When you ask Horror fans who their favorite authors are, you will probably hear the name Stephen King quite a bit. So, today I thought I would talk a little bit about Stephen King, his influence on my own writing, my favorite King book, and which book I am still afraid to read today.
Growing up in the eighties and nineties, horror was—well, let’s just say it was a way of life, at least for me. We had Goosebumps and Garbage Pail Kids. The Crypt Keeper read us our bedtime stories. There were slashers on VHS, Are You Afraid of the Dark, and Creepshow. Our leading ladies were Elvira and Lilly Munster. We also had the “King of Horror” turning out pages and gracing the big screens. I could go on and on, but I’ll stop here.
I’d love to tell you that I could remember the very first King book I read, or even the very first Horror book, but I can’t. I can’t because there were just so damn many of them. So many horror books and movies and television shows. It is all one big, nostalgic blur. But I can tell you which ones stand out, the ones that kept me awake at night and still haunt me to this day. I will even tell you about one that I am still afraid to read.
But first, let’s start with one of my favorite King books, Salem’s Lot. Now, it has been a while since I’ve given this one a read and I will try not to give away too many spoilers, but no promises. So, if you have yet to read the book or watch the movie, proceed with caution.
I think the thing that really draws me to King is his writing style. He has such a laid-back style that makes it feel as though you are sitting beside him having a regular conversation.
He doesn’t use a lot of fancy language or try to talk over your head. His books are for every reader…and I love that.
Salem’s Lot is this way. We start in a small town, as a lot of King’s books tend to do. Of course, something is always amiss. In this town, we have a creepy old man, and some rumors, and the memory of a little boy who went snooping somewhere he shouldn’t have.
The boy, Ben, now all grown up, returns to his hometown where his neighbors have begun to act strangely, and Ben becomes suspicious. One child goes missing and as he relives the horrible memories of the Marsten house and the hanging man, he starts to wonder if it is all connected.
That is all of the summary I will give you. I want to spoil it as little as possible. But let me tell you, the creepy-ass kids in this book got me. If you’ve already read it, then you know what I’m talking about. If not, just wait.
Salem’s Lot leaves behind a vision of nightmares in every child, neighbor, and friend. I think what really draws me to these small-town stories of his, besides having grown up and lived in a small town for most of my life, are the characters. They are so humanly flawed, so full of lust, anger, greed…revenge. Everyone has a secret, even the side characters. We get to see the dark, desperately evil side of his characters in full bloom. There are cheaters, wife beaters, and alcoholics in his stories, no Betty Sues or Mary Sues or whatever the hell you want to call them. These are as close to real people as a fictional character can get. Anyone that’s grown up in a small town like mine can confirm that. Hell, anyone who’s ever dealt with the shit end of another human being can tell you that. Sometimes people are pure evil, and King will be the first to let you know.
This is why I love his writing. This is also what makes it so damned terrifying. The reality of humanity is far scarier than the werewolves, clowns, and vampires. Speaking of clowns, which brings me to one of the first King movies I ever watched and the one book I am still afraid to read to this day…IT.
I am pretty sure every child who grew up in my era was traumatized by a Stephen King movie at one point in their lives. For me, it was the movie IT. Again, spoiler alert. Most of you already know that IT is about this creepy clown, and as usual, it all goes down in a small town.
The movie, because I am stil too damned afraid to read the book, begins with a group of kids known as the Loser’s Club. They are outcasts and quickly won over my weird little heart. In short, these kids get teased a lot and have to fight off bullies pretty much on the daily. Then, to top it all off, there is this freaking shapeshifting clown living in the sewers and creeping around their town. It shows up in the streets, at the library, in the motel and abandoned houses. It doesn’t matter where they go. There is no escape.
The scene, which is not actually the scariest part, which got me was the one where Bev is in the bathroom. You all know the one, right? The red balloon of blood comes creeping up the sink drain and explodes all over the walls and the mirror and her face. Yeah, that’s the one. That scene ruined me. I was afraid of the bathroom for years. I wanted every drain hole plugged and you could forget soaking in the bath. I still get the chills whenever I think about it.
However, now that I am older, I realize the real horror is the relationship between Beverly and her father. I won’t go into detail, but it is pretty rough stuff. Like I said, every character has a secret, and some are worse than others.
How has this affected my own writing? As most writers will tell you, we leave pieces of ourselves in our work. That includes the books, movies, music, and other forms of art we’ve ingested. All of these things bind together to help us express ourselves.
King’s in-depth characterization has taught me to explore my character’s and their motivations on a deeper level. He has taught me that everyone has a flaw and that nobody is innocent. This has, in my opinion, allowed me to create some truly unique characters and motivations. And though I sometimes hold back, I’m working on this I swear, I’ve been able to touch the dark places in a way I wouldn’t have been able to before.
I think this takes a lot of self-reflection and not everyone is able to do that. It is hard to look at our own flaws or the flaws of those around us and use them in our writing. Hell, it’s downright scary. I guess we are afraid of what we might find. But the truth is, it is a bit like therapy. We see these flaws and we apply those to our characters. Then, for whatever weird reason, when we do, it is almost as if it sheds a brighter light. Maybe now we can see the motivation behind the action.
In the end, I guess it’s all about the characters. Without them, you have no story really. A well-developed character goes a long way. Their motivations go even farther.
No matter if you read the book or watch the movie, King’s works have a way of sticking with you. You just can’t shake ‘em. So, if you’re a horror fan, grab a copy of Salem’s lot, or IT, if you’re brave enough.
As for me, I’ve decided to face my fears. I’ve added IT to my TBR. I’ll let you know how it turns out.