Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Stephen King and Me: A One-Sided History

Recently, I realized that Stephen King is creeping up on 70.


You can tell he’s getting up there, because every interview couches “that” question somewhere: How much longer can he do it?


Granted, we’re talking about a man who has produced a book a year.  Sometimes two.  And yet, I think King fans all live with a certain fear – that one day, there will be no more books.  King will put down the pen, or he will die, or perhaps both at once, and the King library will add a final volume or two to the bookshelf, and then that will be it.


I feel like I’m writing a eulogy, and maybe I am.  But I just finished reading the latest King novel a couple of weeks ago, and it’s gotten me to thinking – this is a guy I have a history with.  He’s the man who almost died when he was hit by a van.  The guy who talked about retiring in 2004, when he “finished” The Dark Tower.


They guy who said he might go blind, in the future.


And I’m sure there are times I wanted him to stop.  But now isn’t that time.  I kind of hope he writes until he’s 100, and I’ve got sixty-plus books to look forward to.  That would be remarkable.


So this isn’t really a eulogy, and it isn’t really an essay.  Instead, it’s a series of little essays.  Tiny stories, some of which go places, many which don’t.


I imagine a lot of King fans have their own tales.


These are mine.




This is my most often-told story, about how I discovered King.


When I was a kid, I used to go grocery shopping with my mom.


At the time, the impulse purchase area at our local grocer, instead of being packed with trashy magazines, held a collection of bestselling paperbacks.


And I remember, very clearly, seeing It there.  It was that first, unforgettable cover, with the paper boat, and the sewer, and the claw.


I was a reader by nature, but it was 1987, which would have made me 10 or 11 years old when I saw the cover.


“That’s a scary book,” said my mom.  “That guy writes scary books.”


I noted the title, and the author name – Stephen King.  I didn’t much care for scary movies, couldn’t handle the most intense parts of Raiders of the Lost Ark, or even Star Trek II.  I had to look away when watching those movies and faces melted or worms crawled in ears.


So I filed the name away in my brain.  Those were, surely, books I didn’t want to read.


The world moved on.




In the seventh grade, I started to learn how useless study hall was.  Or at least, how useless a badly timed one was.


In high school, I had one first thing in the morning.  On test days, it was nice.  On regular days, I sat and did nothing, because trying to cram an hour of homework in the day it was due was foolish at best.


But I’m talking about seventh grade.  Where I still had many, many days where I had nothing to do.  Passing the time was hard.  Sometimes I literally just sat.  A few times I tried to make up stories of my own.  A few times I sat and read the dictionary, just to pass the time.


One day, a friend of mine finished reading his book about ten seconds into study hall.  Without even looking at the cover, I asked if I could borrow it.


It was a book of scary short stories.


I’ve never been able to hunt down the book again, though I remember the cover well, and the fact that the first story was about druids. 


But I do remember enjoying that first story.  It was scary, sure, but mostly it was surprising.  Short horror stories are, after all, often about that last paragraph, or that last line, where the author springs his or her little trap.


What I learned was that scary stories had STORY.


All I knew was, I liked scary stories.  And I was suddenly very curious about this Stephen King guy.




I went to the library, and got Salem’s Lot.  Mostly because it was about vampires, and vampires I understood.  Vampires were, after all, a safe monster.  One I knew, was familiar with. 


The monster behind the door is scary.  It could be anything, coming to get you.


But these were vampires.


Long story short, I liked the book, so I went back.


There was an entire bookcase, and King filled every shelf.  I had a lot to catch up on, even though it was only 1988. 


I read Carrie next.




At one point in the seventh grade, we were supposed to write a review of a novel.  I said I wanted to write a review of a Stephen King book.


“Stephen King is not a real author,” insisted my teacher. 


This statement puzzled me.  I mentioned it to my parents, who didn’t really seem to be able to explain it.


An author, after all, is a person who writes a book.  How was he not an author?


I didn’t bother arguing about it.  I chose a Lloyd Alexander book instead.


That was the first time I ever encountered author prejudice.  Even today, I have to admit I don’t know what you make of it.




My dad was online a long, long time before being online was a thing, connected with a 2400 baud modem using his Commodore 64.


He got involved in an early version of a chat room.  And in there, by chance, was a guy named Stephen King.  Look up his information, and all it said was “Boo!”


I’d been reading him for a while.  I knew he was computer savvy.  I’d read a story in some magazine or another that King had used his computer to co-write The Talisman, using his modems to share the manuscript back and forth between himself and his co-author.


I asked King if he could name his first novel – “Carrie,” was the reply.  A bit of information that literally anyone who had ever read King probably knew.


No matter.  I was convinced it was King.


