It was the dead middle of the night, mildly swaying passengers all around me, and the steady hum of the bus I was on, part of the background noise. A copy of The Shining lay in my hands, a tiny table lamp in the other, the setup complete to ensure maximum effect.
(You see, I was already past the stage where horror movies just don’t have that “I will scare you” factor in them, and wanted to be scared, really scared, feel that adrenaline rush through my veins, heart thumping at a pace so fast that everyone else in the room can hear it. My first horror read, Scott Smith’s psychological thriller, The Ruins, albeit a brilliant piece in every way, didn’t quite chill my bones, and so, here we were.)
I should’ve known that no darkness and certainly no lamps were required for Stephen King to work his magic through me. I would go on to finish the book a week later and stay away from darkness for the accompanying two days (and away from hedges and hoses and empty hotels, forever). I would also go on to read almost a dozen of his books in the next 1-2 years to come.
But what is it about him that works so many years later, over 80 books written in that span, that keeps his constant readers (as he affectionately calls his readers) hooked to his words, hanging on to them as if in a sort of desperation? What is it about him that has led to several cultural phenomena in the last decades, influencing authors such as Haruki Murakami? Let’s try to explore a bit, shall we?
1. Realistic Characters
Amidst the most flamboyant of settings, amidst the most unlikely circumstances (scientifically or otherwise), amidst the harshest set of situations, there’s one thing that never feels unreal in his books: the characters. You don’t have to be white, an American, a male, a female, or whichever set of features the characters may possess: you can relate to their personality traits, to their deepest insecurities. Even the things that he’s often criticized for – misogyny, homophobia – are almost always character traits, that only serve to make them more grounded, more real (because hey, let’s admit, the society around us “does” have these problems).
Let’s take Carrie, the titular character in his first published work, as an example. Most of us don’t have religiously fanatic parents who would go to the extremities that Margaret White (Carrie’s mother) went to. None of us have the telekinetic powers that Carrie possessed. And yet we felt for her, for we’ve all seen religious extremism around us, at one time or the other. We could all relate to her fear towards her power, towards something powerful, that is as attractive as it’s all-consuming. Even further, we could empathize (and perhaps even relate) with her: being bullied by her peers, being the one to be singled out every time, for no fault of hers.
We don’t need to have a town infested with vampires in Salem’s Lot to feel for Mark, a child desperately trying to explain to an unbelieving audience. How many times have we tried to make sense of something and see others make sense in it, failing at it again and again?
His characters’ motivations behind their actions make his stories, even the simpler ones that much more terrifying, that much more engrossing. Because the stakes are rising in the background, and you aren’t even made aware of it!
2. Genius Extrapolations
Roads deserted, every activity abandoned, cities in quarantine, all because of a virus: sounds familiar? King wrote about it in his longest book as of yet, The Stand, more than four decades ago! And while the virus in the story had a much higher communicability and mortality rate than the one we’ve seen in recent times, it’s eerie how similar multiple plot points felt. Be it the government trying to hide statistics or the general population having no idea how to respond to this invisible threat; the book is as real as it is fiction.
And that brings me to my second point: the astounding imagination that Uncle Stevie possesses. While the basic premise in his books is often something extreme, how he creates the stories from that point of origin is what makes his books so compelling.
The sort of morbid fascination audiences had for children killing each other in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games can be seen more realistically in The Long Walk, a book King published under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman. Or secret agencies going to lengths for protecting a state secret in Firestarter.
The best example can perhaps be seen in King’s The Dead Zone, written in 1979, where a businessman storms the American political scene. It’s impossible to believe how similar the character Greg Stillson is to Donald Trump. Their antics, their media portrayal, their followers, it’s all uncannily similar. Just that Greg was entirely a product of King’s imagination.
3. Prose That Complements
There are three types of books, in my opinion. The first kind has prose that often, if not always, remains the piece of attraction (the plot being one of the desserts rather than being the main dish). The second kind has a plot at the centre; everything else present is there just for the sake of it. And then comes the third kind, the Stephen King kind, where the prose complements the plot to amalgamate into something seamless, something that flows: frictionless.
This quality tends to enhance the reading experience by miles. Whether it’s a descriptive scene or a point of suspense, the prose never once threatens to topple the picture it seeks to represent. And therefore, you keep on reading, page after page after page, and suddenly you’ve finished an 800-page book in a few hours. King is awesome, didn’t I tell you?
4. Deeper Themes
Although it appears very simple from the very outset, his works, without exception, contain social and individualistic themes. From the loss of innocence to abuse to religious extremism to capitalism to power equations to more philosophical questions of good and evil, King very subtly asks you questions through his works, and brilliantly so. His depiction of different relationships, between friends, between lovers, between parents and children, between siblings, is extremely well crafted and sketched to perfection.
5. Playing Across Genres
9 out of 10 times, I see Stephen King being described as a horror writer, while the truth couldn’t be farther away. As any constant reader would tell you, most of his works (leave all) do not belong to the horror genre. And that is another beauty of King’s bibliography: there’s something for everyone!
If you’re a fantasy lover, you can pick up the entire Dark Tower series, The Stand, Needful Things, amongst many other titles. Fancy some non-fiction? Danse Macabre, On Writing, Secret Windows to the rescue, among others (Google correcting my incorrect “dense” to “danse” while typing the last line only further proves the point of how immense a cultural icon he is).
Not just these, King has written sci-fi, historical fiction, psychological thrillers, literary fiction: you name it! No wonder he has, to his name, more bestselling books than any other author in history. And there are several pieces where it’s hard to single out any one genre, for there are too many. This versatility in imagination is what has helped him churn out one beauty after another. And I can only hope he shall continue to churn out many, many more in the future. All hail the King!
Have you read Stephen King? Do his words resonate with you as well? Which ones? Tell me all about it in the comments below!
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