Tuesday, May 10, 2011

On Stephen King

I am often asked, "Who is your greatest influence?" It's a difficult question. There are so many, really, from the early horror novelists I read as a kid (Clive Barker, Peter Straub) to the masters of language and form I read in college (Don DeLillo, Michael Chabon) to the mystery and thriller writers I love today (Karin Slaughter, Lee Child).

But there is no question that my greatest influence, the writer that has had the deepest and most profound impact on my writing, is Stephen King.

I know, I know. You've seen it before. To mention King as an influence is like saying Babe Ruth is your favorite baseball player. Okay, so no new ground is being broken here. But we each have our own beacons, and this is mine: as a teenager, I discovered a kind of writing--a kind of storytelling--that I wanted to do when I grew up. In a bookstore in Somerset, Kentucky, I plucked a Stephen King novel off the shelf (it was "Gerald's Game," not one of King's best but still the book that I first mention when I talk about him). This began a kind of love affair.

There are many reasons people are drawn to King's books, especially his early work (though I think "Under the Dome" ranks right up there with his best). His books are accessible, his characters recognizable, his writing poignant to the point of personal. Any time you pick up a King novel, you realize right away that you are in the hands of somebody who GETS IT.

But for me, I realized on the days after I left that bookstore with my first King novel that my connection with King's work didn't have to do with the ghouls he eloquently writes about. For me, I recognized something more than that. It was a deep understanding; a better grasp of the WHY of the story.

You see, I think I knew why Stephen King wrote those kinds of books. And I knew, as irrevocably then as I do now, that I wanted to try and write them myself.

I will likely never touch as many readers as King has. But each time I write, and really every time I open a novel, I think about that moment when I first picked up "Gerald's Game." The thrill of reading the first chapters. The buzz of emotion--laughter, fear, love, sorrow--that King is able to get at with his language and characters. And I try, dear reader, to recreate it.


  1. I still vividly recall my first experience with a Stephen King novel: The Dark Half in 7th grade. It was my first novel intended for adults, and probably responsible for my continued love of reading. Although I'm no writer, King's works have certainly influenced my reading ever since, in that every book I pick up gets compared to his writing, for better or worse. It may be cliche to say, but The Stand continues to be one of my all-time favorites, one I can read again and again, and 'Salem's Lot still gives me the creeps just thinking about it.

    That being said, I'm really looking forward to Dominance, and hope it's merely the second in a long line of stories.

    -Aaron C.

  2. It's interesting that we remember where we were when we first read King's books, Aaron. I think there's something about King that's "YA"--not in the JK Rowling sense, but in the sense that he's "understandable." As a kid, you can relate to the stuff he writes. I think this is one reason he's had such monumental success: because kids and adults alike can find something in his novels that resonates.

  3. Also Will, SK writes about kids a lot - there is almost always a kid featured as one of the main ensemble characters in his book, and I think that speaks to a lot of people. Certainly I think the fact that SK works children into his stories gives them something extra that hooks people in. I find it hard, as a parent, to put a child in a horror story because it's hard to write about kids being terrified, hurt, or worse. So I admire King, and other authors, for being able to do that so well.

    King is also my greatest influence - we aren't alone, but we aren't cliche either. There's a reason for this - his writing, his stories, are SUPERB.

  4. Meaghan, that is very true and a good point. I audited a class on King in college, and the professor read a quote from King. I can't remember it verbatim, but the gist of it was that a lot of his work ("Pet Sematary" was mentioned specifically) had to do with talking about horrible things to safeguard himself against those very things.

    To wit: if he wrote about dead children, then his own children would remain safe.

    I think this is why his earlier work resonates most of all with people, because there seems to be something much more personal in those stories. Something much more about him and his life (my favorite King, "The Shining," is--or at least appears to be--incredibly autobiographical). You get these glimpses into the author and his fear, and his ability to lay the Worst Case Scenario bare like that is of course fascinating and, strangely, poignant.