This, guy. Right here. Take a good look at him.
You probably know who he is. Most everyone does these days. He’s one of the most successful writers, ever. Most folks know him as a “horror” writer – whatever that really means – but not a lot of people seem to stop and think about his work. I talked the other day about “why can’t we just tell a story” and “why does everything have to mean something,” pretty much putting myself in the camp of folks who generally don’t care to dig deep for hidden messages. This might make what I’m saying start to seem a trifle hypocritical, but… King’s stories aren’t really about vampires, demons, ghosts and the like. It seems to me that they’re really about growing up. They’re about the wounds that are inflicted on us as children, and how those wounds heal, scab over or scar as we get older. The monsters are the mainline, of course, visible to everyone and giving bookshelves a handy place to put his books, as the man himself would say, but I don’t come to his books for the monsters. I come for the people, and the things that exposure to those monsters uncover. His newest book, Joyland, is a case in point.
Readers think they’re being treated to a visit to a haunted amusement park, a whodunit crime story. The cover art reinforces this notion, with a noir-style buxom girl leaning against a wall in a dark place. What you’re actually getting is a look into the mind of Dev Jones as he tries to come to grips with the harsh reality: He’s growing up, and that means one day he’s going to die. Nothing to be done for it. That message is told on both a mundane level (as Dev’s relationship with his girlfriend disintegrates, his love of The Doors and Tolkien is replaced with the satisfaction of doing plain, honest work, and he learns to reach out to others, taking and giving comfort) and the slightly-supernatural (as he digs away at the mystery of the ghost of the Horror House and just how she ended up there.) The whodunit/ghost story is certainly the on-top one, and as always it’s done well… but it’s the underneath tale and the (sadly) inevitable end of his friendship with young Mike Ross and his own childhood that’s what really counts.
King is no stranger to this; IT and “The Body” from Different Seasons tell similar tales, but look a little deeper and you’ll see the same message again and again in nearly all of his works. Ben Mears isn’t in ‘Salem’s Lot to write a bestseller or fight vampires, not really. He’s there to rip open the scars that his trip to the Marsten House left him with, to bleed out the infection. It’s about the unconscious, incestuous relationships that grow in small towns and how they inevitably turn into a fatal feeding frenzy. Larry Crockett’s tax-evasion schemes and underhanded real-estate deals may not seem as monstrous as Barlow or his minions at the window, whispering “Let me in, it’ll be okay.” But they’re really the same thing, in the end.
After wiping my eyes – yes, the end of Joyland left me sniffling a little, and I’m not ashamed to admit it – and setting the book down, I was thinking about it. I’ve done a lot of reading, of all manner of genres, suggested age groups and countries of origin. And yet Stephen King, purportedly a horror writer (often called “pulp,” “hack,” or worse by so-called serious writers. Ahem) is the one who’s managed to reach in, grab the controls and flip all the emotion switches at once. Sure, he’s scared me on occasion… I couldn’t sleep if the cover of my copy of Pet Sematary was in sight, and “The Boogeyman” from Night Shift, alongside the intro of Cujo rendered me unable to deal if a closet door was open a half-inch.
But what he’s done far more often than terrify me is make me laugh. Make me cry. Leave me with a lingering sorrow or mishmash of emotion. And I find it sad that so many people, who will gush about the “deep love” found in the “romances” that are so popular these days, or who exclaim how uplifting the message in the latest pseudo-self-help book is, refuse to touch him. I’ve read both, and can guarantee that King knows how to make me feel something, far better than a thousand Twilight clones, knows how to make me think it might be okay after all in a way that no copy of Love Thyself ever will. He knows how to paint a picture with emotions, usually with the beasties, boogities and boggarts serving to accent the central message rather than hide it, and that’s something that too few artists can manage. If you can’t feel Paul’s isolation and despair in Misery, aren’t wincing at Harold’s self-loathing and petulant, childish rage (along with his faint hope of redemption and the plea in his final note to Larry, Stu and co.) in The Stand, don’t think back to your own childhood friends with at least half a smile when you close the book on IT or “The Body…” I don’t know what to tell you. Those – and a hundred more – mean a hell of a lot more to me than any time Christian tells Ana how much he can’t live without her (right before breaking out the strop… ahem.) Right in the feels, sez I.
In closing, if you haven’t yet been exposed to Mr. King, either due to negligence, worry that he’s “not for you,” or just plain stereotype bias, I highly advise doing so. They’re not all winners, but there’s quite a few… and more than you think that aren’t even scary, at least not in the standard way. For starters, I’d definitely recommend Joyland, but Different Seasons is also a great one (“Apt Pupil,” in particular, does an amazing job of showing that not all monsters need fangs or magic powers… and the monster you know may not be anywhere near as evil as the one you don’t suspect.) with very little in the way of supernatural hijinks. Eyes of the Dragon and The Dark Tower series are great for fantasy buffs. Bag of Bones is, despite the haunted house premise, a love story at heart, and one that sells it better than a lot of romances. And Firestarter, well. Who can resist government conspiracies and the most darling little girl you’ll ever meet?
I think I’m done ranting for the time being; if there’s a King book or story that touches you beyond the fear-bone, let us know down below. Or maybe there’s another author that you believe gets smacked with the genre brush, but has an appeal way outside of those boundaries; share ’em! Or if you just think I’m insane, le me know. A little affirmation never hurts.
Going to leave you with one of my favorite lines, probably slightly paraphrased, but one that’s stuck with me since I first read it. Gordie LaChance, from “The Body,” when closing out his tale, says: “I haven’t had better friends than the ones I did when I was twelve. Jesus, does anybody?” Yeah. It still hurts.