Saturday, January 9, 2010

Stephen King Revisited

The other day I came across this website, which compiles the bestselling books from each decade in the 20th century. Looking through the 1970s through 1990s, I was struck by the emergence and endurance of Stephen King on the top ten lists. He's got a book on the list for virtually every year from 1980 through 1999, and sometimes two at a time.

Skimming through the list reminded me of all the Stephen King books I read between 1988 and 1993, from the time I was 12 till I was 16. Looking over this chronological list, I find that I read 21 of his books. I have very fond memories of some of them; it occurs to me that they were the perfect things to be reading at that time in my life—a bridge to more serious literary fiction. Although I once read literary critic Harold Bloom saying that he had looked in vain for any evidence of "aesthetic dignity" in King's work, his work does in fact have virtues that are well-suited to an adolescent reader: compelling plots, clear (verging on simplistic) character motivations, a lively (if unbeautiful) prose style, and visceral emotional power.

All of the King books I've read were published between 1975 and 1992. Here are the five I think are most worth remembering. (The links are to the Wikipedia entries for each—I find that the plot summaries are quite enjoyable to read.)

1) The Eyes of the Dragon (1987)—The first King novel I ever read remains my favorite, a fact which is kind of disappointing, in a way. This novel is a fairy tale, of sorts, with an evil magician and a spooky castle and a tower prison, with snowy journeys and hair's-breadth escapes, and a charming narrative voice. I re-read it a number of years ago to make up a bonus reading test for my freshmen, and I found that the book held up pretty well. The freshmen who've chosen to read it have invariably enjoyed it, too.

2) Misery (1987)—Most people know the story from the movie, which was also well done. This one filled me with delicious dread as an adolescent, and I re-read it several times. Of all of King's books about writing and writers, I think this one has the most interesting things to say about the craft. I even considered using this book as the summer reading requirement for my Reading and Writing Fiction class. (Instead, I went with Tobias Wolff's Old School, but who knows—I might try this sometime.)

3) Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption (1982)—The first novella in the collection Different Seasons, this is another great escape story (as are the first two novels on this list), which of course was made into a fine movie. I think I read this in one sitting, unable to stop, and completely blown away by the ending.

4) It (1985)—Topping 1000 pages, this was the longest book I'd ever read. And while it certainly has its share of ridiculous scenes, it has an evocative sense of place (the sewers, the forts in the woods) as well as an impressive imaginative range: as counterpoint to his main narrative, King dramatizes horrific eruptions of evil from the historical annals of a small Maine town.

5) Thinner (1984)—This book was originally published under King's secret pseudonym Richard Bachman, but soon after its publication its true author was revealed. It's a fairly pulpy story of a guy who gets cursed by a Gypsy and begins steadily, uncontrollably losing weight. But as I recall, it had a pared-down narrative directness that was irresistible.

Honorable Mentions: Firestarter, The Dead Zone, Christine.

Other than some short stories and essays he's published in the New Yorker (and the first third of The Green Mile, which I took on a vacation in 1999 and found very boring), I've not read much Stephen King in the second half of my life. I don't really see myself ever getting back into him, but he was certainly a major figure in my development as a reader. And I remain impressed by his superhuman output and his personal story.

1 comment:

framiko said...

Incidentally, these are the Stephen King books I read:

’Salem's Lot (1975)
Rage (as Richard Bachman) (1977)
The Stand (1978)
The Dead Zone (1979)
Firestarter (1980)
The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger (1982)
Different Seasons (1982)
Christine (1983)
Pet Sematary (1983)
The Talisman (1984, written with Peter Straub)
Thinner (as Richard Bachman) (1984)
It (1986)
The Eyes of the Dragon (1987)
Misery (1987)
The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three (1987)
The Tommyknockers (1987)
The Dark Half (1989)
Four Past Midnight (1990)
Needful Things (1990)
The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands (1991)
Gerald's Game (1992)