It washed up in my inbox with the flood of all the other summer reading lists. I’ve never understood why summer, when in theory we have longer days and perhaps a bit more leisure, has us lean towards frothy reads, but then I don’t understand the lure of a sticky, sweaty body after a day at the beach, either. Give me a trail through the forest, a cold mountain stream, and a book that holds you in its grip.
Sniff if you want at the idea of a Stephen King thriller being that kind of book. He’s definitely not everyone’s cuppa — nor has me been mine for most of the last 30 years. But for a good 15 before that, as I was easing back into fiction after the blinding required reading of college and, more important, as I was trying to learn how to write news pieces that someone would compel someone to get to the end, I was among the gripped.
And now here he was again, with a guide from none other than the New York Times. I opened it out of idle curiosity, and soon was making a list of hen started a few King novel’s I had never read, and some I wanted to read again — kicking myself, of course, for taking a shelf-full to the used book store several years back.
The Times’ offers an interesting selection of mostly King classics and a few newer works. But what stood out for me were the summaries that came with the recommendations. Rather than the usual quick recap of the book’s plot or even a mini-review, they are smart notes about what is noteworthy in literary terms: character development, suspense and pacing, big themes and more. (The summaries also provide appropriate warnings to the scariest of King’s 70-plus books. And much to my delight, it flagged some of the books that aren’t scary, but just damned good. Among them: “Different Seasons” and, now on my read list, “11/22/1963.”)
I was never schooled in writing. Grammar, yes, but not the other things that come with the literary craft. I bashed my way forward as a reporter who lucked into a few good editors who helped me clean up my notebook dumps. And I read pretty constantly — everything from fiction to other journalists to the back of the toothpaste tube. (I can still recite most of the Crest blurb.).
Then, in my 20s and early 30s, I read a lot of Stephen King. I still remember sitting up through the night, not able to put down “The Shining.” I woke up my newish partner about 3 a.m., insisting I had to finish the book but needed lights and company to do so. To his credit, he shook himself awake, propped himself up and sat with me. A keeper. Some years later we read “The Bachman Books” aloud to each other on a backpacking trip. Somewhere along the way, “The Stand” held me in its thrall with its biblical themes of good and evil set in a modern context and fraught with politics rather than religion.
During the same stretch, I had set out on a mission to read at least one of the “classics” each year — an education I had mostly missed in school. With them, I was intrigued by the writing conventions of the time, and the mind game of what made them “classics.”
But it was King who held sway over my hand as I turned the pages, and kept turning them, chapter after chapter, no matter the hour or the frankly ridiculous nature of the story. I still remember moments when I would stop with a wannabe writer’s curse of envy and go backwards a few pages, trying to figure out his tricks. (Hint: Foreshadow then hold, hold, hold before the delivery. I once heard Chris Jones, longtime senior writer at Esquire, do an entire keynote on how narrative writing is like a card trick: It’s all about setting up the reveal.)
Fast forward: I’ve moved on from King and am somewhat established in my own career. I am one of six American journalists teaching a workshop in Paris. Over lunch, the French journalists at my table ask me where I learned to write. I hesitate — because I never did and still don’t feel I ever really learned how to write — and finally say: “Stephen King novels.” The table grew uncomfortable quiet. Confused, I turned to the Portuguese journalist seated next to me — who was the only one still looking at me — and asked what had happened. He gently explained the role and standing of French journalists, and how they tended to view a lot of American journalism as “low brow.” Apparently I had just reinforced that notion.
To which I say: “C’est dommage.” The dude didn’t get rich on his good looks alone.