Thursday, July 16, 2015

Thanking Stephen King

Last month, I thanked Kurt Vonnegut for the large part he played in leading me into this life of writing. But before I was a writer, I was a reader.

This was a given in my family. My mother was a high school English teacher, and she and her two sisters — my aunts — were constant readers. When we all got together for holidays and birthdays, the three of them were always gabbing about what books they had read, and the would swap hardcovers so that each could share in the others' discoveries.

So becoming a reader wasn't really a choice for me. It was practically genetic. But what kind of reader I would be was up in the air.

Enter Stephen King. Not actual flesh-and-blood-and-gore Stephen King; I've never met the guy. Nonetheless, he entered my life at an important time for me — somewhere in middle school — through my aunt Liz.

To say Liz was a fan of Stephen King would be an understatement. She was to Stephen King novels what legions of bowtie-wearing hipsters are to new iPhone models. The day a new Stephen King novel hit the shelves, she had her hands on a copy. The next day, she had finished reading it.

So, anyway, middle school for me was aptly named because I was, literarily speaking, stuck in the middle ground between books written for kids and books written for adults. (We didn't have the wide swath of "young adult fiction" then that we have today.) I remember trying to read The Hobbit but losing interest quickly when I couldn't keep track of the names of all the dwarfs. (I still haven't read it.)

So my aunt shows up one day, perhaps after seeing my attempt to read Tolkien, with a copy of Stephen King's Eyes of the Dragon and telling me that she thinks I might like the story. Eyes of the Dragon is not one of his most well-known or highly acclaimed novels, sure. But I was no literary critic. I was just a tween. (Did we even have that word back then?) As it turned out, I liked it — the novel, not being a tween.

After I finished it, I thought I might see what else he had written that I might like. So I pulled down my mom's old copy of The Bachman Books and read it. (I still think "The Long Walk" is a damn good story.) And then I was hooked.

I've always been the kind of guy who likes a challenge, so went for the big ones. First, King's recently published, 1138-page It. Then came the 1153 pages of The Stand. Followed by maybe half a dozen others.

(Speaking of genetics, I see this same approach to novels in my own sons. Both of them, for instance, read the unabridged Les Misérables before they were 14. Right now, the younger is reading The Odyssey and the elder is reading Don Quixote. It's a chore to talk them into reading a book with fewer than 300 pages.)

And I was off into the world of adult fiction. I wouldn't of my own volition pick up a novel labeled "young adult" until I was a, you know, regular adult.

I didn't nurture the kind of obsessive Stephen King fandom that beset my aunt Liz — I switched to Clive Barker in high school — but King was an important, memorable, and enjoyable part of my transition into serious reading.

So, thank you, Stephen King, for your part in my growth as a reader. Thank you for showing me the symbiotic relationship of the story and the words used to tell the story. And thank you for teaching me that the language a writer uses should serve the purposes of the story, and not the other way around.