When I was eleven years old, my parents bought me a hardback copy of The Eyes of the Dragon for Christmas. I set the book aside initially, because I had no particular interest in medieval fantasy. Dungeons and dragons just weren’t my thing. But after a few days, I got curious and started reading—and I was instantly captivated.
What really got me was the author’s voice. Stephen King conveyed a sense of awe about his fictional world, constantly dropping hints that there were countless stories within his story. It was as if the world of his imagination was comprised of fictional fractals. Even more importantly, he expressed a contagious curiosity about his characters. I felt like he knew them all as real, flesh-and-blood people and cared about every move and every decision they made. As a result I cared about them too, and I quickly realized that this myth was not really about dungeons and dragons, but about human relationships—particularly the relationships between two fathers and two sons.
King Roland, the biological father of Peter and Thomas, is essentially a good man—but weak. Prince Peter is a good man like his father, but strong like his mother. Prince Thomas is weak like his father, and thus susceptible to the manipulation of a surrogate father-figure named Flagg, who is strong but evil. King assures us, however, that Thomas is NOT evil like Flagg…. And it was this assurance that resonated with me as an eleven-year-old boy. » Read more
Of all Stephen King’s early novels, Pet Sematary is the simplest and direst. A sustained riff on W.W. Jacobs’ classic “The Monkey’s Paw,” it cleaves to its twisted source. From the very beginning the reader knows the story: someone is going to die, and someone who can’t bear to let that loved one go will make a desperate bargain to raise him from the dead. What happens then—the awful complications—is what the reader wants to see.
The opening is TV-movie stuff. Dr. Louis Creed and his young family move to Maine for his new job as medical director at a university infirmary and buy a house in the country by a busy two-lane highway. “You just want to watch em around the road, Missus Creed,” wise old neighbor Jud Crandall warns. “Lots of big trucks on that road.”
Was there ever a balder promise? And by 1983, King’s constant readers didn’t have to wonder if he’d balk at killing a child. Just two years before, the author who’d spared Mark Petrie in ‘Salem’s Lot and Danny Torrance in The Shining had already crossed that line in Cujo.
Set-up, build-up, payoff. Basic storytelling. In this case, we think we know the set-up and build-up. The author can throw variations at us, and delay, which he does, introducing a dying student who warns Louis to steer clear of the Pet Sematary, later using the family cat, Church, as a test case for its powers, but ultimately a child must die. Early on it feels as if King is running a subtle shell game, making us guess which one it will be, with both Gage, the adorable toddler, and Ellie, the needy kindergartener, slipping away unnoticed from their distracted parents. When the accident inevitably happens, it’s a shock, mainly because of how it’s presented. » Read more
“Come on, big guy. Let’s go for a ride. Let’s cruise . . . . ”
I’d be preaching to the choir if I said one of the most enduring traits of Stephen King’s fiction is the realism of his characters, and how we can all relate to them. Sure, most of us have never been trapped inside a broken-down Pinto while a rabid St. Bernard tries to get in and swallow us whole. We’ve never tried to assassinate a politician because a precognitive vision showed us his true nature. It’s probably safe to say that very few of us have crossed paths with a lonely widow who carries not only a dangerous obsession with a fictional character but also an ax and a blowtorch that she’s been itching to use for some time.
It’s the real world problems of King’s characters that ring true. It’s their crumbling marriages and their struggles to pay the bills on time. Their desires, their dreams and aspirations. We’ve met people like them. We are them. » Read more
Unlike most rabid King fans and purists, I came to Cujo rather late. I was barely into double-digit age when I first snuck my mother’s copy of Pet Sematary into my room and read it under the covers (a book that is largely responsible/to blame for the path my life and career took in later years), and after devouring it over the course of a few nights, I promptly took my library card and, using the excuse that I was getting the books for my mother, read almost everything King had released to that point.
To this day I can’t explain why I skipped that one title in King’s oeuvre. His name on the cover alone was enough to draw me in. But perhaps it was the cover itself that put me off. Back in those days, the European covers—British, specifically—of King’s paperbacks tended to run from gruesomely effective to just plain silly. And if memory serves, the cover of Cujo was just an illustration of a drooling muzzle, which resembled a cross section of a corned beef sandwich. Or perhaps it was the movie adaptation, which despite winning performances by the actors (including the dog) and some effective moments, doesn’t hold a candle to the book. Usually if I see a movie before I’ve read the book, I don’t bother with the latter. The reverse, however, does not hold true. » Read more
First, let me say that I agree with the estimable Mr. Chizmar that Danse Macabre is truly one of Stephen King’s most underrated books. Of all of King’s canon, it’s the one book I have read, and reread, with the most pleasure over the ensuing decades. I always take something new away from it, whether it be a renewed interest in an old favorite story, a new book to pursue and add to my hoard, or just a simple human insight.
Danse Macabre came to me at an opportune time; given the vantage point I now have, it feels almost inevitable that I would stumble across it. I had just come off the most difficult summer of my young life, having been hospitalized in April of 1981 with what was later diagnosed as compartment syndrome, in my right calf. I had internal bleeding, and my calf was filling up like a balloon with deoxygenated blood, threatening to suffocate my muscles. After emergency surgery, I spent nearly three weeks in the hospital, recovering. I emerged battered, but still able to walk. I spent the summer rehabbing and reading, ravenously devouring whatever I could score from my local library. I remember, among other books, reading Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving, and Dad, by William Wharton. Mostly “literature,” not the genre stuff that I enjoyed so much as a kid. » Read more
I remember when I read Firestarter for the first time. I was in high school, in the early ‘90s, and had started thinking that I’d maybe like to be a writer myself one day.
