Pfffft (blows proverbial raspberry)…like I really need any rationale as to why I read Stephen King. His books are awesome. His storytelling is just unbelievably good. He is easily the most recognized writer of all time and will probably go down in history as one of America’s best loved writers. Timeless, in other words.
However, there are several things that stand out about Stephen King and are unique to Stephen King. These are attributes that not many other writers possess, and are elements that contribute to his timelessness.
Without further ado, here are my top 7 reasons as to why I read Stephen King.
7) His books are scary
Captain Obvious strikes again! The face of modern horror writes really scary books? Who knew???
All kidding aside, when I was 10 years old a camp counselor started telling us naive and impressionable 10-12 year old kids (I really need to write a blog post sometime about the awesome role models I had growing up) about a clown that lived in the sewer and could only be seen by kids. And this clown was not nice. He killed kids too. Of course, my naive and impressionable 10 year old self took this literally and spent the better part of that summer being very frightened of drains and anything plumbing related. Two years later, I learned of a network television mini series featuring none other than a clown who lived in a sewer and killed kids. Naturally, I just had to watch this on TV (my parents were really thrilled) with my brother and some other friends. Of course, I am referring to the 1990 TV mini series It. But even as a twelve year old (although I was a little beyond my years), I felt that the mini series, while scary for a 12 year old, was missing something. So I immediately picked up the book of the same name. I read it in under a week, and my life was changed irrevocably. So began my love of Stephen King.
After I read It, I almost immediately picked up Pet Semetary, Salem’s Lot and The Shining. And I spent a good part of those late elementary/middle school years years being terrified. I just have no words to describe my first reading of The Shining. I was terrified for poor Danny Torrance. I never looked at fire hoses the same way again. I read Pet Semetary and felt the immediate need to keep my cats really, really close (luckily not too much blood was drawn). And the idea of hunting down vampires per Salem’s Lot gave me quite the adrenaline rush.
People like to be scared in some way. And I think this applies to most people. Some people satisfy this need by riding roller coasters. Some take flying lessons. And then you have me. I satisfy that need by reading books about killer clowns who live in sewers, haunted hotels and rabid St. Bernard dogs.
6) His take on faith, religion and humanity in general
Yes, reading King is a religious experience. As if you didn’t know that already!
But seriously, much of King’s work is littered with religious themes. The Stand, which is one of his best loved books, is a modern take on The Book of Revelations. It could be argued that Harold Lauder is the group’s Judas Iscariot, as even the fate he suffers is similar. David Carver in Desperation could argued to be a child version of Job in the Old Testament, as he endures horrible suffering and his faith in God is tested repeatedly. John Coffey in Green Mile is blessed (or arguably cursed) with healing powers similar to Jesus Himself. And this is barely scratching the surface, as there are many more biblical themes that crop up in King’s work.
King also shows the negative side of religion and zealousness in his work. And this topic is visited with a vengeance. A prime example is Margaret White, mother to Carrie White in the novel Carrie. Margaret is such a fanatic that even mainstream churches have rejected her. She essentially makes up her own religion and forces her daughter into a restrictive lifestyle that ultimately becomes the demise of the both of them.
Pet Semetary is another book rife with religious themes. However, there are dark twists. It could be argued that Louis Creed is a modern version of Icarus. Instead of being shown how to fly so that he can escape from Crete, Louis is shown an ancient burial ground that is cursed by the Wendigo and has magical powers. This burial ground is meant to teach his daughter a lesson about life and death when the family pet is hit by a truck. And this is accomplished. However, when his son is tragically killed on the same highway, Louis goes (understandably) mad and is inflicted with the worst kind of hubris and attempts to use the burial ground in a way that it was never intended for. Like Icarus, he soars too high and the consequences are beyond horrific, cursing his entire family for eternity.
While King writes about humans inflicting awful deeds on each other, he also has a softer side. And this softer side shows up in almost all of his works, even the most terrifying ones. A prime example of this is Dreamcatcher. Dreamcatcher is a novel about aliens invading our planet and is most famous for “shit weasels.” However, this novel also deals with friendship and bravery. The four main characters in the book are credited with an act of extreme bravery when they were children. The four boys rescued another boy, who was afflicted with Down’s Syndrome, from the local bullies. They then take this boy under their wing and a lifelong friendship results. The friendship between the children is something beautiful in a book that is otherwise filled with graphic imagery violence. The description of the friendship reminds us not of man’s inhumanity to man, but that sometimes we can come through for each other when it counts the most.
5) He is a feminist
Ok, have you cleaned up the coffee you spit out all over your keyboard when you read the above sentence? Great, now let’s discuss why the world’s most renowned horror writer is a feminist.
