The year I turned 13, a movie came out called "Stand By Me;" famous around here for being filmed in Brownsville. Besides introducing me to the boy-god River Phoenix, that movie really resonated with me and what I was experiencing right then with my friends. My mom told me it was based on a short book, and she had a copy of it at home. It was actually quite a big book with four novellas collected in it. She adamantly insisted that I not read one of the other stories, "Apt Pupil." I remember her describing it as violent and evil. I devoured the other three and went in search of more.
King wrote 10 great novels before he went off the rails. He also wrote some short stories that are hit and miss, and he wrote a couple of crappy novels under the name Richard Bachman. Then by the end of the 80s, he had basically turned into a parody of himself. I picked up a new one a couple of years ago and it read like a bad King knockoff. But his Big 10 are all classics, and I used to own lovingly dog-eared paperbacks of them all. I can definitely say they made intense impressions on me during my teen years.
Both "Carrie" and "Firestarter" shaped my budding feminism. "Cujo" redefined my understanding of real monsters i.e. divorce and affairs and domestic violence. I contemplated justice, duty, and nobility with "The Dead Zone." I wouldn't call these horror novels. I've never understood how he got that label. They weren't scary or even graphically violent like horror movies. I would maybe call them fantasy, certainly thrillers, but they never evoked horror. Well, except maybe "Salem's Lot." That was a good old fashioned scary story. But even that had grand themes about facing your demons both figuratively and literally.
The two grand-daddies are "It" and "The Stand." Both of these beasts are over a thousand pages and tackle no less than the nature of man and the existence of good and evil. There is no doubt in my mind that these books formed my idea of what it means to be honorable, kind, brave, and strong. My firm belief that we are all in this life together to stand with each other in times of disaster comes from King's epic stories. Any evil can be overcome when we love and take care of each other. Also, "The Stand" introduced me to the love of my life.
Stu Redman is a factory worker from a small town in Texas. He gave up college to support his younger brother when their mother got sick. His brother repaid him by getting as far away from Texas as he could. Stuart married his sweetheart, only to have her die of cancer a short time later. When the novel starts he is alone, hanging out with guys who are clearly his intellectual inferiors, but he cares for them. He's intelligent but a good-old boy, he's tough but a romantic, and he treats everyone, including women, with the utmost respect. He's a poet-cowboy who is good with his hands and his mind. Oh yeah, and he leads the fight against the devil's army in order to save humanity! Man, did I fall hard for him! I'm still searching for Stuart, the perfect combination of masculine strength and wisdom. It was only made worse when a young Gary Sinise played him in the mini-series! sigh...
Anyway, I was thrilled to be compared to him. I like his prose for a couple of reasons. First, his style is very every-man. You can easily imagine your uncle telling one of these stories to you while your fishing or maybe whittling something. Secondly, he doesn't overly romanticize life. Well, at least Classic King didn't. Death, sex, pain, joy, violence, and fear are things that happen everyday. His characters speak very matter-of-factly about topics that are often socially taboo. That delights me. I wish real life was like that. Plus, nobody can set a mood in time and space better than Stephen King. You can see the cars passing by, hear the music playing nearby, your can hear the voices and inflections of his characters; you are entirely transported to the event. That's not so much fun for many King stories, but for me it's something that I never stop marveling at.
Oh yeah, and to this day, even though I've read everything that King wrote prior to 1990, I have never had the guts to defy my mother and read "Apt Pupil." If she thought "The Shinning" was ok for a kid, but that story wasn't... I can't even imagine how horrifying it must be.