Saturday, April 5, 2014

King Among Monsters

 Forty years ago this weekend, the reading public was introduced to a shy, bullied girl with an overbearing mother and the eerie ability to control objects around her with her mind. Her story, first told in Stephen King's novel Carrie, would eventually become a movie, a musical, and a TV movie. It's a terse novel, under 200 pages—a rarity for King, whose work tends towards the "doorstop" end of the size spectrum—told in newspaper clippings, interviews, and flashbacks. We all know Carrie's story: she's pelted with menstrual pads in the shower, locked in a closet by her deranged mother, has her breasts called dirty pillows (?!), and, after one last bloody prank, eventually goes berserk at the prom. It's delicious, gory stuff! While it's one of the most commonly banned of his books, it really should be required reading for anyone who's ever mean-girled someone.

My first experience with Stephen King came when I was thirteen. We had just moved to Stratford, and while my mom washed the walls of our new rented house and cried (people who smoke inside rental units are bad, bad people), I rifled through my dad's boxed-up paperbacks, looking for something to read. I had only recently graduated from Sweet Valley high books, and I was ravenous for something that felt dangerous and adult. Even though the cover featured a pint-seized, snotty-looking Drew Barrymore on the cover, picking up his copy of Firestarter gave me a thrill. Stephen King. He was, the cover proclaimed, the master of horror. Despite the fact that even browsing the VHS boxes of the local video store's horror movie section (guys, I'm old) sometimes gave me nightmares—thanks a bunch, Wes Craven—I devoured Firestarter in a few days. I was hungry for more.

Thankfully, my dad, being a dad, was required by law to have a shelf full of yellowing King paperbacks at both the cottage and our now-clean house. I read a bunch of the mid-'80s blockbusters in quick succession: Salem's Lot, which was genuinely scary; Christine, which I understood on an intellectual level to be pretty silly (it's about a, but still managed to give me a memorable nightmare (the car was under my bed! Trying to eat me!); It, whose reputation was solidly in place as one of the scariest books of all time, and which is responsible for two generations of clown phobias; Gerald's Game and The Tommyknockers, both of which were just strange; and a host of other books. I read the third book of The Dark Tower series without realizing that it was part of a larger story, I dug up my dad's copy of the Bachman books, featuring the pre-Columbine shooting novella "Rage," and I read The Stand, which I read upwards of a dozen times over the next decade. My sister once casually mentioned reading a King story—"Strawberry Spring"—and that surprised me, because she's always been a little more highbrow that me; then again, it's awfully hard to resist King's pull. (We bonded over how freaky that story is, and still reference it. His stories leave a mark.)

If Stephen King was a doctor, he would be a battlefield medic. His stories are brutal, thumping pieces of prose—they often feature evil sentient rats, or distraught ex-priests who fight vampires—and they lack fine delicacy. He sews stories together with big, looping threads, but those stitches are tight. He's no plastic surgeon, that's for damn sure. His books aren't pretty, either in content or style, but when you're relying on someone to assemble a real kick-ass story, he's unmatched. Even after he won a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Book Awards, he was dismissed by snobbish publishing poobahs, but frankly, they don't know what they're talking about. King is fascinated by the fascia of life, sure—the gutty parts, the sharpened teeth, the ragged fingernails and the slitted eye—but he's also a top-notch storyteller.

I will refer anyone who doubts me to his best book, The Stand. This book is a monster. It's a thousand pages long, featuring roughly one million different characters, and takes place during and immediately after a super-flu that kills, oh, just about everyone. The handful of people who remain begin having strange dreams about a scary man in a denim jacket and a old black lady in a shack. It is, of course, the story of good and evil, of humanity in the face of great despair, of love's survival in the wilderness, and of free choice and destiny. It's also scary, heart-breaking, superbly characterized, about 200 pages too long (most King books are), nuanced, fractured, and gloriously alive. I read it a lot in my teens and 20s, because—and I know how this sounds, trust me—those characters were my friends. I loved Frannie and Stu and Nick and Dayna, and I hated (hated!) Harold Lauder and rooted for poor Larry and was appropriately freaked out by The Walkin' Dude. Anyone who finds themselves drawn into the intrigue of Game of Thrones, the ethical devolution of Breaking Bad, or the splatter of The Walking Dead will find themselves right at home in The Stand, and have absolutely no leg to stand on for being sniffy. Just read it.

Carrie was King's first, his supernoval debut. It sold four million copies. The movie adaptation earned Sissy Spacek an Oscar nomination. And it launched King's career, basically giving him carte blanche to write whatever he wanted for the rest of his life. He's been remarkably experimental in his work—epic series, e-books, non-fiction musings on baseball, literally hundreds of short stories—and even though his life-threatening car accident might have slowed him down for a while in the early 2000s (and, I believe, led to some very bad novels—did anyone actually read Duma Key?), he deserves to be celebrated as a publishing and, dare say, literary force.

This anniversary, I'll take down my copy of Everything's Eventual, a short story collection published in the middle of last decade. I'll turn to "1408," a haunted-house story set in a very bad hotel room. King probably doesn't even remember writing it, but, like the first and second and third time I read it, I'll get an actual chill when I reach the story's climax. It's a very scary little story. You should read it. Turn all the lights on, but that won't help. You'll get that same chill too.