As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I bloody love Stephen King. Not just his novels and (most of) the film adaptations of his books and short stories, but his mentality and his philosophy. I don’t even know where to start on this post but I figured I’d talk about my own journey with King and include bits about the man himself. So let’s start at the very beginning (it’s a very good place to start)…
Stephen King was born on September 21st 1947 in Portland Maine. An avid reader from a young age and already busy writing stories, King claims that while rummaging through boxes in the attic with his brother he found a book by H.P. Lovecraft and realised what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. I watched a documentary about King in which people from his childhood talked about how they remembered him as a teenager always walking around with a paperback book in the back pocket of his jeans. Now remember, that would have been in the late 1950s, early 1960s – just how cool of an image is that?
Like many writers, King got started by having his short stories published in magazines, many of which were later released in collections after King had made a name for himself. My first encounter with the great man’s work was a full length novel, although his short stories and novellas are equally brilliant..
As I mentioned in a previous post on this blog, Misery was the first book by Stephen King that I ever read; I picked it up at my grandpa’s house and he insisted that I read it, despite the fact that I was only around 10 or 11 years old. So I took it home and started to read it. Then I read it during break and lunch at school, and during lessons if I got bored (which was often). I had read scary books before, but that was ‘child’ scary, not real-world, grown-up scary. None of the books I’d ever read had featured a man having his foot cut off with an axe and then crudely cauterised by a deranged nurse – well, none that I can remember, anyway.
Written in 1985, Misery was King’s 21st full length novel and 27th publication overall. By this point, he had covered topics like apocalyptic futures, supernatural beings and superhuman powers, but Misery was a straight-up story about a woman who was just plain cuckoo.
This was a new experience for me. I’d seen a couple of scary films at sleepovers, but always looked away at the gruesome bits; that’s the beauty of horror novels – you have no choice but to read right through those grisly parts. And despite being squeamish with gory stuff, I really enjoyed the violence in this book, because there isn’t much of it. At that famous scene (which in the film involves a mallet rather than an axe) my eyes, to paraphrase Hans Christian Anderson, became as big as windmills as I read it. How could something bad be happening to the main character like this? Something that means even a happy resolution to the story doesn’t guarantee a happy life for the protagonist once we part ways with them. In his seminal work on the craft of writing, entitled On Writing, King imparts a great deal of wisdom to budding writers, and a great quote from that book is this:
…kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.
I’m no prolific writer (YET, PEOPLE, YET – YOU’LL SEE, THEY’LL ALL SEE!) but one thing I’m damn sure of is that I love it when a story doesn’t have an altogether happy ending. Because life doesn’t happen that way. Recently, my grandmother passed away after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. I’m not religious or particularly spiritual, but I do wonder why things like debilitating illnesses happen to people who have done nothing wrong in their life except for work hard and love the people around them. But that’s life, isn’t it? We come to love our darlings and then our darlings die, and we’re left behind – as the family or as the reader.
So what do you do when you’re totally taken by something? You immerse yourself in it. But although these days it’s easy to become an “expert” or something in the time it takes to type a few words into Google, when I was 11 we weren’t quite there yet. But I got lucky! In a Saturday newspaper, I read a review for King’s latest book, Dreamcatcher, and decided that the next time I went shopping with my parents or friends, I’d save enough money to go and buy that book. Imagine my annoyance, then, when I get to the counter at Waterstones and have the bookseller tell me that he can’t really sell this book to a 12 year old girl. He was right to do so, but at the time I was embarrassed so I just slunk back to the fiction section and put the book back. I started browsing through King’s other books, and found one named Different Seasons which I was allowed to buy. It was an unusual one for me; Different Seasons is a collection of novellas, which are stories that are longer than short stories but not quite long enough to be considered a novel. Three out of the four stories in this collection have since been made into brilliant films – ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ was based on Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, ‘Stand By Me’ came from The Body, and Apt Pupil was made into a film of the same name. The final story, The Breathing Method – about a woman who is decapitated as she goes into labour – is the only one to not be adapted. If you’ve read/seen any of these stories you’ll have realised just what a brilliant storyteller King is. If you’ve read/seen Apt Pupil, you’ll realise that I also probably shouldn’t have been reading that at the age of 12, but I guess Mr Bookseller hadn’t read it and so couldn’t judge – yay for me!
From A Buick 8
This was the next book of King’s that I read. Now, as Misery was the first and as I’ve remarked I’ve made elsewhere on this blog, I was drawn to King’s books by the horror aspect, but the next two books I had read since Misery couldn’t really be considered as horror. Different Seasons was focused on drama, and From A Buick 8 was more of a supernatural sci-fi deal. King had previously written about a car with supernatural powers in Christine, where the car has a violent hold over its owner as well as a mind of its own. From A Buick 8 is the story of a mysterious car which was impounded by the police department after it is abandoned at a garage, told through a series of recollections by those who encountered it. Following the death of his father, Ned Wilcox starts to spend time at his late dad’s workplace with his old colleagues, at the police barracks where the Buick 8’s story takes place.
