As this September 21st winds down, it’s been a day full of celebration in the horror loving world. The man responsible for millions of sleepless nights, either due to nightmares or his Constant Readers simply not being able to put a book down, has turned the big 7-0.
Stephen King cemented his status in the literary world decades ago and he could have retired a few dozen times over if he really wanted to. But that’s what is so awesome- he doesn’t want to. Rarely do you see a prolific writer still churning out material and new novels at such a rate as they near their fifth decade in the industry. He writes for himself. He writes for his Constant Readers. He writes because that’s what he was born to do.
When I lost my mother last year, one of the things that hurt most about the devastating tragedy was that I lost my horror buddy. I remember saying out loud, “She isn’t going to see the new It.” My stomach churned at the idea of purchasing a new King book without having her around to pass it off to after I’d read it. She introduced me to King, via a paperback copy of Cujo, when I was eight years old and over the last twenty-two years, I’ve devoured any and all King I could get my hands on.
Because to me, Stephen King and his incredible catalogue of work isn’t just a favorite hobby of mine. These books and this man are a lifeline to a relationship that is now comprised of memories. I teared up when this year’s It started on the big screen a few weeks back- mostly because I couldn’t believe I was finally seeing such an iconic King novel brought to life properly, but also because I always remember how much my mother loved good ol’ Mr. King and how big a part he played in a relationship between son and mother. Simply put, King and the massive mountain of pages he’s horrified hundreds of millions of people with will forever hold a tender spot in my heart.
I know I’m not the only person who shares such personal and glowing sentiments with Mr. King. In honor of his seventieth birthday, I had the pleasure of speaking with three author pals of mine who just so happen to hold Uncle Steve near and dear in their heart, as well.
When you’re a child, you grow up under a shadow of helplessness. Looking back at childhood, a lot of people see a carefree time with no responsibilities, but what they’ve forgotten is that it’s also a time of no power.
Even the most poverty-stricken wage-slave at McDonald’s has more agency than the average child, and it’s something that most children accept. But for other children, that helplessness is terrifying. There’s a sense that the people we rely on might not know as much as we think they do; maybe they don’t even know as much as WE do. There’s nothing so frightening as having knowledge without the power to act on it.
Stephen King’s horror novels are full of terrible things happening to all sorts of people, including children. But through most of them is a common thread: children are powerful. The little boy in ‘Salem’s Lot successfully fends off a vampire and goes to sleep, while an adult nearby almost dies of a heart attack. The Losers in IT not only figure out what’s killing people in Derry, they mount a plan to successfully kill it once and for all. When Carrie White is betrayed by everyone around her, she takes matters into her own hands, and her own mother doesn’t stand a chance.
I don’t like to complain about my childhood, because many have had it worse. But I think that Stephen King may have saved my life. What I remember feeling when I discovered his work was partly excitement and fear, but mostly relief. I wasn’t alone. There were kids out there who felt as frightened and helpless as I did, and each one had found their own version of the stake that would kill the monster under the bed. I could do it too.
I’m no Stephen King expert. I’m no cheerleader, either. I hear about a new King book long after it’s old news, and sometimes—shhh!—sometimes I don’t read them. But when I do, and when it’s good, Stephen King is the best. I can’t think of a more accessible author. When I taught high school English and I had a student who didn’t like to read, I suggested King. Students who struggled liked him. Students who excelled liked him.
There’s so much to appreciate, on so many levels, but what I love most about Stephen King, is that he draws you into the story. He puts his Constant Reader there. It doesn’t matter how fantastic the story was, you could tell that somewhere, it was real, and for a little while, you were there, too.
One summer, when I was around twelve years old, I’d finished one of my usual “age-appropriate” chapter books and was ready for something completely different. So when nobody was looking, I crept quietly into my parents’ room to pilfer something from my mom’s very eclectic bookshelf where she kept all the weird, hidden gems a sneaky, horror-loving child could want. There, I found a beat-up paperback copy of Night Shift. For the next week, I tucked myself away in dark corners, as I pored over the pages, feeling very much like I was suddenly in on the most important secret of a lifetime. Every tale held its thrall over me. “The Boogeyman” made me think twice about the cracked-open closet door, and the identity of the serial killer in “Strawberry Spring” lodged itself under my skin like a nagging splinter. And don’t even get me started on “Night Surf,” which is at once horrifying and melancholy (and only fueled my love of seaside horror). From the very first page, what drew me into Stephen King’s work was his ability to uncover terror in any setting. His work taught me that horror could be anything or anywhere, and that opened a world of possibilities that I’m still—happily—trying to unravel to this day.
While so many readers seem to prefer his longer works, I will always treasure King’s short stories the most, in particular those earliest tales I read from Night Shift. Thanks to that one well-spent summer, my life has never been the same.