Friday, November 14, 2014

My Five Favorite Stephen King Stories

Stephen King is visiting Wichita, KS, today, and thanks to my wife's employment at Watermark Books, we're going to have front row seats. Since it's Friday, and this will be an event of unusual significance for our fine mid-sized city (Melissa has worked at the bookstore for three years, and has been part of arranging visits for many authors, but she says she's never experienced anything even remotely equal to the local hysteria she's experienced over customers trying to snag tickets to hear King speak), and since I still don't feel quite up to working out my feelings about either last week's elections or my trip to China which immediately followed, well, what else is blogging for than to put out lists? Herewith, my top five Stephen King creations. As Douglas Adams's Sirius Cybernetics Corporation Complaints Division always said, Share and enjoy:

5) Pet Sematary. I was introduced to this novel by a member of my high school debate team when I was a sophomore; she was reading the book in the van as we traveled to a debate tournament, and in the hotel that evening she called the room all the guys on the team were staying in: "Can I come in there? Everyone else is asleep here and I'm scared to death!" So we let her in; she obsessively finished the final chapters of the book, ignoring us as we pestered her with questions, and then curled up in a chair and wouldn't let us turn out the lights as we all eventually fell asleep. I think I read it about a year after that, and yes: definitely the most flat-out freaky and terrifying long work of fiction I've ever read.

4) The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. A beautiful, always unsettling but never truly frightening novella (unless you're a parent of little girls, of course!), this little-remembered work of King's--the story of a 9-year-old girl and baseball fan who becomes lost in the Maine woods--shows his skill with natural landscapes, and finding in them creeping resonances and psychological depths. A great little book.

3) Different Seasons. I'm cheating here, because there are four distinct stories in this collection, but they were all published together, and frankly each of these novellas is genuinely masterful. And interestingly, none of them are horror. "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" is a wonderful thriller, "Apt Pupil" is compelling study of psychological and sexual evil, "The Body" is a funny and tragic coming-of-age story, and "The Breathing Method"--which is my favorite of the four, though the least remember by most of King's fans, I think--is simply a classic weird tale, creepily formal in its telling of very bizarre (though also very human) story, with a denouement that I think is one of the most beautiful and haunting of any story I've read. This is King the writer at his very best.

2) "Gramma". This short story pretty much scared me to death when I first read it. It's really the perfect combination of just-barely-adolescent suburban male bravado--a little boy trying to be brave, resenting those older than him, confused by and fearful of things he's heard or thinks he's heard, and manfully attempting to deny that any of them are real--and demonic horror. It hit all my weak points: guilt over my arguments with family members, resentment about the responsibilities I had to take on as I was growing up, and most importantly, an inability to squelch my suspicion that just maybe a hidden world of witches and black magic and Cthulhuian evil was right there, in the dark corner of the old bedroom, watching me. Nearly 30 years on from when I probably first read, just calling up the memory gives me the shivers. I have read and loved (and often been terrified by) many of King's short stories--"Lawnmower Man," "Lunch at the Gotham Cafe," "Survivor Type," "Children of the Corn," etc.--but this one is the one I remember best.

1) The Stand. Look, I'm nowhere near a King completist. He's written over 50 novels for heaven's sake, and more short stories than I can count. I've never read a word of his supposed magnum opus, the eight-volume Dark Tower series, and there are dozens of other novels and stories of his that I have only the barest familiarity with, if I'm even aware of them at all. But all that said, on my honor as a reader, I just can't imagine that he ever could have created something with greater majesty, terror, and (weirdly enough) hope than this novel. I first read it--the whole freaking thing!--as a college student back in the 90s in its "Complete and Uncut Edition," which I've actually come to have mixed feelings about; it's a better novel in that form than the shortened (but still superb!) version which he'd published more than a decade earlier, but he'd made the mistake of trying to update some of references, making the story less of the paranoid, post-Vietnam, post-sexual revolution, religious apocalypse which, at it heart, it screams to be. This book really is King taking some of the worst, most confusing, most fearful times America--or, at least, the America of college-educated, mostly secular, middle-class white men like him--has ever gone through, and transforming them into an epic fantasy of horror and redemption. Every once in a while I hear people talk about--to use the old, hackneyed phrase--the "Great American Novel," and they'll  talk about Melville's Moby-Dick (as a 19th century candidate), or Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath (20th century), or Franzen's Freedom (21st century): no one ever mentions The Stand. But honestly, it stands equal or higher than them all. It's that good. And if I have a chance to say anything to the man this evening, I'll just have to get in line along with tens of thousands of others, and thank him for this, as well as so much more.

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