We can argue that in some of King’s earlier work, female characters were not his strong point. Frannie Goldsmith from The Stand immediately comes to mind. The female characters in Salem’s Lot were weak as well, as their primary purpose seemed to be love interests for the heroes who then succumb to the vampires. However, King makes up for that by writing characters such as Donna Trenton and Wendy Torrance. Both of these women were well fleshed out. King showed us what made them tick. Both women were also heroic and would do whatever it took to save their children, even when they had to face down rabid St. Bernard dogs and a haunted hotel, respectively.
In the 1990’s, King published a trio of books that would remove any doubts on his stance on feminism. These books were Delores Claiborne, Rose Madder and Gerald’s Game. All three featured strong female lead characters. All three took a stance on how women in our culture are treated and that we need to admire those that take a stance against this treatment (Delores Claiborne and Rosie McClendon immediately come to mind). While these books may not have produced the numbers that his previous work did, they are to be commended for the messages that they send.
It contains a scene that is hotly debated, at least in internet land. And this scene further solidifies King’s brand of feminism. Towards the end of the book, The Losers Club becomes lost in the sewers beneath Derry. The Losers Club consists of one female, Beverly Marsh. Beverly is tough and able to hang with the guys but has endured abuse at the hands of her father. That particular summer, the abuse took a sexual turn, which culminated in Beverley’s father accusing her of not being “intact” aka a virgin. He then wants to examine her, which really means he intends to molest her, but Beverly escapes him and is forced down to the sewers with the rest of the gang. She and the Losers best Pennywise, and then attempt to escape the sewers. But they become lost quickly and their bond begins to fall apart. However, Beverly takes the lead and prevents this from happening. The reason why it is controversial is because she then proceeds to make love to all six of the boys. King also describes her having an orgasm, once the initial discomfort has passed. Some see this as a gang rape or some kind of child exploitation. I see this as feminism at its finest. Beverly has been told sex is dirty. She has been told her worth as a person hinges on her virginity. However, Beverly defies society and most importantly her abusive father. She then takes charge of her sexuality and her pleasure, not the mention the fact that this act brings the group back together again so they can find their way out of the sewers. And to me, that’s what feminism is all about; a young woman defying cultural norms, owning her sexuality and saving the day to boot.
4) Stephen King is not afraid to take stances on social issues
In the beginning of the book It, a young, childlike gay man is targeted for violence because of his sexual preferences. He is then murdered by Pennywise the clown. While we can argue that the humans who attacked him were not ultimately responsible for his death, there is no denying that if he was not targeted due to his sexuality, his life may have been spared. This is an act that we would now recognize as a hate crime, and the young men may face stricter punishment and there would be likely be more outrage. However, this book was written in 1985. This is long before the term “hate crime” was coined. This is long before most people would experience outrage over the fact that someone was attacked solely to due to his sexual preference. The “blame the victim” mentality was rampant. By including this particular scene in a book that most would not think of when they think of literature that preaches messages of tolerance and acceptance, King’s message comes through loud and clear: as a society, we need to do a better job of accepting and appreciating everyone for who they are, even if we do not fully understand who they are. King was, and continues to be, light years ahead of his time.
3) Stephen King also has a wicked sense of humor
Stephen King, my curse word vocabulary owes you a large debt. If it weren’t for Stephen King, how would I have terms like “bitch kitty, “fuckaroo” and “shit weasel” in my lexicon? I have been using these terms for years now and they still delight me. The fact that my social calendar is strangely empty is pure coincidence, I tell you…
But seriously (you see what I did there?), I don’t think “sense of humor” is what necessarily comes to mind when one brings up the name Stephen King. After all, his books are scewwwy, right? Full of blood and guts and everything that’s well…gross.
However, the sense of humor pops up almost everywhere in his work. It even pops up in the Dark Tower series, which is considered to be King’s magnum opus. In The Drawing of the Three, Roland the Gunslinger brings a woman named Odetta Holmes to Midworld. Odetta is well spoken and educated and also mild mannered. However, Odetta hosts another personality by the name of Detta Walker. Detta Walker is mean and crass. In other words, Odetta’s opposite. Detta Walker is also a complete caricature. Her vocabulary contains terms such as “honk mafa” (figure that one out, if you can). She also refers to Roland as “grey meat” and is absurdly paranoid that Roland, Eddie Dean and every other white male has an agenda to poison her. While the subject matter is serious (we are talking about mental illness after all), the absurdities that come out of Detta’s mouth are great for a belly laugh. They also add dimension to the story and all of the characters. There is just something to be said for well placed humor when you are probably going to be either sleeping with the lights on because of a scary scene, or be crying your eyes out because your favorite character just got killed off.
Check out more evidence of King’s sense of humor right here.
