In honor of Steve’s National Medal of Arts Award, I want to give a high five to the writer who has been the most influential to my writing style. There are plenty of people who turn their nose up at King for being a hack, but my attitude is that most of those people can go *#$@ themselves, and my argument is that a lot of writers that we consider highly influential today, were considered beneath the notice of the literati, during their lifetimes.
In other words, literary snobs were almost always wrong about the endurance and influence of certain popular writers, so yeah! they’re also wrong about King who, through scaring the shit out of me, taught me exactly what is it that I’m really scared of. By approaching subjects the rest of us can’t imagine, he taught me how to manage my own, real life, fears.
Until Salem’s Lot, I’d mostly been exposed to old school vampires, flapping around dusty castles and wearing capes. They were rarely scary and sometimes even funny. By bringing this old school monster into the modern age, he outlined one of the biggest problems humans have when they manage their fear just a little too well.
This is also one of the issues that’s been vaguely outlined in the television series The Strain. Humanity no longer fears old school, supernatural monsters. We’ve scienced them all away. Movies and books, like The Strain, Salem’s Lot and They Thirst by Robert McCammon, teach us that when you think you know everything, you leave yourself vulnerable to the inexplicable. The monsters in these novels are able to triumph because no one believes they exist and characters continue to deny their existence, even when presented with proof. Those characters who believe the evidence of their senses are usually the ones who prevail against their enemy. Those who are willing to believe are capable of fighting back. Those who deny reality, die.
I don’t believe in monsters but Kings books have taught me to trust the evidence of my senses. Whether whatever I see is real or not is not the point. I should always react as if it were. I need to trust that I know what I’m experiencing.
Even when I was too young to understand the blurbs on the back of the book, I was still fascinated by its cover. Eventually the time came when I figured I was old enough to tackle it and I was hooked on literary vampires ever since.
Vampires taking over a small town, during the modern age, and the plucky heroes who fail to stop them, was pretty horrifying, and so cemented the definition, in my mind, that true horror is the complete upheaval of the status-quo by the inexplicable, and of ordinary people trying to set it right again. It’s a thread I’ve noticed throughout all of Kings fiction.
Carrie was the book that had the greatest influence on me. More than Salem’s lot. I think it was because I was just the right age to appreciate it. I was in High School at the time. I forget what age I was, but it did wonders to clarify my approach towards school, and my philosophy about life.
There’s a quote from the book:
“High school isn’t a very important place. When you’re going you think it’s a big deal, but when it’s over nobody really thinks it was great unless they’re beered up.”
Although I didn’t know it at the time, it’s really just another way of stating the Buddhist philosophy of the impermanence of all things. There is no problem that lasts forever, and on my worse days of High School I would take great care to remember this phrase.
There’s another story King tells within the story, of a young girl who is bullied and beaten down by her classmates because she is very obviously poor. She wears the same clothes everyday, until they are dingy and careworn. One day she comes to school in a new outfit. There’s a pep in her step, and she’s feeling good, but after time, the other students realize its just the one outfit. She wears it everyday, and the bullying continues as if it had never been interrupted. She tried to break free of the role into which sh’e been cast by them. She tried and failed and after that she never tried again. She let them tell her who and what she was. She gave up.
I was not going to be that girl .I do not allow others to define me or what role I will play. Only I can do that. As a WoC, I have had people trying to tell me, from day one, every day, who and what I am and Carrie gave me the vocabulary to claim that right only for myself.
This was the second book I read by King and it’s on this list because it’s the first horror novel that truly scared the bejeebus out of me. Granted I was only about 11 or so but here’s the thing, I enjoyed reading in my backyard, on warm summer days, ice-cold purple beverage nearby, and this book had me twitching in my little, pink lawn chair.Until that time, I’d not been greatly impressed by ghost stories. To my mind, if something couldn’t physically harm you, it’s not worth being afraid of, and ghosts fit in that category. Steve proved me wrong.
