpass similarities … The books begin to work less as evidence for some kind of King/Bachman dialogue and more as suggestions of two vastly different approaches to storytelling."

Collings, well-versed in literary history, further puts these two books in a historical context, comparing their simultaneous publication to that of the poet John Milton's "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso," two 1645 pieces that, like Desperation and The Regulators, are constant literary companions.  It's kind of amazing how these dissertations on seventeenth century poetry not only make sense in this discussion of 1990s genre novels (especially when you consider that the poems are "light" and "dark" versions of one another), but also how approachable Collings makes them for "regular" readers.  Where some scholarly discussions of King can get lost in academia, Collings never loses sight of his subject or his audience.

There are a few quibbles.  A chapter on King's The Dark Half would have made sense, particularly since King originally intended it as a collaboration between he and Bachman – sort of a spiritual meta-text predecessor to the Desperation/Regulators experiment.  The book was completed before King chose to publish Blaze as a Bachman novel, so there's obviously nothing on that book in here, which is a shame.  Collings has since written on Blaze elsewhere, so there's hope that he will expand this title in the future.  

Though Collings' writing is the clear reason to own Stephen King is Richard Bachman, it's also a major step forward aesthetically from the Starmont House title from which it was borne.  While the Starmont books represented some of the best critical thought on genre subjects – treating them seriously where they were forgotten or dismissed by the mainstream media – Starmont was a very small press and was forced to make some concessions.  The pages were typewritten and photocopied, with emphasized words indicated by underline, not italics.  Though these books were quality products, unfortunately they felt more like bound term papers than serious critical study.  The Overlook Connection Press design of Stephen King is Richard Bachman is fantastic, with a pleasing typeface, a new cover designed by Erik Wilson, black and white illustrations throughout, and several color plates added by hand.  A deluxe limited also includes an embossed slipcase, a bound-in silk ribbon, and unique endpapers.

Stephen King is Richard Bachman is such a necessary and obvious book on King's pseudonym that it's a little strange that no other authors have chosen to write on him.  It's lucky, then, that the sole book devoted to the subject is so well-written.  Readers familiar with Collings' earlier Starmont House book will be pleased by the expansion and updates (not to mention the look of this new book).  Those new to this book, or Collings' work in general, are in for a treat.  A scholarly work that's not only illuminating but fun to read, Stephen King is Richard Bachman belongs in any King fan's library.