My dad said I could send him a message, using the most primitive possible version of email.  I said I was a reader, that I really liked his books, and even told him the story about my English teacher stating he was not a real author.


I got a very nice reply back that he was not, in fact, Stephen King.


In the best of all possible worlds, it would have been Stephen and I would have had a cool story to tell.


But in the real world, it was a good lesson to learn early: People online aren’t always who they say they are.


Or maybe it was Stephen King, and he didn’t want to be pestered by a 12-year-old.




In the 8th grade, one of my parent’s friends found out I was a King reader, and actually mailed me two of King’s books.  In hindsight, I find that both cool and a little odd.  Given the cost of shipping, it would have been cheaper to send my parents cash and a map to a used bookstore.


Instead, their friend sent me a copy of Misery and It.


My memory is that I read Misery first, as It still seemed like something of a challenge.  The book topped 1000 pages after all.


Misery was great, of course, and it’s probably in the top ten or fifteen of any King fan.


It was something else altogether. You would have to read Misery three times to be reach the page count of It.


Start the book, and congratulations, you’re going for a very, very, very long trip.


I remember getting sucked into the book.  I remember reading it, and reading it, and reading it.


And I remember getting to the last day of 8th grade.  My school held a little “graduation ceremony,” which I don’t really remember.  I do recall my parents weren’t there.  They were working, because the graduation of an 8th grader isn’t all that important of a thing.


I finished the last 12 pages of it on the way home.  I then handed the book to my parents and said they could send it back to their friend.  I guess they did.




King’s other giant book back then was The Stand.  The original version was 800 or so pages.  I had to take it back to the library twice to re-check it out.


But I did finish it.




My mom found a copy of Night Shift, King’s first collection of short stories, at a garage sale, and brought it home for me.


I’d already read it, so I set it on the shelf next to the handful of books I owned and barely gave it a thought.


A friend asked to borrow it, and I loaned it to him.  He never returned it.


To be fair, he brought a bunch of Archie comics to my house, and never asked for them back.  They’re in a box somewhere.




My freshman year of high school, our English teacher brought us to the library and had the person running the place tell us what was there.  Among the things she mentioned: “We do have SOME popular fiction.”


In other words, they had a couple of King novels. 


One day, bored in English class, I pulled It off the shelf and started reading it again.  I checked it out and reread the entire books in the two weeks I was allowed to have it.




As high school progressed, I slowly caught up with King.  After all, he could only produce a couple of books a year, and at the time I could read a good-sized novel in a week, maybe two.


I remember my English teacher saying he probably wasn’t going to finish reading The Dark Half.  I was stunned.  Who doesn’t finish a book?  Plus, I had already read and enjoyed it.


I had to write a book report, and chose the first two books of The Dark Tower.  There was no mention of King not being a real author.


I spent years waiting for new Dark Tower books.  The idea that they were a series, and that King had no idea when they would be written, or when they would be published, but did know the titles of the next couple of volumes made me crazy.




I’ve known many people who own every King novel, and love most of them to one extent or another.  But I learned a lesson early on.


My mom came to me in the middle of putting in a book order for one of her book clubs.  There was some King listed, did I want any?


No.  I loved King.  Even loved re-reading some of King’s books.  But they were not all universally great.  And the chance that I would ever go back to them was fairly slim.


Plus, they were all available at the library.  Copy after copy.  King was popular and easy to come by.


Over the years, I’ve bought some favorites.  The Dark Tower.  His short fiction.  The Bachman books.  A couple of other novels.


But even today, King fills a couple of bookcases at the library.  I can get my hands on whichever books of his I desire.  Why own them all?




I’ve read the expanded version of The Stand three times.  After struggling to get through the short version in three months, I sailed through the long one in a month.


Then I read it again, in about two weeks.


A few years into my marriage, I finished all my books while visiting my in-laws.  My father-in-law was a fan, and I randomly grabbed his copy of The Stand off the bookshelf.


I sat on the couch and read fifty pages, once again transported by the massive cast and relentless narrative.


I left the book there, but went home and finished the book with a copy from the library.


I’m terrified to open it again, for fear of taking the massive journey yet another time.  I’m almost 40.  I have a lot of books I want to read before I can’t read anymore.




Most King movies are R rated, some for language, most for violence, and my parents weren’t big on me watching R-rated movies as a kid.


So I saw a few of them chopped up for TV. 


I watched The Stand, which was great until the hand of God.  I watched It, which was pretty good until the spider.


In college I was shocked when someone turned Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption into a movie.  I had always thought it could be a great one, but Shawshank was pretty much perfect.


I missed it in the theater, but caught it at an on-campus showing with a bunch of riveted college students.  Even projected on a white wall, as the second half of a double feature, it killed.


