Well, I’m sure you’ve all heard the news, and if you haven’t—ugh—I hate to be the one to pass it along, but Stephen King died last night. The news reports aren’t stating the cause of death yet, but given the reported health problems he suffered after that near fatal accident in 1999, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a combination of factors. Damn ... I’m just so sad and stunned ... even though, thanks to my mother’s sudden and unexpected death back in 2006, and my own struggles with diabetes, I’m just as aware of mortality as the next guy.
But Stephen King just seemed like someone who was gonna be with us forever.
Let me modify that—he will, of course, be with us forever. Whatever you think of his writing (and I know several people receiving this email think very little of it, though this would not be a good day to start making snarky comments), Stephen King was (I actually originally typed “is”, since I’m so used to defending Big Steve in the present tense) one of the greats. Shakespeare great; Dickens or Chandler or pick your favorite. For as long as people read, Stephen King will be with us.
Not surprisingly, my first awareness of Stephen King came not from his books but from the movies based on his novels—specifically, having the hell scared out of me as a kid by TV commercials for the film versions of Carrie (Sissy Spacek covered in blood!), the ’Salem’s Lot miniseries (vampires in a small town!!), and especially Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (that elevator disgorging an ocean of blood!!!). As a child, I used to dread the imagery that those (and, for that matter any) horror film commercials implanted in my brain (am I the only one who finds it slightly perverse that ads like that used to air during the breaks in family-friendly primetime sitcoms?)—then, somewhere around 12 years old, everything changed. I started to like horror.
Most likely because, like a lot of kids, I finally realized it was a whole lot more cool to be fascinated by the mysterious and the macabre than to be scared by it. And in those days (early-to-mid 80s) if you got into horror, it was only a matter of time until you got into Stephen King.
For me, it started with the short stories in his first collection, Night Shift. I was already an avid reader, but King’s novels initially just seemed too big and daunting to undertake. But wow ... I’ll never forget those bite-sized gulps of terror in that book: “Children of the Corn” with its evocation of the wide-open claustrophobia of Nebraska cornfields; “The Mangler,” which took what could have possibly been the stupidest idea every for a horror story (a demon-possessed industrial laundry machine!?) and turned it into a staggering exercise in proto-Splatterpunk; and maybe my favorite of the bunch “The Boogeyman,” which validated the late-night there’s-something-in-the-closet fears of children everywhere.
From there, it was pretty much all Stephen King, all the time for me—every book, every movie version. Sure, I read plenty of other writers and books (in and out of the horror genre), but Stephen King was always pretty much #1 with a bullet in my to-read pile. Even (maybe especially) when I got to college and found myself in, shall we say, “vigorous debates” with certain literature instructors who thought King was writing the very worst kind of “popular trash” (I sure would’ve like to have seen the looks on some of those professors’ faces when King made his first appearance in The New Yorker).
Anyway, it’s hard to express any of this without lapsing into clichés, which is pretty ironic since Stephen King was largely responsible for upturning and reinventing just about every horror cliché in the book. I have so many books and authors I love, and yet I really can’t think of one that has given me as much pure, unadulterated pleasure as Big Steve.
I guess that’s what so much of this comes down to for me. Boring study halls in high school were transformed into a trip to the Overlook Hotel while reading The Shining. The summer of 1996 was a perpetual cliffhanger thanks to the monthly installments of King’s “serial novel,” The Green Mile. (My then girlfriend and I used to argue over whom got to read the newest volume first.) And most of all, a few months after my mother’s death in 2006, I decided to re-read his most harrowing and heartfelt book, Pet Sematary, which damn near shredded me the first time I read its pages and then reduced me to cathartic tears upon revisiting.
His work gave us a universe that completely transcended the stock plots of most horror fiction. How many of us readers identified with the lonely and terrifying Carrie White (and would’ve loved to have possessed her powers in high school)? Anyone who’s ever had to write so much as a term paper can’t help but identify with King’s many writer characters, like Paul Sheldon in Misery, so truthfully do their portraits convey the tricky business of trying to coax the right words from a blank page. And then there’s the enormous cast of his apocalyptic epic The Stand, where every single figure—good and bad—is so rich and real and human.
And of course, it’s only a small step from the pleasure and insight that I took from reading Stephen King to the inspiration he gave me and countless others as writers. Like all great writers, he made the spellbinding craft look so easy; the profound complexity of his work was masked by its apparent simplicity. He wrote the kind of books that—in the best sense—make us fans think: “Hey, I can do that!” Of course we can’t, or at least we can’t the way he did it.
So where does that leave us today, the day we lost Stephen King? The news, of course, is huge, and there will be the requisite obituaries and tributes and thousands of blogs and emails like this one. But speaking for myself, I’m going back where it started. “In the beginning there was the Word,” said a certain book that through the ages managed to outsell even Stephen King, and I’m going back to Stephen King’s words. A copy of Night Shift sits on the bookshelf behind my desk, and I—for one—am curious to see whether the Boogeyman is still lurking in the closet.
I have a feeling he’s still there ... and scarier than ever.
*every word is true as of this writing, except, thankfully, Stephen King is not dead.