How I Finally Learned To Love Stephen King
I first read ‘Carrie’ on a plane from LA, and it set the tone for my lifelong love/hate relationship with Stephen King. I thought the plot was brilliant in its simplicity – why had nobody thought of it before? But I loathed the toe-stubbingly flat language. What I could’t see was that King’s lack of style would become a unique style of its own.
I couldn’t see it because, up until that point, I had read no American fiction. Indeed, I wasn’t even aware of there being such a thing beyond Hemingway (whose work I detested), Henry James and Herman Melville (whom I find unreadable) and F Scott Fitzgerald. My bad, maybe, but there was such a vast richness to English writing that I had barely scratched the surface, and I was still dealing with early 20th century English authors.
Well, time put that right and I quickly discovered a great many American authors who became firm favourites with me, to the point where half of the books in my library are from the New World. Meanwhile, I enjoyed ‘Salem’s Lot’ and ‘The Shining’ but still stumbled over the prose. I was in thrall to richly detailed stylists like Dickens, or clear and unsentimental language from Woolf or Waugh. And I’m English; we didn’t do sentiment.
There were other things that bothered me with King. The casual mixing of the supernatural with the real, the folksiness, the obsession – part of an American national obsession, I felt – with adolescence. As an upstart writer I should have kept my mouth shut and learned from someone who had clearly tapped into the national psyche. But there was also the tendency of critics exhausted by ironic writing to fawn over King as the down-home saviour of the paperback, and I rebelled against being part of the veneration.
There was a fear of speaking out against King, too, because he was generous with his support for writers and often offered quotes that could translate into sales. I certainly wasn’t going to play that game. King had lucked out by having his first novel filmed by a breakout director, Brian De Palma, who had visualised ‘Carrie’ beautifully. And the one thing that works over and over with King is that the solidity of his world translates easily to the screen. Film versions either show the strength of his constructions or painfully expose their flaws.
But in recent years I’ve gradually reassessed my relationship to King’s writing, and now with ‘11.22.63’, his time travel Kennedy book, I’ve come to realise that his prose is a close reflection of a beloved American storytelling style; it’s blunt, vivid and expansive. Even the title is American – to us, the dates are round the wrong way. And King is American to his core – he is even the most American-looking man I’ve ever seen. He looks like the guy who owns a feed store in a small town. He has never been a master of concision, preferring to opt for several sentences where one would do, but it’s a style of his own choosing, and one that strikes a deep chord with readers.
He is also unafraid. It takes nerve to mix time travel and Kennedy’s assassination, and would once have been considered tasteless. But King is a nostalgist, and it’s no surprise that the time travelling takes him back to when he would have been eleven years old, which adds the poignancy of things lost to his prose. Once you embrace this style instead of trying to fight it off, everything suddenly makes sense.
Stephen King doesn’t need to care whether someone he’s never heard of likes him or not, but for me it’s a big deal, because I always felt I was missing something important – I should have just learned to relax. The resistance in the UK to accept King as a serious novelist has partly been due to the cultural mismatch between our two countries. ‘11.22.63’ may finally change that attitude. I’ve got some catching up to do.