As this blog as much as the many BILLY shelves in my living room stacked with DVDs and Blu-rays can confirm, these days my main media are probably film and TV. However, when I was young, and well into my 20s, I was very much a librophile first and foremost, which is also what determined much of my education and my early professional path. And while he wasn’t there when I got started on a lifelong love of books pretty much as soon as I learned how to read, Stephen King was probably the first writer I obsessed over.
I don’t know when I last read one of King’s novels, but it’s definitely been at least ten years. I don’t much feel the need to return to his world, to visit our old haunts in Castle Rock and Derry. Although it may sound arrogant or pretentious, I’d say I’ve outgrown him – but, and perhaps more importantly, I’d also say that I grew up as a reader in the company of Stephen King.
I’m not 100% certain what got me started on my teenage addiction to King’s brand of horror, but most likely it was his first short story collection, Night Shift, in a German translation, a paperback I bought for the three-hour car ride back from Germany, where we’d been to visit family. I was never a big fan of long car rides, not least because both of my parents smoked and made no exception in the car, but books made these trips feel less long, and there were many times when I took along four, five novels just to make sure I wouldn’t run out of reading material – which, more often than not, I did, seeing as I was a voracious and fast reader. Looking at Night Shift‘s Wiki page, I don’t remember all the stories, but several of them are still lurking at the edges of my memory, staring back at me with big, eerily glowing eyes: there was “The Mangler”, a trashy but effective story about a possessed laundry press, but that wasn’t even the weirdest example, an honour that probably must go to “The Lawnmower Man”, which in hindsight makes it surprising that supposedly King’s addictions were not primarily of the hallucinogenic kind.
While some of the stories were more weird than scary, to me in my early teens they very much felt like adult reading matter with their violence (not all of it supernatural or gory) and sex. At the time I’d been allowed to peruse the grown-up section of our local library, but I hadn’t made many forays into it after being deeply disappointed by Eco’s The Name of the Rose (at 12, I found the film considerably more entertaining and educational), so Stephen King marked the first time that I felt I’d graduated to books for grown-ups. It also helped that no one else that I knew read him; my family was decidedly not into any kind of genre literature, and it must have been years before I met anyone else who actually read King. Carrie followed soon after Night Shift, in a truly dreadful German translation – their translation of “soap operas” was the German for “soap orgies”, which even my very young self knew to be wrong, if evocative – and then Pet Sematary.
The latter wasn’t just an exhilarating ride: it also showed me that King’s brand of horror works best when he makes his readers feel for his protagonists. His short stories largely lacked that element; King isn’t a writer who can make a character come to life in half a dozen pages, so the stories often were more of a blend of the outlandish horror of EC Comics and the wry irony of The Twilight Zone. Pet Sematary, however, while definitely not shying away from the ghoulish side of the genre, dedicated itself to evoking the more domestic, familial horror of parents losing a child in a senseless, banal death. Soon after, my uncle in the UK got me my first few Stephen King novels in English, one of which was The Dead Zone; Pet Sematary had already shown me that King had more to offer than mere shock, and The Dead Zone confirmed this, being more of a supernatural tragedy (and an uncannily timely one these days) than what is commonly referred to as horror.
What surprises me is that even though I don’t often think of Stephen King any more, many of my childhood and early teen memories are about reading King: feeling distinctly sick in the back of the car after finishing Cujo (I still remember King’s description of how the protagonist finally kills the dog), reading “The Library Policeman” way past my bedtime and lying awake with a profound feeling of creepiness, being intrigued at the way King would build an interconnected world of small-town Americana from one novel to the next.
And who could forget the clown? While I wouldn’t say that IT was my favourite novel of his, it’s definitely the one that I’d consider most iconic. I’d thought I was over King, but the trailers for the film version of IT (or, more precisely, the first half of the adaptation – where the novel keeps alternating between the children’s 1950s plot and their adult versions in the mid-’80s, the adaptation is split into a film focusing on the children and a second part focusing on the grown-ups) have proven me wrong. I might not go to bed with one of his novels any more, reading on for hours beyond what would be sensible, but Pennywise the Clown and rabid Cujo frothing at the mouth, homicidal high school bully Henry Bowers and Randall Flagg, the Man in Black, they’re all still there. They’re somewhere in the dark, hiding in the wardrobe or underneath the bed.
Did Stephen King turn me into an adult reader? Hell, no, but I owe many of my most exciting, exhilarating and, yes, frightening hours in my early and mid-teens to him. He was a large part of my life as I was growing up and leaving my childhood behind. And for that I will still gladly bend my knee to the King.