Adult Fiction · Fantasy · Writing

First Impressions: Stephen King

Friends, until this year I had never read a book by Stephen King, nor seen any of the movies based on his work. I love vampires and werewolves and spooky-scary things, but I’ve never been that into horror as such. His memoir/writer’s advice book On Writing is almost universally lauded as one of the best writing books ever, though, so I figured I should give it a try. And I LOVED it. It’s much more of a memoir than a writing book, yet it’s genuinely helpful. I figured if a guy can get me invested in his actual life, he ought to get a shot with his actual books, and I wanted to at least give him a try since he’s kind of a big deal. I polled my Facebook people on what one King book I should read, and eventually expanded to two: The Gunslinger and ‘Salem’s Lot. One fantasy and one horror, just to be fair, because it turns out he’s not just a horror writer.

The Gunslinger started off a bit boring, but got better and better. I knew it was sort of a western-meets-epic-fantasy thing tying King’s work together, so my main concerns were that the first book would be too much of a western or that I wouldn’t get the epic fantasy because I hadn’t read the rest of his stuff. I needn’t have worried, it’s an excellent first book that introduces a world but leaves almost everything open for later development. (Also it definitely helped that I was imagining Idris Elba’s gravitas, even without having seen the movie). And although it was intense, it wasn’t scary, so I was ready to launch into some classic vampire stuff with ‘Salem’s Lot. HAHA it was SO SCARY and it took me several months to read it because I kept stopping, but it was still really good. It reminded me of Dracula, not in the sense of a retelling, but of somehow doing the same things and delivering the same scares in an updated way.

So, I can see now why Stephen King is so popular. He has some kind of magical way of getting you engrossed in the story, whatever the topic. I think it has something to do with his directness. It’s not without pretense, but in a way it’s a deserved pretense, if such a thing exists. Something like The Gunslinger, full of its own import and the mythic significance of every event, is pretentious. But it’s true. I DO get everything that happens as if it’s a myth I already know. It touches something we, at least we fantasy fans, get. It means something to us. The same holds true for his horror fiction. I’m no expert, but I don’t think I need to be to say that his horror works because he knows how to scare us. It may be obvious, but it’s true. At no point did I actually think vampires were comin’ to get me, but I was still physically terrified in all the scary parts.

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There’s something direct about his prose, too. He doesn’t hide. As an aspiring author, I know how often we try to obfuscate our own meaning, even to ourselves, because we’re afraid we’re being silly or that people will laugh. I don’t know where King gets his balls, whether it’s bravado or courage or not caring or just knowing that he’s good, but it doesn’t matter, because he is good at what he does.

Based on all that, I’ve decided to continue through the expanded Dark Tower series, which includes some more horror novels that tie in with the main numbered books. Yikes. But I’m also super down for trying more new stuff and doing more First Impressions, so, who else is a must-read? Or better yet, is there anyone out there whose influence compares to Stephen King’s, or who represents a genre to the same extent? Suggestions welcome.

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40 thoughts on “First Impressions: Stephen King

  1. The Dark Tower series is amazing….like, ALL of it! For classic scary Stephen King, my favotites are “ ‘Salem’s Lot” and “Pet Semetary.” Although I haven’t read all of his books, I haven’t found one yet that I didn’t like!

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  2. So pleased to see you like king, I felt that you picked an interesting book in the gunslinger because of the fact it is the start of a huge fantasy tail that took decades to get out there. And you say it ties in with his other work, wow, now that is a complex set up. If you have happened to see the film, don’t think it ties in with the books because it does not really do that well at all, I am sure you will have seen it has split the king fan set up in 2.

    Further to different people to try, I must direct you to Joe Hill (kings son) and Chuck Palahniuk (http://chuckpalahniuk.net/) of fight club fame. I saw you were an aspiring writer, and Chuck gives tons of advice out about that.

    Further to this, may I suggest a podcast too? The Levar Burton reads podcast is perfect for finding out about new Writers through their short story’s, I actually review his podcast on my blog if you care to take a look.

    Best of luck for your future writing. Matt

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  3. I’ve been a King fan since about 1985, when I picked up “Skeleton Crew” in junior high school; many of those stories gave me nightmares for weeks. I’ve read probably about 60% of his output. The thing is, especially in later years, his books become bloated and poorly edited. He also includes tons of pop lyrics and baseball allusions into his works.

    My favorites over the years have been mostly the shorter, tighter books, but there are exceptions. The Shining is perfect. Needful Things, while a bit long, is very good. The 1990 cut of the Stand, while long, is also perfect, as is the very long 11/22/63 (which is partly a sequel to IT, so read that after you see the new IT movie). But I also love The Long Walk (his very first novel, published under the Richard Bachman alias), The Green Mile, Joyland (written for a contemporary line of pulp crime novels), and Doctor Sleep (a sequel to The Shining, but more sentimental than scary; it’s a love letter to AA and uses Game of Thrones as a plot point).

    Bonus King short fiction recommendation, “Mile 81” has a huge “Doctor Who” shoutout in the middle.

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    1. I agree with all the ones you mentioned-The Green Mile is wonderful-the movie is as good as the book. And no one has mentioned Shawshank redemption!

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  4. I really like the Shining, and I think Everything’s Eventual is his best short fiction collection (especially 1408 and The Road Virus Heads North… read those in the middle of the day).

    Glad you liked ‘Salem’s Lot! I wanted to share, since you mentioned the similarities to Dracula, that King did begin it as an homage. He mentions in the intro to the audiobook that he was talking over what would happen to the Count if he came to modern America with Tabitha King, and she suggested setting it in the country. He also mentions the EC vampire comics as a big influence.

    Have fun with the next book!

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    1. I have a feeling The Shining would be much too scary for me, lol. But I’ve gotta read The Stand soon for the Dark Tower series and it’s probably too scary too… And ah, I’m not surprised!

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  5. It’s a good question. One of my favorite discussions ever started from a mug which described Shakespeare as “the greatest playwright of all time,” which we found hard to dispute, but we wondered if there were others we could identify, in fiction, in poetry, and say the same. Perhaps getting to genre it’s easier, Tolkien for Fantasy, Herbert perhaps for Science Fiction. Stephen King came up though as a possible contender for a best novelist. And certainly in the horror genre. Finding the comparable writer is hard.

    Glad you liked The Gunslinger! He really expands the world in the second book. And Salem’s Lot will come up later, say please, say thankya.

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    1. Hm. I still haven’t read Dune. I started it once like ten years ago and never got around to finishing it. Might have to give that a go soon, it’s been so long it’d still count as first impressions, lol.

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      1. So controversial opinion: the three immediate prequel books by his son and Kevin J. Anderson were decent, action- and character-based books, and can give you a good attachment to a lot of the characters in Dune. Then many of them die and you feel it more! So those are the “House _” books.

        Dune itself hits the balance between ideas, characters, plot, action… from reading science fiction before and after it, I think it changed the landscape to make SF way more focused on plot and characters. Also probably something of the move from serialized SF to the full novel.

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  6. There are so many good SK books! Salems lot was my first as well and I was hooked. I’ve read almost all of his books. I also like Peter Straub-Read The Talisman. Straub and King wrote it together!

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  7. I’m glad you liked Salem’s Lot. It was one of the first books by King I ever read. If you want to get the full flavor of King’s breadth and depth try one of his anthologies. I would rec Everything’s Eventual, or Just After Sunset, which contain a wide range of stories from Thriller, to Horror, to Drama.

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