Stephen King: An Appreciation by Gary Anderson
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.
I love Stephen King, Gary! When I was a graduate assistant teaching first-year writing at Florida State I dreamed of proposing a course called writing about Stephen King and using just his texts and essays as our content. You might enjoy Reading Stephen King: Issues of Censorship, Student Choice and Popular Literature by Brenda Miller, Jeff Wilhelm and Kelly Chandler. It fed into my King and teaching dreams when it came out in the late nineties. Thanks for bringing an old favorite to mind this morning.
Thanks for your comment and especially for this suggestion!
I was never a Stephen King fan. It simply was not my genre. And then my middle child, Craig, took AP Language and was required to read ‘On Writing.’ My conservative Craig, the one who read the likes of Ravi Zacharias, Tim Keller, John Piper, and other heavy theological tomes for pleasure, became a Stephen King fan, reading book after book. He told me it revolutionized the way he saw reading and writing. Craig is now an English major at UNF and is still reading Zacharias, Keller, Piper, and King.
Last summer I had to purchase ‘On Writing’ for my daughter for AP Language. I decided I’d best read it considering its impact on Craig. I read it. I got it. I loved it. I know now why it influenced Craig the way it did. I’ve since read my first Stephen King book. It’s still not my genre but, boy howdy, can the man write.
I teach high school freshmen. How I wish I had a class set of ‘On Writing’ to use in my classroom. It would be so much more meaningful than the FCAT Writes dreck. It would be so much more useful for those students who are college bound. Instead I extol the virtues of the book to my students every chance I get. “Read this book. It will change the way you see reading and writing.” I would say the same thing to an adult. The book is just that good.
The title seems a little dry, but yeah, Stephen King’s ON WRITING is a great book for young writers. Thanks for your comments and stories here.
Thanks so much for this post! I’ve been a King fan since I was 12 and read The Stand in 1979. I had questions about that book and others, so I wrote to King and was floored when he answered both of my fan letters–he addressed my questions and urged me to keep writing my own stories. That kindness endeared him to me for life and I’ve remained a staunch fan (I finished his latest, Wind Through the Keyhole, two days ago).
Hi, Gail. Thanks for your comment and for that terrific anecdote!
I remember first reading Stephen King when I was about 11 or 12 years old. I had no idea what I was doing as a reader (and probably missed a lot of what was going on in the novels), but I knew that they were scary and had a few bad words. Cujo, Carrie, Misery, It. It really scared me.
I really didn’t pick up another Stephen King book after that until 11/22/63. Man, what a great book.
Like you, I also have students reading Stephen King every now and then (with The Shining probably being the most popular title). It was cool reading 11/22/63 at the exact same time as one of my students. He really wanted to be me to the end of the book. And he did. He was so excited to hold the ending over my head for those few days. But each day we came into class, we would just give each other a look and nod. It was a great read, and a fun bonding experience with a student.
My next King read is going to be On Writing.
Thanks for sharing your reading experience!!
Between John Wayn Gacy and Stephen King’s IT, clowns were ruined for a lot of people. Thanks for your comment here!
LOVE Stephen King. Like you, I’ve read most of what he has written. The first I ever read was The Shining. It scared the bejesus out of me. I never looked at bushes the same way again. I moved to The Stand, which made me think about the future and religion and leaders and…well, you get understand, and is still probably my favorite. 11/22/63 is a new favorite. It made me think of the what if’s. For pure terror, my choice is It. And, The Dome, although I hated the ending, was a great study in people under pressure.
The reason King continues to be a favorite author is that he always makes me think. King is always a slow read for me. His writing is dense. I need time to digest the beautiful (and sometimes horrifying) words he puts to paper.
King creates his characters slowly and with care–even minor characters who would normally be overlooked and ignored. He creates worlds that require readers to suspend their disbelief and live vicariously through characters. He creates unbelievable situations and makes them so realistic, readers have to stop and remind themselves that’s its all make believe.
I don’t have much interest in the upcoming UNDER THE DOME on televisiion, but that’s my next Stephen King book.
Thanks for your clear articulation here of the appeal of Stephen King’s literary technique.
