A while ago I mentioned in passing that I planned to write a post about my rabid Stephen King fandom. He’s got a new book coming out in April (the 24th, a Tuesday), so I figured now would be a good time for that post, while my booknerd dander’s all up in anticipation (dander? hackles? I think hackles). Furthermore, this new one is in the Dark Tower storysphere, so I’m extra squishy excited about it. If you never read another Stephen King book, at the very very least, read the Dark Tower series. In. Cred. Ible. (I love that breaking-up-words-for-emphasis convention. I love being able to say “Ible” in a sentence. Go to hell, spell check.)
So when I was in sixth grade somebody (probably my sister, she’s a bad/good influence) gave me a copy of The Stand. For which I got sent home from school and my parents got called in to a meeting about my “emotional development.” Keeping in mind that my parents are very bright people, it should come as no surprise that they told the school administrators to get fucked and that an eleven year old who could read and comprehend and enjoy pretty complex adult fiction was the least of their redneck, backwoods, puritanical little concerns. When you’ve got kids in middle school with kids of their own, it blows my mind that these people took the time to gripe about my reading habits. My father, ever the confrontational atheist, made a point to ask them whether my reading level was the problem or the material. Specifically: “If she had a copy of the Bible, would you be throwing this shit fit?” And then we walked out. And went to the bookstore. I honestly don’t know that the principal understood the question. No one down there thinks of the Bible as a book. But that’s a conversation for another time.
I guess that experience meant a lot. Not because the book was hyped up and made taboo, but because it wasn’t. Tell a kid that they can’t do something and they’ll want to do it even more. But tell them that they can keep doing something that they really enjoy and you won’t judge them for it, and they’ll go apeshit crazy. I spent the next couple of years reading mostly Stephen King. I read them all and then suddenly there weren’t any more. Which is torture, isn’t it? You try to find something to fill that hole where your favorite writer goes and nothing quite fits. It’s a square peg situation, and I was too young to have really discerning taste so I went through a wicked horror novel phase during which I would read pretty much anything with ghosts, demons, death, destruction, serial killers, fucking ancient space alien monster gods. Whatever. Did not contribute to my middle school/early high school goth weirdness period at all. Nah. Not even a little. I swear. “Emotional development.” Pfft.
And then Kerouac came along and I went through a Grateful Dead phase and started wearing tie-dye and taking a lot of hallucinogens and Stephen King kind of took a backseat for a minute.
I kept up. I wasn’t a total slacker fan. But let’s face it. He had some weird shit come out in the 90′s. There are three distinct periods to King’s work. The early stuff when he was poor and raising kids and drinking too much. That is the Golden Age (to use a comics analogy that doesn’t quite fit) of Stephen King. Very punk rock. And then he had the middle years when he was sober and his kids were grown and he was kind of bored and it showed. Not that it’s not good writing. Some decent stuff came out of that period, but it all felt like he was ripping off a Stephen King book. Between Insomnia and Hearts in Atlantis, pretty much. And then some drunk asshole hit him with a van and he almost died and his career was invigorated again! Thank the gods for drunk assholes in panel vans. No, not really. I wept when I heard it on the radio because they got a bad report and said that he had died. (It’s called due diligence, people. Give it a try.) My sister had to sit on the floor with me and listen to me babble and cry. Oh, it was awful. But then when they said they fucked up we all did a happy dance. He was risen! Like, um, who was that guy who came back from the dead in the Bible? No, no, the other guy. Shit, I’ll remember it in a minute…
Anyway, everything since then has been awesome. King said after the accident that he wasn’t going to write anymore, that he had three books in a safe deposit box that were finished and he would publish those and complete the Dark Tower series and that would be that. But the books kept coming. The dude’s got an addiction, frankly. Drank too much, did too much coke (that might just be a rumor, I honestly don’t know if it’s true), plays the guitar. These are all things writers do to distract themselves from the fact that writing is their real fix. You don’t have hobbies or habits when you’re a writer, you have procrastination tools. Bonus. Score.
Lazarus! It was Lazarus.
But I guess I should get to the point, hmm? (Sorry, too many procrastination tools. But wine’s so cheap in California.) Why do I love Stephen King? It’s a conversation I’ve had quite a few times, actually. Not foamy fangirl “you’ve gotta gotta read this” kinds of conversations, which is what you’d expect. No, most of my Stephen King discussions are in his defense, oddly. Fucking literature people are snobs, man, for real. In college I had so many folks scoff when I said he’s my favorite. Apparently being a #1 bestselling author forty-something times makes your talent questionable? Who knew? “But it’s so pop,” “But it’s just fluff,” “But he only writes horror,” and so on. Which is exactly the sort of thing that people repeat because it’s what they’ve heard. It’s petty name dropping in reverse, basically. King got too popular and his reputation suffered for it, I guess.
I don’t give a good goddamn how many books you sell. A fine storyteller is a fine storyteller is a fine storyteller in my book (icky pun, sorry). Stephen King’s work falls into what I have dubbed the “weird shit happening to normal people” category. Which is a style that sucks you in with a quickness. Usually I’m hooked by the first chapter or so. In fact, I tend to chop two days out of my schedule when a new one comes out and do nothing else until it’s finished. (Now you all know why I always called out sick on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.) And here’s where the clichés kick in. It’s intricately woven storytelling. He tends to start with a big cast of characters and either whittle it down to a nub of important players, or just make all their stories eventually collide. Excellent worldbuilding. Most of it is horror set in our world, but there’s a big whack of his work that’s fantasy, a few I would call scifi, the occasional supernatural love story. With two distinct personalities and writing styles (he used to write as another author who died of cancer of the pseudonym; occasionally one of his lost manuscripts will “surface”). And that’s just the novels. He’s also a master of the short story, which I think is an even harder form to wrangle with, but he does it well. Another point in his favor, that he can do both. Not a lot of writers like that. And nonfiction! Danse Macabre is one of the best books on the history of horror.
Anyway, I’m just gushing now. I’ll stop. But seriously. Don’t believe all those stuck-up book people who say Stephen King’s no good. Or don’t knock until you’ve tried. Even if you do see his work as just shallow pop fiction (which it’s not), we all occasionally need some junk food for our brains, don’t we? There’s some cheap therapy opportunities there.