MY MOST FORMATIVE childhood experience involved Stephen King, and in particular my dread fear of his book The Shining. I was four or five years old, I think, though it may have been earlier. I had never read the novel, nor seen the movie; I was terrified of the book itself, the physical object. My father had this bright, taxicab-yellow paperback, a movie tie-in edition with a few glossy stills from the Kubrick film in the middle. I remember my older brother asking him one day what it was about, and I remember my father saying something about it being about a family that gets snowed in one winter. But mostly I remember the utter, paralyzing terror that the book caused in me. The stark yellowness of its cover that fairly leapt off the bookshelf, the one film still of Jack Nicholson’s face through the splintered door, the impressionistic, harrowing child’s face that shimmered through the text on the front cover. I was unable to enter my father’s study from that point on, and I became equally terrified of our Men Without Hats album, the one with “Safety Dance” on it, simply because it was the same color yellow (I was a child of many fears). My brother used to place the book in his doorway when he wanted to keep me out of his room. On a couple of occasions, I seem to remember, he drove me completely out of the house with it.
I was also obsessed with it, obsessed with this thing that I knew had so much power over me. A few years later, I watched (again with my father) half of a movie adaptation of ‘Salem’s Lot, which reawakened that terror, and gave me nightmares for weeks. Who can say why, despite such a mortal dread, I found myself drawn to King’s writing a few years later? It’s hard to say, other than that at some point my curiosity outweighed me fear, and when I was about 10 years old, I bought my first Stephen King novel, ‘Salem’s Lot. Expecting, perhaps, to hate it, or be terrified once again, instead a strange thing happened: I fell in love.
From ‘Salem’s Lot, I began devouring King’s work; within two years I had read literally everything he had published: 36 books (at that point), something like 160,000 pages of prose all told. I tracked down rarities like Cycle of the Werewolf, and paid $50 for a slipcased gift edition of “My Pretty Pony,” a story that wouldn’t be published in a mass market collection for years. Some books, like The Stand and The Waste Lands, I read dozens of times. My mother bought me Stephen King trivia books when I’d exhausted his corpus, and I dragged my father to god-awful film adaptation after god-awful film adaptation (I feel particularly bad for Graveyard Shift and The Lawnmower Man). I remember reading The Dark Half with a flashlight under blankets in the middle of the day so that my quotidian suburban bedroom wouldn’t break the spell of the writing. I was crazy, goofy obsessed. I did poorly in English because I couldn’t be bothered with Shakespeare or Dickens, but my English teacher also loved Stephen King, so whenever she hauled me up to reprimand me for not doing homework I’d desperately try to change the subject to why both of us thought that The Dead Zone was his least successful novel. For about four years, Stephen King was my life entire; it occurs to me now that despite my voracious reading I will go to my grave never having read as much work by any author as I read of Stephen King’s in junior high.
I was reading other horror writers by then as well — Dean Koontz, Peter Straub, Dan Simmons — but King was king, the one I returned to again and again. And it was King’s writing that drove me to start writing myself; during the first few years of high school I churned out several hundred pages of poor imitations that I foisted on patient friends. The likelihood that I will ever write, let alone publish, horror fiction again is near zero percent, but I learned so much from those abortive early attempts — about rhythm and plot and pacing, as well as the discipline of the writing life. I owe some of that to Lovecraft, some to Poe, but most of it I owe to Stephen King.
But the thing about being a King completist was that as I gradually exhausted his oeuvre, I began to look elsewhere, and in the process began to take seriously all of his recommendations and all of his inspirations. I read Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, Fritz Lieber’s You’re Not Alone, and a half dozen other science fiction and horror classics he cited. His nonfiction book on horror, Danse Macabre, led me to Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, and Robert Louis Stevenson — but it also led me to Shirley Jackson, whose Haunting of Hill House King endlessly praised and quoted. I read Robert Browning, because his poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” had inspired King’s Dark Tower epic, and I read Ray Bradbury and Lord of the Flies and anything else that had his seal of approval. It was through Danse Macabre, as well as the various epigraphs in his books, in other words, that I moved from reading strictly genre to reading other literature. And this is why King matters to me still, because he encourages his readers, like me, to go beyond our comfort zones. He was unashamed to endlessly add to my reading list, to reveal his sources and inspirations and push his readers toward them with the same enthusiasm he’d had when he first read them. I spent years reading Wallace Stevens’ “Emperor of Ice Cream,” completely misunderstanding it but stubbornly persisting, all because a character in ‘Salem’s Lot mentions in passing that “it’s a poem about death,” and death was cool.
For me, King’s subtle encouragements to broaden my literary horizon worked too well; by my second year of high school, I suddenly stopped reading him. It was strange, like a light switch; I savored 1993’s Nightmares and Dreamscapes, allowing myself to read only a few stories each day so I wouldn’t finish it too quickly. But by the time Insomnia came out a year later, I couldn’t be bothered. By then, I was reading Eliot and Jackson and Browning and, soon enough, Marquez and Ondaatje. I tried to keep up with The Dark Tower when the fourth volume finally came out, but after 80 pages, I gave up.
Even then, though, I always steadfastly defended King, precisely because of how he taught me to be a reader — by which I mean ambitious, catholic and wide-ranging. He taught me to see the gothic tinges in Eliot’s modernist epic (“I will show you fear in a handful of dust” was a favorite line of mine in my high school black trenchcoat days) way before I was ready to understand its meaning and allusions. In the same way people now defend Oprah’s Book Club, I claimed that King had made thousands of casual readers into diehard literature fans, and that he was the single most powerful ambassador for the blurring of high and low, genre and literary, for recognizing their close kinship and their fidelity to each other.
