Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Why Book Snobs Read Stephen King, Even If They Won't Admit To It

My high school AP English teacher believed two things: a) that the New Yorker was God's gift to small town hicks like us and we would all do well to subscribe to it, b) that Stephen King was trash and should be read by no one. So, you can imagine our delight when a Stephen King story was published in the New Yorker that year. And since we all subscribed to it, we all brought in our copies on the same day to show him.

This just goes to show that everybody, except Mr. Warner, likes Stephen King at least a little bit.

About once a year, both Potts and I become compelled, as if by a force greater than ourselves, to re-read It, or The Stand, or The Shining. I just came off a Talisman/Different Seasons bender a few days ago.

Since reading It under the covers in the eighth grade, I daresay my tastes and critical sensibilities have become somewhat more refined. I'm well aware of King's bad habits as a writer, but still, I keep coming back, along with millions of other readers.

Obviously, King's a great storyteller -- everybody knows that. But here are a few of the other reasons why even those who "should know better" or something can't stay away.

1. Nostalgia: And I'm not just talking about the nostalgia for re-reading books you checked out from the library on the sly, though that's certainly part of it. King is very good at evoking childhood, as well as a vision of a "simpler" America in "simpler" times. Of course, this is problematic, but the here and now is sometimes a booger, and if it makes one feel better to read about little boys who collect baseball cards, and convicts who are basically good people who made one mistake, and where listening to Blue Oyster Cult on the radio is the best thing ever, I say why not?

2. Back Story: King's characters have places to go and evil to fight, and basically, a lot of stuff to accomplish in the course of a novel. But still, King takes the time to explain who they were before the action started and why they're so messed up. Sometimes, these sections are better than the action itself.

3. Mythology: Typically more popular with fans of The Dark Tower series, everything in the world of King's books is so intertwined it makes the Buffy-verse look downright simple. Even a relatively unambitious book like Hearts in Atlantis echoes back to the Dark Tower.

4. Wiseass-ery: Stephen King characters are great at put-downs, one-liners, and snappy comebacks. They somehow manage to sound cool saying things that would get your ass kicked in real life. Like "Suck my fat one, you cheap dime store hood" in Different Seasons In the book, Gordie gets his ass kicked then for this insult because it is considered insulting. In real life, he would get his ass kicked for this insult because "Suck my fat one, you cheap dime store hood" is a douchebag thing to say, as well as being a little too verbose to be a truly effective insult. Still, having read a lot of Stephen King, I like to think that if I ever stared evil in the face, I'd say some pithy, wiseacre thing to it before it ate my eyes.

So, why do you read Stephen King, and which of his books is your favorite?


Sally J. said...

I'm an unabashed King fan and have been since I was in 5th grade, although it's been a while since I've read anything by him.

My favorite has always been The Body from Four Seasons. I still remember the first line: "The most important things are the hardest things to say."

I was delighted when it was made into the film Stand By Me. Did you know that Wil Wheaton grew up to be a writer? And River, well...we all know how that one ended. Sigh.

Second favorite is The Stand. Huge. Epic. Good vs. Evil. This one didn't translate so well to mini-series, although I was happy to see Gary Sinese in the lead. I've read it at least three times.

So. Why do I love King? Inner dialogue. Nobody does it better, imho. Lack of inner diaglogue is why his books sometimes make crappy films. King also has a wicked sense of humor, which I luuurve.

Mary, in Liberry School we read an excerpt from It where the narrator reminisces about his hometown library. The collection was called Reading Rooms.

Tom W. said...

What King does soooo well is take basically normal people, put them in freaky, bizarre circumstances, and make them react. I checked the audiobook version of "Blood and Smoke" from the library about a year ago -- the collection that included "1408." That was a creepy, creepy story. King did the reading himself, which made it extra creepy. If you can get your hands on that, it's a good one to listen to late at night.

Still, though, my all-time favorite Stephen King has to be "The Gunsliger." It's western + fantasy, kind of like Firefly was western + sci-fi, and it works. Another great opening line: "The man in black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followed." The rest of the series never quite lived up to that first book.

mary_m said...

Sally, I'm in total agreement about "The Body." What a story. And the film adaptation was pitch perfect. You'll also be pleased to know I finally picked up a copy of Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom - so far, I dig it.

Tom, I now feel better about only having read the first book of the Dark Tower series. Then again, Brady talks about the other books so much that I think reading the rest would be redundant at this point.

w said...

I have no shame in my love of Stephen King. I haven't read anything by him in years, but when I was in junior high, I read everything. Old school King is my favorite.

It is probably my favorite. Chilling, epic story. A million times better than the movie. The clown scared the crap out of me. Actually, I might have to re-read that some day.

The Shining is also a favorite. I think I read the book all in one day. And I adore the Kubrick movie, even if King didn't like it.

Christine was terrifying when I was 12. I was literally afraid of a haunted car running me down in the street. This one is often neglected, but I think is one of his best.

And also Firestarter, Carrie, and short stories like Monkey Shines and the Running Man. Good stuff!

A part of why I love him is b/c I'm from Maine and he describes Maine so wonderfully-- not the beautiful coast that everyone pays attention to, but the creepy small out-of-the-way towns. And like you said, he's a wonderful story teller and creates really unforgettable stories.

I remember my HS english teacher also hated him. Why so much hatred for King? There are much worse/trashier things out there to read-- Like the whole V.C. Andrews series my mom and I read in like 1987-- but even that was still fun! Maybe kids would read more if they realized it should be fun.

mary_m said...

While my English teacher hated Stephen King, our high school librarian loved him because kids would actually read it. And he stood up to all the angry parents who didn't think the library budget should be going towards such filth.

I know people often have negative interactions with librarians in their formative years, but all the librarians I ever knew growing up were my heroes. And I thought they had the best job in the world.

w said...

I always knew awesome librarians (present company included). If I had to pick an alternate career it would either be a detective or a librarian.