When I was 11, I made the courageous decision to watch my first horror movie. Being the genius that I am, I decided to watch "the one with the clown" — It, for those of you who don't already know — because clowns aren't scary. I lasted 11 minutes, and wound up with a wicked case of coulrophobia, which didn't really start to subside until nearly 15 years later. But somehow, miraculously, this brush with one of his best movie adaptations didn't stop me from reading Stephen King's books. In fact, it started a love affair with the master of horror.
I don't remember which of Stephen King's books I read first. I do know that, by the time I was 16, one of my best and oldest friends was reading him as well, and we would trade recommendations and fan theories about our favorite author's work.
As a writer, reading King's work has had a huge influence on me. He might call himself "the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries," but many of his novels transcend the genre wars. While other folks try to hash out whether Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant is literary or fantasy fiction, I'm trying to understand why The Shining's depiction of a man slipping into madness isn't discussed in more literature courses.
Speaking of The Shining, King uses the Most Writers Are Writers trope a lot. He's certainly not the only one; John Irving and L.M. Montgomery did the same thing. But just off the top of my head, The Shining, 'Salem's Lot, The Dark Half, It, Lisey's Story, The Tommyknockers, and Misery all feature writer protagonists. King himself makes more than a cameo appearance in Song of Susannah, the sixth book in his Dark Tower series.
It might seem funny, but King's writer protagonists made me feel like writers were important. I mean, as a book nerd, writers were always important to me, but characters like Ben Mears and Bill Denbrough kicked evil's butt and saved the day for other people. They made a difference, and that meant something to me as an aspiring author.
One common criticism of King's work — one that even the author himself can agree with — is that he often writes novels that are products of their time. The brands, vehicles, and technologies mentioned in King's earliest novels date them to the point that it's difficult to read them without thinking of the late 1970s and early '80s.
I mean, as a book nerd, writers were always important to me, but characters like Ben Mears and Bill Denbrough kicked evil's butt and saved the day for other people. They made a difference, and that meant something to me as an aspiring author.
This happens a lot to writers, as anyone who's ever happened upon a mention of a mimeograph machine or Walkman knows. Some — including King, at times — do this deliberately, because postmodernism is all about pastiche. You can play around with pretty much anything and everything: time, space, trends, traits...even other writers' stories, where King really excels.
Please don't think I'm calling him a plagiarizer. I'm not. King waited years after reading The Lord of the Rings before he wrote his own epic, the Dark Tower series, because he wanted the story to be his, not a rehash of J.R.R. Tolkien's work. But that doesn't mean that he didn't throw a few references to other writers' work in there: Robert Browning, T.S. Eliot, Richard Adams, and J.K. Rowling all get subtle — and not so subtle — nods in the Dark Tower.
That's because the focus of King's epic saga, the Dark Tower itself, is the spindle that connects all worlds. A book in our world is a realm of its own somewhere along the Tower, although the version we know probably has more than a few differences from the "real" story.
For example, 'Salem's Lot is just a vampire novel in our world, but it utterly confounds one of its characters, Father Callahan, when he receives a copy in Wolves of the Calla: an event that ultimately leads Roland's ka-tet to track down King in search of answers. And in It, when Stan tries to talk about his contact with the unknown evil in Derry, he thinks, "In [another] universe there might grow roses which sing" — a reference to the rose that is the manifestation of the Dark Tower in one version of New York City and the singing roses that surround the Tower itself.
So, when I say that the Dark Tower connects everything, I mean it. King has managed what few writers have. He's retroactively connected the vast majority of his work to itself, through both the Tower and his trio of fictional cities: Derry, Castle Rock, and Jerusalem's Lot.
As an aspiring writer, this kind of interconnection — one that doesn't appear to be planned, at first glance — gave me the confidence to write what I wanted, without feeling the need to plot out every little detail and link before I put down the first word. For a kid with massive anxiety problems, the knowledge that I could always go back and connect things in the future was a huge confidence booster.
In On Writing, King says you should write with your door closed. You can't write according to the advice of everyone around you, and — well-meaning or not — your friends and family will try to give you tips for making your manuscript more [insert positive term here]. The problem is, you don't want or need their help, even if you think you do.
For a kid with massive anxiety problems, the knowledge that I could always go back and connect things in the future was a huge confidence booster.
I was an English major, and I took part in my fair share of writing workshops. They can be helpful or hellish; it all depends on who's in there with you. In order to get the most out of your writing workshop — or your beta readers, for those of you with finished manuscripts — you have to be humble enough to take the advice you need while remaining conceited enough to know when your readers are wrong.
It's a tricky business, and I won't pretend to have mastered it. But I do know that the old saying is true. You can't please everyone, which is what makes King's writing advice so important to me.
King writes every book for one, single reader: his wife, Tabitha. He writes his books to evoke feelings in her. If he fails, he knows he's written crap. Of course, she'll tell him as much. From King's representation, Tabitha's the kind of take-no-crap partner every writer needs.
Now, I'm not going to say whom I write my stories for, because I fancy myself a magician with a secret. But I know that I'd be churning out crappy vampire romance novels if it wasn't for King's advice, and for saving me from that, I'm eternally grateful.
When you're reading a Stephen King book, you never really know if things are going to turn out all right. Sometimes the monsters win. You can't always be sure that your friends haven't been possessed, or that the heroes won't die just after the novel ends. In fact, a lot of times King pretty much convinces you that everything you thought was all right is damned forever.
Somehow, though, that was always OK with me. You'd think that my anxiety would make me gravitate toward stories with happy endings, but I never much trusted them. I liked the horrific tragedies King wrote, because I took comfort in knowing that, sometimes, you could do all the right things and still not win the game. And hey, the losers win a lot in King's novels, so there's that.
That made it easier to screw up, in both life and writing. It was OK to not know where I was going with my story, because I knew I'd eventually wind up at the end. If I had to guess how hospital protocols and brain surgery worked in order to get my manuscript finished, so be it. The right answers could come later, because they always came up for the characters in King's books.
Win or lose, King's protagonists still manage to find the tools they need to fight the Big Bads. Most of the time, those tools are widely available. There are few magic bullets in King novels. The old and ancient remedies — such as silver, salt, and crucifixes — are best. If those solutions don't work, the heroes learn that they have what they've needed all along. They find the answers inside themselves, as cheesy as that sounds, because the solution almost always lies in some deep-seated racial memory.
Granted, King has taken flack for what many have called deus ex machina endings to his novels. But it was strangely comforting to know that I wasn't responsible for coming up with brand-new solutions. I didn't have to pull a Mars Attacks and kill my Big Bad with a yodel, because a vial of holy water would work just as well. Even if my monsters were all-original, their weaknesses didn't have to be. The world of mythology, with all its bumps in the night, was fair game.
At the end of the day, none of us has all the answers. Despite what we thought when we were kids, adulthood is just about making shit up as we go along. Stephen King taught this writer to roll with the punches and keep on writing, because, "Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up."
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