While I was reading Stephen Kingâs latest novel, Duma Key (published Jan. 22 by Scribner), I thought about putting together some kind of âTop Five Stephen Kingâ book list. As I reviewed his work in my head, it occurred to me that 2008 marks my 30th anniversary of being a life-long reader of Stephen King. A long-term reader/writer dynamic resembles other kinds of extended relationships: Both individuals can change, grow apart, reconcile and test their loyalties, even if they never meet face to face.
So this week Iâll be doing a decade-by-decade overview partly on my favorite books, but mostly on the experience of reading King during my adult life.
Iâm not sure which book marked my introduction to the horror writer from Maine. I definitely recall The Dead Zone as being the first hardback book I ever read as soon as it was published in 1979 â someone in my family bought a copy at the Phipps Plaza bookstore (back when that mall had bookstores). I suspect that I started with his vampire novel Salemâs Lot in 1978 and read Night Shift not long thereafter.
His books caught me up in their narratives like none Iâd ever read. Even then, I marveled at his lightning-in-a-bottle gift for building up momentum. Being 13 years old could be the best time to be introduced to a writer like King. I soaked up his novels and short stories without reservations or awareness of irony. As an adult, I probably would have seen some humor in âGray Matterâsâ bad beer causing ravenous mutations, or âThe Manglerâsâ killer industrial laundry press machine (to name two stories from Night Shift).
I got caught up with his work as quickly as I could, although I probably wasnât old enough to appreciate some of the more grown-up themes of Carrie or The Shining. On a summer vacation with my family in 1979, I noticed a copy of The Stand on the bookshelf of some out-of-town friends, and begged to read it. At the time, I knew nothing about the book but its title â it no longer had the dust jacket, and although it was nearly brand-new, the massive tome could have been sitting on those shelves for decades. As I started reading the book before returning to Atlanta, I had the fascinating experience of reading it âblind,â with no more knowledge of the plot than the hapless characters â all survivors of a âsuperfluâ that gradually wiped out most of the American population. I certainly didnât expect the story to turn into an allegory of societal construction and good vs. evil as rival communities of survivors declared war.
The Stand still strikes me as his best book. I even reread it a few years later when it came out in paperback (although I never read the expanded version from 1990). Commentators have likened it to a Lord of the Rings for the United States, but it strikes me more as a monumental pop fiction equivalent of one of those epic Bruce Springsteen albums of the era. Like Born to Run or The River, thereâs something quintessentially American about The Standâs vision of individualsâ coming together to rebuild the nation, and it transcends his penchant for smaller-scale scares.
My reading of King in the next decade started well. At firstâ¦