Friday, December 19, 2014

Stephen King Revisited - Salem's Lot and Needful Things, and a TOC

First, continued teasing for Shadows Over Main Street, the small-town Lovecraftian anthology coming soon from Hazardous Press. I am once again excited and humbled to find myself sharing a TOC with such awesome writers. That, and I can't wait to see the interior illustrations for this puppy. Check out the TOC  below:

Also, Cemetery Dance editor Richard Chizmar is doing an awesome thing. He's revisiting all of Stephen King's novels in order, posting reflections on his first impressions of those novels, and how they've held up over the years. Bev Vincent is also posting essays about King. It's all happening at

This has prompted me to begin re-reading Stephen King, as well as finally reading those of his novels I missed the first time around. I won't be doing it necessarily in order, nor will I be able to post as often as I'd like. BUT, my blog needs a jump start, and this seems like the thing to spark it.

Also...I feel like I've come full circle in my love of Stephen King and his work. He introduced me to horror, made me realize that I had the wrong ideas (all informed by slasher flicks) about what the "horror genre" really was. From my late-twenties into my mid-thirties, I read as much Stephen King as possible (along with Dean Koontz and Peter Straub), but it was King I focused on, devouring as many novels as could, as fast as I could.

But here's the thing: I don't think I really appreciated them for what they were. I plowed through them one after another, finishing a book, thinking, "That was awesome!" and then diving into another. I have a suspicion that re-reading King now, at my age, is going to open an entirely different world to me.

Another thing? After spending several years exploring as many different horror writers as I could (years well spent, without which I never would've discovered Ramsey Campbell, Charles Grant, T. M. Wright, Alan Ryan, Robert McCammon and so many others), I've come to realize that after all this, King still tops the list for me. There's something in his characters and stories that are so very compelling.  In my time off from reading King I discovered many wonderful writers whose work became fundamental in shaping and molding me (especially the late Charles Grant), but in my mind, no one tells a story like King. Of course, as always, this is just my opinion, and your mileage may vary.

Still another motivator was finally digging in King's short work (yes, I know, I hang my head in shame). I blitzed straight through Nightshift, Skeleton Crew, Everything's Eventual and Nightmares and Dreamscapes...and was enthralled. He could tell you an insightful, moving and poignant story about finding back roads maybe better left alone ("Mrs. Todd's Shortcut") or really fun stories involving a pair of motorized toy teeth coming to a guy's rescue on a lonely interestate. Regardless of the kind of story, it seemed to me: King enjoyed the HELL out of what he was writing, and we should all be so lucky.

 Anyway, I decided to re-read the King novels I've already read, and also get the ones I'd missed over the years. I actually re-read The Shining about a year ag0 (in preparation for Dr. Sleep), so I'm not going to focus on that except to say this: the emotional impact of Jack Torrance's downfall hit me twice as hard reading it as a father. I first read it as a single guy in college. I cognitively knew it was tragic, but didn't necessarily feel it was. This time around, I definitely felt that way.

Also, on comparing The Shining and Dr. Sleep? I don't think you can, really. They were written by different guys. In an essay, King says (and I'm paraphrasing) that The Shining was written by a young guy who was an alcoholic desperately afraid of being an alcoholic and in denial, while Dr. Sleep was written by a recovered alcoholic now living a healthy lifestyle, twenty years later. To me, both books fit both "guys" and I love them on their own merits.

Anyway, let's get to the nitty-gritty: 

Salem's Lot and Needful Things

Here's the thing I realized upon finishing these two novels: they impacted me so much, the very first "horror novel" I tried to write was an insane combination of the two, with a liberal sprinkling of It to boot (more on that when I re-read it). Probably the thing that struck me most back then was the vivid, meticulous, endearing - and at times heartbreaking - characterization in both novels. These people were real. Some of them good people, good people with flaws, good people hurting, weak people doing the best with what they had, jerks you still sorta felt bad for, schmucks you wish would get it right even though you sorta knew they wouldn't....

These were real people. I could imagine knowing these folks, working with these folks. I really truly believe that even after being a reading addict my whole life, it was King who created in me this thirst for characters I really cared about, even at the expense of the plot. I know the old saying - different strokes for different folks - but whenever I see someone complaining that a Stephen King novel is "too bloated with too much wasted writing" I automatically know I'm probably gonna love it. A bloated novel to others is to me an awesome journey that I enjoy regardless of the destination.

And it was the interactions of these characters, and their mistakes and their downfalls, or how they rose above those downfalls - or didn't, despite their best efforts - that created the tension in both books, not plots with "twists." In Salem's Lot, the vampires are almost incidental. They came, they saw, they devoured...but the people of Salem's Lot were ready to be devoured. In Needful Things, Leland Gaunt definitely yanks the strings of the poor folks in Castle Rock...but those folks had been ready and waiting for someone to come along and offer them exactly what they wanted.

I tried copying all these things in the earliest incarnations of Clifton Heights, my own little mythical town. I had a guy like Leland Gaunt coming to pray on people's weaknesses. And yes, he was a vampire, and turning weak, confused people (who probably didn't mind so much because of how much they hated their lives) into vampires. I had a priest confused about his faith, who had been partially turned into a vampire (Salem's Lot.) My sheriff was a mere shadow of Alan Pangborn (Needful Things). 

There of course was a house where terrible things had happened (Salem's Lot). An autistic boy who "saw" things (basically, Danny from The Shining). And of course, a band of childhood friends who had stopped this evil once before and were now returning to finally put it to rest (It). In several different variations, the autistic boy was sent back to when the friends were boys, and of course my friends rescued him from bullies, so when they were grown up, he could help them with his special powers (by then, Dreamcatcher). In it's earliest incarnation, there were even apocalyptic tones (The Stand). Re-reading both these books, I even came across descriptions of towns and people that I had VERY liberally re-tasked in those drafts.

Luckily, that early effort fell apart under its own weight. As I continued developing, I slowly learned that I could definitely let myself be influenced by King - how powerful his characterization was, how engrossing his stories were - but I needed to find my own voice in this. Find inspiration from my life and experiences, and try to bring those to life in the truest way I knew how.

I think I've done okay. So far, my work has been decently well-received. However, I think I'm at transitional moment. What do I want to write? What kind of stories do I want to tell? 

At the bottom of it all? Stories that are fun to write. Stories I enjoy telling. Stories that mean something and say something, but stories that interest me. Probably the best comment I ever received was for my first work, my novella Hiram Grange and the Chosen One. Upon reading it, good friend and awesome writer Norman Prentiss said, "I really liked it! And I could tell you had a lot of fun writing it, too."

Because at the end of the day...why write something you don't want to? And that's another thing I admire King for. He writes what he wants because he enjoys it, he loves every minute of it. I may be a foolish idealist, but take all the money and the fame away, in the end, I think King writes what he loves, and we should all be so lucky.

Currently reading: Pet Semetary