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Reading Stephen King, Pt. 1

July 30, 2014 - Evan Reid
I’ve been a fan of horror movies and scary stories for as long as I can remember, yet nearly 25 years passed me by before I picked up a Stephen King book.

That’s because I was a snob. Assuming that King was some kind of hack, I decided his work was “below” my interests.

Thankfully, I realized how dumb that was and decided to finally check out one of his novels in May... which led to another one... and another...

PET SEMATARY (1983)

“Pet Sematary” is one bleak book. It begins with Louis Creed and family moving from Chicago to the small town of Ludlow, Maine. Things go bad quickly for the family, and they only get worse.

The Creed family's neighbor, elderly Judd Crandall, takes them to creepy place behind their new home — a pet cemetery maintained for decades by local children (with poor spelling skills).

After young Ellie Creed’s cat, Church, is run over by a passing truck and killed, Judd takes Louis beyond the Pet Sematary to a strange patch of ground deep in the forest.

The ground was formerly used as a burial site by the Micmac (or Mi’kmaq) people, abandoned after it was turned “sour” by a dark force.

Louis and Judd bury Church here and return home. The next day, Church also returns home... but he’s different... sinister somehow...

King was apparently reluctant to publish this novel, though it’s hard to see why. Like any good horror story, “Pet Sematary” carries some heavy themes — namely, the certainty of death and how people cope with the inevitable.

The thing that irritated me while reading “Pet Sematary” is this: it’s very predictable. This stems partly from the nature of the story, but it dampens the suspense.

The 1989 movie adaptation isn’t nearly as entertaining or interesting. As a matter of fact, it’s pretty bad. It pins down the plot, but feels like a weak slap compared to the gut-punch of King’s novel.

CUJO (1981)

“Cujo” was King’s first novel without any explicitly supernatural elements, and he apparently was intoxicated so often in the early 80s that he barely remembers writing it.

That background does not set expectations particularly high, but this novel is great.

“Cujo” is relatively lean and mean, about 300 pages with no chapter breaks. The plot is ingenious in its simplicity, and the characters (including Cujo, the Saint Bernard) are believable.

King even writes a couple sections from the dog’s point-of-view, and it works way better than it should. These were actually some of my favorite sections of the book.

Like “Pet Sematary,” this novel has an unsettling, tragic conclusion, though “Cujo” is less grim and more exciting than that book.

Lacking a supernatural force of evil, King allows his characters to get caught in a realistic web of rabies, coincidence, and human error; this turns out to be the most interesting thing about the story.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the 1983 movie version. Even though it’s cheesy, the adaptation is good and the scenes with Cujo are genuinely frightening.

IT (1986)

The exact count varies between editions, but “It” is about 1,100 pages long. A hardcover copy weighs several pounds and is a pain to try and hold in your hands while reading.

“It” is also really, really good. The story focuses on some of King’s favorite themes: childhood trauma, domestic abuse, the power of memory, and the strength between friends.

It seems like King had fun writing this novel, and “It” is a lot of fun to read as well. Despite what the considerable bulk might lead a reader to assume, the wide cast of characters and nearly uncountable scenes serve to strengthen the story rather than bog it down.

(That being said, the phrase “Beep beep, Richie” is used about 300 times too many. This is one of King’s bad habits... Sometimes he’ll beat the reader over the head with a phrase repeated again and again throughout the text. Okay! We get it!)

To top it off, “It” has to be one of the scariest books ever written.

The main focus of the novel is a group of outsider kids, the “Losers Club,” and their battle with a mysterious and vicious entity they refer to as It.

It has been terrorizing their hometown of Derry, Maine for centuries, and has been around for even longer. It emerges roughly every 27 years to feed on the residents of Derry, who remain ignorant of It's presence in their town.

After confronting It at the end of the summer of 1958, the members of the Losers Club make a blood oath to return home if It should ever come back and resume the cycle of violence and misery.

The Losers find success as adults and their memories of the encounter with It fade from their minds... Until 1985, that is...

It is able to take the shape of whatever will frighten its victims most efficiently. It’s default form is that of Pennywise the Dancing Clown, who puts all other “evil clowns” to shame.

Anyone who has seen the 1990 made-for-TV movie can probably recall Tim Curry as Pennywise. Curry does an excellent job capturing King’s monster, and his performance is iconic.

Unfortunately, the rest of the adaptation pales in comparison to the novel. Why “It” was adapted for TV is a mystery — the basic core of the story remains in tact, but censorship regulations strip the most interesting, frightening, and moving aspects away.

“It” the novel transcends the horror genre by exploring the transition between childhood and adulthood and the loss of innocence that accompanies it. “It” the TV movie is... a cheesy movie made for TV in 1990.

I think “It” still has the potential to be adapted into one of the best horror movies ever made.

———

King is definitely not a hack. I don’t love everything about his writing style (in fact, some of his literary tics bug the hell out of me), but he’s a very talented man and he clearly cares deeply about his work.

The fact that he has been steadily publishing books since 1974 is astonishing, as is his impact on popular culture.

So far, so good.

He has made mistakes though... I’m currently crawling my way through one of them. It’s called “Christine.”

 
 

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