Stephen King and me

I’m trying to recall when Stephen King first permeated my consciousness. It had to be the movies. I recall seeing Pet Sematary in high school. It is one of the few movies I’ve seen that I’d characterize as frightening. I’ve always had a problem with horror novels and scary movies because I can’t suspend my disbelief enough to think of it as scary. There are very few stories I’ve read that I’ve thought of as frightening1. There are even fewer movies. But Pet Sematary was one of them.

When I was even younger, perhaps 7th grade, I recall catching glimpses of Christine and Cujo. I remember thinking, really? I psychotic car? Come on! I think I saw bits and pieces of Children of the Corn and of course, Carrie. None of these made much of an impression on me. Indeed the only two movies based on Stephen King fiction to make impressions on me were Stand By Me (based on “The Body”) and The Shawshank Redemption (based on “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”). But even having seen these movies, I still had never read anything by Stephen King.

That changed in the late summer of 2001 when I finally decided to give King a try. I read ‘Salem’s Lot. Indeed, this was the book that I was reading when 9/11 happened. I found that the first two-thirds of the book were exceptional. But when the monsters started to show up in force in the final third, I thought it got silly. I decided that Stephen King wasn’t for me, despite friends who praised his novels to the skies. It was almost exactly three years before I tried King again. This time, I read Needful Things. I can’t recall exactly why that book interested me. I vaguely recall that there had been a movie based on the book that I had seen, but I had little memory of it. Nevertheless, I picked up the book and was hooked. But just like before, while the first two-thirds were excellent, the last third was just too much to believe.

Once I decide that an author’s books don’t work for me, I usually give up on them. There is too much to read in the world to waste time on writers whose work you know you don’t enjoy. The problem for me was that I did enjoy Stephen King’s writing. I just found the last parts of his stories flawed, too silly for me to suspend my disbelief any further. I took a break from King again, this time for almost exactly 5 years. And so it was that almost 8 years to the day that I first read ‘Salem’s Lot, I started reading his nonfiction book, On Writing, which I found utterly charming. It was only the second full book that I read on my Kindle and I thought it was a very good book on writing and on King himself. And I realized that I couldn’t read that book without wanting to read more Stephen King. It was as if I was seeing him through a new light.

I decided that I’d try reading his books in roughly the order they were written. In the space of two month, I devoured Carrie, The Shining, It, Night Shift, Under A Dome, and Different Seasons. I enjoyed all of them. Carrie surprised me because it was so short and I liked the style in which the story was told. It captivated me. Under A Dome was addictive. Different Seasons cemented in my mind what a masterful storyteller Stephen King is. Not many writers can handle both long and short fiction with equal ease. But King can. And more importantly, what I learned was that despite the labels, Stephen King was not a horror writer. More than anything, he was an excellent story-teller, regardless of what the story might be.

I read four more King books before taking a break: The Stand, The Dead Zone, Firestarter, and Pet Sematary. I’d been urged to read The Stand by many friends and while I enjoyed it, I thought it was plagued with the same problems I saw in ‘Salem’s Lot and Needful Things. Not so It. Absolutely loved Stephen King’s It. There was something magical about it. I gave it 4-stars when I read it but it is one of the few books that upon reconsideration, certainly deserved 5-stars. It is my favorite of all of the Stephen King books that I have read thus far.

So you can imagine my surprise and delight to find myself back in Derry last night while I was reading King’s latest novel, 11/22/63. Not only was I back in Derry but some of the characters from It return and in a very cool way with respect to the events in the current novel.

I remember reading several years back that Stephen King had decided to retire. I’m so glad he changed his mind.

  1. Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt” and Harlan Ellison’s “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” are two that I thought were terrifying.


  1. Me, too.

    I saw plenty of movies based on King’s fiction before I ever read any of his work. Based on the movies, I had a not-high opinion of his skills as a writer–I mean he seemed entertaining, but one of the best writers? C’mon!

    I’ve changed my mind. As I have said elsewhere, I don’t usually seek out a lot of horror qua horror, but sometimes it will do. And King is a very good writer to “go to” for horror.

    My favorite might be the short novel “Cycle of the werewolf”

    1. Paul, I think King is at his best when he’s not writing what I think of as “horror.” Carrie was like that to some extent because of the original narrative style. It might be considered horror as a genre, but it really wasn’t. It was at worst, urban fantasy and at best, great coming-of-age American literature. “The Body” was not horror in the traditional sense, nor was “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.” What I can tell of the first 150 pages or so of 11/22/63, that’s not horror either. There may be horrific elements in each of these stories, but unlike The Shining or ‘Salem’s Lot or Pet Sematary, they don’t fit the horror niche that I imagine it and I think it works well for King. The only thing I really haven’t been interested in reading is the whole Gunslinger series. I can’t exactly explain why.

  2. I really enjoyed The Talisman, which you didn’t mention as having read.

    I stopped reading King a few years later, though.

  3. I haven’t read the Gunslinger series, and given its meta-textual nature (I’m starting to sound like John Stevens now!), it might be best to wait to read that until an underpinning of the works touched on by that series is read. At least that’s why I tell *myself*.

  4. There are, I understand, lots of connections of characters and themes from the body of his work that reflect and refract in the Gunslinger universe. I have heard the theory that the Gunslinger books are in a sense a comment on his entire oeuvre.

  5. I think King’s chief talent is the cliff-hanger sentence/paragraph/chapter. The technique is fairly simple – never conclude a scene when first presenting it; never fully reveal a character when introducing them; manage multiple threads that give at least the appearance of coming together sometime later in the narrative.

    That I will give him credit for as he has mastered the technique and anyone who wants to write a breathless page-turner ought to study him. On the other hand – I find most of his work unfrightening and derivative (he himself admits to having read a LOT of SF during the 50s). Many of his SF related themes (Under the Dome being the latest) tries to take an SF trope and mix in some horror, but for me it comes across as hackneyed SF with horror elements that just aren’t scary. Boring, in most cases actually.

    About the only novel of his that I felt had genuine originality was Cujo.

    (For an example of the re-treading, read Christine and Killdozer size by side.)

  6. The Green Mile, might… might be the best book I’ve ever read. If you’ve seen the movie, it’s almost verbatim from the book, but it’s still easily worth the read. Wizards and Glass might be in my top 10 books as well (book 4 of the Dark Tower).

    That’s not to say Mr. King hasn’t written anything poorly… he has written a lot that I feel was a complete waste of my reading time (Gerald’s Game, Tommyknockers), but when he’s on, he’s smoking.

    I think the thing that sets him apart from other writers is his ability to make characters feel really real. He can spend 4 sentences describing a mailman and I’ll totally be saying to myself “OMG, I KNOW that guy.”

  7. I discovered Stephen King by reading ‘It’ during long, long Tube journeys in London. I frequently missed my stop. King is the one writer I always come back to, without fail.

    1. Graham, when I used to take the Metro into work here in the Washington, DC area, I thought one of the highest compliments you could pay an author was telling them, “I was reading your book and missed my stop.” The Tube seems like an eerily perfect place to read the book. (I visited London in 2007 and frequently took the Tube to get where I was going.) Late at night, on an empty car, with a fellow dressed up as a clown sitting on one end and you sitting on the other with your book. Almost like being in the sewers underneath Derry. 😉

  8. For what it’s worth, It might be my favorite popular novel of all time. It was published exactly twenty-five years ago this September, so this might be a good time for me to post a retrospective review of my own…


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