And because of this, because of all the times I went to the mat for him over beers with literary friends and in the office of my creative writing teacher, I took it harder than most when King suddenly emerged, in 2003, as the standard bearer for aggrieved genre writers seeking literary establishment acceptance. That year, he was awarded the Medal of Distinguished Contribution of American Letters by the National Book Award (an award that had gone to Oprah Winfrey four years earlier), and in his acceptance speech, he berated those assembled for not taking genre seriously. “I salute the National Book Foundation Board, who took a huge risk in giving this award to a man many people see as a rich hack,” King said, barely concealing his resentment. “For far too long the so-called popular writers of this country and the so-called literary writers have stared at each other with animosity and a willful lack of understanding. This is the way it has always been. Witness my childish resentment of anyone who ever got a Guggenheim.” He went on to suggest that the Board’s decision that year “suggests that in the future things don't have to be the way they've always been. Bridges can be built between the so-called popular fiction and the so-called literary fiction.” But having said this, he immediately suggests why such a bridge will never be built with a strangely paranoid, accusatory rant:
There's a writer here tonight, my old friend and some time collaborator, Peter Straub. He's just published what may be the best book of his career. Lost Boy Lost Girl surely deserves your consideration for the NBA short list next year, if not the award itself. Have you read it? Have any of the judges read it? There's another writer here tonight who writes under the name of Jack Ketchum and he has also written what may be the best book of his career, a long novella called The Crossings. Have you read it? Have any of the judges read it? And yet Jack Ketchum's first novel, Off Season published in 1980, set off a furor in my supposed field, that of horror, that was unequaled until the advent of Clive Barker. It is not too much to say that these two gentlemen remade the face of American popular fiction and yet very few people here will have an idea of who I'm talking about or have read the work.
It’s an embarrassing speech, one that still makes me cringe reading it — not because there’s anything wrong with suggesting that Peter Straub has literary merit (Ghost Story alone attests to that), but because the speech is rambling, hectoring, belligerent. In repeating his shrill accusation, “Have you read it?”, he does not sound like the ambassador of genre fiction making the case to a literary fiction community. He sounds like a deranged crank.
But because of his stature, the speech also launched (or at least rekindled) the debate that we are still, nearly a decade later, having, in the most shrill and uninteresting of terms, between the so-called literary and so-called genre fiction. The problem with this debate, as I see it, is that it almost never involves what does or doesn’t constitute literary merit. Rather, the debate inevitably dissolves into a weirdly forced identity politics: you’re either a Stephen King Reader or you’re not, and the two camps are mutually exclusive.
In his recent essay, “My Stephen King Problem: A Snob’s Notes,” Dwight Allen suggests that “King appeals to the aggrieved adolescent, or the aggrieved nerdy adolescent, or the aggrieved nerdy adult, who believes that people can be divided into bad and good (the latter would, of course, include the aggrieved adolescent or adult), a reader who would rather not consider the proposition that we are all, each of us, nice good people awash in problems and entirely capable of evil.” Liking King, in other words, indicates a character flaw, some basic human deficiency, a failure to mature. Any serious lover of literature, Allen concludes, has no business reading the man: “After you’ve read Roberto Bolaño and Denis Johnson and David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon, as my son has, why would you return to Stephen King?”
In her rebuttal, Sarah Langan begins by trying to move beyond the either/or binary Allen sets out: “It’s a dead debate. Allen’s oppositions — workmanlike/artistic; literary/genre; educated/blue collar; New Yorker reader from Louisville/dumb fuck from Bangor — are contrived.” But Langan ends her piece discussing King’s Atlantic story, “Herman Wouk is Still Alive,” about a couple of literati whose vapid conversation is played off a tragic car wreck involving salt-of-the-earth types, and in the process, doubles down on that same debate, pitting herself and King against the literary snobs: “What’s this story about? It’s about us, as a culture, letting our young and best die while we sit idly by debating high art. It’s a screw you to the Atlantic readers, the New Yorker readers, the people who lost sight of the dream, in the only language they might possibly understand, from the only venue they’re going to read.” If you don’t read King, you must be a New Yorker reader, and Langan concludes that if so there must be something wrong with you — you’re a literary snob who deserves to be the one dying in that car wreck.
As should be obvious, both of these positions are untenable, nonsensical, and vile. To state that there are only two kinds of readers — Stephen King Reader or High-Brow Literati — is to deny the reading experience of most intelligent readers I know, who move seamlessly between The Stand and A Visit from the Goon Squad. Readers read for different reasons at different times, and rarely pick sides in the way that Allen and Langan demand that we do.
But it’s perhaps too easy to ignore this nuanced truth in favor of partisan bickering and false dichotomies, especially when this tone has been set by King himself, who’s spent the decade pumping up this debate, and which is one reason we argue about him, and not Danielle Steele or John Grisham. I find his part in it particularly tragic, because King of all people should know better. Because it was King — the other Stephen King, the one I grew up with — who first taught me that reading could be fluid and dynamic, that it wasn’t about a single writer but about a conversation spanning continents and decades, between high and low, literary and genre, positions that were constantly shifting, and who encouraged me to just shut up and read.