Today is Stephen King’s 70th birthday.
I’ve been reading Stephen King books since junior high school. I can’t 100% recall which my first one was – it either Cujo or Firestarter – but once I started, I couldn’t stop. I read everything in paperback up until I caught up to him in hardcover (which was probably The Tommyknockers), and then I read pretty much everything until I was in college (I think I stopped after Insomnia – which I remember not liking all that much, though I also had my DNA re-written around this time by DFW’s Infinite Jest, and so I probably wouldn’t have bothered with SK all that much anyway).
But even then, I’d dabble here and there – there were quite a few that I skipped, but I was a devoted Dark Tower fan and so I devoured those in quick succession, and while I’ve tapered off somewhat in recent years, I started dipping back into his newer work during the relatively solid 1-2-3 punch of Duma Key, Under the Dome and 11/22/63. I originally started writing this post last week when I was finishing my 9th or 10th re-reading of It, and I’m currently in the middle of Finders Keepers, the second book of the Bill Hodges trilogy. (Regarding these Bill Hodges books – even if they’re not among his best work, they’re still engaging and fast-paced, and frankly I’m just impressed that SK decided to completely switch from horror to detective novels. The guy has nothing left to prove at this point, and yet he clearly wanted to try something new, and for the most part he succeeds. I can’t help but wonder if watching J.K. Rowling switch things up from Harry Potter to her Robert Gilbraith crime novels inspired SK to follow suit, just for the hell of it.)
So, yes, I’m a fan. But a question I’ve been asking myself lately is: why? I don’t like particularly like scary movies or video games, so why on earth was I drawn to him in the first place? Why did my mother let me buy those books? Let’s leave aside the child murdering and grotesque imagery – if she knew what kind of language was in those books, she’d have a heart attack. Even now I’m a little put off by how much Quentin Tarantino uses the n-word in his movies, and Stephen King uses that word more in one book than QT’s used in his entire body of work. (I gently teased my mom about this the other day, and she was as surprised as anybody; she’s never read him. I suppose she was just glad that I was a diligent pre-teen reader. My wife points out that my parents were in the process of getting divorced at around the same time that I started really getting into SK, and so my mom can be excused for not doing her due diligence.)
I don’t know how to answer the question, to be honest. Except that I do love a good story, and if nothing else, King knows how to tell stories almost as well as anyone ever has. Yes, he has certain tics that, regardless of genre, he can’t seem to shake (50’s-era rock and roll lyrics, deliberately misspelled and racist signage, a tendency to punctuate his characters’ thoughts with Robin Williams-esque riffs). And while I’m the sort of nerd who enjoys seeing how all of his books tie in to each other (a very specific nerdy impulse that David Mitchell is also working with, to my tremendous delight), he also literally throws himself into the end of the Dark Tower series, and even early in the first Bill Hodges book he throws in a reference to “that Pennywise clown from the TV movie”, which, I mean, come on.
This post was originally going to be a sort of meditation on my re-reading of It, which despite its ridiculous ending is still probably my favorite SK novel. I wrote out some bullet points that I meant to expand upon, but I can’t right now (for various reasons), so let me just get them out of the way:
- The last time I read it, according to my LiveJournal, was in 2002.
- It is, without question, the most “metal” title of a horror book you could possibly have, and SK is the only author who could successfully pull it off.
- I’ve read It many times, but this was the first time where I was consciously aware that I was older than the adults.
- There are very few 1000+ page books I can read this quickly.
- There is a vividness to SK’s writing that is unparalleled; one of the reasons why I tend to shy away from filmed versions of his work is that they’re largely unnecessary. if I were to film these books, I’d be the set designer, the costumer, the casting director, the DP. (There’s a shootout early in The Gunslinger and I know exactly how it’s supposed to be filmed.)
- As I noted above, SK has a tendency to write like Robin Williams talks. And if It had been filmed concurrently with the book, I can’t help but think Robin Williams would’ve been Richie “Man Of A Thousand Voices” Tozier.
- Speaking of Richie: holy shit, Richie Tozier is Exhibit A of unconscious white racism. Henry Bowers, the bad guy, uses the n-word quite a lot, but Richie’s voices are a litany of racist caricature, and even if that was the point, it’s still hair-raising; there’s his jaw-dropping Pickaninny voice, and his offensive Chinese Waiter voice, and yet somehow the kids mostly rag on him for his Irish Cop voice, if only because his Irish accent is terrible. Now, when I read this book way back in the early 90s as a young teenager, I didn’t know this, and I’m not sure anybody else did either. I know everyone is bothered by that super-creepy and weird sex thing that happens at the end, but let’s be honest here: just about every word out of Richie’s mouth is fucking horrifying.
- That said, I’m not sure anyone’s ever captured the aimlessness of empty summer afternoons better than he does in this book.
- Also: regarding the scariest parts of It – not Pennywise, frankly. I remember being freaked out at the fortune cookie scene during the reunion, but now it’s almost silly. Henry Bowers, on the other hand, is still terrifying. As is Beverly’s father, and then her husband, certainly. I still think that the final interlude about Patrick Hocksetter is among the creepiest chapters SK’s ever written.
Here’s a question: at the time of It‘s publication, who was his audience? I mean, the dude’s sold a bazillion copies over his career, and pretty much everything he wrote hit #1, so I’m sure he had a sizable percentage of most demographics; but if I had to ask SK one question right at this very moment, I’d be most curious to know who he thought he was writing to. Does he have an image of the stereotypical SK fan?
I would guess that he doesn’t actually have anyone in mind when he sits down to write; first and foremost he’s writing the story, and whatever happens to it after he’s done writing is the reader’s problem. And yet for someone who was self-aware enough to know how popular he was to bother writing under a pseudonym just to see what would happen, I am compelled to presume that his introductions addressed to his Gentle Reader or Constant Reader might’ve had a face.
I don’t know how to end this little piece; it’s a weird day here at the office and I’m a bit more scatterbrained than usual. But I did want to offer up two fun links that I came across today:
- Kaitlyn Tiffany’s excellent, excellent diary of reading It for the first time this summer in preparation for the movie
- LitHub’s list of 12 literary writers discussing SK’s influence
What’s your favorite SK novel?