12. What Stephen King Taught Me

Should I be ashamed to admit that I love the work of Stephen King?
I came to King late and, for many years hid my enjoyment of his work.  Why?  Well, I mean, is it really considered good taste to enjoy the purveyor of the horror genre?  But King is a masterful storyteller and when my niece, who teaches English and writing, proclaimed her admiration for his work, I decided I need not hide my guilty pleasure any further.

The truth is, King surprised me in so many ways when I really started spending time with him that I found my preconceived notions of what he was about–these largely informed by watching movies made from his books, Carrie and The Shining notably–shaken from the first read.

I started with his short stories written under the name of Richard Bachmann when he was a much younger man but my true introduction to King was when I read It. I consumed it over the course of a longish weekend and, another admission, I found my throat shrinking and my eyes watering when I read the last 10 pages.

I won’t run through the story at all because you should find it yourself (or just go watch the new movie based on it–haven’t seen it myself and can’t decide if I should), but I will say that it shares a theme or themes found in many of King’s books: themes that make one yearn for simpler things but also remember the joy of being a child, before life got too complicated, and friends WERE the center of everything.

King returns again and again to ideas of friendship in which love is discovered and expressed.  He sides with the misfits and the neglected.  The greatest horror in King’s writings on these things is the true, non-supernatural, violence done to our protagonists’ parents, school bullies, or power-wielding teachers or cops.

Horror may find its home in the face of a clown for the purposes of the story but we know it stands in for the very real horror that lurks relentlessly in schoolyards, bedrooms, and streets.  These pedestrian horrors–including simple neglect, the dehumanization that comes from adults who simply do not care about their children and from people who ignore those in closest proximity to them–dominate King’s narratives.

And, driven out by the neglect, King’s characters end up on the edges, on the borderlands, where, as King will tell you, a different kind of evil lurks.  The edges, both metaphorical and real in King’s work are where things break down, passageways to unimaginable hurt lie and people slip into other worlds from which many never return.

His characters find themselves in these spaces but… not alone.  Invariably, whether in a prison exercise yard (harder to get further out to the edge than that), an abandoned building, an unused sandlot, an inaccessible hotel, or a creekside hideout, they find others.  These others are beautiful in their own tragic stories and as they come together the true magic of King shines through. It does so because they always find love, and acceptance and they discover what it means to matter to someone else.

King’s stories are love stories.

I like the movie better than the short story upon which it is based partly because of the last words spoken by Red in The Shawshank Redemption.  They capture perfectly the lesson King sees in these shattered lives that find another or others and their lives gain a meaning they could never have believed they had.  King teaches me hope.

I find I’m so excited I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it is the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend, and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.

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