I am not ashamed to admit it: I love Stephen King just as much as I did at 11.
He remains, hands down, my favorite writer of popular fiction, even with the occasional dud. (“Lisey’s Song,” I’m looking at you.)
From the age of 8 or 9, I always went for the pulpy, satisfying King paperbacks at my B. Dalton’s or library. Books where people swore and screwed with relish, where the supernatural marred small town New England normalcy. There were deformed babies, the devil, rabid dogs, possessed cars and of course, hysteria-inducing sewer clowns.
But for me, this was a strange back door introduction to the adult world, where there were real horrors like rape, drug abuse and plain old marital unhappiness.
Many of the women I know grew up devouring Stephen King -- and he simply doesn’t get enough credit for his influence on us, to say nothing of his unique voice and imagination. What is adolescence but a protracted horror story? I’d argue some of his work rivals the greats like Shelley, Stoker, Shirley Jackson and Salinger.
The man has battled alcoholism and drug abuse, almost died from being hit by a car in 1999 in his native Maine and maybe worst of all, he endured a terrible TV adaptation of “The Langoliers” starring Bronson Pinchot.
Stephen King is also something of a populist pop culture enthusiast, which I appreciate. His books abound with references to music, movies, tv shows and politics. His column for Entertainment Weekly was a delight, even if he occasionally extolled the virtues of say, a Kid Rock and Bob Seger collabo.
The man is basically was the reason "LOST" happened (creators Abrams, Lindelof, and Cuse cite him as a HUGE inspiration), not to mention scores of other supernaturally tinged television shows, novels, and movies.
This is all to say nothing of his work in adaptation, which is often stellar. I can vividly remember the first time I saw "Misery" in the theatres with my brother, at the age of 9. (We snuck in by buying tickets to see John Ritter’s "Stay Tuned.") It's maddening that his work is marginalized as airport reading when he's responsible for the stories behind “The Shawshank Redemption," "The Green Mile," "Stand By Me," or even, yes, "Hearts in Atlantis," loosely adapted from his novella "Low Men in Yellow Coats." (Watch it and tell me you don’t die a little in a certain heart-wrenching Anthony Hopkins scene. No? Just me? OK.)
I bring this all up, of course, because Stephen King has a new novel out as Stephen King often does, and it's fabulous.
"11/22/63" is a return to form and 70’s/80’s King and for the remarkably prolific author, (the dude has written 49 novels, 5 non-fictions, and several short stories), that’s saying a lot. The story of “11/22/63” involves a Maine schoolteacher who is coaxed into entering a rabbit hole to 1958 by a dying time traveler -- to change the world and assassinate Lee Harvey Oswald before he can kill JFK. The past is “obdurate” according to our narrator and continuously thwarts our hero from tasks at hand.
It's King's special forte of premise, great writing and pacing, that make this a fast read even at 800 plus pages. It just might be good enough to edge into my top 10, which hitherto has included these favorites, in no particular order:
His first novel. I don’t know if he invented the modern YA horror market of my youth, which consisted of a lot of Christopher Pike writing SK-lite thrillers…but talk about a relatable heroine. An abused, friendless gal with a crazy mother. How many of us would have liked to exact revenge with telekinesis? There will be pig’s blood.
2. "The Shining"
Now, I’m a huge Kubrick fan, and I adore the 1980 “muy liberties taken” movie adaptation….but this book takes the cake. A complete work of genius. Isolation in a Colorado grand hotel with a recovering alcoholic father, a hotel full of ghosts, a psychic kid and topiaries that attack you? Ummm, yes, please. Did I mention that he’s written a sequel (“Dr. Sleep”) that comes out next year????
3. "The Stand"
This book is a classic, rapture-inspired, end of days tale…where almost everyone in America dies from a terrible flu at a rapid rate. Those few who remain either go to Vegas to be bad with a devilish leader called Flagg with cold semen or visit an ancient black woman named Miss Abigail on her farm who is touched by God. Epic and great. You’ll never see the Lincoln tunnel the same way.
“We all float down here, Georgie.” I will argue this is Stephen King at his most terrifying and under the influence of lots of alcohol and drugs. A creature simply called “It,” sometimes referred to as Pennywise the Clown, lures children to their death in various gruesome ways and a group of friends in the 50s never get over it. They have to reunite as adults and destroy “It” once and for all. If you want to never sleep again, read the book first, then rent the horrifying Tim Curry made-for-TV version.
King wrote "Misery" because he was suffering terrible writer’s block. So the very violent and lonely Annie Wilkes served as his muse. Paul Sheldon, a thinly veiled Stephen King, is taken prisoner by a rabid fan who wants him to write more of his Victorian, crappy "Misery Chastain" novels. She drugs him, hobbles him and does lots of nasty things to him to make him write more Misery books. Suffice it to say, the book is way more gory, violent and chilling than the Kathy Bates film. And it's also a pretty neat allegory for the strange idea of "obligation" of artists to their fans. (Looking at you, George RR Martin freaks.) Perfect book for the dark and dreary weather days ahead many of us face in January and February.
6. "Needful Things"
The Devil, or Leland Gaunt comes to Castle Rock, Maine. He opens a store. In it, an item specific for every customer exists that their heart yearns for. Elvis glasses where you put them on and have sweaty sex with the King, amulets that magically take away the pain of arthritis, rare baseball cards where it feels like you’re watching Mickey Mantle play…the entire town does just about anything to acquire these magical items, including frame and murder one another. Completely fun and naughty read.
7. "The Girl who Loved Tom Gordon"
A 9-year old girl gets separated from her family hiking. She starts to starve and hallucinate and sees her favorite and crushed-on baseball player Tom Gordon, thinks she’s being pursued by evil gods in the woods, and has to fight to stay sane and alive. I can’t really tell you how good this is with King’s prose and how somehow sweet and winning, it is, too. Read it.
8. "On Writing"
If you want to get inside Stephen King’s head and be inspired to write and appreciate those who do? Read this. He writes about his own books and their inspirations, his battles with substance abuse and his brutal accident in 1999 that almost took his life. He also proffers suggestions on plot, character development, grammar and how to go from a competent writer to a good one.
9. "Gerald’s Game"
Ugh, nightmare book that spooked me for weeks after. Bondage games gone awry? Dead spouse? Handcuffed to a bed? Can’t get out? Only the voices and scary memories in your head for company? Thanks, Steve!
10. "Apt Pupil" (from the collection, "Different Seasons")
Young boy tracks down a Nazi war criminal hiding outside San Diego. Nazi eventually fesses up and molds said boy into an “apt pupil” who gets his rocks off by murdering hobos, marching in his new friend’s SS uniform, and flunks out of school. Brilliant premise and of course, creepy and sinister. There’s a great film version with Ian McKellan, too, if you’re up for it.
The guy was prolific, so obviously it was hard to choose. Did I miss any of your favorites?