Why Stephen King's Review of ALL THE SINNERS BLEED by S. A. Cosby for the NYT Made My Day
Stephen King reviewed, ALL THE SINNERS BLEED by S. A. Cosby for the New York Times and I was not expecting it to mean so much to me. But first, a big “Happy Birthday!” to Cosby. The book is out today and you should buy it. I’m a huge fan. I loved BLACKTOP WASTELAND and RAZORBLADE TEARS.
I also loved Cosby’s story, THE GREEN EYED MONSTER in SOUND & FURY: Shakespeare Goes Punk a dieselpunk adaptation of Othello and it’s brilliant.
Back to King’s review. You can read it here: In This Thriller, the Psycho Killers Have a Southern Drawl
The fact that our MVP of Horror fiction, our star player, Stephen King reviewed this book for the NYT is iconic because Horror fiction people always show up for Cosby and it made my heart happy to see King double reinforce this relationship. When Razorblade Tears was released, my Horror fiction, monthly subscription company, Night Worms that I co-own with my friend Ashley, included it in our package that month and we were mildly concerned that some of our customers would balk at the crossover. But nobody did. Nobody even batted an eye. Horror people love Cosby.
But this isn’t the main reason why King’s review made my day, it’s just an added bonus. I have big feels because I critically reviewed a book at the end of last month and I was worried that maybe I shouldn’t have said everything I said. I believe in honest, truthful reviews but I was concerned about being too honest.
In my review, I spent some time discussing telling vs. showing. The book is set in an “idyllic, picturesque, small town” but I only know this because I’m told. I never see it. It deeply impacted my enjoyment of the novel. In King’s review of Cosby’s book, he writes,
“So: a well-told novel of crime and detection. There are plenty of them on the market. What sets this one apart, what gives it both grit and texture, is its unerring depiction of small-town rural life and the uneasy (and sometimes violent) interactions between Charon’s white and Black citizens. Sheriff Crown finds himself in that gray area between, with a foot in both worlds. The novel gets mighty down-home Southern gothic in places — gay men passing for straight, the illegitimate child of an interracial relationship, backwoods snake-handling Jesus-shouters — but Cosby keeps his eye on the story and the pedal to the metal. He stays firmly focused on Titus, and on the town of Charon itself. For me, the reality of the locale and the people who live there lifted this story up and made it sing.”
What King is describing here is what readers are looking for. Let me highlight it:
”The reality of the locale and the people who live there lifted this story and made it sing.”
If authors want their readers to understand how recent criminal behavior is shaking a small town to its core, we need to SEE the small town and the people who live there. If your investigation is exposing evil in the form of hatred, racism, homophobia, or classism, the author needs to show it. SHOW ME. Peel back the layers. Spend time setting it up. Introduce me to a bunch of townspeople. Let me hear them talking in coffee shops or while they get their hair cut. Drive me down the streets. Describe the houses. Take me there.
After King spends time talking about what he enjoyed about the book (especially how the devil is in the details) King writes,
“It’s a far better novel than Cosby’s earlier books; his confidence as a writer has increased as he climbs the learning curve of his trade. But it’s still rough in places. Metaphors like a “secret … hanging over his head like a dull sword of Damocles” sometimes clunk. Sometimes they clank: “Memories, charged like electrons, ran along the phone line like nerve impulses.” Sometimes, though, he nails it. “Get sick, get broke or lose your only son,” one woman tells Titus, “your faith will run out of town faster than a deadbeat daddy.”
King shines a spotlight on metaphors.
This reader doesn’t love too many metaphors in one book and this is for the same reason King points out. “Metaphors sometimes clunk. Sometimes they clank.” The only author (for me) that fills their books with metaphors and gets away with it is Nick Cutter. But for the most part, I caution authors to use them sparingly. Metaphors, when used sparingly and appropriately, a really well-crafted one, can be like a nugget of gold in a setting of silver, but overuse them or drop in some real clunkers and it’s just not good. It’s like Stephen King pointing them out in the NYT ‘not good’. And I’m glad he did it. It sets a fucking standard. Because King is a writer. A good one. And if he glossed over things that pulled him out of the story (he mentions a specific thing that he wasn’t “crazy about”) or if this was a puff piece, what good is it to have King review a book?
He told the truth. He was honest about his reading experience. And the fact that he chose to review Cosby’s book at all tells us everything we really need to know which is, King is a fan. He liked the book and he wants people to buy it and try it for themselves. These details that didn’t work for him do not shoo me away from buying the book. In fact, I’m more eager to get my hands on it. So let this be a lesson to us to be more critical of the books we’re reading. We should cultivate a culture of sincerity, genuineness, honesty, and truthfulness in the way we respond to books. This is how readers feel supported in their feelings. If all they see is positive commentary, it won’t ring true to them and they will shy away from reviewing or expressing a contrary opinion for fear of being wrong, or worse…called out.
It also doesn’t promote growth for authors. If everyone is afraid to speak the truth, how will anyone grow? King said it in the paragraph I highlighted, “his confidence as a writer has increased as he climbs the learning curve of his trade” The only way this will happen is if people are honest in their feedback. And if the author’s editors, edit. And isn’t that the goal? For other seasoned authors and avid readers (fans even) to point out the growth? “But it’s still rough in places.” King reminds us, there is still room to grow. Nobody has arrived.
And I’m not suggesting authors need to go out and read all their critical reviews. I’m merely suggesting that if an author sees the same criticism or hears it from trusted sources in a respectful way, it would be detrimental to ignore it or excuse it away, or insulates oneself in positive, glowing reviews in order to shut out the voices that sting a little.
Anyhoodles. King strengthened my resolve as a reviewer and I’m grateful. Once again, I am inspired by his example.