Me, anyway.


I had a VCR in college, and taped the new version of The Shining.  It was six hours long, but I sat and watched all of it, back-to-back-to-back on a long Sunday afternoon.  I know a lot of people don’t like it, but I literally couldn’t stop myself from rolling along.


My wife-to-be walked in somewhere in the second hour, and sat and watched the whole thing with me, equally taken with it.  Then she asked to watch the first hour, since she had missed it.


It was a long afternoon, and at the end I had a TV headache.  But I sometimes wish I had the kind of time to do things like that with my wife now.




I never had any time to read in college.  Most people don’t.  I’d cram my King fixes in on summer breaks.


I do remember my mom being amused that King wrote a novel called Insomnia.  She sent me a sticker with the title on it, thinking it would be funny to see my lifelong affliction as a book title.


I laughed, a little.




Stephen King got hit by a van, and I thought the same thing every other fan thought – he needs to live to finish The Dark Tower.




Not long after being hit, he released On Writing, which was a great book with a little short story contest in it.


I wrote an entry, trying to finish it by midnight, before the new year started.  I ended up being late, as they’d used Midnight on the East coast as their marker.


I begged to be let in.  I don’t know what I thought, maybe that King would see a diamond in the rough and I would finally hear from the actual man himself.


But I didn’t win, place, or show.


I’ve never re-read the story, which is probably a good thing.




King finally finished The Dark Tower, and I stacked the books up and read the whole series from beginning to end.  Book two is still my favorite.


In the middle of the fourth book, which is 90% love story, a woman I knew saw me reading and commented she could never read King because he was too scary.


I didn’t know how to explain that I was basically reading a western romance, and that most or all of it wouldn’t bother her.  So I just let it drop.


It’s still one of my least-favorite of his books, smack dab between all the books of his I like very much.




King saying he was retiring after finishing The Dark Tower was the only reason I read his non-fiction book, Faithful.  He co-wrote it with another guy.


I really, really didn’t care for it.  It was about baseball, which isn’t my thing.  I eventually skipped all of the other author’s sections, and read only Kings and it was still a chore.


But it was 2004, and I thought I might be reading the last King book, ever.


This was not the case.




King has written some very good books, and some books I could barely get through. 


A friend loaned us his copy of From a Buick 8, and when we tried to return it, he said not to bother.  We did anyway.


Lisey’s Story won for being the worst, I think.  I tried to complete it, and only managed because it was an audiobook, and I just let it run, even when I barely tuned into it.


I bought it for a friend as a gift, before I read it.  He’s read all the other King in the world, but not that one.  He says he’s saving it for when King dies.


I’ve told him that’s a bad idea.




I loved the idea of The Green Mile, with the new chunk out every few weeks.  I remember having a summer job as a delivery guy, with nothing to do.  So I sat and read the entire part 2 of 6 while sitting in the shop.


Then my co-worker, who was also bored, read it, even though she hadn’t read part 1.


I wonder if she ever finished the series.


I finally complete it at college, one of the rare times I read a book in college, because a friend of mine had it and said she could loan it to me.


School was almost over for the year, so I scrambled through it at top speed. Finals was probably not the time to do that.




Other books of King’s that I hated. 


Tommyknockers is awful.  I checked it out from the library multiple times, always returning it about twenty pages in, and choosing another King novel instead.


I finally read it when I finished EVERY other King book, up to that point.


Even King doesn’t like it.  I read somewhere that he felt that if the book was half the size, it might have been good.  But I doubt it.


I also didn’t like The Talisman, I suspect because it just seems never-ending.  That one also hung me up early on in the narrative, and took a major push to get through.


Years later, after I read the sequel, I was surprised to discover that Black House was quite good.  So I went back and re-read The Talisman, via audiobook.


Still awful.  Mostly, it was just too long.


Maybe that one could be chopped in half and made good.




Of the King books, I have almost always listed my favorites as The Stand and The Dead Zone.  As I said, I’ve read The Stand multiple times.


The Dead Zone… I think I’ve read only once.  Perhaps twice.  I’m a little afraid to go back again, only because so many things I loved as a kid, especially some King books, don’t hold up.


I mean, I read It twice.  And yet when I pulled it down from the shelf recently, and began re-reading that awesome, mood-setting start… I realized it was way, way, way overwritten.  Instead of sucking me in, I gave up five pages in, and never went back.


I read The Shining again, after the TV movie came out.  I wasn’t a huge fan the first time around.  The second time fared no better.


I liked Salem’s Lot enough to move on to another King book, but reading it again… didn’t do much for me.  I could see where King was bouncing off of the original Dracula, but it wasn’t as relentless a read.


