Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Stephen King, and the Book that Launched a Million Words (for Me)

We tend to remember the events that spark our passions. I can still remember, for example, the moment when I first saw the girl who would ignite my major teenage crush. (That didn't work out so well, because I didn't ignite similar passions in her—but that’s another story.)

I can also remember the chance discovery that sparked my interest in writing fiction—and the specific book that provided the spark.

It was the late winter of 1984. I would turn sixteen that August. I had a study hall period in high school. I used that hour to work as a volunteer in the school library. 

Nineteen eighty-four was a transitional year for me in a variety of ways. I would turn sixteen that August and start driving. I would lose eighty pounds that spring, summer, and fall, and become an early prototype of what would become my adult self, many years later. 

And that March, in my high school library, I would meet Stephen King.

Well, not exactly. I didn't actually meet Stephen King in person. But I did meet Stephen King through his books, like millions of other people over the past four decades. 

I remember the day I saw a dog-eared copy of ‘Salem’s Lot on one of my school library’s paperback carousels. Just in case you don’t know, ‘Salem’s Lot is Stephen King’s 1975 novel about vampires taking over a town in rural Maine. ‘Salem’s Lot is one of the best horror novels ever written, as I was soon to discover.

I picked up the book and began reading it on pure whim. At this point in my life, I was not exactly opposed to reading for pleasure, but nor was it one of my favorite pastimes. 

I had been an avid reader prior to adolescence. At ten I had devoured science fiction tales, ghost yarns, and detective stories by the handful. I had even made some early attempts at writing stories of my own. But the onset of puberty had driven my interests toward sports and youth culture, especially rock music. Reading held little appeal for me beyond what was necessary for school.

That was about to change. 

I was immediately pulled into ‘Salem’s Lot, captivated by the world that Stephen King had created through an expertly crafted combination of premise, plot, pacing, characters, and atmosphere. 

It took me no more than a few days to finish ‘Salem’s Lot. After that, I began to work my way through the rest of Stephen King’s oeuvre, which was impressive even in 1984: The Dead Zone, Carrie, Christine, Firestarter, The Shining, Cujo, The Stand—as well as the collections of short fiction that Stephen King had published up to that time. 

At some moment during that process, I said to myself: I want to do this. I want to write fiction. That’s my passion!

I won’t tell the rest of that story now, as my path to serious fiction writing was a long and circuitous one. But no matter. I still trace my adult interest in writing fiction to 1984, and my chance encounter with ‘Salem’s Lot. That was the book that—for me—launched a million words. 

Needless to say, I idolized Stephen King for a period during my teenage years. And why not? I was sixteen, and Stephen King was an adult who had given me a sincere passion for something—which I desperately needed then. 

If Stephen King had never written ‘Salem’s Lot (or any other work of fiction), I might have been inspired by some other book. And then again, maybe not. 

We tend to look back on the past—both in personal terms and regarding the world at large—as inevitable. We assume that things couldn't have worked out any other way. What happened is what had to happen. But it’s been my observation that our lives are determined by chance encounters and (seemingly) random events as much as they are determined by long processes that gradually build up inescapable momentum. It’s quite possible that without Stephen King and ‘Salem’s Lot, I would have never developed a real interest in reading and writing fiction. 

My relationship with Stephen King has endured its ups and downs since then. Beginning in the mid- to late-1980s, Stephen King’s writing became a bit more irregular. Some of his later books—Insomnia, Desperation, Gerald’s Game—simply don’t have the force that his first ten novels had. And a handful of his post-2000 novels (Cell and Lisey’s Story come to mind) are mediocre to bad. 

Stephen King has also developed the annoying habit of pontificating about politics on his social media accounts. (I like King’s books a lot better when I don’t read his Twitter feed.) I still admire his talent and accomplishments, but he isn't quite the giant to me that he was in 1984.

Nevertheless, I owe the guy a debt: As a reader, his books (he still writes a lot of good ones, even if all of them are no longer good) have given me countless hours of pleasure. And as a writer, he was the one who started me on my million-word journey.