Paper Kingdom Writer's Hall of Fame

Stephen King

Stephen King

Long before I ever read any of his books, I knew the name Stephen King. How could I not? Walk into a bookstore, there was a display of his books nearly toppling from the weight. The lurid covers with drippy titles, his name in huge letters, the intimidating size of each tome. Back then when horror was emerging as a genre unto itself, his name became shorthand for the entire literary style. "What kind of book is that?" "Oh you know, one of those Stephen King books." He did that one American Express commercial where I saw his face for the first time and wondered how a guy that goofy looking could in any way be connected with the type of book I was hearing about. So, yeah, I knew who he was. But what finally prompted me to pick up one of those paperback bricks was the rumor that one of the teachers at school hated the very sight of a Stephen King book and would confiscate it immediately.

We all did things in school to alleviate the boredom. I gave my teachers hell. As the smartest boy in the world, it was my duty to catch them at every mistake and correct their thinking even if that meant I had to change the very laws of the universe to conflict with their teachings. I was a difficult teenager, you can tell. You can also see that Stephen King's twisted world was just the place for me.

Unfortunately, the book I chose to read first was The Tommyknockers. I know I'm not alone in the opinion that Tommyknockers is not all that great a book. Some intense and memorable scenes and images, yes, but at times infuriatingly slow and just damned boring. I know King went through hell to kick a drug and alcohol habit, but the section of Tommyknockers detailing a character's struggle with booze is over-long and, at least to a junior high kid looking for blood and beasties, not at all interesting. I know I should I revisit the book with the insight of an adult, I just don't have the time. Partially because King hasn't slowed down cranking out the novels.

The man is like a great white shark when it comes to writing. If he stops, he'll die. I have a magazine clipping of King taped above my computer monitor. It shows him a few months after his accident in 1999. He's getting up out a chair, and there's a cone of steel rods bolted to the lower half of his right leg. A walker leans within reach. In my mind, he's standing up to go get some writing done. I understand and can attest to the healing power of writing. That's why I'm writing this now. To heal.

But mere dedication does not make a writer great. Stephen King has talent, too.

Since I had more teachers to piss off, I overlooked the mediocrity of Tommyknockers and grabbed another King book. I read Misery. Oh my god. When Annie Wilkes chops off Paul Sheldon's foot with an axe, King doesn't break chapter at the fall of the blade, giving his audience an escape from the gore. Oh no. We see the spray of blood, the nub of bone. We watch her cauterize the stump with a blowtorch. I read this at school, squirming in my desk, half aware that it was only a story, only ink on paper. But it was real enough in my mind to make me cringe.

Despite the impact of that scene, it's the time between the moments of heavy gore than matter most. King builds to the splatter shots slowly, inviting the reader along, and we take small steps because they're easy, because the story is good, because the author understands the morbid need buried in all of us to watch the suffering of others so we can say, "At least it wasn't me." So we spend chapter after chapter waiting, dodging small scares, ready for the thick, red moment. Yet over the entire journey, we fear what we know is coming. King's name has become synonymous with scenes like Paul Sheldon's hobbling, but even the most hackneyed writer can fling blood. It takes a true storyteller to make us not only blanch at the sight of it, but to actually shake before the axe even appears.

The world of a Stephen King novel is a familiar one. People there talk for the most part like we do. They watch familiar television shows, drink Coke and Pabst Blue Ribbon. His characters live in small towns and work at gas stations, drive beat-up cars, go to school dances. Okay, so they can also set things on fire with their minds, and some of them have to drink blood to live, and some of them kill by the light of every full moon, but it's the grounding of fantasy in familiarity that made King stand out in the first place. Edgar Allen Poe stories take place in crumbling castles. Stephen King stories take place down the street, in your school, at church. When death and madness can strike anywhere, not just on the fog-shrouded moors or in the big city which we already know is full of crazy people, we begin to truly fear.

Since I first read Misery in the seventh grade, I've read at least one Stephen King novel a year. (I kept records, so don't doubt me.) Some were so-so, some I loved, and and some I actually have read more than once. The Stand is incredible, and the image of a world empty of other people is a particularly haunting one for me (enticing, as well, but that's a story better suited for the psychiatrist's couch). And I still count The Gunslinger (the first novel in the Dark Tower series) as my favorite of his not only for the original and unique melding of the Western with high fantasy and horror, but because he started it in college, finished it years later, and it highlights the growth and maturation of his voice. I can see King has been an immense influence on my own writing. I, too, set my fantastical stories in everyday settings. I try to make my dialog and characters as true to life as can be tolerated. And if I can't scare you, I'm not above going for the gross out.

In his beautiful book On Writing, King says he feels that stories already exist, and it is his job as writer to reveal as much of them as his skills allow. It was an empowering thing for me to read because I have always felt the same way. He sees the story as a fossil in the earth, and himself as a paleontologist dusting away the dirt, slowly bringing the find to the surface. My personal metaphor is of a factory. The workers have done the work already then scattered the pages across the factory floor. All the stories I will ever write are there now, waiting for me to pick them up, page by page. Sometimes I miss a page, sometimes a single page is all I can find. But I keep looking, because I know if I quit, the factory doors will close, and I will lose the only job I can do with any degree of expertise.

In 1999 we almost lost Stephen King. A few years later, something strange happened to me. I'm telling it now for the first time. I was in a hotel in Florida, suffering from a blistering sunburn. Heat pulsated from my seared flesh. My brain swooned from the pain. And I floated up out of my body. I was two people at once, and neither of them was me. I was Stephen King, and I was the man who nearly killed Stephen King with his van on the crest of a blind hill on Route 9 in Maine. I know King sometimes lives in Florida. His last novel was set there. I think he passed by that day, somewhere out on the interstate. Did he sense me? Does he know that that evening a page blew up from the factory floor and lodged in my feverish mind?

I tried to write the story twice. Fucked it up royally each time. Last week I think I got it right. It deals with the aftermath of King's accident, and in my initial conception, Stephen King was supposed to die. But I couldn't do it. I couldn't endure a world without him churning out a book or two a year. So I finished the story with him still alive. I sent it off to a magazine, and if it gets published (assuming King himself doesn't take offense) I would some day like to expand it into a novel. And if that gets published, I will dedicate it to Stephen King. As well I should.

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