With the recent IT movie adaptation roaring out of the sewers and into massive popularity, Stephen King is back on the radar. Really, he never left it.
Carrie, Salem’s Lot, The Shining, his first three novels were quickly turned into movies and/or TV miniseries and for the last 40 years, he’s been giving us Constant Readers reasons to leave the lights on all night (it’s because we’re reading, of course).
There’s a lot more to the master-of-plots-that-Hollywood-will-buy than simple blood and guts. Don’t let the movie adaptations fool you into thinking he’s a one-act wonder with no complexity to his work. If you think of him as “only” a scary story writer, you are missing out.
If you haven’t yet picked up one of his books, here are five reasons why you already should have.
1. Setting a Scene
King is a storyteller, and I meant that in the most complimentary way. Before you know it you’re sucked into the world he has created for you, complete with the smallest details. (Yes, he is sometimes a little wordy with this part. If you’re worried about getting bored with a 1,000-page door-stopper, start with his short stories.)
Does he follow all the Rules and set up the scenes with Textbook Formulas to Create the Right Mood? Can’t say I’ve noticed whether or not he does, I’m too busy reading to care. Some authors have the gift of spelling you into their world, and he’s one of them.
If a guy in prison has a little mouse for a friend, that’s cute but hardly heartbreaking, right? (Wrong. So, so wrong. *sobs*) Why should I worry if some kids want to wander around looking for a dead body they probably won’t find? Because Stephen King wrote them, that’s why. By the time you’re done you’ll feel as if you know all of the characters as well as your own extended family. They are believable, quirky, empathetic, both the heroes and the monsters.
You might not like them, some of the people he writes are crazy, disgusting bastards, but you will know all about them.
3. A Deeply Scary Understanding of the Human Psyche
So King sets his scene and places the people you come to care about in it. And then he goes wild, putting them in impossible situations and dragging them through to the other side, pitting them against primal fears in tests of love, loyalty, survival, or simple humanity. He makes you root for them, truly want them to survive, and wonder how the hell he’s going to get them out of this one.
And then he adds just a little bit more when some of the parts of his work that disturb the most are what the people do to each other. He doesn’t need something drooling with fangs to horrify you.
4. Lots of Options
Stephen King is a straight horror writer, right? WRONG. With more than 80 separate works in print, he has a vast and diverse library for you to explore. He writes Fantasy (The Talisman, Eye of the Dragon, The Dark Tower Series) Crime/Thrillers (Misery, Dolores Claiborne, 11-22-63, Rose Madder – which is also a great feminist story) Sci-Fi (The Running Man, Firestarter) Westerns (The Dark Tower Series) Short Stories (Different Seasons, Night Shift, Nightmares and Dreamscapes, Full Dark No Stars, Skeleton Crew) and Nonfiction (Danse Macabre, On Writing).
Yes, a lot of his work has a terrifying element in it, but not all of it does and it’s vastly oversimplifying to call it all “Horror”.
5. Plotting a Plot
Part of being a great storyteller is holding a mirror up to the world and distorting the reflection. Without following a predictable formula, King makes you look at ordinary things, examine what can go wrong with them, and then consider what you would do in the same situation. Sometimes that reflection gets uncomfortable, and that’s the point. The overarching themes in his books tend to demonstrate Good vs. Evil but the people inside them cover every possible shade of gray in-between the two.
When the ordinary has been stripped away and people have been battered down to bare bones without any comfortable pretenses left, what kind of people will they be? Read one of King’s stories to find out.
*It has to be admitted that not every single one of his works has this ability.* Readers will find the occasional miss out of all of his hits. People have legitimate complaints about his endings (sometimes the tension just fizzles out), his dialogue is grounded in what he grew up with and can jar more modern readers. There’s an ongoing debate about his earlier works vs. the most recent ones.
That said, the hits are just too good to miss. Go find one, and do yourself the favor of reading it. Soon.
Constant Readers, sound off. Tell us your favorite Stephen King work (and why that one) in the comments!