Over the course of the book, Ned hears stories of how the car that is left behind by its owner turns out to be something much more; it has all the exterior appearance of a Buick but nothing inside actually works and it has the power to ‘heal’ itself from dents and protect itself from dirt. Later, the officers realise that the car may well be a portal to another dimension, and when people start to go missing in the vicinity of the car their suspicions are confirmed. The book was inspired by an incident when King almost fell into a stream where he would not have been discovered for a long time; he was also in a near-fatal car accident in 1999 which he has inspired his other work, although he claims that he did not change any of the details in this book to reflect his experience.
Reviews of From A Buick 8 included references to Lovecraft, and like the Stephen King fan-girl I was steadily becoming, I went right out and got a book from the library of Lovecraft’s short stories and found them to be much harder going than King’s easy-to-digest style but just as satisfying. Still, I was missing the horror edge that I’d loved in Misery…
Arguably one of King’s most famous works, The Shining is a psychological and supernatural thriller that differs in many ways from the film. We all know the classic scenes from Stanley Kubrick’s film, which King was reportedly unhappy with due to the large number of changes that Kubrick made to the characters and plot.
Much has been made of King’s personal life and how it is reflected in his writing; many of his protagonists are writers, have absentee fathers of strained family relationships , and/or struggle with alcoholism. Jack Torrance seemingly represents King, and in the novel he is more likeable than Jack Nicholson’s representation in the film. Many of the film’s iconic scenes are original conceptions, separate from the book – The typewriter scene, the “Here’s Johnny!” line and the final scene in the maze; likewise, many scenes from the book do not occur in the film. One of my favourite parts of the book is a scene with Jack and the topiary creatures which come to life and stalk him on the hotel grounds – this is adapted in the film to create the maze where the climactic scenes take place.
I really love the film and the book separately, and I think that they should be considered as only loosely connected, because the character’s, events, and even the plot resolutions are too different to call the film an adaptation of the novel.
Here’s the big one. I reckon it’s the reason why so many people are scared of clowns. IT is probably the longest book I’ve ever read, and also one of the damn creepiest. The novel starts with six friends being called back to their home town by the only member of their childhood gang who did not leave Derry, with news that the monster that terrorised them as children has returned. The narrative alternates between their 1950s childhood experiences with IT and their return to Derry in the 1980s as adults to fight it when they hear that it has returned. At 1138 pages, IT is more of a long haul journey than a thrill-ride, but one that is totally worth it – the horror staples are all there, as are the classic Stephen King traits. Here, a group of misfit children are united by their experience of a mysterious being who takes the form of their biggest fears – werewolves, drain-dwelling clowns, and vampires to name a few.
There are some truly scary moments, both in the childhood timeline and the adult timeline; when Bev goes back to her childhood home, the setting warps around her and it was genuinely one of the creepiest things I’ve ever read. Most people are probably familiar with the film adaptation, featuring a terrifying performance from Tim Curry as Pennywise the Clown, the most common manifestation of the IT. I can’t not include a picture of him. I have to do it.
I think the key element in King’s books that I love is his ability to create wholly rounded characters that you come to care about. These people are complex human beings, not just one dimensional characters who embody one element to serve a purpose in the story; even if someone appears in only one scene, King always hints at a whole life, a whole potential other novel living in this one character. In IT, King builds a whole town with an array of characters, although the focus lies mainly on the children in their ‘Losers Club’. However, King has developed a reputation for being self-referential, and in many of his books there is a reference to a place or a character who has appeared in one of his other works. Over on the Tessie Girl blog, there is a wonderful flow chart that links many of King’s works by character connections and references to events in other books. It’s amazing. The ending of both the film and the novel are kind of rubbish, if I’m going to be honest – emotionally it’s all there but the final manifestation of the monster is a bit, well, twee. However, reading this book is a real investment, and one that definitely pays off.
Looking through a bibliography of Stephen King, you will see there are some written under a pseudonym – Richard Bachman. This was King’s test to see whether his popularity and success could be replicated, i.e. whether it was his name or his skill that was keeping his readers hooked. The books were extremely popular, again being adapted into a few films (Thinner, The Running Man), and when King was exposed as the man behind Bachman, it inspired his book The Dark Half – easily one of the most violent books I’ve ever read. It always astounds me that he has been responsible for so many books, and even though there have been running jokes on shows like ‘The Simpsons’ and ‘Family Guy’ about King’s books becoming repetitive, I think that while he has indeed covered the same ground more than once, his books never get boring as he always manages to create fresh, complex characters that the reader can come to care about.
I have reserved space on my ‘Books I Always Recommend’ series for a number of Stephen King titles, but I would like to finish up by talking about King’s talent for writing short stories. He has written over 180 short stories, some of which were published in magazines and journals prior to being in a collection, of which there are five – these differ from his four collections of novellas.
While I enjoy losing myself in a long novel, I will admit that I have a short attention span – and for those of you reading this who suffer from the same problem, I apologise for making this post so long. Here, have this gif to appease your frustration.
Anyway, I believe that short stories are more than just bite size novels for people who can’t focus for long periods of time; when I was at university, we spent a long time looking at the kind of limitations modern composers imposed on their own work, giving themselves parameters within which to work. Short stories require the writer to make their point in a concise manner, create characters and suspense across a much shorter space than a whole novel, often starting right in the middle of the action. As he has written so many, and they are spread across several collections, I will just say that if you haven’t given short stories a try yet, then you could do worse than start with Stephen King.