Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Giving Stephen King a Second Chance

Let me start by saying that, historically, I've been a huge Stephen King fan. The Shining was the first adult novel I bought in life (technically, I also bought Peter Benchley's The Island at the same time, but the terror of The Shining so completely overwhelmed that book that it hardly counts).

I was in junior high at the time and a victim of a horrid algebra teacher who humiliated me at every opportunity and bored me the rest of the time. One of the students seated near me, a kid named Joel, had bought both of the above books and took to reading them during class. I envied his escape desperately and, after a few days, decided I had to follow him to wherever it was that he had gone.

After school, I rode my bike to Sprouse Reitz, a low-brow variety store selling everything from cheap toys to bug spray to yarn. It was the only place within easy riding distance that had a decent paperback book rack, and, luckily, both of the books I'd seen Joel reading were there for the taking.

As I hinted above, The Shining utterly terrified me. Like a days-long rollercoaster, it kept my heart racing. And when it was finished, I knew that I wanted to make people feel like that.

Over the intervening years, I read many more of King's novels and several books of novellas and short stories, learning along the way that he was much more than a talented horror writer, that he had a breadth boasted by very few writers.

All of this is a very long-winded way of saying that I am, by instinct, a Stephen King fan and that, in light of this, I was eagerly looking forward to his writing book.

I first read that book--On Writing--several years ago and was, sadly, underwhelmed. I thought it was too much about biography and too little about writing. And, at least as important, it seemed to lack energy (a problem I attributed to King's ongoing recovery from being flattened by an errant van on a backwoods Maine road). I didn't hate the book, but I was disappointed.

Recently, for reasons I can't explain, I pulled the book off the shelf again and began reading somewhere in the back half, the writing half. And my opinion is beginning to change. While I can't begin to put this book in the same class as John Gardner's wonderful On Becoming a Novelist and The Art of Fiction, I can certainly recommend it. King writes practically and without a hint of the mysticism that ruins so much art-related teaching. As a plain-spoken, capable craftsman, he has a voice that matters. And his phenomenal fiction career give his words a legitimacy that many teachers whose writing careers have shone less brightly--or not at all--can't match.

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