Monday, March 5, 2012

Love letter to Stephen King

I remember sitting in Mr. Bennett's 11th grade English class with a book. It was thicker than most of my textbooks, but I was carrying it around anyway because I wanted to read it during study hall.

"What have you got there?" Mr. Bennet asked me. He was an aging hippie, gray hair pulled back into a ponytail, shirt sleeves rolled up, the kind of teacherly dude who sits on the edge of his desk while he teaches.

I showed him the book. It was Wizard and Glass, the fourth Dark Tower book by Stephen King.
"Stephen King," Bennett mused slowly. "Well, I guess I should just be glad you're reading something," all drippy with condescension. It occurred to me that I didn't like him all that much.

I was a long-time King fan by then, see. I was eleven years old when The Shining mini-series starring Stephen Weber premiered on TV. I wasn't allowed to watch it, being a well-known fraidy cat in my house. I was the kid who had to have her own magic wand to banish the monsters in the closet. I was the kid who was so afraid of her own nightmares that I used to force myself to stay awake all night rather than risk them. My sister and I spent a week with our cousins in Oklahoma one summer, and we watched an episode of the X-Files one night. In it, some demonic little boy killed everyone in his family. Or something. All I remember is being so freaked out I spent the rest of the week staying up all night and reading my way steadily through my cousin Erika's collection of picture books.

So anyway, yeah, my parents weren't about to let me watch The Shining. But they didn't count on my sister.

She was three years older than me and an X-Files addict. I don't remember her ever being scared of a movie or tv show, or anything at all, really. She watched The Shining and loved it, and it just so happened that summer we were in the golden age of being too old for baby-sitters and too young for jobs. Our parents trusted us home alone, and for the most part, we behaved ourselves admirably.
One day, my sister showed me a scene from The Shining. It was all talk, that scene, just Jack and Wendy having a late-night conversation about the hotel.

"See?" my sister wheedled. "It's not even that scary!" She's the type of person who loves to share movies she's enjoyed. It's like a compulsion.

"Okay, let's watch it," I said bravely. So we did--we spent that whole day in front of the television (for shame!) and watched the six hour miniseries straight through.

I loved it.

Oh, it scared the shit out of me. After we finished watching and my sister moved on to other pursuits, I stayed glued to the couch, too scared to move lest a ghost in the scariest wolf mask ever, seriously, jump out at me. I think I fell asleep on that couch and didn't move until my parents came home. I haven't left a shower curtain closed since.

But I loved it. I could write a whole entry about why I love the miniseries and hate the Jack Nicholson movie. Some of it is just how great the miniseries is. Mick Garris can make a shot of a window with a half-open curtain skin-crawlingly ominous. The music is haunting and beautiful. The acting--even little Courtland Mead as Danny--is pretty much spot on. Especially Steven Weber as Jack Torrance.  In the miniseries, like the book, which I read and loved later that summer, he's a good guy, a bad drunk, just trying to do right by his family and ignore the wolves outside his door. It's sad what happens to him. He's terrifying because King makes you love him first.

Seriously, the shit this guy does with his

In the Stanley Kubrick film, Jack's a creep from the start. There's barely a change in his character from the beginning to end of the movie. Plus they made Wendy a weak, simpering sort of woman. Not a fan.

 ANYWAY, END TANGENT. Later that year, my sister and I went through these stages again with It. First we watched the movie (after she watched it with her friends and loved it so much she just had to show me). I had to pause it part way and turn on--I remember this so clearly--Kids Say the Darndest Things on TV, because I was getting so freaked out. And while now I find that movie to be pretty comically terrible, I still maintain that Tim Curry as Pennywise was perfection. After the movie, I read the book, and I think that really got the ball rolling.

Naaaailed it!

I love It. I've probably read it almost once a year since I was twelve. There are entire passages of that book that live in my memory. I get nostalgic for The Barrens. Every so often, I want nothing more than to hang out with Richie Tozier and Ben Hanscom. Part of my heart will always live in Derry, that malevolent little town.

He gets a bad rap sometimes, King. People don't give him much credit, it seems. Mostly they're people who haven't really read any of his books. If they did, they'd find how fantastic he is at characterization. So many of his characters feel so alive for me--Richie Tozier, Ben Hanscom, Henry Bower, Nick Andros, Randall Flagg, Eddie Dean, Annie Wilkes, Tom Cullen, Harold Lauder...He's written some of my favorite villains. Some of the most likeable heroes. Hell, he can give a place as memorable a character as any person. His books explore fear and monsters, but also hope and friendship and creativity.

I like to think about King sometimes when I'm feeling stuck with my writing, or uninspired. I feel like he'd be a good ass-kicker. He wouldn't be impressed with any of my stupid excuses for not writing. Why would he? The guy's written about a hundred books. I should know; I've read them all. He's got another Dark Tower novel coming out this year, and then, I just learned, a sequel to The Shining. Holy crap. We'll find out what happened to Danny after the Overlook burned.

Dudes, I could go on and on. It's awesome he's out there. It's amazing that we still get a new Stephen King book every year. Fuck. All this makes me want to go crack open It. I won't, though. I've got my own writing to do first.