Stephen King and I are very different writers. Oh, I know—that may well win the prize for Most Obvious Sentence Ever Written On The Solute, but there’s more to it than just writing style. (Though I will say that his nonfiction voice bears a certain similarity to my own, in its conversational nature. He swears a lot more than I do, though.) But it’s also in our technique, as my most prolific years were also ones in which I carried a three-ring binder everywhere I went and just wrote, blissfully unaware of my circumstances. He has to close out the world; I have class notes in the margins of some of my novels, and my handwriting is terrible in places because I was writing on the bus.
It’s clear, then, that for many years, Stephen King has had a room where he could close the door with him on one side and the world on the other. I recently referred to It as “not even in my top fifty Stephen King books,” and that turns out to literally be true, or at least possible—I’m not a huge Dark Tower fan and therefore haven’t finished the series, and I haven’t read all of his recent books as child-rearing limits my fiction-reading time, especially for books the length and density of King’s, but I’ve read about forty of his novels, and It is near the bottom. And once you start adding short stories and nonfiction, I’ve probably read a hundred or two of his works. For years now, Stephen King has been a regular visitor in my head.
And I hear some of you saying, “But Gillian, you don’t like horror.” And it’s true, and honestly some of the King that doesn’t work for me is the stuff that’s more about the scare. I, like his steadfast wife and First Reader Tabby, am not a huge fan of Dreamcatcher. Couldn’t finish it, in fact, as it just didn’t hold me. In fact, I remember telling my best friend in junior high (and now not unsuccessful film producer), Junie Hildebrandt, that very thing when she first suggested I might borrow one or two of her King books. “This one isn’t horror,” she said, and loaned me Eyes of the Dragon, which indeed isn’t horror and was written for his daughter Naomi, who doesn’t like horror, either.
What Junie also could have told me, back in seventh grade, was that I might not like horror but I do like interesting use of the English language and a gift for narrative and so forth, and King was going to hook me on those even if I’m pretty sure I still have her copy of The Tommyknockers and have read it maybe once or twice since about 1991. (Sorry, Junie. But I did give you an excuse to talk to your now-husband, so we’re even?) It’s also true, as I’m sure he’d be immensely disappointed to find out, that King has never made it onto Gillian’s List of Celebrity Crushes. Because he’s almost as old as my mother and, to be charitable, not the most attractive man in the world.
But my goodness but I’d love to just talk to the man. About writing, of course, and about books, and about how much catching the end of The Shawshank Redemption on AMC meant when I was coming back to the room I was staying in while my daughter was in the NICU and being able to repeat what I firmly believe to be one of the greatest endings in modern fiction and certainly the greatest ending King has ever written and being certain for the first time that we would be bringing her home, sooner rather than later and fully healthy. But also about movies, because he knows his stuff, as reading Danse Macabre would tell you.
Even if, yes, Maximum Overdrive is a terrible movie primarily powered by cocaine. As he’ll be the first to admit, if anyone lets him get a word in edgewise. But I also think he’d like me because I’d much rather tell him that I don’t actually like the Kubrick Shining as much as most of my friends do because it feels to me as though Kubrick fundamentally misunderstood the truly scary things about the book. And more than either of those I’d like to talk about the artistry of Cat People, a movie I saw in no small part because he talked it up in Danse Macabre.
The thing we forget, I think, is how lucky we are to have as much King as we do. And even if you’re one of those people who doesn’t like most of his work, which is fair—oysters and snails, as I’ve written before—think for a minute on what a force he is. And based on what I know from reading his nonfiction, every movie of his, every book, every short story more recent than The Shining is lucky to exist at all. He was so coked out of his brain that he doesn’t remember writing Cujo. Forget the car accident that could have killed him before he finished The Girl Who Lived Tom Gordon—he was an addict from before Carrie until The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands, with Needful Things as his first book written sober.
And he himself rejects the Hemingway Defense for drinking (and drug use) and has kept on writing, producing some of his finest work in the years after he achieved sobriety. And get him started on how hard it is for a former addict to deal with the level of pain he was in after the accident without relapsing, and he’d correct me on the “former” part, I’m sure.
Would we have as much pop culture about terrifying clowns if he’d overdosed some time around 1983? I assure you we would not. Pennywise launched a lot of that, and maybe my general indifference to clowns stems from my dislike of that book. Think, though, about the fact that the same person created Pennywise and Andy Dufresne and Carrie White, Annie Wilkes and John Coffey and Flagg in all his incarnations. And through his “dollar babies,” where he will let film students and others have the license to use his works for a dollar, provided there is no public distribution and the rights have not already been purchased, he gave us Frank Darabont—who then directed three big-budget King adaptations, two of which were nominated for multiple Oscars.
All in all, he’s the person I was most surprised to realize I hadn’t written about yet before I did them for a theme month. And I knew when I assigned him the day that I wasn’t going to be doing five paragraphs, the normal length of these columns. He wouldn’t thank me for what day I assigned to him, though; King is not, to my knowledge coulrophobic. He is, however, triskaidekaphobic. Sorry, King; it just happened to be the first available slot for you.
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