Before I enter into the body of this piece I find myself forced to take a brief, but probably annoying tangent in a self promotional direction. Beginning sometime around the middle of November, I will be appearing on a podcast as well as doing some additional writing for the associated site, both to be titled “… And the Gunslinger Followed.” If you’re a fan of his, then it’s more than likely that you already have assumed that the work of Stephen King will be the focus of the new endeavor. I thought I might beg your indulgence by way of asking you to read what follows and think of it as a preview of another way I’ll be trying to entertain you. If you aren’t a fan I promise you this isn’t going to be a regular thing on this site. Thanks again.
I was first introduced to Stephen King as a senior in high school. My girlfriend, Kerry, wanted to watch Salem’s Lot, a two part T.V. movie based on his novel. Her mother was a fan of King’s and she had read a few of his novels herself. I watched it, thought it was okay, although the realization of the main vampire, Kurt Barlow, struck me as ridiculous. Outsized ears and fangs that looked more like bucked teeth than a tool of transformation into the undead for their victims made it difficult to gin up the rapt attention I thought would help convince Kerry that she’d be more comfortable wearing less clothing. Two years later I was a college sophomore. Kerry and I had broken up. Between classes and an after school job I spent a lot of time enjoying what was then the live fire training ground that New York City had the nerve to refer to as the public transportation system. In order to make the hours pass, I read. And somewhere in the spring of that year I started The Shining, and kept reading until I (temporarily) ran out of Mr. King’s work. At the time I wasn’t seeing any bigger picture. I just got caught up in his storytelling and consumed it with a teenager’s obsessiveness. It wasn’t until I was a lot older that I began to turn a more analytical eye to Mr. King’s rather extraordinary beginnings as a published author. My first appreciation of him as more than my favorite storyteller came on the heels of the realization that he had been all of twenty-seven years of age when Carrie was published. It struggled in hardcover but recorded over one million sales in paperback. When I was in my mid-twenties I was still bouncing from one dead-end job to the next. Of course Carrie was just the beginning of an almost mythically successful career in which he has, to date, published some seventy books with between 300 and 350 million sold. As I write this my “following” consists almost entirely of friends and family, both groups being not particularly big to begin with, and neither of which I have fully captured as an audience. King has, as far as I know, never had a literary endeavor associated with him that hasn’t enjoyed the strong embrace of the reading public.
It’s more than the numbers though. As impressive as his popularity is, there are other authors who’ve exceeded him in sales. J.K. Rowling (450-500 million) is an obvious choice, not to mention Agatha Christie (2-4 billion) and, forgive me, Harold Robbins (750 million) to note a few. What I’ve come to see as the most impressive element of his early career is the range of the work that he produced, a fact that seemed to be lost on the general public. Forty or more years ago it was common to hear him referred to as a simple scare-meister, not much more than a lettered version of John Carpenter. Obviously I have a bias here, but to me at least, it isn’t that simple. Salem’s Lot (vampire tale) and The Shining (haunted hotel) are undoubtedly immersed in the supernatural. Carrie and The Dead Zone however are, respectively, frightening and sad tales whose central characters are blessed/cursed with powers that while extraordinary in scope are, within the stories they inhabit, explicable as part of the natural world. The Stand takes place on an earth that wanders between the terrors of science run amok (the super flu) and the earthly avatars of God (Mother Abigail) and Satan (Flagg) resulting in a novel that is essentially biblical in both structure and scope. While the first two novels I referenced are straight up scary, Carrie preyed more on my own easy sense of alienation and The Dead Zone resonates most strongly for me as a story of loss with a setting that frequently ventures into the eerie without depending on it for the most poignant moments of the book.
Throughout his career he has continued to work in a variety of genres and to be pigeonholed by people who, as far as I can tell, seem to get real pleasure from minimizing his work without bearing the burden of having read it. Even after his relatively recent move to hard-boiled detective drama (Mr. Mercedes trilogy) his reputation as a writer of horror fiction prevails. None of which matters to me. There is still no one else I would rather have tell me a story. He is the only fiction writer that I keep track of. His is the voice that allows me to most easily, if foolishly, convince myself that I’m not really reading at all, but listening to him as we sit next to each other and he regales me with another yarn from the wildly varied well spring of his imagination. When I think of the start that he had I am amazed by all aspects of it and my respect for it is strong enough to supersede my considerable envy.