I would rather have a King novel be a TV miniseries rather than a Hollywood movie. TV gives more time to character and plot development.
Most of Under the Dome is a great read, a fun study of human nature. Just didn’t like the ending.
Ha, Gary, I think he’s a bit of a modern day Dickens, writing for the masses but with social commentary or universal themes when he’s at his very best! He even did Green Mile as a serialization 🙂
Interesting comparison. I think Stephen King would probably like it. I wonder what Dickens would make of King.
(I’m keeping up with my Dickens reading but need to catch up on my postings.)
Thanks for the post! I adored Stephen King as a young teen – his books have shaped a lot of my writing/reading life. Different Seasons is my absolute favorite!
I too, moved on about the time that It came out – I barely finished it and had lost my interest. As an adult I’ve gone back for Delores and Misery, but haven’t been hooked like I was then. Debating reading 11/22/63 – just may do that now, thanks
11/22/63 is probably a pretty good re-entry title. Enjoy! Thanks for your comment here.
Like you, Salem’s Lot was my introduction to Stephen King. I was 13, and I spent a few weeks that summer reading his book, and boy did I feel stupid finishing it when I was alone in my house!
That story has stayed with me my entire life. It got me hooked into horror forever. I immediately went to the used book store and bought an armload of other titles, none of them resonating in the same way, but the important thing was the experience made me a bonafide reader. I went on to other books. At the end of my freshman year in high school, I found myself devouring Gone With The Wind when I should have been studying for finals.
I don’t know why, but I didn’t pick up many of his other titles. I think it’s because some of the film adaptations turned me off. But I never forgot Salem’s Lot, and the fact that 26 years later I just finished my first novel, a YA Paranormal book, I think I, too, should thank Stephen King. If you ever get that beer, please forward it along to him.
And Gary, lovely article.
Hi, Jen. I’ve known you for more than ten years, but I never knew this. Thanks for your reading and for your comment here.
Reading Stephen King has made me a better person. His characters are so rich, diverse, and complex, that they have opened my eyes to a different version of America. King has provided me with intimate knowledge of others and myself. No other author has their finger on the pulse of America quite like King does. His stories have made me laugh, made me cry, made me grow up, and helped me to understand the value and importance of her meaning childlike. I love Stephen King. He is the reason I am an English teacher and he’s the reason I am a writer. He’s the reason I believe in faith, hope, love, and all the good things. He is an inspiration.
I read Lisey’s Story and loved it.
Mandi — Thanks for reading this and for your powerful comments. Now that I know two who recommend LISEY’S STORY, I’ll get to it.
(I hope Stephen King reads these comments. Wow.)
I have never read On Writing, but after reading this I walked from the checkout desk over to the shelves and grabbed it. Plus I’m going to pick up 11/22/63 as soon as I can!
Anne — Thanks for your comment here. You’re in for a couple of threats there.
LOL Was that a typo or ?
Make that “treats.” I’ve found typos galore in my responses here. Ugh. Sorry.
If you look on my bookshelves at home, you will see On Writing mixed in with a lot of King’s fiction, much of it The Dark Tower series. On Writing is mine, and the rest belong to my husband. For him as a reader and me as writer, I love that we have this connection with the same author. There is a multitude of value in what King puts out there, regardless of what brings us to his texts.
Amy — Good point. He’s a horror writer in the same way that Jack Nicholson is a “horror actor.” There’s a lot more going on in those books, and he has made important contribution in more genres than horror. (Isure wish he’d write another vampire book though.) Thanks for your comment here!
My most oft-told “Stephen King book story” is when I got caught reading The Shining in chapel while attending a private Christian high school. My youth pastor started flipping through it, and I think it traumatized him. He was going to get a Sharpie and black out all the naughty words… I’m not sure at what point he realized he was going to run out of ink before he ran out of book, but he gave up and tossed it in the trash. I was livid, and it was the first and only time my mom and I had a high decibel altercation.
I started with Salem’s Lot when I was 13, and didn’t stop until Everything’s Eventual. I revisited King with Cell and Under the Dome. I have both the hardback and audiobook of On Writing- there’s nothing like listening to an author read their own book.
