Updates, Childhood, and Stephen King

Already knowing that I wanted to be a writer at a young age, I wrote a letter to Stephen King when I was eleven years old, asking for writing advice. This was long before he’d written On Writing. In fact, now that I think of it, I wrote it almost 30 years ago. Since I didn’t know his street address, I addressed it to “Stephen King, Bangor, ME.”

Back then, I was a huge Stephen King fan. Okay, so I’d only read one of his books at that point: my real King years would stretch from middle school through high school. Still, The Eyes of the Dragon remains one of my favorites, and I’ve read it more than any other book.

I don’t remember how long it took to receive a reply, but I did receive one, and it made me and my mom laugh hard, since it was a form letter that apologized for being a form letter and assured me that my letter had been read. With the form letter was the much sought-after writing advice I’d asked for, based on an article King had written. It was called, “Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully – in Ten Minutes.” And while you can find links to it online (such as this one), they don’t include the edit marks that are in my copy.

Flash forward to yesterday, when I watched the first part of IT, the 2017 movie (not the 1990 miniseries). While much is changed from the book (including a smart decision to update the childhood portion to the 80s), its tone and essence, and the camaraderie among members of The Losers’ Club, is captured much better than in the miniseries. And some of the details that are changed are for the better — at least when you don’t have over a thousand pages to play with.

Seeing the movie led to two realizations: I really want to read the book again (which I initially finished over the course of a summer), and my first novel bears similarities to King’s work — which would make sense, since I first conceived it in that style and it deals with evil in a small town, which tends to be a King specialty. In fact, one of the reasons I wanted to see the movie was to find out what worked (and why), and how I could use that information to make my novel better, since I’ve been working on it, off-and-on, for almost for two decades.

Another tool to jog my memory has been home movies. Over the course of the past few Christmases, my dad had all our home movies put on Blu-rays. Over the past week, I’ve been sampling one Blu-ray in particular, since it covers the same time period in my life as my protagonists. Some of what I’m picking up are speech patterns, but also, the FEEL of those times. You can capture all the details in the world, but if you can’t capture what it feels like to be your characters living in that place at that time, you might as well be writing a research paper.

Watching these movies has been odd. I remember the events portrayed in them, but I can’t remember much beyond what the camera shows. And then I’m looking at myself from almost 30 years ago, and I’m closer in age now to that of my parents in the video. And yet, I feel I’m closer to capturing the essence of what I originally wanted this novel to say than when I started it. Maybe all I needed was to be old enough to forget my childhood, so that I could be reminded of it again.

My Favorite Authors: Stephen King

Everyone goes through a Stephen King phase. A phase where the master of horror is the principle writer that one reads.

The Creepy and Disturbed Stephen King

 

Everyone goes through a Stephen King phase.  A phase where the master of horror is the principle writer that one reads.

For me, that period coincided with my Isaac Asimov phase, which lasted from mid elementary school to late middle school.  King was the first author whose books I read because he wrote them, not because of the plot synopsis alone.

I still remember the first book of  King’s that I read: The Eyes of the Dragon.  I remember staying up into the early hours of the morning, reading a hardcover version that my mom had borrowed from the library (in fact, it was another Stephen King book, Skeleton Crew–with its picture of a wind-up monkey doll with cymbals on the cover–that was my first introduction to this man.  I had a friend named “Steven,” so I originally thought his first name was pronounced “Stefen.”  Luckily, my mom corrected me).  Reading it night after night, I finished the book in three or four days.

The Eyes of the Dragon wasn’t the first book of his that I wanted to read (that would be It, which had another great cover), but it was the first book of his that I was allowed to read.   I read it in the summer, between third and fourth grade.  Then, at the Young Authors/Readers Conference (YARC), my dad bought it for me in paperback.  That version is well-worn, for I read it multiple times.

I was very much attracted to horror as a child (perhaps because, in a world where bullies exist and our knowledge of the world is so limited, it is easy for us to believe that there’s SOMETHING OUT THERE, and we want to believe that we, too, may have special powers to use against the encroaching darkness).  I still am, though until I started reading H.P. Lovecraft recently (who knows why I waited this long to read him, but there you go), I hadn’t read a horror story for over five years.

If there is one thing that all of King’s books have in common, it’s that they build to a thrilling climax, often involving a rampage (Carrie, Firestarter) or the destruction of a town (It, Needful Things).  While the main source of evil in his novels is often of fantastic origin (aliens in The Tommyknockers, an ancient evil in It, an imaginary twin come to life in The Dark Half), his novels have also included less sensational but more realistic depictions of evil (alcoholism in The Shining, a rabid dog in Cujo, incest in It, bullying in Carrie).  And then, sometimes, he surprises us with his depiction of the human condition, as in Different Seasons (which includes “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” and “The Body,” which became possibly the two best movies based on his work: The Shawshank Redemption, and Stand By Me).

Like Lovecraft, his literary forefather, he created a town where most of his novels take place (Castle Rock, Maine).  Occasionally, this causes character overlap in his books (the sheriff in The Dark Half is the main protagonist in Needful Things, The Tommyknockers mentions the clown in It, the narrator in “The Body” compares the dog in that story to Cujo).  It also creates a world at once familiar and strange,  and one that contrasts a sleepy New England town with the evil in men’s hearts, and in things that are not men.

My one regret is that I have not read the one King novel that is held in the highest esteem by his fans and the critics.  That would be The Stand.  I also have not read The Dark Tower series, or much of his more recent work (except for On Writing, the most recent book of his that I read was Nightmares and Dreamscapes).

Besides providing enjoyment during that most critical phase of life called adolescence, King also figures  into my life in an important way: back when I was ten years old, I wrote him a letter, asking him for advice on writing.  While I received a form letter in reply, it was so hilarious that I didn’t mind.  Plus, someone had taken the time to type up his return address and my mailing address on the envelope, back when typewriters were the norm.  With the form letter was a copy of an article King had published in The Writer, called “Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully–in Ten Minutes.”

Then, when I was stuck on my novel, and had moved to Japan to reflect on where my life was heading, I read On Writing.  That book got me excited about writing again, and led to my rewrite of my novel, all from memory, all in longhand.  And while I am still writing that work, it is closer to publication than it would have been, thanks to Stephen King.

Recommended Reading:*

The Stand (yeah, I have to read it, too)

Night Shift (his first–and best–collection of short stories)

It (like The Stand, very long, but very VERY good)

Carrie (where it all began)

The Shining (I hate that wasp scene, but the book is great–and much different from the Kubrick film)

On Writing (a must-read for budding writers; a great read for everyone else)

The Eyes of the Dragon (for a more YA/fantasy side of King, and it’s illustrated!)

The Dead Zone (Here, the evil is human, while the supernatural element is for good.  Infamous for a scene in which a dog is killed.)

Needful Things (as advertised, the last Castle Rock novel, and a thrilling tale)

*I’d recommend most King books, especially the ones written when he was at the height of his popularity in the 80s, but this will give you a good idea of the master of horror’s range.