For Mother’s Day this year I got my wife a trip to New York City with me and three of my kids (left the autistic one at home with a friend, she HATES NYC) for 4 nights and tickets to an event at Radio City Music Hall. The event was something I came across on the Internet and was so perfect for us I could not pass it up. It’s a charity event called “An Evening with Harry, Carrie and Garp”, featuring three authors reading from their works and interacting with the audience. The reason it is so perfect is that the three authors involved happen to each be a favorite of mine, my wife’s and my kids. The “Harry” part of the evening is of course J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books my kids read and reread (my wife and I are also fans). My wife’s favorite author is John Irving, who’s books include “A prayer for Owen Meany” and “The World According to Garp”, who will be reading as well (that’s the Garp part). I enjoy the work of a number of authors, but one who I continually return to like a favorite easy chair is Stephen King, who is the “Carrie” part of the equation.
King is an uber-popular novelist and as such often receives the typical critical poo-pooing that book-snob critics reserve especially for the prolific writers who’s books earn them many millions of dollars. They seem to have a problem with books which tend to be seen more often next to a beach chair with greasy sunscreen stains and pages swelled from getting splashed with over-clorinated pool water than on a mahogany table next to a brandy snifter and humidor. Not that King is universally vilified by the critics… far from it. He just seems to be viewed as a book-spewing formula author. I happen to think his writings deserve better than to be lumped into the same group as the James Pattersons , Mary Higgins Clarks and other book factories of the world.
Reading is a great joy for me, and a luxury I rarely have time for. My idea of the perfect vacation is a week, four novels and a patch of beach. I sometimes read to broaden my horizons, to provoke thoughts in new directions and to expand my mind, but usually I read for the pure, unadulterated enjoyment of immersing myself in a world visualized by my imagination and not by photons and cathode rays projected onto a glass screen. No electrical outlets required, thanks. My requirements for a good book are a good story, interesting characters I care about and engaging dialogue. Sounds easy but it’s surprising how many books lack a satisfying level of at least one of those elements. The subject matter is almost irrelevant, although I admit I lean toward adventure, mystery and intrigue than romance or tear jerkers… must be a guy thing.
Stephen King is known as a horror writer, of course, but I think his subject matter is almost irrelevant. I don’t read, re-read and listen to his books on my iPod because of the beasties and blood in them. They are favorites of mine because they contain good stories, interesting characters I care about and engaging dialogue… in spades. Oh, there’s the occasional vampire and evil clown from outer space, but the real magic of King’s writing comes in the little things: the conversations between characters during the quiet times, the humor, the rich descriptions of New England and the small towns and communities so many of his books are set in, the deep, flawed and completely believable characters that populate his world. Maybe the real hook with his work is the jarring collision of the real, lived in and down-to-earth normal world he so convincingly describes and the supernatural and fantastic elements that intrude upon them. That certainly makes for an interesting book, but it’s not the reason King’s books are so good. Sometimes I get the feeling the book’s supernatural subject matter is nothing more than a one sentence excuse for King to do what he really does well, and obviously loves: to write about people. Maybe one day he just comes up with an idea like “what if all the cell phones in the world suddenly turned people who were talking on them into murderous George Romero zombies?” and sets about writing the book. As is the case with most of King’s books, this one won’t REALLY be about cannibal phone-zombies, but about people and what makes them who they are. Getting chased by zombies is just what happens to them.
I’ve read all of King’s work, short, long and otherwise. My favorite contained story is a short novella called “Hearts in Atlantis”. Forget about the movie with Anthony Hopkins, that isn’t the same story. That one was based on another short story in the same collection entitled and including “Hearts in Atlantis” proper. This story is about college kids during the Vietnam war, and it is sad, uplifting, heartbreaking and hilarious all at the same time… no supernatural boogie men here. If you think Stephen King’s books are all monsters and ghosts, do yourself a favor and read “Hearts in Atlantis”. Another of my favorites is “It”. I was literally sad at the end that I was never going to get a chance to meet any of the characters, they were that engaging. The Dark Tower books really are in a class with Tolkein, Herbert and few others. I will write about those books another time. King has has a few misfires but I have yet to read something of his that caused me any regrets for giving them my time and attention.
If King has a weakness it’s that dreaded writer’s bane: the ending. More than a few of his books end up with your basic cosmic monster destruction scene, the universe in chaos, etc. He’s gotten over that in many ways, but for me the ending of a King book is just a necessary evil, if you’ll forgive the pun. Kings books are not about the end of the road, but the journey. Some people just can’t understand that. They get angry if their book isn’t finished up with a neat little bow. A good example is a recent short book by King called “The Colorado Kid”. This book is a study of what makes a story a story, and the human need for closure. The book is supposed to be about the mystery surrounding an unidentified body found on a beach in a New England island tourist town. One would think that by the end we’d know the who, why, where and what about the body. That’s what a story is, right? Well, we find out the who but the rest we never really know, and that really gets people up in arms. Reading the reader reviews on iTunes music store you’d think King had run up, knocked these readers on the head and stolen their wallets. They feel cheated and think the book terrible. They miss the point. King is demonstrating both the reader’s need for a complete story and how a book need not have that beginning, middle and end to be worth reading. King’s book isn’t really about that body, it’s about the three characters who share the tale and the human condition. By the way, the audiobook version of it, complete with the yankee accents and speech patterns, is priceless.
I just listened to King’s “Salem’s Lot” on audiobook while doing my latest MAD job. That might be the 4th or 5th time I’ve listened to it. I’ve read it more than once also. That’s the thing about King’s books…because they are much more about the journey than the destination, his books can be revisited again and again. It’s like getting to know old friends all over again. I’ll enjoy listening to him read from his work at Radio City. Maybe one day I’ll have a chance to shake his hand and tell him how many times he’s made me wish I could really meet some of the people he’s written about. That’s a rare gift for an author.
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