On Stephen King

I’m sure there are many critics—and authors—out there who will disagree with me, but I believe that Stephen King is one of the most important writers of my generation—important to readers and writers.

Let me very clear about this: important to readers and writers.

Let’s start with readers. He is probably one of the first writers of the second half of the 20th century to “tell the truth”. He didn’t sugar-coat his stories with fake romance or tangled mystery. He wrote (writes) from the gut and the heart. When I read The Stand, I knew that, or I felt that. I was too young (as old as the writer himself but too young in experience) to recognize it as a “knowing”. When I read Lisey’s Story years later, I knew it this time. It was as if he’d said to himself, What would my wife had done if I had been killed along that Maine road instead of just messed up a mite?

I’m rereading The Dead Zone. In fact I had the fleeting thought of rereading every King book and doing it in order of their publication date. I have many of them. But I decided to start this process with The Dead Zone, mainly because King calls the book one of his favorites. While reading it part of my brain is amazed that he writes “unnecessary” details—unnecessary, the reader may think, to the story. But in this second reading (and after listening to the author read On Writing for the umpteenth time), I’m aware of how necessary those details are. The devil is in the details, my friend, and in King’s stories “the devil” could be just that, “the devil” or it could be the way the reader becomes attached to the characters, in the details. Do I really need to know that Johnny Smith greets his date in a Jekyll and Hyde mask? Is that mask important in the rest of Johnny’s story. Damn straight it is. King is setting something up and doing it skillfully, maybe without even knowing it when he wrote it.

Because that’s what happens to real writers. Stuff gets written and the real writer sometimes doesn’t even know how it happens. King calls it (for him), “the boys in the basement”—letting the muse take hold of you. I call it fermenting. I think about a story, a concept, or the story that I’m working on and let my “girls in the basement” take over.

So for writers who say about King’s books, I would never read “that stuff”: Good for you. And too bad for you. You’re missing out reading a master-story-teller and teacher. However, read or listen to (I would advise listen to and at least yearly) On Writing.

No matter what your genre you can learn from this writer—probably the best of his/my generation.


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