I'm what Stephen King lovingly refers to as his 'constant reader'. For the last twenty-plus years, I've stuck with him through thick (The Stand Complete & Uncut) and Thinner.
My first taste of the Maine man's writing came at the age of 13, when I picked up a dog-eared copy of Carrie in a charity shop, intrigued by the image of a glassy-eyed girl drenched in blood. Since I was about as adept at making friends as a wasp with a social disease, the plight of teenage outcast Carrie White struck a chord with me. And despite the book's somewhat laboured epistolary style, I found Carrie's telekinetic revenge on her high school peers to be curiously cathartic. The only joy in my weekly PE lessons came from imagining the basketball backboard as a deadly weapon. It's no wonder, then, that many fans like me felt that the book (and its excellent film adaptation) were mischaracterised as horror pieces, when the reality was far more tragi-comic.
My second sampling of King's work was much less complicated. When my Mum first brought home IT from the local library, I was bewitched by its cover which depicted a run-down clapperboard house transformed into the leering face of clown. Challenged by my own coulrophobia to pick up the doorstep-sized tome, I devoured it in three days. I think this early introduction to King's occasional bouts of verbosity helped me to develop an early tolerance towards his longform approach. Admittedly, it's not a view that's shared by more fairweather fans, who carp that much of his output is so overwritten that it could give Lou Ferrigno back pain.
Nonetheless, I soldiered on through his back catalogue, discovering the wonders of The Shining, Salem's Lot,Cujo, Christine and The Dead Zone. As a young child, I'd loved the dark and distressing worlds conjured up by Roald Dahl, and felt that, in many ways, my love of King was a natural extension of this. I became convinced when I finally got around to reading his classic short story Gramma, and noticed the similarities to Dahl's comically creepy George's Marvellous Medicine.
Over the years, King churned them out with a level of prolificacy that would make James Patterson look like J. D. Salinger
Having caught up with his back catalogue, I soon found myself buying each new book as it was released. Over the years, King churned them out with a level of prolificacy that would make James Patterson look like J. D. Salinger. Of course, not everything was a gem. King himself claims to remember very little of The Tommyknockers, since it was written at the height of his cocaine abuse. I also struggle to recall much of that particular work, although my septum took less of a hammering for it.
The nineties were an interesting time for King, as he toyed with the idea of slowing down his output, and exploring concepts of the resolutely non-horrific variety. His triptych of feminist stories, Gerald's Game, Dolores Claiborne and Rose Madder won him few new fans, but amply demonstrated an emerging political voice largely absent in his earlier work. There's a widely held belief that people grow more conservative as they get older; one trend that King seems more than happy to buck.
As the author turned his back on the supernatural scenarios that had once been his bread and butter, horror-averse critics belatedly began to recognise the quality of his writing. Free from the dripping corpses, paranormal disturbances and "pendulous knots of intestines glistening like bloody rope", they were free to discover his uncanny ear for dialogue and fascination with small-town mores. They also applauded the intertextuality of his literary universe, that skilfully wove connections between disparate tales separated by time, space and even genre.
Along the way, King also kept his writing fresh by exploring different formats, from the serialisation of The Green Mile, to the first widely distributed e-book, Riding The Bullet. He followed these with a combined approach in a serialised e-book, The Plant, which he bravely opted to distribute online using an honour system in lieu of a fixed price model.
There's a widely held belief that people grow more conservative as they get older; one trend that King seems more than happy to buck.
It probably helped that his filmic output had also slowed down, leaving studios to focus on his better work. Frank Darabont and Rob Reiner, in particular, can claim responsibility for rehabilitating King's reputation on the silver screen. Darabont delivered a trio of impeccable movies - The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile and The Mist, and Reiner gave us Stand By Me and Misery. Some of them may have taken a little longer to find their rightful audience, but they're all generally perceived as classics in their own right.
Now in his mid-sixties, King is finally making good on his promise to slow down. Although few years pass without at least one new title hitting the best-sellers list, he seems to be easing slowly into a kind of semi-retirement. As well as running a couple of radio stations in Maine, and penning a ceaseless stream of recommendations for other authors, he also writes a number of magazine columns which allow him to cast a non-fictional eye on real-world events.
So I was delighted to see him hitting the headlines again this week, as he authored a coruscating critique of right wing politics for The Daily Beast. Entitled 'Tax Me, for F@%&’s Sake!' this diatribe rallies against the Republicans' habit of looking out for the interests of the top one per cent, and telling the rest of the population to go fuck themselves. He argues that high earners, like himself, should be paying more taxes. He also makes a compelling argument against the viewpoint that rich people can simply donate more to charity, and that this will solve the world's ills. In spite of his own charitable giving ($4 million a year), he understands that these discretionary donations won't impact "the care of [America's] sick and its poor, the education of its young, the repair of its failing infrastructure, the repayment of its staggering war debts. Charity from the rich can’t fix global warming or lower the price of gasoline by one single red penny."
He writes "They simply idolize the rich. Don’t ask me why; I don’t get it either, since most rich people are as boring as old, dead dog shit."
Lamenting the right wing's unconditional love for the unfeasibly wealthy, he writes "They simply idolize the rich. Don’t ask me why; I don’t get it either, since most rich people are as boring as old, dead dog shit." Now imagine how much more interesting Question Time would be if the writer of Firestarter went head-to-head with Louise Mensch.
King's increasingly liberal viewpoint should come as no surprise to anyone who read his recent political satire Under The Dome. But they may be shocked that he's able to articulate it in a piece of work short enough to be read during a toilet break.
Perhaps the best thing about King's screed, is the closing paragraph. It proves that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, he does have a few good endings left in him:
"Last year during the Occupy movement, the conservatives who oppose tax equality saw the first real ripples of discontent. Their response was either Marie Antoinette (“Let them eat cake”) or Ebenezer Scrooge (“Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”). Short-sighted, gentlemen. Very short-sighted. If this situation isn’t fairly addressed, last year’s protests will just be the beginning. Scrooge changed his tune after the ghosts visited him. Marie Antoinette, on the other hand, lost her head.
Think about it."
If it's years since you last read anything by 'The Master of Horror', maybe these 1,600 powerful words will convince you it's finally time to revisit Castle Rock. You might be surprised by how much the old place has changed.
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