A Return to Stephen King

My father was a paranormal buff. He believed in extra-terrestrials, ghosts, Bigfoot, and Nessie, and 90% of his huge paperback collection consisted of true tales of the supernatural. These books lined long wood planks he’d bracketed to his bedroom wall, while my mother’s mysteries and romance novels took up all the bookshelf space.

I learned to read early, and by second grade or so, I’d graduated from Encyclopedia Brown, sneaking my father’s ghost stories off to my room, although I don’t remember anyone discouraging me from it. My macabre reading habits went unchecked from a very young age.

One of my dad’s coworkers, mistaking his interest in the paranormal for a penchant for horror fiction, passed a book off to him, a book about an unusually gifted girl with a terrifyingly religious mother. It was called Carrie. I don’t know if my dad read a word of it or just decided after perusing the back cover, but he gave it to me, saying, “I don’t care a thing about this book, but you might like it.” I think I was twelve. I was certainly no older than thirteen, the age I was when Dad died.

And he’d been right. I liked that the story was told through journals, interviews, news clippings, and confessional literature, giving you the impression that you were spying on the characters. I loved that Carrie struggled with fitting in and sometimes just trying to be invisible. I loved that she railed against her mother’s religious fanaticism. And it didn’t have a happy ending. God, I loved that.

I wasn’t an astute reader, didn’t look for other books by the same guy who’d written Carrie, but soon enough, his name was all over the shelves dominated by the dark-covered novels I became obsessed with. I read Night Shift and ‘Salem’s Lot, and then I think it was The Stand. I began watching the bookstore window displays for the name King, devouring most of his books the week they were released. I read most everything he wrote, up through Dolores Claiborne.

And then I stopped.

I can tell you exactly why—grad school. Those literary snots almost ruined me. I was still reading good books—Alice Hoffman, some classics, a lot of magical realism. Genre was a word used to describe not-literary, and it was a bad word. I accepted it.

Years went by.

The noose loosened because I met good writers who read horror and fantasy, and I joined the ranks of those who know that literary is just another genre. I freed myself to read anything I wanted and to enjoy stories again. It was like recovering from an illness.

Then Doctor Sleep came out.

I’d still never read The Shining, which surprises me, because many reliable readers had told me it was a different story from the film, a deeper, more meaningful, more interesting story. Books usually do accomplish this. But The Shining, they said, did it exceptionally. So on the new book’s release date, my birthday, I bought both The Shining and Doctor Sleep and read them back to back.

I fell in literary love. Jack Torrance became one of my favorite fictional characters. I still get shivers remembering why I wrote in my review of Doctor Sleep: “And the moment I waited 508 pages for finally came, as I trusted it would, because I knew I was in good hands.”

I have missed King’s settings and his moods, the tone of his books and his turns of phrase. I’ve missed the voices in his characters’ heads. I’ve missed Derry and Castle Rock, Maine, and I’m so angry at myself for listening to the literary snots.

I re-read Carrie and ‘Salem’s Lot and Night Shift. They are better than I remembered. This guy was a good writer from the beginning, and I know neither he nor his fans need to hear that from me.

Maybe no one does. I’m saying it anyway.

And The Stand will be next. It should snowball from there.

king books

So, have any of you, my scads of readers, enjoyed a return to a once-lost author or genre?

Did it feel wonderful?

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10 thoughts on “A Return to Stephen King

  1. You almost make me want to love Stephen King.
    I feel envious.
    But I know that he and I aren’t copacetic, though I acknowledge his worth. Ah well. Very nice post.

      • I’ve read five or six King books and enjoyed them all. But Caroline makes me feel like a prole for reading him. Not by anything she says, and not with any scowls or disapproving looks. But by her prolific reading habits. The number of authors that Caroline’s made me want to love, knowing that I’ll never get around to reading them, is legion.

  2. I went through a King phase in my teenage years. Stopped in college not because I was surrounded by literary snobs (though yes, I did also endure and somewhat adapt to/accept the “genre is lesser” mentality), but because his books are LONG and as an English major, I just did not want to spend my free time reading more. Went through the Dark Tower series a few years ago, though that’s been my only King for quite some time.

    I read The Shining during my teen years and was thinking I should pick up Doctor Sleep. May need to reread The Shining first, however.

    • I do recommend revisiting The Shining before you read Doctor Sleep. So many subtle connections would have been lost on me if I hadn’t had the first book freshly in mind.

      I have always loved long novels, if they’re good. I get lost in them and don’t want to find my way out.

  3. My author renaissance was with John Steinbeck, although that was a little different. I’d read him all through school, though mostly in short stories like “The Chrysanthemums.” I think at some point I’d read one of his short novels, maybe The Pearl. At that age, his writing didn’t click with me. However, when I had to read him again years later in grad school, suddenly my eyes were opened, and I tore through all his major works and loved them all. I firmly believe that anyone who thinks they want to write needs to read East of Eden, like an entrance exam. So much about human nature, good characters, and great writing in one novel.

    • Steinbeck is one of the good authors I was forced to read in grad school, too. My copy of The Grapes of Wrath has a thousand underlined and starred passages in it.

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