Patrick watched me climb into bed the other night with an enormous Stephen King library book under my arm and remarked, "I just don't understand why you like to be scared." I've been chewing over that comment ever since, because I like to feel completely understood by Patrick at all times. For me, feeling understood equals feeling loved.
The next morning, an award-winning bloggy pal wrote a post about having read Stephen King's memoir/writing manual, and I felt the coincidence was too good to pass up.
I don't know whether many readers of this blog have read much of King's work. Some, like Patrick, shy away from horror fiction for various reasons. Others may be too busy reading Litrahchah; still others may not want that much sheer poundage for their reading buck.
I don't read Stephen King because I like to be scared, though his books can often be terrifying. I'm not recommending his work; even his less grim stories are liberally peppered with earthy language and grisly images. They are not for the faint of heart, or for those under the age of seventeen (yes, Christian, that's when I'll let you start reading them). But I will tell you that I think Stephen King is one of the great writers of our time, right up there with Mark Helprin, Umberto Eco, and Don DeLillo. Here are some of the reasons why I love him:
10) He's an original. He has a distinctive writing style and voice which he has honed over years of consistent work. He has re-worked old tropes and invented new ones that have become iconic in our culture. Think of Jack Nicholson grinning through a splintered bathroom door, the epitome of a violent paranoiac. But there are plenty more. Troubled teenage wallflower? Call her Carrie. Aggressive dog? 'Cujo' is the shorthand term you're looking for.
9) He taught me to listen to people others dismiss as crazy, to see them with fresh and open eyes. In the world according to King, it is usually the crazy people who see things as they really are. I find this instructive, with biblical precedent.
There was a man who would walk the streets of Manhattan when we lived there, bellowing at the top of his lungs, "Alleluia, ah-lay-looooo-yuh, JEE-zuzzz." We would hear him at all hours and in a variety of neighborhoods. I've always wondered what motivated that guy, whether he saw himself as a latter-day Jeremiah or John, a voice crying in the wilderness of New York City. You can bet that he'll end up in a book of my own someday. I learn something new about myself when I pay attention to those who are a little (or a lot) marginal. And they make great characters.
8) SK is passionate about baseball. 'Nuff said.
7) He doesn't take himself too seriously. I have no patience for writers or actors who start talking in lofty tones about their 'craft,' reinforcing the mystique that they are somehow better than the plebes that make up their audiences. When asked about his work, my pal Stephen says that he simply loves telling a good story, and that he is grateful to have been able to support his family doing so. Down to earth. Confident in his gift, but with no pretensions to grandeur. Love it.
6) He tells a wing-ding of a story. His books are whoppers in the best speculative fiction sense of the term--tall tales like those told around campfires. The characters are complex; the conversations sound authentic. The stories feel true, even at their most unreal. An underlying theme of much of his work is the stark symmetry of the opposites found everywhere around us in the world: peace and hatred; beauty and atrocity; good and evil.
5) His book On Writing is one of two writing manuals worth anything at all, in my opinion (the other one is Anne LaMott's Bird by Bird). Tangent: here are the other books worth having on your shelf if you want to write fiction: a good dictionary; a good thesaurus; Strunk & White; a good grammar book; and The Chicago Manual of Style.
4) Stephen is unbelievably prolific, having written 45 novels in 33 years, plus a whole lot of short stories, quite a few screenplays, and a pack of non-fiction. He doesn't understand why this astonishes people. In On Writing, he comments, "If God gives you something you can do, why in God's name wouldn't you do it?" Amen. I've enjoyed at least a book per year of his for the past 25 years; I am confident that this bounty will continue as long as we are both alive.
3) He can make a long plane ride feel like five minutes. There are many great writers whose work I can enjoy in small packages: a chapter here, a chapter there a week later, if need be. Stevie is one of a handful of authors whose books I save for the binge times. If I can, I'll read them straight through in a day or two, absentmindedly shoving DVDs and boxes of crackers towards my family members when they make a bid for my attention. Among other writers in this category are George R.R. Martin, Tad Williams, Peter Straub, and Diana Gabaldon.
2) He's not perfect. He's written a few spectacularly bad books: The Tommyknockers and Rose Madder come to mind. But he's a fighter. He kicked drugs, cigarettes, and alcohol years ago; more recently, he fully recovered from severe injuries, including a shattered hip, after being hit by a car while walking near his house.
Anyone who can come back from scathing reviews, unrelenting snobbery, serious addiction, and several weeks in intensive care has big-time character. You want more evidence of his character? He's been happily married to his college sweetheart for close to forty years. His three grown children adore him. That's all I need.
1) He asks deep questions and wrestles with them all the way through his stories. Sometimes he comes up with answers, sometimes not. That's fine with me; I like questions better than answers anyway.
His books are almost always allegorical, but because King doesn't have a didactic bone in his body, the deeper story never shows through at the plot's expense--brilliant. Stevie has a great heart; he believes that good will prevail. This may sound wiggy to anyone who has ever seen The Shining, but I feel uplifted and energized after reading his work. He inspires me to be a better writer, but more importantly, he inspires me to be a better person.
If someone were undaunted by my caveats and wanted a good introduction to Mr. King's work, I would recommend:
1) The Green Mile
2) The Talisman (written with Peter Straub)
3) The Shining
4) The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon
5) Lisey's Story
If you get that far, write me; we'll chat. Until then, I can't wait for Duma Key!