How I Finally Learned To Love Stephen King

Reading & Writing

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.

10 comments on “How I Finally Learned To Love Stephen King”

  1. Andy says:

    I always liked Stephen King’s books, I wasn’t looking for great literature, I was looking for an enjoyable read, a scary story, and he does deliver. Loved “Christine” and especially “IT”. Not such a fan of his Dark Tower series tho…

  2. Bobusmaximus says:

    I’ve always felt I was missing something with King, too. Like you, I’ve enjoyed the stories, but struggled with the style. For me, it’s the endless comments in brackets or italics that I have a problem with. Hmm. Perhaps I should reassess his writing as well!

  3. Rudehamster says:

    Wow…thanks’ for this, and for the heads up on 11-22-63.

    I started reading Stephen King, after ploughing my way through the glorious Herbert van Thal edited, Pan Series. It seems I stopped reading King for the same reason as you did: I just couldn’t get into the unending ramble of prose: feeling that a red pen and some heavy editing would make for a better read.

    This was at the time when Stephen King was at saturation point, with books being churned out with astonishing regularity. I was always a film lover, so it didn’t take me long to prefer his novels abbreviated on film. This was at a time when I moved to London & had come out to my parents…I had other things on my mind than reading, so not only did I move away from King, but I stepped away from books for a few years.

    When I did start reading again, it was the world of psychological thrillers and crime, where I remained happily, with the occasional dive into Anne Rice. It wasn’t until Spanky, by some guy whose name escapes me, that I started to truly regain my love for the horror book again.
    Since an accident last year, which led to paralysis and numbness, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to hold a novel up, as my hands get very sore. Another problem I had with Stephen King’s novels…they were just too damned heavy to haul around.

    My mother and sister however, have stuck with him and rant glorious praise as every book is finished. So, with their promise of a kindle this Christmas, my arguments may change. I already use kindle on my pc and have a good collection of novels to keep me going but, like you, it’ll take me some time to catch up on the missing King.
    Regards,
    Rudehamster

  4. J. Folgard says:

    I read ‘IT’ in my teens -it was a great entry point to the whole genre at this time. I consumed horror avidly, until the early nineties when my interest waned and the paperback market dwindled a bit. Then Stephen Jones’ brilliant anthologies hooked me again seven years ago, and this led to rediscovering King -perfect loop! I guzzled ‘On Writing’ in one sitting, and was impressed by the way he presented his craft while you thought he was there, sitting casually in front of you, talking to a friend. He’s good!
    On a side note, I really enjoy his son’s work, both in comics and prose too. Several of Joe Hill’s short horror stories really moved me -lump in the throat and all!

  5. Yeah, I started liking King (my favourites among his books are still in the early ones: DEAD ZONE and SALEM’S LOT), and gradually I started being bored by the verbosity, the annoying tropes. Lightly more recently, I liked MISERY and I really enjoyed his ON WRITING. I lasted a bit longer on the short stories, but even those I can’t read any more. It’s OK: there are many more writers than I have time to read, anyway.

  6. BangBang!! says:

    I’m also one of the few who’ve never read a King novel. I’ve tried numerous times – my wife really likes him so I have unlimited access! The thing is, I can’t really say why I haven’t. I start them but I just can’t seem to get very far. I’ve always enjoyed Richard Laymon’s potboilers, who for some reason I associate with him, but I still can’t put my finger on it.

    I know Koontz is a big Republican in the US so I automatically (if irrationally, dislike him). King is a Democrat so I can’t even use that! Perhaps I just need to get stuck into one and keep going? Any recommendation as to one I can start with?

  7. Cat Eldridge says:

    I suggest you try some of his collections of short stories and novellas such as the newest collection, Full Dark, No Stars, or an an older collection such as Different Seasons. These stories tend to be a lot tighter, more focused than the novels are.

    And they generally first ran in magazines where an editorial process was applied to them. One of the curses of modern publishing, American or UK makes no difference, is the bean counters have affected for the worse the editing and proofing process any novel or collection should have,

  8. BangBang!! says:

    Thank you Cat. I’l hunt one of those off the shelves and give it a go!

  9. D. M. Dunn says:

    For what it’s worth Cat, I totally agree. I just read Full Dark, No Stars in preparation for 11/22/63. I always read some short King before he has a new novel coming out. A sort of practice run, as it were.

    I would be remiss if I didn’t mention The Colorado Kid. This goes for you too, Admin. If you haven’t read The Colorado Kid, I give it my seal of approval, for what it’s worth. There is a caveat though. You will either love it, or, well, let’s just say you’ll never come to me for suggestions again. BangBang, I suggest you try that one too. It is different in a lot of ways. Most of which I think are fantastic.

    All of this nonsense to say, Mr Fowler, I’m so glad you made this post. I don’t comment a lot, but I try when I feel like people might like what I have to say. In this instance, it is the perfect coming together of worlds for me. You and Mr. King are the only two authors that I buy the book the day it hits the shelf. I’m looking forward to The Memory of Blood, but sadly I live in America and when I say hits the shelf, I mean it literally.

    I suppose I would still buy John Dickson Carr straight off the shelf if he were still alive.

    In summary, someone you’ve never heard of likes you, and you should still relax. Just look at the company you are keeping on my shelf.

  10. jan says:

    the thing is with Stephen King his books are at their best really, really horrifically SCARY. Now i don’t totally understand how he pulls this off all the time – your books the early horror could be gory and scary but it never worked for me in quite the same way there was never that i’m going to miss those pages out and come back to them in the daylight kind of scaryness that King could produce. Maybe that was because of the deadpan downhome way he told the story no showing off his fine vocabulary no fine turn of prose to impress the punters just like an ordinary bloke telling u a story that SCARED THE SHIT OUT OF YOU. Saying that some of the books were rubbishy that massive conveyor belt churned out some naff stuff but the good bits well they were bloody good and believable in some horrible way …………….Of course he did himself no favours with that thing he said about being the Mcdonalds meal of modern literature but you can’t ignore him gr8 storytelling and massively popular i wonder if in time he will stand up from his own era as a fine writer or just get forgotten like other writers massively popular in their eras are forgotten 2 decades later i reckon he’ll remain u know the Dickens of his time and all these novels produced by the university literati forgotten, binned incredibly inconsequential. OOOoops wots got into me this morning.
    Hope alls good will write soon

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