Author Stephen King

Stephen King

Now for something fun and funky, or at least distracting, but these days I’m sure we could all use fun and funky, or at least distracting. A starter’s guide to Stephen King, courtesy of the New York Times.

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.

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