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What to Read Next (No. 199): some thoughts on reading Stephen King
I know we’re a week beyond Halloween, but I find myself thinking about Stephen King more and more—and the “horror” genre as a whole. Outside of his books and stories—which are as compulsively readable as any author I’ve ever read—I deeply admire King so much for his workman-like approach to writing and how seriously he takes his craft (without taking himself too seriously).
Growing up, it was somewhat common to find my mom's Stephen King books lying around the house. She had a pretty good collection of his cheap paperbacks, which eventually found their way to Goodwill. Even though I've always loved reading, I never really got into King's work in my youth—which is actually when a lot of his most ardent admirers first find him. An early encounter with The Exorcist perhaps kept me away from the genre.
I honestly don't remember the first Stephen King book I read (another oddity among his acolytes), but I do know I was hooked. I read a few titles in quick succession, but ended up taking a long break for reasons that now elude my memory.
A few years ago, I picked him up again, particularly during the Halloween season each year. I loved Misery, devoured behemoths Under the Dome and 11/22/63, and this fall, I was utterly entranced by his memoir, On Writing, as well as the book that started it all, Carrie.
And just like that, I knew that I had my next reading project.
There just isn't another fiction author whose stories are as compulsively readable.
(I still have my ‘22 list of women authors/books to read, but it’s shorter than it was before by about half. I’m a firm believer that any reading project/plan needs to grow organically from your own obsessions and whims.)
Starting with Carrie, I'm reading and writing about Stephen King's books in chronological order. (I already wrote about Carrie; I’ll link to an expanded version next week.) You can see the entire list of his books here.
There's no real timeline here. There will likely be a King highlight every month or so—stay tuned! It won’t be the only thing I’m reading, so you’ll still see plenty of variety here in the newsletter.
Why Read Horror? (Also, Stephen King Writes Way More Than Just Horror)
I know plenty of people who categorically stay away from the horror genre. I get it—really, I do. The problem moreso lies in what we think horror is. In today’s understanding, it’s generally equated with gory movies like Texas Chainsaw Massacre or anything in the Saw franchise. Slasher films and jump scares are what define horror in our modern culture.
I think that’s a bit too limiting, though. Yes, King gets pigeon-holed into the “horror” section of the bookstore, but he’s so much more than that. When you read his books, you realize they’re a mix of thriller/suspense, fantasy, character-based dramas, etc. Yes, there are scary plot lines, but most of them are slow, simmering stories that rely far less on blood and guts and way more on building tension in the reader’s imagination.
In general, King’s books have far less blood and guts than you’d think. There’s plenty of death and violence, to be sure, but there’s only a handful of titles where it’s truly, unsettlingly gory.
Even still—why read so many books about death and disease and disaster?
The answer, for me, is actually fairly simple: it’s less about the scares and more about the overcoming of our fears. Joe Hill, King’s son and and an author himself, said this about his father’s books:
“dad’s stories sold bravery . . . they essentially were making an argument that, yeah, things might get really bad. But if you have some faith and a sense of humor, if you’re loyal to your loved ones, sometimes you can kick the darkness until it bleeds daylight.”
Sometimes the world is dark. Sometimes people do evil things. In spite of that, there is goodness and light to be found.
Plus, his stories are just really entertaining and well-written. Again, no author can keep me turning pages like Stephen King.
Let me know your relationship with the horror genre, as well as your favorite King book(s). I’d love to hear!
A Few Bookish Questions With Tim Lebbon
Tim Lebbon is another horror/fantasy author whose skills range more widely than you might expect. From Star Wars, to eco horror, to fitness/health non-fiction, he’s done a little bit of everything. I love this interview and hope you do too!
1. Are there horror/fantasy books that first hooked you into the genre?
Oh yes! It was The Rats by James Herbert when I was about 10 years old. My mum gave it to me to read, which shows how open-minded my mother was, bless her. My love of reading is down to her, and when she gave me The Rats I changed from reading Hardy Boys and adventure novels, to James Herbert and Stephen King, almost overnight. I loved James Herbert, and though I didn't read him much past my 20s, he's the only writer I've met and become tongue-tied. Lovely chap. And I'd like to thank his rats very much.
2. Why do people read horror? It's more than just enjoying being scared. What does horror say about the human experience that other genres don't?
Escapism, darker fantasies, dipping your toe into horrible worlds so yours doesn't feel quite so bad, exploring extreme circumstances and characters, and perhaps in an attempt to confront loss and death vicariously. There's very few horror books that have scared me—real life stuff frightens me more—so perhaps escapism really is the thing. We make up a billion stories that don't exist in this world, and by our nature some of those stories will be dark.
3. If someone came to you who had never read horror before and wanted to get into the genre for the first time, which books would you give them?
Skeleton Crew by Stephen King, a wonderful collection of short stories. The Ritual by Adam Nevill, perhaps one of the scariest books I've read. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, for its lyricism and beauty. And I could recommend hundreds more.
4. Which writers have particularly shaped your approach to writing and storytelling? Anyone outside of the genre you write in?
I think we're all a product of our experiences, and that goes for writers and who they've read, too. King continues to be one of my favourite writers forty years after I first read him, so the influence is inevitable. Arthur Machen writes about our relationship with the world around us in ways I can only dream of. I'm a fan of Dan Simmons' writing because of his fearlessness in jumping genres. Nowadays I'm reading as much non-fiction as fiction, and influences from a lot of those books creep in. I've also written about nature and our relationship with the planet from a young age, and my fiction lately has been described as 'Cli-Fi'. I'm happy with that.
5. What do you read for fun when you're not working or researching? Do you stick to your lane or do you venture into other subjects? Any non-fiction topics you especially enjoy?
As mentioned above, I read a lot of non-fiction, sometimes popular science (trying to understand more about our world), and also quite a lot of inspirational books about extreme sporting or adventure events. I'm heavily into triathlon and endurance sports, so I love reading about what other people are doing. Fiction-wise, I read horror, SF, crime, thrillers, anything that takes my fancy really.
6. What are you reading and enjoying now? What's next on your list?
I'm reading Road of Bones by Christopher Golden, which might be his best novel yet. A Refrigerator Full Of Heads by Rio Youers, a terrific comic series that's just begun. The Importance of Being Interested by Robin Ince is a superb book about science and wonder, and how it's important to retain that wonder, and why not understanding everything is good, not bad. I'm also reading Dave Grohl's autobiography, which is hilarious and touching.
7. Any all-time favorite books that have especially stuck with you over the years? Books that you think about a lot? Fiction, non-fiction, whatever it is.
The Stand by Stephen King. Probably the reason I love destroying the world so much.
Thanks so much for reading! I appreciate the time and inbox space.