Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Reading Stephen King, Chapter 2: Eerie in the '80s

Posted By on Tue, Feb 12, 2008 at 7:49 PM

click to enlarge sematary.jpg

(For the first chapter, click here.)

The decade started out so well for Stephen King and me. I eagerly snatched up everything by him that I could find, although I remember puzzling over a short story about an enigmatic gunslinger in a “Best Science Fiction and Fantasy” collection in the early 1980s (little did I know what was to come). When “The Mist” was first published in the anthology Dark Forces, I stayed up late reading it, and then vainly tried to reduce my heart rate and go to sleep with my nerves completely shot. (Frank Darabont’s adaptation of The Mist, made about 25 years after King wrote the story, stays faithful to the letter of the book but misses something essential about its spirit.)

I brought King with me to college, and vividly recall finishing Christine one night of my freshman year, then went for a walk around campus and enjoying the creepy feeling every time headlights went past. In 1984 I wrote my first book review for the Vanderbilt University student newspaper The Hustler, praising King's Pet Sematary, one of his most disturbing novels, which has timeless quality worthy of classic writers like Edgar Allen Poe and Shirley Jackson. I can’t say I liked the irreverent headline slapped on my review, “Trad King tome packs zing” (Trad?) but it probably balanced my oh-so-serious undergrad's prose.

Our sort-of relationship hit some trouble spots, however.

King’s onscreen performance in 1982’s Creepshow (as a moronic farmer who gradually becomes overgrown with alien moss) provided evidence of King as the world’s worst actor. His 1986 film Maximum Overdrive (about trucks that try to take over the world) made a case for King as the world’s worst film director. And judging from his novel Misery, in which a crazed fan imprisons and mains a successful author, King had misgivings about the likes of me, too. (I actually really liked Misery and think it has more to say about the creative process than Rob Reiner’s Oscar-winning film adaptation.)

Things really started to turn when I read his opus It as a college senior nearing graduation time. Featuring a creature who can change into classic movie monsters (mummies, werewolves, clowns, Paul Bunyan, etc.), It struck me as an unrewarding exercise in repetition. King seemed increasingly and unwaveringly married to a narrow range of tropes, settings and character types.

The Tommyknockers (insidious flying saucer) and The Dark Half (killer pseudonym come to life) amounted to a one-two punch that finished me off. Ironically, I was working as a bookseller at Atlanta’s first Borders bookstore (the original Buckhead location) when The Dark Half hit the shelves. During my four months at the store, I was selling the very book that inspired me to give up on Stephen King altogether.

King and I were through. Or so I thought.

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