Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Dave's Rag - The King is Alive

Stephen KingGrowing up stupid and poor, I gravitated to The King immediately. No matter how weird, charred and ugly my environment was I found the worlds that Stephen King created were vibrant and terrifyingly alive.

Cracked skulls, hilarious gallows humor, otherworldly monsters, wisecracks that haven't been hip since the 1950's and detailed trips through fully realized characters became a large part of my life.

To put this in perspective, the town I grew up in is infamous for a long series of man made disasters. Magnesium chemical fires have leveled blocks and could be seen from space. Epic toxic waste spills killed millions of fish and animals - leaving the surface of a local river covered in corpses. The spill also polluted the towns water supply with battery acid. The true deathblow came when the life's blood of the town, the auto factories, all shut down at once. The fact was: I didn't start out a horror fan - it was that the world I came to know was a non-stop horror show.

Living around a constant sense of inevitable decay and doom - Stephen King's apocalyptic scenes weren't that far of a leap. Discovering King, for an 11-year-old punk kid, who was growing up in a suffocating corner of the Rustbelt that was constantly under-going a calamity, meant finding a sense of humor about the whole derailed ordeal of childhood in a disaster zone.

Reading was an outlet. It was a way to escape the bleak social stigmatization of poverty and the real horror of man made disasters that killed my home town. Being poor but reading (and eventually writing) meant I wasn't doomed being stupid, toxified and grim forever.
It by Stephen KingI finished reading IT in a week, at 11, all 1104 pages if I remember right. In the car. At school, when I was ignoring binomial Algebra. Late at night, when I could manage fooling my parents into thinking I was asleep. On the bus, when the jocks were braying. I didn't get many of the cultural references at the time. I identified with the gang of outsider kids growing up in the middle of nowhere and the flashback narrative style. This set me up to be a huge Tarantino/Kurosawa fan in the future.

In IT, something about the talented, haunted group of outsiders got deeply ingrained into me at this point. My friends were mostly the same way. This whole phase lasted for about two or three years. I read every book he wrote that I could get a hold of.

However, living just outside the city limits made taking home books from the library impossible. I could read a few chapters while I was there but that was it. It was either buy books or steal books from somewhere else. The "somewhere else" turned out to be the local shrine to capitalism - the mall. The local mall was built on what had been an Indian cemetery. Later, it became a land fill and dump before it was finally developed. The mall was about as close as the library via bicycle. There was a Barnes and Noble bookstore inside where I could buy a couple of new paperbacks for maybe 15 bucks.

Without the benefits of a library card I had to get cash for books from the Indian Skulls Mall. Getting busted shoplifting would've meant a lifetime ban from the only source of King I had - so it was way too risky to steal. For dough, I worked in the family business and later in an alternating series of part-time jobs. I never had a work permit at that age. I worked to earn enough bread to be a voracious reader of King's horror novels. At the time, I wondered if I could grow up to be a writer whose work would be published and read one day.




Different Seasons by Stephen KingAfter a year or two into this King kick, I discovered Different Seasons featuring Andy Dupree in the original story of The Shawshank Redemption. The book also contained The Body (later to become Rob Reiner's Stand by Me) featuring Fat Ass's Revenge (mmm, mmm pie!), and the Apt Pupil featuring a sociopathic kid and a Nazi war criminal who had settled comfortably in America.The fourth Season could have been called Survivor Type? This was a short story about a marooned self-cannibalizing heroin addict on a desert island. It was gruesome but also read as an allegory about drug and alcohol abuse. Maybe this story was from another compilation? Now that I'm thinking enough about it: Survivor Type appeared in Skeleton Crew.




The StandThe Stand was the last great King book I read on this kick. To this day I remember Nick Andros, Stu Redman, Larry "You Ain't No Nice Guy" Underwood, Abigal Freemantle, Randall Flagg, Trashcan Man and The Kid, his happy crappy and every can of Coors Light. I got my grubby mitts on an unabridged version that had dozens of b/w illustrations (including the Kid's last stand against a pack of hungry wolves) - until the cover and pages were smudged or shredded. The way King linked these individuals stories during a man made Apocalypse was a herculean act of focused writing. The TV series starring Gary Sinese and Molly Ringwald, even for a tv program, really sucked. The only saving graces were Rob Lowe playing the deaf drifter Nick Andros and in a bit of brilliant casting I "remembered" the kid from Slingblade played the Feral Boy - apparently IMDB thinks different.




Tommyknockers by Stephen KingAfter Tommyknockers, an interesting story of a semi-sentient UFO uncovered in a New England backyard told as nearly every character in the book mutated into brain dead two-legged rats as the protagonist, Gardner, tried to stop the entire East Coast from going over to these zomboids.
The Bachman Books were originally published as cheap novellas under King's pen name Richard Bachman. The pseudonym was a combination of the band BTO and a character out of Donald Westlake's books. The stories were grim fairy tales with kids walking to death as a national sport in the Long Walk or criminals running for their lives and cash prizes in The Running Man which read as a kind of America's Most Hunted. The collection also featured The Rage, a story that dealt with a Columbine-esque school shooter scene but was written ten years ahead of the real life massacre.



H.P. LovecraftReading some his anthologies (Danse Macabre and Graveyard Shift) and watching the two EC Comics inspired Creepshow movies eventually got me into the authors and themes that influenced Stephen King: namely Robert Bloch (Psycho), August Derleth, H.P. Lovecraft (Call of Cthulu), Edgar Allan Poe, and Alfred Hitchcock. The central theme of many of these writers was the mundane individual in Beyond the Wall of Sleep, The Silver Key and The Raven meeting with extraordinary or supernatural evil. The conflict between the two tranformed or even killed the hero: much like Pet Sematary, The Stand and Tommyknockers - King was known for imbuing the everyman with individual idiosyncratic responses to this struggle, as in Roadwork. King's characters leap off the page with a combination of realism, heart, gut-busters and imagination. Nonetheless, around this point, I set down my copy of The Gunslinger as cars and girls came along. I forgot about my old pal Steve for awhile.




On WritingIt wasn't until I was spending a stretch in the old crossbar hotel that I was reminded about how much I dig this guy. His On Writing really put it on the money for me again. Reading about him getting his collarbone and hip remodeled by a drunk driver in Maine was really painful and as bad as any of his gruesome fiction.
The stories about his alcohol and drug addiction, that came to end after his intervention, took real balls to man up to. The guy was a genius and no chump. This last book is an autobiographical instruction manual made for writers and readers of any genre. Besides writing and adapting his books into a series of films and graphic novels he's raised three kids and still plays in a rock band with John Carpenter.

In recent years, Stephen King has started a non-profit that grants money to disabled and injured writers and artists called The Haven. After being struck by a drunk driver in Maine, and nearly being killed, provided King with a first hand look at struggling with finding the right medical care and paying astronomical hospital and re-hab bills.

After a 20+ year association with the work of Stephen King all that remains for me to say is: Long Live The King, people.

References:
Stephen King.com
Wordpress, Larry Fire


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