There are two reasons why Firestarter stuck in my head long after I finished reading it. For one, it’s an excellent story about the burden of psychic powers on ordinary people and the government machine that wants to use them for their own nefarious purposes. The other reason it stuck with me is because it was my first real lesson in the marketing side of the publishing business.
By the time Firestarter was published in 1980, Stephen King was already well on his way to becoming established as the King of Horror. Part of this was because he was indeed a powerhouse of a writer, but part of it was also due to the fact he was becoming a brand. My understanding of this came quite naturally, mainly by the simple fact that several of his books, published up to that time, didn’t really strike me as horror novels.
Of course it could be said that horror, like any other genre label, is in the eye of the beholder, but I think it’s fair to say it would take more than a bit of a stretch to describe books like The Dead Zone and Carrie as horror novels. Scary things happen, sure, but I feel, at least in those two cases, that the books belong more in the thriller genre, or even science fiction. Same goes for Firestarter. » Read more
I was delighted when I was asked to write a guest essay on Stephen King’s The Dead Zone, since I think it’s King’s best written and most well constructed novel (with the possible exception of The Green Mile). That was the feeling I had when I first read it on its release in 1979, and, on re-reading it for the first time since then, I was pleased to find that it’s aged remarkably well.
In his writings about writing, King has always prided himself on working without an outline, the literary equivalent of working without a net (or, as I tend to put it, leaping off a cliff and hoping that a hang-glider will come floating by). I can believe that many of King’s other works were written that way, with frequent deus ex machina and slapdash final conflagrations, but I can’t conceive that The Dead Zone was, since the construction is too perfect, the set-ups too well planned. Despite the often graphic violence, The Dead Zone is precise and practically genteel next to some of King’s other novels.
I’d forgotten how episodic the book was. It’s very much in three parts: Johnny’s coma and discovery of his wild talents; finding the Castle Rock killer; and the Greg Stillson plot. All three are deftly interwoven throughout, which only enhances the graceful construction.
Thanks to King’s referential use of pop culture and current events, The Dead Zone today reads like a period piece, very much of its time. That was why I liked it when I first read it, and why I like it still. Johnny Smith, the protagonist, was about my age, and his external life was similar to mine: from a modest but loving home, graduating from a state school, teaching high school, falling in love. We grew up through the same political crises, listened to the same music, shared the same views. I am glad my life didn’t parallel his in the more dramatic ways. » Read more
I couldn’t wait to read the Bachman books. By that time I was rereading the early Stephen King bestsellers simply because I needed a fix. I am of the age when realistic fiction was the standard form of the masters. In my top ten of novels is In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck. And the first trilogy I ever read was Studs Lonigan by James T. Farrell. Proletarian fiction if you will.
I’ve always maintained that Stephen King is the last of the working class novelists. I realize that the socio-economic background of his characters range up and down the scale. But I think his soul is with the folks he grew up with. He can break your heart with his take on the lives of average people.
And it is average people, teenage boys, King gives us in this spot on science fiction short novel about a militaristic government and a thrill-hungry populace drugged on spectacles of agony and violence.
So what we have here is a hundred teenage boys enduring a brutally competitive walk that ends only when all but the last one is eliminated. And by “eliminated” I generally mean has died from either sheer exhaustion or for violating the rules. An example of said rules: if you don’t keep moving at four miles per hour or better—and you are warned about this three times—you get shot by the soldiers tracking you on the sidelines. » Read more
Stephen King was a god to me when I was a kid. I was raised by Bible-thumping Baptists in Virginia Beach, VA. Stephen King was a big no no. When procured, hardcovers were hidden under my bed on top of the wooden slats that supported my box springs, and paperbacks were stripped of their covers and glued inside the stripped covers of Christian books so I could get away with reading them without discovery. My life bore some disturbing similarities to “Fahrenheit 451,” and there was indeed a bonfire in our fireplace when a stash of King books was discovered at one point. Tears were shed and it wasn’t the smoke in my eyes from the blackened pile of ashes that used to be “The Stand” and “It.” » Read more
‘Salem’s Lot isn’t my favorite Stephen King novel—that’s The Stand—but it may be the one that’s influenced me the most. It never made me cry the way some other King novels have, but it got under my skin more, cut me more deeply, frightened me more than any of the others. I suspect I could spend entire chapters delving into my psyche and finding all of the scars that ‘Salem’s Lot left behind, but I prefer to think of the imaginative fires it ignited in me.
I know I should remember my first Stephen King novel. It’s possible that in other places I’ve lied about this, but the truth is that I don’t truly recall which of his books I encountered first. I suspect it was The Stand, which I bought in an airport bookstore as a kid, on my way to Florida with my family. It might have been Carrie, which I bought used at a little shop in my hometown of Framingham, Massachusetts. It wasn’t The Dead Zone, which I first spotted in the hands of a bouncer at Liam’s Irish Tavern—he was reading on the job. And it wasn’t Firestarter, which the nuns at St. Bridget’s heartily disapproved of my reading in the sixth grade.
It definitely wasn’t ‘Salem’s Lot.
No matter, though. Whatever else I read before it, I know I loved every word, but it was ‘Salem’s Lot that really woke me up. I’d spent a lot of time in southern Maine in the summers, so I fancied that I knew a little bit about Maine…and it didn’t feel too different from Massachusetts to me. There was an old house a mile or so from mine that we kids all called “the Lavolee Mansion.” I’m sure I’ve spelled that wrong, but you get the gist. The house had been beautiful once, with faux Doric columns in front, though in those days it was a fading, peeling, crumbling mess of a place with broken windows and overgrown grass. In the lore of the neighborhood kids, the house was—of course—haunted, and when we walked or rode our bikes past the old pile, we always picked up the pace. » Read more