I asked for two things when I turned 12: a copy of Stephen King’s “Carrie” and my mother’s permission to read it. Up to that point, I had exhausted every “scary” book I could get my hands on. I’d picked over the young adult section of my local library, and Barnes & Noble could only occasionally offer some new titles “appropriate” for my age group, so even in my pre-teen state, I could tell that their quality was lacking. In my desperation, while my mother was distracted buying picture books for her first-grade classroom, I would sneak away to the forbidden realm: the adult horror section. There, I salivated over gory covers and grisly back-cover descriptions, fantasizing about a day when I could sit and enjoy stories that even some adults couldn’t handle. The nexus of my obsession became the man who dominated those shelves over all others: the master himself, Stephen King.
In hindsight, my mother’s objection to King’s books — the sex! the drugs! the unimaginable violence! — was valid. Still, after years of begging, I finally broke her down. “Carrie,” King’s first novel about a young woman only a few years my senior, seemed like an appropriate place to start. I read it in a few hours; it was everything I could have hoped for. Finally, here was a book that seemed to take my love of horror — and, by proxy, me — seriously. It was liberating.
Since then, I have read a borderline embarrassing number of King’s books. If you count his memoirs, short story collections and non-fiction, I’ve read 27 in total. With a to-be-read list so long it’s almost comical, sometimes I feel like I’m betraying myself by continuing to read through his bibliography. Aren’t I supposed to be a serious consumer of media now, working my way through the canon of literature? Why use my scarce reading time for more schlocky scary stories? Why not give another author a chance?
The answer is the same reason that booksellers continue to stock King’s books 50 years after his initial burst on the literary scene: his consistent quality of writing. It’s true that the man has some duds — the pacing of “Christine” is maddening, and I will never get over the disappointment of “Roadwork’s” climax — but largely, his books rest in the good-to-very-good category. The name recognition almost functions like a seal of quality: Even if you don’t pick up the greatest work of all time, you’ll still be able to avoid something lousy.
King’s work is varied enough to prevent the genre fatigue one might get from, say, exclusively selecting Tom Clancy novels to enjoy. He writes a lot of horror, but he also tries his hand at coming-of-age (“The Body”), prison thriller (“Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”) and historical fiction themes (“Hearts in Atlantis”). Above all, though, are the times that King writes something truly wonderful. The semi-Biblical epic feel that inundates “The Stand,” the way “Lisey’s Story” captures the strange intricacies of a long-term marriage, the legitimately harrowing dive into paternal grief “Pet Sematary” brings and the wonderfully awful commentary on writing itself that “Misery” presents all set King’s books apart from the typical hallmarks of the dreaded “genre fiction” label. Sure, there are ghosts, zombies and vampires, but King isn’t afraid to pair decidedly unserious plots with dedicated character work. When cardboard cutouts meant to be people are forced to face down a monster, it’s easy to remember it’s all fictional. But when people that feel real are put in those situations? Things tend to stick with you, even after you’ve turned the page.
But despite my bias, I live in reality: King’s prose is not going to win him a Pulitzer Prize. Even if he’s consistently good, what if there are some unheard voices out there that are consistently great? Even as one of the most ardent fans out there, King’s dominance over my consumption of horror fiction — and the landscape of horror fiction at large — is worrying. By going with the “safe bet” for these stories, are we crowding out new voices? Is there talent that never makes it to the bestseller list because the quota for the genre has already been reached by King? Does he deserve the real estate he’s captured?
I’m not sure. I’ve read a lot of King’s contemporaries — Clive Barker, Peter Straub, Joe Hill — and even at their highest points, they never reach the complexity that King once captured. The modern horror authors seem to have something in common: They’re all old white guys. What kinds of fresh perspectives could we get if we allowed marginalized voices to reach the bestsellers list? Maybe, after 50 years of dominance, it’s time for us horror enthusiasts to make way for something new.
Daily Arts Contributor Grace Sielinski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.