I couldn’t have introduced my Sunday Spotlight feature in the month of October, without spotlighting the King of Horror himself, Stephen King. I’ve been reading King since my teenage years and I was horrified to learn that my first was at least 22 years ago.
I first encountered Stephen King when I borrowed my mum’s copy of Salem’s Lot, but when I started to look back I was shocked to see how many copies of his books I’d ‘acquired’ from other people. I remember when I was 18 begging, borrowing or ‘acquiring’ most of his back catalogue and I’ve bought most of his novels since. This month though, I was very happy to receive my first ever hardback copy of a King book on publication day. I haven’t read Billy Summers yet, but I know it will always be special because I bought it brand new. I have many well-loved and well-thumbed copies of his back catalogue, because I’ve read most of them more than once, so I picked out the ones where I can talk about my relationship with the book.
Well this is quite a colourful story. I’d read a bit of Stephen King before Misery arrived, and I was 17 when it did. Every summer, my friend would take me up to the Yorkshire Dales when she spent some of the summer holidays with her Dad. He always lived in quite remote villages, but this particular summer he was living in a small village called East Witton. It was a long village green with a row of cottages lined up on either side, facing each other. There was a tiny shop and at the bottom of the village a large pub with rooms. One night my friend and I went to the pub for a couple of drinks. My friend hit it off with the barman straight away and after a few freebie drinks, he introduced me to his friend who worked in the kitchens. I can’t for the life of me remember his name, which is awful, but he was a really quiet, sensitive guy, who read a lot so we had plenty to talk about. For some unknown reason we went to fetch our waterproofs and a torch and climbed a hill?! The view as the sun started to come up was beautiful. On the way back down we talked Stephen King and his favourite King novel was Misery. I hadn’t read it. So he was kind enough to lend me his copy and gave me his address to keep in touch (and return his book no doubt). I still have it. Misery is an incredible book, because of the tension and fear it creates in the reader, but also because it was weirdly prescient. In the novel Paul Sheldon is driving through ice and snow to post off his manuscript – the final book in the Misery Chastain series. He’s elated, because despite Misery’s popularity and the financial security she represents, he had started to hate her. Unfortunately for Paul, his manuscript will not end up in the hands of his editor. The terrible ice proves treacherous and Paul remembers nothing about the accident, but when he wakes he’s about to meet his number one fan, Annie Wilkes. The positive thing is that Annie is a nurse, capable of looking after his shattered bones and dosing the pain with some very potent painkillers. The negative is that Annie’s not a fan of all Paul’s writing, she’s the number one fan of the Misery Chastain series and now his provocative manuscript is in the hands of the person who might take Misery’s end badly. He has no idea just how badly. The tension is unbearable, the horror is visceral and the book is impossible to put down.
I found this old film tie-in copy of The Shining in a second hand bookshop and I had to be very brave to get it. This particular bookshop is a unit of our local Antiques and Collectibles Centre and the owner is always in residence, reading in a huge Windsor chair by the till. I didn’t know this the first time I went in and was stuck for forty minutes listening to him promoting the genius of L.Ron Hubbard. Forever afterwards known as ‘Fat Scientology Guy’ I used to try and avoid his eye and only browse around the back shelves, but he seemed to have eyes everywhere. Now I never shop there, but I do have this odd yellow copy of The Shining to remind me of my escape from Scientology. This is one of the most terrifying books I have ever read. It’s the combination of the supernatural horror like the creepy twins and whatever lurks in one of the rooms, and the horror of the person you love most becoming a monster. King brilliantly depicts a man on the edge in Jack Torrance and I love the little clues that show us his breakdown is looming. He starts to chew dry painkillers, his drinking increases, and once they reach The Overlook he starts to have hallucinations, or converses with ghosts depending on your perspective. Then there are the signs, like the wasps nest -a fascinating labyrinth of chambers and pathways, but with a nasty sting in its tail when Danny finds it’s still got the odd resident. I felt so sad for this little boy with his ‘shining’, it’s hard enough to have good perception and empathy in the moment, without seeing into the future. This book really did affect my sleep and made me feel a bit jumpy. I must have been 15 when I read it for the first time and at that point you’re breaking away from your parents a bit more. We start to see them differently, as people with their own personalities and faults. They’re like everyone else with the ability to make mistakes. Jack is a heightened version of that realisation, the family man who becomes killer. Aside from the supernatural elements, the fear is that anyone could boil over and become a monster.
This is one of those huge bricks of a book that can be a daunting prospect and I definitely felt that for several years. My mum’s friend, who’s like an honorary godmother to me, knew I read King’s novels and recommended this as her favourite. It was one of those books that sat on the shelves for years, and I tried to read it several times before giving up. How interesting could it be, to read about people catching a cold? I’m aware of the irony. I finally picked this up three years ago and for some reason it just clicked with me. I now think it’s one of his best, not just because he captures perfectly the terror of a pandemic, but because of the strange supernatural elements behind the disaster. A bio-engineered virus escapes from a lab and spreads across the world with fierce speed. It acts like a ‘souped-up’ flu and most of humanity succumbs to it, except for a mysterious few who seem immune. However, they get something else, a legacy of nightmares. Their dreams focus around a strange old woman named Mother Abigail, who beckons them to follow her. Worse though are the nightmares of a figure called Randall Flagg also known as the Dark Man. Survivors start to amass around these two strange people: Flagg is in Las Vegas (of course) and his survivors pledge to annihilate anyone who doesn’t follow him, whilst Mother Abigail is in Boulder, Colorado, advocating the old ways and telling followers they’re chosen by God. I was fascinated with Flagg, who is a devilish figure and has seen the plague as an opportunity to cause more chaos and division. We even get God, but a scary Old Testament one who isn’t afraid of zapping his detractors. This is an epic novel, and feels almost Biblical in it’s theology and it’s incredible push and pull between good and evil.
Meet The Author.
Stephen Edwin King is an American author of horror, supernatural fiction, suspense, crime, science-fiction, and fantasy novels. His books have sold more than 350 million copies, and many have been adapted into films, television series, miniseries, and comic books
The other seven books in my top ten would be It, On Writing, Insomnia, The Green Mile, Salem’s Lot, The Outsider and The Institute