Revisiting Stephen King
My first Stephen King novel was The Shining, which I probably would not have read if I had been left to my own devices. But it was one of those books that I either had to read for a course at school or one of my friends had to read it and wanted to discuss it — I can’t remember exactly which it was, but I do remember being surprised by how much I enjoyed it. That novel is the epitome of everything a person feels when they are in a big house alone, that in fact, you’re not alone, and the thing that’s with you wants to hurt you.
I was fascinated by King’s ability to delve into the human psyche and find the things that scare us, precisely putting his finger not only on what scares us, but why. Really, people in masks shouldn’t be scary, right? But they are…because you can’t see their faces. Why are we scared of large, empty buildings? Because we secretly feel like they’re not empty, they’re haunted by something we can’t see. I devoured this book, watched the movie, found myself annoyed by the mom, but ultimately pretty satisfied by the experience.
Since that reading, I hadn’t thought much about King. I read a lot right before bed, so you can see why horror stories would not necessarily be appealing. I read Carrie at some point for school, watched The Green Mile with my dad, and otherwise just didn’t think much about King’s work.
Then, I stumbled on 11/22/63, a story of a man who stumbles on a wormhole back into 1958 and has to try to prevent the Kennedy assassination. I was immediately hooked. I love alternate histories, and this had all of the makings of a great book.
It’s hard to discuss the plot without spoilers, but let me first say that this book was absolutely charming. King paints the world of 1958-1963 with great nostalgia, while also pointing out a few of the problems inherent in the worldview (Jim Crow laws, rampant domestic violence, etc.). At the same time, he’s constantly questioning accepted wisdom about how history could have been “better.” Characters the protagonist, Jake Epping, thinks he has “rescued” end up only marginally better off, if better off at all. Ultimately, the story grows darker and bleaker until the end, which turns heart-wrenchingly sad.
It’s less a horror novel than a story of suspense, though it takes a turn for the weird and sci-fi near the middle of what I would consider the “third act.” In this book, the “evil” stays sort of safely external, and something that can easily (sort of) be overcome.
Not true of Revival, which I think is one of the absolute bleakest books I have ever read. The plot involves a Methodist minister who loses his faith, and the ways in which this minister and a man named Jamie Morton become entwined in each other’s lives. Like 11/22/63, much of the work seems focused on ordinary life, with brief glimpses of weirdness — the minister playing with electricity is interspersed with snippets of an ordinary life, first love, family, that sort of thing.
At the same time, it is maybe the scariest book I have ever read in my life. It postulates that not only is there not nothing after death — that death is not just a giant sleep — but that what lies after our lives is horrible, awful, incomprehensibly terrible and disturbing and nauseating. King himself told Buzzfeed in 2014:
“It’s too scary. I don’t even want to think about that book anymore…It’s a nasty, dark piece of work. That’s all I can tell you.”
It’s no wonder King describes himself as a believer in God, though not a fan of organized religion. You’d think you would have to be, if you had these “what if” scenarios running around in your head — or even if you just read the last one. I’m still shuddering. Still, it’s hard to deny that King is a talented storyteller, and I know I’ll be returning to his work again…I just probably will go more Under the Dome and less Pet Sematary.