2) His work is inter-connected
Its no secret that every single one of King’s books are connected to The Dark Tower series, which is considered to be his magnum opus. However, many still fail to realize that all of Stephen King’s books are inter-connected. All of them. Every single one. That’s right. That means that the fan girl from hell who hobbles her favorite writer can be connected to Roland and his ka tet. Now, the concept of a writer creating an entire universe is not a new one. In fact, Marvel has been hinting that everyone in their universe, from Captain America to that funny looking raccoon featured in Guardians of the Galaxy, are all connected to each other and we are to expect a cosmic, epic showdown one of these days. But no one, at least in my opinion, has done it quite as well as Stephen King. Every time I read a new work I find a connection. Then I re-read and find some more. And his son Joe Hill has even been invited to the party, as some of Hill’s work is directly connected to Dad’s, and vice versa. I feel like when I find these connections, I belong to some kind of exclusive (and extremely nerdy) club…good stuff!
One of my favorite examples of a Stephen King Easter egg lies in 11/22/63. 11/22/63 is the book that King wanted to write for so long on Vietnam and the era of the 1960’s, which had a huge effect on him personally and also as a writer. And 11/22/63 succeeds in making a statement about Vietnam and an era that many readers experienced personally. In 11/22/63, Jake Epping, the main character, travels back in time to attempt to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Jake lives in Maine, and the journey takes him to Derry. This is not really a surprise, since Derry is a major hot spot in the King universe. What did surprise me is that Jake runs into some very familiar faces. These familiar faces are none other than Beverly Marsh and Richie Tozier from It! We learn that when Jack encounters Beverly and Ritchie, the events in It had transpired a few months prior to that encounter and that Beverly and Richie are still trying to process the situation. Jake also gets a very bad feeling about Derry, and it would seem that he even encounters Pennywise, or at least the essence of Pennywise. The fact that King has included a connection to It in one of his books is not very surprising at all. What is surprising is that he included this reference to a killer clown who lives in the sewers in a book that is a book about time travel and examines the impact of the Kennedy assassination on not just his generation, but every generation thereafter. And the inclusion is seamless. In other words, its mastery. Pure mastery and nothing else.
Time for the drum roll…the number 1 reason why I read King is…
1) All of his books contain elements of reality
I read to escape reality. I like being able to escape into another world for awhile and forget my problems for a bit. Reading is almost like a drug for me, that way.
But I am listing the fact that King’s books contain elements of reality as my number reason for reading him…what gives?
I will tell you what gives. I identify with his characters and the situations they face. Of course, I don’t face rabid St. Bernard dogs, clowns in sewers or haunted hotels (outside my dreams, at any rate). But I have faced a crazy, controlling abusive ex husband. I have been the victim of bullying, both in childhood and adulthood. I see intolerance towards other’s differences on a regular basis. I faced unemployment and the fear of losing everything I have ever worked for. I even have my own obsessions, just like Roland the Gunslinger, although mine tend towards the Indianapolis Colts and the latest piece of artwork I am working on. These are all situations that King’s characters have faced. Just like me and millions of others. And I like to think the fact that I identify so well with these characters and situations helps me cope with my own problems. Or at the very least, it takes a little off the edge of my own pain, making it easier to bear.
One of my favorite examples of how King uses elements of realism effectively is his book The Shining. The book (and Kubrick movie of the same name) is famous for a haunted hotel that traps a family for a winter. Ask most people what they associate with The Shining, and the blood spilling from the walls immediately comes to mind. Or perhaps the term “redrum.” Or maybe the ghost of an old, lustful lady. But The Shining is really about family. And it is about wanting to provide for yourself and your family. Jack Torrance is a good man in the beginning of the book. He is just trying to do what’s best for his family, and desperately does everything he can to provide for his wife and son. He loves his son Danny and also his wife Wendy. He is also battling his demons, as he is an alcoholic with a temper that tends to get out of control and hurt the ones he loves the most. And throughout the book, Jack really is a good man for the most part. However, his demons overtake him and he sacrifices himself for his family, so that they may still have a good life. The Shining is a very scary book. There is no mistaking that. However, The Shining is also a tragedy. The family dissolves and will never be whole again. Throughout the book, we witness the dissolution of the family, and we grieve with Wendy and Danny. And the fact that this situation is so real and is something that can be experienced by any one of us, adds to the terror of the novel. Our rational mind knows that hotels are not haunted. Hedge animals do not attack us. Ghosts do not come out of bathtubs. Fire hoses present no menace. But King skillfully weaves realistic elements that we all can identify with. So, if we are smart, we take a closer look at that fire hose. We give a wide berth to those hedge animals. And if a hotel caretaker makes mention of a tragedy occurring in a certain room, we refuse to stay in that room. After all, it could happen to anyone of us. And if we are smart, our self preservation instinct kicks in, so we look over our shoulders and pull up the blankets a little closer, to try to keep the monsters at bay.
There you have it. These are my top seven reason for reading Stephen King, although I am sure I missed a few. However, I retract my earlier statement about not needing any rationale to read Stephen King. There is one very good reason to read Stephen King: you have never read his work before and your life is therefore tragically empty and devoid of meaning. So that means it is time to remedy that situation and pick up a King book (or five) and get cracking! Happy reading, everyone!