Whatever the story line or content, it’s the way King draws his characters that grab you by the neck and hold on until you turn blue.
Great story, Susan! Another good King audio is an interview with him on NPR’s “Fresh Air with Terry Gross.”
The Stand is one of my favorite books of all time – despite its length, I re-read it every few years. I also adored On Writing, even though I’m not a writer, and enjoyed many of King’s others over the years. Sometimes he’s a bit gory for my personal taste (I must confess the Rose Madder put me off of his work for quite a while), but I think that his everyday insights about people are brilliant.
Jen — I wonder if you have any thoughts or preferences about the original version of THE STAND vs the updated version. Thanks for your comments here.
My all-time favorite Stephen King book is probably Needful Things. What was scarier than anything else in that book was human nature – and it fascinated me. Close runner up – for entirely different reasons – would be On Writing. I have loved his short stories more than his novels as a general rule (“Apt Pupil” gave me nightmares for months) – and I love this quote of his about short stories: “A short story is a different thing all together – a short story is like a kiss in the dark from a stranger.”
Thanks for sharing this. You’re definitely not alone in being a King fan.
Thanks, Cindy, for the recommendation of NEEDFUL THINGS. The fascinating thing about these comments is that there are so many King fans but such a wide variety of favorite King books.
My Stephen King memory: Getting trouble as a teen for throwing Insomnia at my sister during a fight. I love The Gunslinger series, Skeleton Crew (especially “The Mist”) and 11/22/63, among many others! His new book, Joyland, out June 4th, sounds interesting.
Sara — INSOMNIA is a big book! I hope you were throwing a paperback!
Thanks for reading this and for adding your comment.
‘Salem’s Lot was my first King book, and still my favorite. I, like you, have gone on and off King…but his work is my standby when I’m seeking something unputdownable. I’m currently reading 11/22/63 and bought the same Kindle daily deal of Under the Dome (which I’m planning to read over the summer). His characters are some of the richest I’ve read; The Green Mile, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption…these two books contained scenes that took my breath away. And On Writing is one of the finest pieces of memoir around; in fact, I think I’ll read it again soon.
Btw, have you read anything by his son, Joe Hill? Really good stuff…and a few short works available for cheap on Kindle.
Tori — Joe Hill has recently come on my radar, but I didn’t know about the short works on Kindle. I’ll take a look. Thanks for the comment and for the suggestion.
I remember in school that I really hated to read, I had a horrible teacher in school that made us read in front of the class books like The Illiad and the Odessey. Not only is this hard book for a 5th grader but for a shy fifth grader it was humilliating. But once I got into an English Literature class in high school my love for reading has blossomed.
Yes Stephen King was my author of choice for several years and find his work brilliant, I was a King geek that worried that he may never recover from being hit by a car or that his writing style would change. He still puts out great books but I found that I loved a change in structureand have went on to read much of Grisham, The Harry Potter Series of course the Twilight series (yes more vampires) and have become hooked on Norah Roberts (J.D Robb). I guess getting older has done something to my tastes over the years, but Gary if you do get to have a beer with Stephen King have one for me with a toast to your friend that gave you that book.
John — Thanks for your comment and story. We can just skip Stephen King and have the toast ourselves, my friend.
My first Stephen King novel was The Shining. I was twelve, it was amazing and Terrortastic, even better than the movie I had just seen.
Thus began my on again, off again love affair with King, I would read his work and love it until I hit a clunker that didn’t connect with me. I would then have a brief affair with Heinlein or Asimov, but, I couldn’t stay away. King then brought to me my favorite of his works, The Stand. I can’t say enough about it. I will just say that it is at the top of my desert island books list.
I want to add here that I prefer the later edition of The Stand it just gave me even more to love and think about, I read it every couple of years and it touches me differently every time.
Our relationship has continued through the years, I wish I could give him back a bit of all that I have gotten from him. He even helped me find a wife. When Our desert island books matched so closely including The Stand…I knew I had someone even more special that I thought.
Thanks for making me think of King all over again.
I thought the original version of THE STAND was terrific, except for the dang ending. I’ve never gone back to the updated version, although I’m sure the ending is better in that one. Maybe I should re-visit it.
