Yes, constant reader, that’s right, it’s true. Here, come sit beside me and let’s talk. There’s a story within the story. The Master is a romantic at heart.
I was 12 years old when Ann McPherson handed me a copy of The Shining. A wonderful woman with a joyous and infectious laugh, Mrs. McPherson was one of my mom’s best friends. She lived a few doors down and often dropped by our the house in the late afternoon. She treated me as an equal, for which I adored her, and we shared an intense love for books. Earlier that year Ann gave me Robin Cook’s Coma, a terrific thriller I finished in two days while my parents banged on my bedroom door trying to get me to emerge. (It may be the one time in my life I willingly skipped a meal.) After Coma, I was ready to read anything Mrs. McPherson recommended.
The copy of The Shining she handed me was the initial paperback release. The cover was in reflective silver with the outline of a young boy’s head.
I looked at the cover over and over, tingling with anticipation. I figured they must have spent some bucks on this cover if it reflected! Incredibly cool! The cover read A Masterpiece of Modern Horror. The marketing team earned their salary with that phrase. I was scared already. And a young boy as the centerpiece? Talk about primed.
Primed indeed. The book changed my life, not only because it remains one of my favorite novels of all time, not only because it has haunted me since, but because it introduced me to the man who has influenced my life as much as anyone on the planet.
What strikes me now about The Shining, which I’ve read umpteen times, is the novel’s humanity. As dark as Stephen King can go – and, oh my, can he go there: try Cujo, one of his best and easily his darkest novel, it’s shattering – his novels have enormous power because he has such a clear love and respect for people, their dreams, their emotions and their love. In The Shining, Jack Torrance’s fierce love for his son Danny (completely missing from the cold, emotionless Kubrick adaptation) drives the novel. Jack’s fierce love for his son is also what ultimately saves everyone from hell. Certainly, yes, terrible things happen in Stephen King novels. (Is life any different?) Yet there is a compassion surrounding the events and the characters that surmounts the horror. I’ve read almost everything in King’s canon and can attest that this love of humanity is evident in just about everything he writes.
My own love affair with Stephen King began with that shiny paperback, which eventually fell apart by the time I was in college. After so many rereads the spine could not survive! His work deepened my love of literature… yes, his books are literature… his craftsmanship shaped my own passion for storytelling and his perspective influenced the way I view much of the world.
Even so, only recently did the revelation come. It seems so obvious now. Perhaps I’ve matured enough to see it. Perhaps it’s because two of his recent books convey it as clearly as any work he has produced. After reading these two novels, I revisited many King favorites, most for the 4th or 5th time, and re-experienced his work with a new understanding. I say it firmly and happily:
Stephen King writes grand romances.
Take ’salem’s lot, King’s second novel, one of the scariest books ever written. King’s ‘reworking’ of Stoker’s equally terrifying Dracula (a must read, a true work of literary art) delves into the corridors of a small town in a realistic manner that gets completely under your skin. Read this novel to discover, even then, King’s mastery of disclosure of information and his ability to create shock and surprise on the page, sometimes even with short simple phrases: “The cellar door stood open. And the screams began.” is forever etched into my memory and still makes my heart leap. (You must read the book to find out why.)
Additionally, in ‘salem’s lot we discover a romance between Ben Mears and Susan Norton. Their budding love for each other is as perfectly executed as in the best romantic comedy. Which makes what then happens more emotionally devastating than you would anticipate from a ‘horror novel’. (Things don’t always work out, this is The Master we are discussing, right?)
The Dead Zone, another masterwork, also begins with a lovely romance that gives a deep emotional underpinning to every subsequent page of the book. A novel that gets better and richer every time you read it, The Dead Zone, along with the romance, has a complex plot of disparate elements that come together in a dazzling way. I read the book, then passed it to my mother, also a big fan of King. A few days later I was doing homework after school at the kitchen table while Mom sat on the couch reading the final pages. I vividly remember hearing her gasp once, then twice, then exclaim, “My God… he did it… he actually did it.” I knew she was referring to a certain character but she later explained she was also expressing amazement at King’s achievement: how what happens happens in the final section of this novel blows my mind even today.
We haven’t time to explore or even cite every romance King has presented but before I get to my two favorites, may I buttress my argument with a few quick references?
Cujo – This novel is pitch black. And damn, is it suspenseful! Lord! Only King can make something as innocuous as a woman pitching a small rock over the trunk of a Pinto heart-stopping. But there is a romance in the honest portrayal of a faltering marriage and the couple trying to find a way back together.
