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 The (Stephen) King and I

By now it seems there’s not a whole lot left to say about Stephen King, the world’s bestselling horror writer. In fact, there is one facet that has never been told, namely my own relationship with Mr. King’s fiction.

     Based on the books and films I choose to review on this site, you might deduce that my preference is for the odd and obscure. You’d be correct of course, but before the likes of MALPERTUIS, JEANNE’S JOURNAL or THE BLIND BEAST there was Stephen King.

     Clive Barker once claimed “There are apparently two books in every American household--one of them is the Bible and the other one is probably by Stephen King,” while according to novelist Christopher Ransom, “There are two types of horror writers: those who admit they were influenced by Stephen King to some degree, and those who lie.” I’m inclined to agree with both statements. King is quite possibly the most ubiquitous writer in existence, and I’m guessing there are countless individuals who were irretrievably marked by Stephen King’s fiction--if, that is, they’re willing to admit to it.

     I have no trouble admitting to reading the Man from Maine. As a matter of fact, you might even say I grew up on his writing. It’s familiar enough to me that I was able to pinpoint King’s voice and worldview in the film version of THE GREEN MILE despite never having read the novel. Over the years I’ve definitely had my ups and downs with Mr. King’s work, but his books were largely responsible for instilling my lifelong love of horror.

     Right now Stephen King has just put out his long awaited 1074-plus opus UNDER THE DOME. Having just completed UTD, I don’t agree with those who claim it’s a triumphant return to form for an author who has grown quite erratic in recent years, but do feel it’s one of his best efforts in some time--one of the few, in fact, that I’ve been able to get through.

     It wasn’t like that back in the mid-eighties, when at age 11 I read my first Stephen King book, the collection NIGHT SHIFT. My reasons for doing so were simple: I’d liked the flicks I’d seen based on King’s fiction--THE SHINING, CHRISTINE, THE DEAD ZONE--and so figured I might as well check out the books themselves. I definitely liked what I read in NIGHT SHIFT, notably the stories “Battleground” and “The Lawnmower Man” (which incidentally has NOTHING to do with the movie of the same name), and wanted more.

     Within a few months I tracked down and read all King’s books available at the time. The standouts for me were THE SHINING (even though it’s never quite supplanted the film version in my mind), FIRESTARTER (which most definitely DID supplant the film adapted from it), CUJO, CYCLE OF THE WEREWOLF, PET SEMATARY and the “Apt Pupil” portion of DIFFERENT SEASONS (containing possibly the most chilling final line I’ve ever encountered). SALEM’S LOT, THE STAND and THE DEAD ZONE for whatever reason didn’t appeal as much, but I still read through them enthusiastically, and they didn’t stop me from appreciating King’s engagingly conversational prose, endlessly fertile imagination and considerable descriptive power.

     I continued reading King’s books, from the 1985 omnibus edition of the pseudonymous “Richard Bachman” novels to the mass market debut of the hitherto unavailable DARK TOWER: THE GUNSLINGER to his late eighties excursions into non-horror (the fantasy-based EYES OF THE DRAGON, the suspenseful MISERY and the science fictionish TOMMYKNOCKERS). Along the way I discovered the work of other scary scribes like Ramsey Campbell, Thomas Tessier, Peter Straub and Clive Barker.

     I largely gave up on horror fiction in my teenage years, electing to concentrate on more “serious” literature, but still kept up with Stephen King’s output. It was in those years, alas, that King first went off the rails with me: THE DARK HALF, from 1989, was a non-starter, and the first King novel I was unable to get through. It wouldn’t be the last!

     The nineties were rough years on the Stephen King front (the 1990 appearance of the unexpurgated THE STAND excepted). First there was 1991’s limp SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES knock-off NEEDFUL THINGS, which flat-out stank. Next came GERALD’S GAME, the second King book I was unable to finish. DOLORES CLAIBORNE was solid, but it was followed by INSOMNIA and ROSE MADDER, novels King himself concedes are far from his best work.

     Obviously I’m at odds with critic S.T. Joshi, who claims that King’s early novels are his worst, and that only since GERALD’S GAME has his fiction really come into its own. While I agree that King’s pre-1990s writing was prone to bloat and excess (Joshi’s primary admonitions), it nonetheless had a vigor and inventiveness that are sorely missing from much of what came after 1991.

     But then again, I can’t be entirely certain about that, as I didn’t bother with THE GREEN MILE, DESPERATION, THE GIRL WHO LOVED TOM GORDON (although I did peruse and enjoy the pop-up book version) or BAG OF BONES. Back in 1995, after giving up on the dreadful ROSE MADDER midway through, I elected to take a break from Stephen King.

     That break lasted until the 2000 publication of the memoir ON WRITING. Featuring revealing info on King’s eighties-era substance abuse problems and his horrific 1999 car accident, it’s one of his best works. However, I still kept a cautious distance from King’s subsequent publications, much as one might avoid a former lover (meaning no DREAMCATCHER, BLACK HOUSE, FROM A BUICK 8 or DARK TOWER 5-7).

     In 2006 I happened to read a collection called 20th CENTURY GHOSTS by a writer credited as Joe Hill. The guy’s actual name, as I was soon to discover, was Joe Hillstrom King, he being the son of the ubiquitous Stephen. Perhaps this had some bearing on my return to the latter’s work with 2007’s BLAZE, which I liked. I didn’t get through CELL, LISEY’S STORY or DUMA KEY, although I did make an effort in all three cases.

     Which brings us back to UNDER THE DOME. Given my checkered history with Big Steve, you’ll understand my initial reluctance about attempting to read this WAR AND PEACE-sized tome (I made a point of not requesting a review copy from the publisher). The good news is, I not only got through the book but enjoyed it.

     I’ve also been rereading many of the maestro’s earlier books. The illustrated CYCLE OF THE WEREWOLF, I’ve found, remains just as cool as it did back in the eighties. So does CARRIE (especially in the audio version read by Sissy Spacek). The first DARK TOWER, alas, didn’t resonate nearly as much as it previously did with me, while THE TALISMAN, once my favorite King book of all, seemed pretty stale to these grown-up eyes. I guess it’s inevitable that my reactions are apt to diverge from those of my childhood self, but my disappointment with THE TALISMAN hasn’t stopped me from seeking out Mr. King’s books, old and new.

     Does this mean Stephen King is “back?” Well, obviously he never went anywhere. He’s made several claims in recent years about retiring soon, but that doesn’t appear to be happening. Clearly he’s going to be around for some time, and as long as Stephen King keeps writing I’ll keep on reading--or try to, at least!