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