Misery – Oh yes, there is a big romantic aspect to this one. Go check it out. I dare you. When Misery first came out, I read it in a single sitting, it’s that gripping. If you’ve only seen the movie, infinitely more devious treats await in Misery’s pages. Plus, Rob Reiner changed the whole damn point of the book!
BTW, if you think a romance can’t be twisted, check out one of the best romances ever written, Wuthering Heights, which is also one of the most disturbing novels ever published. (If again you have only seen movie versions, you have no idea the insanity buried in the pages of Bronte’s novel. Reading it is like entering a shimmering nightmare from which one never fully emerges.)
Bag Of Bones – The first quarter of this novel, depicting a writer trying to somehow overcome his grief after his wife’s death, contains some of my favorite of King’s writing as he describes the marriage and love of Mike Noonan and his departed wife Jo. Exquisite. Heartbreaking. Pure King.
On Writing – Yeah, yeah, as non-fiction it probably shouldn’t count. But along with being the best book on writing I’ve ever read (all my students are required to devour it), the romance here is King’s love for the craft. The first section of the book is about his life as a writer and is a blast to read, for anyone. And while I imagine I am breaking most of the rules he delineates in the second section, that part, too, would be helpful and enjoyable to all.
How does The Master do it? Rationally it seems as if King should be winding down. I don’t even mean because of age. How can someone write so much and still be so imaginative and creative? I don’t know and ultimately I don’t care. I’m just happy to sit at his feet and enjoy. It does boggle the mind though: in the last few years, King isn’t churning out retreads in the manner of many bestselling authors. King has reached his pinnacle, producing some of the best work of his career. Even Doctor Sleep, the sequel to The Shining, was awesome! When I first heard about it, I was nervous: “A sequel to The Shining?? Seriously, Steve??” But it is terrific! And romantic. And heartbreakingly real. (There’s a lot of heartbreak in King’s novels, another proof of my thesis.)
The latter, a heart-stopping thriller that is the first in a trilogy (#3 comes out June!) was something entirely new for King. Instead of horror, the novel is King’s spin on a genre he loves, hard-boiled detective fiction. Bill Hodges, a retired police detective whose emotional life is on a terrible downward spiral, is saved by his interest in a horrific crime but also by his growing love for Janey Trelawney, a woman related to the crime by family ties. Their romance is some of King’s best work and is as realistic and grounded as is all of his fiction. The master had me floating with joy as Bill fell for Janey and… ah, Stephen King.
The former, 11/22/63, is King’s masterpiece.
Ironically, I avoided the book for a long time. The novel is ostensibly about the Kennedy assassination, a subject I have about as much interest in as quantum physics. For those who don’t know me, there does not exist a negative number equal to my lack of desire to know about physics. Of any kind. I don’t even know what quantum physics are… is?… who cares. I actually picked up 11/22/63, read 25 pages, thought, “Kennedy? Really?” and put it down. Then my Uncle David Bonham, a man I love and trust, encouraged me to give it another look. He loved it and thought I might as well. So I picked it up and started over.
To quote my mom, “My God… he did it… he actually did it.”
What an amazing novel!
Also not a horror novel, instead a time travel book with numerous plot threads, 11/22/63 is, ultimately, a grand romance. Fully and completely. It’s one of the greatest literary romances I’ve read and as a huge fan of 19th century fiction (Austen, Collins, Shelley, Dumas, Bronte, Eliot) I’ve read many a great romance.
For those who have not yet read this towering and incredibly enjoyable novel, King’s supreme achievement, I give away no secrets. Trust me, please. It’s as grandly romantic as Pride and Prejudice. Even if you have not read King, perhaps because ‘horror’ is not your ‘thing’, pick up 11/22/63. It’s surprising, gripping and transformative. And, again, it is first and foremost a grand, grand romance.
(I’ve been assured by those in the know that the team behind the TV series, currently debuting on Hulu in what so far is a terrific adaptation, understood this as well.)
But read the novel first. King’s incredible creativity, his love of humanity and the tremendous moral weight of his writing are on full, glorious display in 11/22/63. You will not be disappointed. And once Jake Epping begins his first experiment in how time travels works, you will not be able to put it down. You might then also pick up other King masterworks and read them with a different perspective. This novel certainly deepened and enriched my view of all that came before.
I’d be envious of Stephen King if I didn’t enjoy him so much. If I had not been affected by him so much. If I didn’t love his writing so much.
So, Constant Reader, give the King a try. There is no equivalent to The Master.