When I was in high school I did not read books assigned for class. I only read books about vampires.
Although I have few memories of specific titles, I probably read whatever was available in the horror section at Walt’s Hallmark, the only book store in the small Iowa town where I grew up. I do remember reading the Marilyn Ross paperback adaptations of the Dark Shadows vampire soap opera. (“Marilyn Ross” was actually Dan Ross, an incredibly prolific author of more than 300 paperback gothic novels. Rather than glut the market with Dan Ross books, he used a variety of pen names, including one borrowed from his wife Marilyn for those Dark Shadows books.)
At some point, probably in 1976, my friend John gave me a paperback edition of ‘Salem’s Lot by someone named Stephen King. Although the hardcover version of ‘Salem’s Lot came out in October, 1975, I didn’t really do hardcover books. In fact, I probably thought hardcovers only existed at the library or at the B. Dalton store in Des Moines. I also liked how I could hide paperbacks inside the monstrous textbooks I was supposed to be looking at in class.
Anyway, I read ‘Salem’s Lot and immediately knew it was the best vampire book I’d ever read. Of course, like I said, I’d been reading a steady diet of forgettable novels, many based on a TV show, seasoned by a dedication to Fangoria magazine. But I knew that ‘Salem’s Lot was a far superior book to anything else I’d read. The vampires were mysterious and scary and cool and totally believable. Some of the characters were kids like me. The small Maine town in ‘Salem’s Lot had echoes of my town. I wanted more.
‘Salem’s Lot led me to this Stephen King guy’s other book Carrie. It wasn’t a vampire book, but it more than satisfied the horror fan in me. The main characters were high school kids who dealt with mean classmates, weird grownups, and strange 1970s vibrations. From that point on, I considered myself a Stephen King fan and vowed to read every book he could ever write, and I didn’t bother to consider myself melodramatic for that decision.
Thankfully, Stephen King put out books regularly as I went through college. The Shining. The Stand. Night Shift. The Dead Zone. Firestarter. I kept up with him, even though in college I actually read the books assigned for class.
Then Stephen King went into hyper-drive. He started cranking out several books a year, including novels published earlier under the pen name Richard Bachman. I tried to maintain pace but fell behind and lost interest to a certain extent. Rage. Danse Macabre. Cujo. The Gunslinger. Creepshow. Different Seasons. Christine. Christine disappointed me as being too similar to Cujo: One is a haunted car; one is a haunted dog. The Gunslinger didn’t interest me as much as the horror novels. But Different Seasons was great and included both “The Body” and “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption,” two stories later adapted into excellent films: Stand by Me and The Shawshank Redemption.
Eventually, I joined the mail-order book club The Literary Guild, primarily because they sold cheap hardcover editions of Stephen King books, and one day in 1983 Pet Sematary showed up in my mailbox. It was the scariest book I’d ever read. It’s still the scariest book I’ve ever read. When those dead animals and dead humans started showing up again after being buried, it creeped me out and gave me vividly bad dreams.
Then I gave up on Stephen King for about 15 years, starting in my late 20s. It wasn’t personal. I wasn’t mad at Stephen King. I just couldn’t keep up, plus I was well into my career as an English teacher. My reading tastes were expanding, so I had some catching up to do. From 1984-1999, Stephen King published 31 books, according to Wikipedia. It. The Tommyknockers. The Dark Half. Needful Things. Delores Claiborne. The Green Mile. Hearts in Atlantis. I didn’t read a single one of them during those years, and I missed some good stuff!
In the new millennium, two books brought me back to Stephen King: The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon and On Writing. Tom Gordon is sort of a baseball book, and baseball was my new favorite genre. As with King’s earliest novels, the main character is a school kid, and that now appealed to my teacher sensibilities. On Writing is a nonfiction masterpiece of interest to anyone involved in writing or reading. After those two titles renewed my Stephen King appetite, I went back and read some of the books I’d missed and started paying attention again when he published new work. Misery. Skeleton Crew. Roadwork. Duma Key.
Last year, I read Stephen King’s newest works of prose fiction, 11/22/63 and Blockade Billy. 11/22/63 is one of King’s strongest stories; Blockade Billy, another baseball book, is one of his weakest. I also just bought Under the Dome as a Kindle Daily Deal for $1.99, and I’m looking forward to getting into that, probably over spring break. (Nerdies understand. We plan our vacation reading.) I’m back on the Stephen King bandwagon.
So what does this all mean? Well, I think the sheer number of Stephen King books I’ve read says something about the place Stephen King holds in my reading life, as well as in the larger world of contemporary literature. I’ve read 24 Stephen King books, more than I’ve read by any other author, living or dead, and that’s still less than half of his output. Yes, he’s had some clunkers, but he’s also produced some incredibly important work, influencing and inspiring a generation of writers, not to mention film-makers.
Being a Stephen King fan for almost forty years has been a unique experience. To this day I’m still following an author who interested me in high school. I started reading Stephen King because he understood vampires and high school kids, but I stuck with King as an adult because of his instinct for delivering captivating stories that give me the willies but also help me see the world a little bit differently, sometimes more darkly, sometimes with increased optimism.
And I can’t think of another author who was popular when I was in high school who is still being read and appreciated by high school students today. When I look around the room each day at the books my students choose to read, I almost always see at least one Stephen King book. The most common titles with my students are the venerable Carrie, plus The Shining, The Green Mile, Misery, and occasionally Christine. One of my students has also read Lisey’s Story. She is the only person I know who has read Lisey’s Story.
When readers tackle book after book from the same writer, they see connections. When those connections stretch across multiple books and years, they form a complex, dense, intellectually rewarding web of understanding. For me, it all started with a vampire book, but my appreciation for Stephen King has led me to consider all kinds of human experiences, many of them based on what scares the bejeezus out of us, but also how we take for granted so many aspects of our everyday lives, how easily our lives can be altered, and how we choose to react to those unavoidable changes.
On the off-chance that I ever meet up with Stephen King, I’ll invite him to grab a beer somewhere. If he accepts, somewhere in our conversation I’ll try to say, “Your stories have meant a lot to me for a very long time. Thanks.”
I hope readers here will add some comments about your experiences with Stephen King. Do you have a favorite King book? What Stephen King books do your students read? Why do you think he has been so successful for so long?
Gary Anderson is a high school English teacher in suburban Chicago. He is co-author (with Tony Romano) of Expository Composition: Discovering Your Voice (EMC Publishing). Visit his What’s Not Wrong? blog at http://whatsnotwrong.wordpress.com. Find him on Twitter at @AndersonGL.