Stephen King as matchmaker? Hmmm.
Thanks for your comments here.
I love Lisey’s Story. It’s the only one I’ve liked as much as The Stand. Except, maybe, for On Writing.
OK. I need to read LISEY’S STORY. Thanks for the recommendation and for your comment here.
Gary – Great post! I too “discovered” Stephen King in high school. In fact, up until I read my first King novel – Firestarter – I had no idea that grown-ups read stuff like that. I also jumped on the King bandwagon and read all of those classic works – Salem’s Lot, The Shining, The Stand, Cujo….. His books have been some of my most memorable reads. I can’t think about vampire stories without thinking of Salem’s Lot. I can’t drive through the Lincoln Tunnel without considering what it would be like to walk through it in the dark while it is lined with dead bodies. And REDRUM always flashes into my mind at inappropriate moments. I dropped off the King-mobile for a while when stuff started to get “weird” (not really sure how my mind classifies weird vs not-weird in King world, but it does). This summer I read 11/26/63 and thought – “This is great stuff.” Thanks for the trip down memory lane!
Jennifer — Glad I’m not alone in having “REDRUM” moments! Thanks for adding your perspectives here.
Good timing–I just read 11/22/64, which was my first ever Stephen King book (besides On Writing), and loved it. I was thinking that I’d love to read more by him, but can’t do scary (11/22/63 was scary enough for me–I lay awake worrying about the characters and even dreamed multiple stressful dreams about Jake and Sadie). I was wondering where I could find good recommendations of others of his that aren’t horror…and then along came this post. Suggestions of others that a wimp like me could read?
First of all, bless your heart. Finding Stephen King books that are not too scary is tough, but you might try HEARTS IN ATLANTIS or THE EYES OF THE DRAGON. They are not really horror in the traditional sense. If you read either of them, please let me know if these recommendations are on track. Thanks for your comment here.
Yeah…so “O have” was as far as I got trying to reply to this wonderful post on my phone. Never doing that again! Surely I have more coherent things to say about King than that! 🙂
Like many other commenters, I discovered King in high school. I probably read Carrie first and then ‘Salem’s Lot. Sooo scary (and no wonder King dissed Twilight!) Over the years I have read scads more of his books: The Shining, Cujo, Christine, Gerald’s Game, Bag of Bones, etc and my all-time favourite, IT.
I read IT in the mid- 80s, while I was living in NYC. I lugged that book with me everywhere. I just couldn’t put it down. In my opinion it does everything right: gets to the heart of childhood friendships, makes the ordinary downright scary and gives you characters to root for. I recently bought it for my classroom library and so I turned to the last page, because I have a vivid memory of being really moved by the end of IT. Sure enough, I read the last two sentences and my eyes welled up.
Invariably I have students who tell me that they’ve never read a scary book and I happily recommend King. Sure, some of his stuff is bloated and sure, I haven’t liked all his stuff (Tommyknockers; The Stand – which I know lots of people LOVE…but I have never been able – despite repeated attempts – to get past page 50 or so) but to be as prolific as he’s been and to have written some of the scariest (and most moving) stuff ever…well, his detractors don’t know what they’re talking about.
As for On Writing. Loved it and I keep my copy in my classroom for students to borrow – which they do.
King recently visited a school about an hour away from where I live (here in New Brunswick). They’d lobbied him hard for over a year – sending letters and videos etc – and he finally acquiesced. He drove up from Bangor, spoke to the students and then workshopped with a small number, 18 or so, I think. He even offered to take home their writing so he could offer specific feedback to each student. I was so jealous!
If you haven’t yet read Stephen’s son Joe Hill’s novel Heart-Shaped Box, I highly recommend it. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. And of course, if you like King I expect you’d like Peter Straub. I discovered him about the same time as I discovered King. Ghost Story is a classic. And Shadowlands – still can’t shake that book. Plus, The Talisman is a book King and Straub wrote together and it’s fantastic.
Wow. Sorry that was so long-winded. Snow day here…:-)
And I return the “Wow”! Thanks for all of these great recommendations.
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