Apparently ghosts can drive the people you love insane, and then they can hurt you. Or worse yet, they can make you hurt the ones you love. I lived in a very protected world, where I was much loved and the idea of people I loved hurting me (and not being able to stop themselves or recognize what they were doing), was a pretty horrifying concept.
The Stand was the first apocalyptic fiction I’d ever read and on the basis of that book, I was hooked on Apocalyptic Fiction, forever. I read it as a teenager and I’m not sure my mind was ready for it, although I’d been practicing on my King reading for several years, and when I was done, I was psychologically devastated, but thoroughly mentally satisfied, in a way that can only be described to another book lover. It was like having a great meal with the all the trimmings. Sure, it was steak and potatoes, but it was the best steak and potatoes ever made. There are exceptionally few authors who have produced that same level of Apocalyptic Fic. (One of them is the very underrated, Robert R. McCammon, and his post apocalyptic novel, Swan Song.)
In a sense, The Stand was written by a somewhat newbie author. King had only been at it for about fifteen or so years, but if you want to see part of his journey to becoming a great writer, then this book is a must read.
The first anthology I ever read by King was Night Shift. You can tell that this is a new author. It’s full of some of the tropes that King would begin to use with devastating effect later in his career but without much of the emotional depth, that would give his later work so much resonance.
And sometimes King just wrote stories that were pants-shittingly scary, like:
The Sun Dog: I have this thing about inanimate objects that move and King writes some of the best ones, so you will notice a theme, I’m guessing. This story struck a particular note with me because the camera that the main character, Kevin, receives for his birthday, is the same kind of camera I got for my fourteenth birthday. It made the same “squidgy little whine”, when it produced its picture. I recognized all the details of the Polaroid camera, where you had to wave the photo around until it developed.
In Kevin’s world his camera kept seemingly taking the same pictures over and over, at first. But later he comes to understand that this camera looks onto a world that is especially inimical to this one, and if he wants to save everyone he knows, he needs to destroy it.
Gray Matter: This is one of King’s earliest stories from the anthology Night Shift.This is a pure monster story, involving some very nasty beer.I don’t drink beer. I think it tastes horrible, so this story was both ironic and horrifying.
Battleground: This short story was filmed for the television anthology Nightmares and Dreamscapes, and starred William Hurt. A weapons manufacturer is sent a very special box, of toy soldiers, by a disgruntled toy maker.
The Mist: Another apocalyptic tale by King. If you’ve seen the movie, then you must know its a very faithful adaption by Frank Darabont, and you’ll also have an idea just how scary is the story it’s based on.
The Raft: I think I mentioned once before, that sentient slime that eats people alive,is just something that does it for me, in the fingernail biting department. This story was filmed for the movie Creepshow II. The film version is very faithful to the story but has more of a “gotcha” ending, and is much more effective.
The Road Virus Heads North; This is another straight up Horror story, involving a moving painting, an unlucky author and a serial killer. Its also been filmed as a short that’s available on Youtube.
1408: I loved this story, which is available in the anthology, Everything’s Eventual. I know there’s a movie out there but I’m trying to ignore it, as it just doesn’t do the written story any kind of justice. 1408 is not about some guy going crazy in a hotel room or haunted by the ghosts of his past. It is something much much different than that.In fact, King takes great pains to explain that the hotel room is not inhabited by ghosts, at all. The room is haunted, just not in any traditional sense of the term. You have to read the story as it defies description.
The Man In The Black Suit: This story was also featured in Everything’s Eventual. I don’t know what exactly it is about this story that scares the bejeebers out of me, as it seems pretty innocuous, when you summarize it. A young boy meets the devil on the bank of a creek, when he goes fishing, one lovely Summer afternoon.
What has Stephen King’s books done for you? Which stories really captured you? Made you cry? Made you stay up late with all the lights on? Let me know in the comments.