On Stephen King

Essay #7 of the 52 Essays in 2017 Challenge.

I read my first Stephen King book when I was twelve. It was The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, and while I remember almost nothing of the plot, I do remember this: I fell headfirst. I felt, He is for me, and I am for him. In truth I'd always known this would be the case, ever since I first caught sight of that eerily green paperback splashed with a dark shadow of a girl on the cover.

With the exception of Francine Pascal (who wrote the Sweet Valley High series, duh), this marked the first time I'd fallen for an author or known that such a thing was possible. It's happened a few times since then, though not as often as I once thought it might. As it turns out, you only get a few of these grand sweeping author-reader love affairs in life, just as you do real lovers in real life. I imagine this is because we, as humans, have a threshold for the emotions we get to experience. At some point, we just give up on being awed. This isn't to say that I'm not awed by some of the authors I read today, but it is much rarer for an author to touch me in my secret sweet places now. And when they do, it never quite lasts in the same way. In high school, J.D. Salinger and Sylvia Plath and Ian McEwan did it. Later, Lorrie Moore and Joan Didion would become my kindred spirits, the women I'd turn to if I wanted to feel simultaneous consolation and scorn for my Midwest upbringing (Moore) or what it was like to be from someplace (Didion). I wanted to feel both things often. 

But nothing quite matches that early head rush of feeling that marks the beginning of my love affair with Stephen King. King is a through line in my life, from adolescence until now, and I can't say that about any other author I love. His books are accompanied by sharply drawn memories from childhood and adolescence that always give me pause -- they are physical talismans of what was, portals to the past.

Dreamcatcher: I was 15, found the paperback wrapped under the Christmas tree, spent the entirety of Christmas Eve poring through it. Bag of Bones when I was 17 and always in the pool and always in a bad mood. Being scared shitless in high school when I devoured 'Salem's Lot; I slept with the light on for a week. The Shining and Misery in my early twenties: re-discovering a lost love after a long absence. I read 11/22/63 three years ago and this became one of my favorite King novels to date. I turn to On Writing constantly; if there is a better book about how to be a writer, I don't know it. And then there are his short story collections. King is a master of many literary devices and genres, but short stories are his true, delicious forte. Different Seasons, the collection that also gave us three incredible films: Stand by Me, The Shawshank Redemption, and the underrated Apt Pupil. Everything's Eventual. Night Shift. 

I even used to have a recurring dream about Stephen King, after he had his infamous accident. In the dream, he is mangled and gray, and he looks older than I'd imagined he would be. I reach out to him, wordlessly. This is all I remember.

Right now, I'm reading Full Dark, No Stars and it is chillingly good, as good as anything he's ever done. The Times review of this book is my favorite thing: "A writer who takes such unabashed joy in the act of storytelling is a rarity. This naked pleasure is King's secret ingredient: it makes his work -- good or bad -- weirdly irresistible, even addictive. And it disarms criticism, as boyish enthusiasm often does." This sentiment encapsulates so much of what I (and millions of others) love about King. He makes you remember that reading can be a wholly pleasurable escape, a rollicking ride into oblivion. He makes you remember that reading is fun, and people who love what they do are fun. Yes, everyone should read Nabokov, but everyone should also read Stephen King. 


For my 27th birthday, I road-tripped the snowy Maine coastline with two friends, and I convinced them to stop off in Bangor, just to take a peek around. I knew that King kept a home here (though there were rumors that this was just for the fans). We found the home easily, thanks to the fact that it's listed as "Stephen King's House" on Google Maps. The house is a Victorian Gothic wet dream, all blood-red columns and the requisite wrought-iron fence with black bats and spiderwebs. When we pulled up, I wanted to feel an icy chill down my back, a deep sense of apprehension that something was amiss here, because that would be the only appropriate emotional reaction to seeing Stephen King's home. And, the thing is...that's sort of what happened. Looking at that house tucked away from the street, its malevolent shutter eyes staring back at us, it was hard not to feel that there was something deeply dark and possibly evil at work here. There was even a dead squirrel, nearly bisected in half, hanging from a tree branch near the property. 

My friends and I screamed and laughed and took silly photos, and at one point we all touched the gate in tandem and said a prayer to "invite some of Stephen King's energy and creativity into our lives." (We also saw a psychic and did several tarot readings on this trip, so this was hardly out of character.) And as we drove away, I thought about the kind of storyteller who loves nothing more than to create living, breathing worlds. I thought about the kind of storyteller who loves to create worlds so much that he bought a Halloween horror show house for the people who lived, and still live, in these worlds: all the kids, and young adults, and grown-ups who are still slightly afraid of monsters under the darkened bed.