No other author has influenced me more, made me fall in love with reading more, made me want to be a writer more, than the great Stephen King. I’ve been reading his work since I was an impressionable eleven-year-old in fifth grade, and here I am, twenty years later, still avidly collecting his newest works and re-reading his classics for pleasure. Recently I read The Dead Zone again for the first time since high school and got so swept up in it from page one on, I decided I would try to re-read all of his older books I haven’t read in years. Some of his plots are predictable. A few of his ticks can be annoying (the parentheses with thoughts in italics are starting to get a bit old right now). But in a world of uncertainties and anxieties, I can always count on King to spin me a worthwhile yarn.
Somehow a paperback copy of Carrie ended up in my hands about halfway through fifth grade. How it got there, I don’t remember. I asked my parents recently if it was their idea to have me read one of his books, and they couldn’t remember, which makes me think I probably read about King in a magazine or something and asked my mom for one of his books. For any young reader, Carrie is probably the best one to start with. Not only is it his first published novel, but it’s also one of his shortest, at about 200 pages.
One of my earliest memories involving the work of King is getting up in front of my fifth grade class and delivering a book report about Carrie where I discussed Carrie’s menstrual cycle and also how her mother Margaret gave birth at home and had to cut the umbilical cord herself. When I finished, Mrs. Frodahl pulled me aside and told me how inappropriate the book choice had been, that there were young fourth graders in our fourth/fifth combo class, and that I needed to screen my titles for upcoming book reports to her from then on. An adult figure who I respected told me no about Stephen King, so naturally, that no made me want to read even more.
The other King title I read in fifth grade was ‘Salem’s Lot, and I still, like my Carrie paperback, still have it at the back of my bedroom bookshelf. The book’s cover is about to fall off, with crinkled pages throughout, and an amazing homemade bookmark I made with ’95 Windows that has lasted twenty-three years. I remember getting in trouble for reading this book, too, this time from the math teacher our class met with one or two times a week. She caught me reading it and said that was inappropriate for a child my age.
So… yep, once again, I sought out more of his books. In 1996 I read each installment as they were published of his newest novel, The Green Mile, and I bought a used copy of The Stand at a garage sale, which scared me a bit with its 1100 pages — it took me until 2010 to finally break open this fantastic book and read it from beginning to end.
For my twelfth birthday I received one of my favorite presents ever — a membership in the Stephen King book club. If my parents hadn’t signed me up for this, I often wonder if I would be as big of a mega-fan of King’s today. From 1996 to 2002 or 2003, I received in the mail at the beginning of every month a Stephen King hardback, sometimes his latest bestseller, often his classics. In middle school and high school I poured through each book I received, speeding through Cujo one month, testing out the fantasy genre with The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger in another, falling in love with Misery over and over again. In these six prime years of my life, when I was writing stories practically every day and always looking forward to English more than math and science, King felt like a close friend of mine, there for me when I needed him. I read books by other authors for pleasure at this time — the Harry Potter series of course, as well as books by Dean Koontz, John Saul, and Robert McCammon. But I always read King more than anyone else, and when I left for college in 2003, most of the books I took with me were the King classics.
My membership in the King book club changed a little once I received his last older hardback title. The heads of the organization could have just continued sending me old King books I already owned and neither me nor my parents probably would have noticed or cared, but one month, after I had left for film school in L.A., the books stopped coming. I remember asking my mom on the phone one Sunday if anything had arrived that month, and she said there hadn’t been anything from the book club in some time. I had been hoping they’d send the last three novels in King’s Dark Tower series, and when my mom said she hadn’t ever canceled the membership, I held out some hope.
Finally, book five, The Wolves of the Calla, arrived on my parents’ doorstep over one of the holiday breaks, and I realized what the book club consisted of now — they were only going to send me King’s new books, as long as he continued to churn them out. Over the next five years I received Duma Key, Lisey’s Story, Cell. And then in 2007, the year I graduated, the unthinkable happened: my mother told me she had canceled the membership. “Why would you do that?” I said. “He’s still alive! He’s still writing books!” She said now that I didn’t live at home anymore, I needed to buy his books myself.
And buy them I still do. King had a phase in the 2000s where many of his titles disappointed, but his creativity and talent has shone through in the last seven years with a handful of great books that I love. While nothing he writes these days has bested his work from the ’70s and ’80s, and although his semi-sequel to The Shining, Doctor Sleep, left me a little cold, I’ve been a fan of a few of his new, notable works. His 2008 short story collection Just After Sunset is fantastic, with one particular horror story set in a rest stop that has stuck with me for years. Under the Dome has its flaws, but I found it a great return to the big novel form for King, who for at least ten years had put his efforts into slimmer novels. Full Dark, No Stars, is lean and mean King, with a story about rape and revenge that is especially good. Joyland was a blast, and I admired his rare use of the present tense in the Bill Hodges trilogy. The man’s in his seventies and he’s still cranking out two a year. I honestly can’t imagine the day Mr. King dies. It will hurt, I know it will, but thank God his canon is so large that I will continue to discover both his new and old titles for many years to come.
I’ve read at least seventy to eighty percent of his books, so which have them have stayed important to me over the years, and which ones do I keep nearby as I continue to work on my own fiction? Of course Carrie will always be one of the essential Kings for me, not just because it’s the first one I read, but because its themes of bullying and depictions of a social outcast have played major roles in my work as a writer. It’s also one of the few King titles — The Long Walk could be considered another — that can be considered a young adult novel.
Another big one is The Shining, which I’ve read three times and which is my go-to for studying how horror fiction should read. When I re-read it again in 2014 for my annotated bibliography for my MA thesis, I paid close attention to how five-year-old Danny was depicted, and it’s pure genius how well he was able to write third person limited for a child character in such an ambitious novel that blends horror with literary writing.
Misery would have to be my third favorite King, mainly because the story is so damn good, and Annie Wilkes is one of the most original literary creations I’ve come across in twentieth century fiction.
Of his recent works, 11/22/63, a tome of a novel about an English teacher who travels back in time to stop the Kennedy assassination, is the best, with a fascinating storyline and an endlessly propulsive narrative.
And of couse there’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, which I try to read once a year, and which always helps me in my writing.
I’ve been reading the work of Stephen King for more than half of my life, and I look forward to many more decades loving the hell out of everything he does. New books, old books, I don’t care. To me, he’s the great storyteller of them all, and I will never tire of him. Now excuse me — The Dark Half is cracked open on my nightstand, and it’s calling my name…