It should seem kind of strange to some people that I’d be starting off talking about one of the biggest names in popular literature. The man who had once described his books as the equivalent of McDonald’s, the man who has written more than 60 books and who continues to scare the metaphorical crap out of everyone enters into the bookish conversation circuit with a sort of mixed fanfare. There are those who love him (literally millions of those who love him), but those who hate the man will decry their hatred with pure 180-proof venom.
Or does anyone not remember the way Harold Bloom went off when the King of Horror received a special medal at the National Book Awards?
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I am of course talking about Stephen King, the talent behind such works as Carrie, The Stand, Mr. Mercedes and The Dark Tower. With award-winning movies based on his work and a fanbase that most tenured professors would die for, Ole King is a force to be reckoned with. And with several of his books nearing ever closer to the 1,000-page mark (and a couple even surpassing that) King will give a few forests a run for their money as well.
I’m sitting off to myself as I write this, holed up in the corner down at the Central Library (a part of the Chesterfield County Public Library system); I’ve been inching ever closer to the end of the massive book known as It. We all know what It is—we saw the miniseries from 1990, and we remember the way that Tim Curry both lulled and repelled us with his eerie performance. And of course 2017 and 2019 brought us the new films adapted from the book; some new young hotshot actor by the name of Bill Skarsgård took on the mantle and wore the blood-on-white face paint. I started reading the book two weeks ago, and I’m still just over the halfway mark—one of the things It is famous for is its sheer size: the novel stands at 1,200 pages of pure heft. Adding to the mix are all the weird little diverting trails the book takes, the backstories and the meandering character arcs that made you really care for Eddie and Bev, Ben and Ritchie, and especially Stuttering Bill. It’s a long ride, and for a horror novel It’s a slow burn, but here’s the thing: I can’t bring myself to put It down.
Stephen King is a writer I’ve been reading since before I could remember. I was reading King in middle school; I used to get in trouble in my senior English class because I would read The Dead Zone instead of 1984. I wrote college papers on the Bachman books; I’d give paperback copies of ’Salem’s Lot to members of my dad’s church (yes, I am a pastor’s son). Yes, I became somewhat evangelical for the cause—I was performing a one-man revival for the sake of the King Cause (and no, this is not meant to be taken as sacrilege; I am merely using hyperbolic analogies in order to illustrate just how into this guy’s writing I was).
In a way Stephen King was my favorite author for a time. I loved other writers with a similar intensity—Ray Bradbury and Daniel Keyes were two writers who made me want to become a writer back in middle school, and for that alone they remain cherished friends. But It was King who gave me one solid read after another, whose books nearly always required me to finish them (even when they were bad, and Dreamcatcher is just one overly bloated example of a bad one). With so many books carrying the ole SK moniker to choose from, how could I go wrong in picking him up? The odds were ever in my favor; for the longest time I remained a devoted constant reader.
What was it about King that drove me to devouring him, book by book and page by precious page? It couldn’t be the genre with which he’s most often associated—horror in both film and literature is a hit-or-miss for me, and I find myself taking a ‘take it or leave it’ attitude with the likes of Clive Barker and Ramsey Campbell. I’ve yet to even read John Saul, and the novels of Shirley Jackson are (too my own shock and awe) still moldering away in my ‘to be read’ pile. Plus there are plenty of King books which aren’t strictly horror; that is to say books such as Joyland, The Colorado Kid and even the Bill Hodges books are in a whole other genre completely. The same goes for the books in the Dark Tower series—those are the work of epic fantasy, a sort of Tolkienesque world filtered through the lens of those ‘Man With No Name’ movies starring Clint Eastwood. That’s something even my dad will want to get into.
And maybe that’s what made me love his books: that sheer accessibility that comes from the everyman quality of his stories. The clear-cut, no-holds-barred approach to drawing us into the terror, not with clever plots that aren’t really clever but with characters who talk and act like people you would want to talk to. I mean, just read Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, and then come back and tell me you don’t want to become the best friend of Andy Dufresne. If you can honestly tell me you don’t root for that guy from beginning to bloody end…well, then you’re just a booger, and a stint in Shawshank prison would be too good for you.
I fell away from King for a while; my last years in college pulled me this way and that, and then after I graduated I found that the weary ways of the world had brought me down into some truly devastating depths of mind and spirit. It wasn’t till I sat down and rewatched those new It movies—the ones with that punk kid named Bill donning the Dancing Clown makeup—that I began to remember that I once had a friend who helped to codify all the weird things that made my head spin from one too many bad dreams. I picked up the novel on which those new movies are based (the most recently published Scribner hardcover edition; the one with the all-white cover and the monstrous smile etched in bloody red) and I sat down to read. I’ve been reading ever since, and I feel just fine even though I have trouble going back to sleep now and then.
I may come back and talk about Stephen King now and again, but for now I tip my hat to the man who helped to reignite my love for reading. When a man can make you go back to your first love of books, and tell you about the things that go bump in the night while doing it, then that man is a true friend to have. Sure he may scare the crap out of you every now and again, but hey, that’s just the price you have to pay sometimes.
After all, you’ll do anything to be able to face your fears…won’t you?