I’m pleased to see Stephen King get his due from Obama for his career as a writer. He certainly influenced me very much as a kid — I think “Night Shift” was the first thing of his that I read, and found the collection of short stories in it horrifying and inspiring. The unforgettable image of the bandaged hand with the eyes was both bizarre to my young self, and, when I read the story attached to it (“I am the Doorway”), was horrifying, as well. The itching of the man’s hands in particular was ghastly, in the context of the alien eyes therein.
Anyway, that collection of short stories, which I stumbled across, fueled many years’ worth of Stephen King-reading for me (not in order) — Christine, Firestarter, The Shining, ‘Salem’s Lot, Carrie, Cujo, Pet Sematary, Misery, It, Skeleton Crew, The Dead Zone, the Stand, The Tommyknockers — all were ones I read. I put The Tommyknockers last, because it was the last book of his that I read.
It’s because, for my 17-year-old self, having been fortified by all of those other books of his, I wanted to get out there and write my own stories in earnest. It’s also because, for me, I’d moved on to other writers (Salinger, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Melville, O’Connor, Jackson, etc., etc.) all took my attention, but aside from Mark Twain, King was the other hugely formative writer for me — the writer who made me want to be a writer.
I remember experiencing palpable dread reading Pet Sematary, which remains the only book I’d ever read where I had to force myself to turn the page. I can still see where I was, can still remember the absolute horror he created in my head with only his words, so much so that I had to tell myself “It’s only a story. It’s only a story…” I remember being fascinated by ‘Salem’s Lot, the perfect blend of modern sensibilities with the ancient evil of vampirism, and it consuming the namesake town like a latter-day Black Death. I remember finding the first half of The Stand stunningly frightening, and how breezily and easily he killed almost the entire world with his weaponized superflu, Captain Trips. All were marvelous nightmares, and I vividly remember them as much at 45 years of age as I did as a teen. That’s good stuff.
Some holdouts still turn their noses up at genre fiction, but I think King really showed those pretensions to be what they were. He easily conjured up ridiculous and horrible situations for his characters, and because of his skill as a writer, made them believable. He put emotional heart into all of his stories, made the characters painfully human.