I do have a lot of love for The Bachman books.


If what I’ve read is correct, every amateur screenwriter wants to take a crack at The Long Walk. 


The Running Man was a stupid-fun movie, but an amazing book that beat the actual world of reality TV to the punch by about 25 years.  It’s kind of a terrifying read now.


Rage is… Rage gets a little more scary every year, really.  It was probably an odd, creepy concept when King wrote it.  Today, it’s practically a novelization of an event that’s happened far too many times.


Even King is a little afraid of it, now, and asked that it be taken out of print.


And then there’s Roadwork.  I’ve read it twice.  It was bad the first time.  I thought age and maturity might make me feel differently, but no.  It’s just a bad book.




The one area I’ve always envied King – he came from an era where selling short fiction was worth actual money.


I look at the pile of short stories he accumulated over the years, and there are a lot of great ones.  But a hundred bucks in 1971 and a hundred bucks in 2011 are two very different numbers. 


I made about the same amount of money on my first novel as he made on his.  Back then , it was almost enough for him to quit his job.  I might have been able to buy a functional used car, after taxes.






Oddly, I’ve never read my own personal copy of The Stand.


When I was newly married, a friend offered to buy me a copy of Christmas.  It never came, though he said he’d ordered it.


When I mentioned it to him, he said he’d look into it.


Months later, my wife asked me what happened to the book.  I asked him, and he said they must not have delivered it.


This isn’t impossible.  I’ve ordered things online and had them not show up.  Both times, this ended in irritated battles with credit card companies and businesses, though in both cases I got my money back.


Eventually, years later, I bought a used paperback.


But it’s a big book.  If I was going to read it again, I wanted it in a format that wouldn’t crumble.  So I picked up a used hardcover.


I gave the paperback away to another friend who had recently gotten into King.  He seemed to not really want it.  I think he looked at the size of the thing and knew it would be a major commitment.


He’s not wrong.




I don’t read as fast as I used to, and I don’t generally buy King novels.


This has led to an odd issue, where I have to read King books in chunks.


When I got Under the Dome, I read about 600 pages.  The book was due at the library, and I was ending my vacation.  I knew there was no way I was going to sail through the last 600 pages once I was back at real life.


So I gave it back to the library and put it on reserve.


Three weeks later, I got it back, and finished it.


I’ve done this with multiple books now.  It’s like reading a series that just sits between one set of covers.


Granted, I won’t argue it’s an ideal way to read a book…




One of the things I find a little magical about King is that he really is that early adopter of technology. 


When Barnes and Noble tried to get people to read books on their computers, in the pre-Kindle days, King gave away a story for free.


It crashed servers.


I eventually got, and read the story.  And then I never opened the Barnes and Noble software again.


King did other variants on this premise.  Kindle-only work, for example.


The most famous was probably when he published The Plant online, in chunks, one section at a time, getting people to pay as they went.


I bought all the parts, and King, in turn, gave up on the experiment.


Not having a real ending to the book bothers me.  It bothers me very much.




A friend of mine thinks King is in a renaissance after several hard years of iffy books. 


I want to agree with him, as the last nine or ten years have almost been clunker-free. 


And yet…


And yet, there have always been good novels, mixed in with bad ones.  Good short stories created in and around so-so books. 


Like I said earlier, Misery is probably one of King’s best, and it came out right around some of his worst.


So… maybe there’s no rhyme or reason.  Maybe it’s like every mine in the world, gold threaded in an around useless rocks.


King has claimed in the past that there are no more books squirrelled away, which means that once he’s dead, the books stop.  He’s said of various books that perhaps one of his sons could finish the job, if it came to it.


But there isn’t much he’s held back.  Or so he claims.


I’ve done enough reading to know that’s not entirely true.  I suspect there is probably a minor bestseller for anyone who pulls together all of King’s lost Pop of King columns.  There’s probably some lost gold in King’s student newspaper days.


A handful of stories have gone missing, according to Wikipedia.


And there’s at least one novel that never saw the light of day.


Heck, I’m sure someone will finally put The Plant between covers, for all the people who didn’t want to mail a dollar to King, pre-Paypal.


King’s next two books are already in the pipeline – a collection of short fiction, and the final novel in a series of three books.


Is there more?  I dunno.


I confess my biggest fear is that the books will get bad, and that King, who really has been having a good run, will pass away, leaving us with a sad, “If only he’d stopped HERE,” feeling.


And yet, I don’t want him to quit.


Because there’s always the chance he’ll strike gold one last time.




I find it amazing that I’ve been reading King for almost thirty years now.


Here’s hoping there are 30 more.  And that they are good ones.

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