Off the top, I don’t celebrate Halloween (I’m from the Caribbean; it wasn’t a thing when I was growing up… Guy Fawkes on the other hand) but this is in fact a Halloween post – specifically part of the Broke and Bookish’s Top Ten Tuesday, the Halloween Freebie edition. Because why should I let a thing like not celebrating Halloween keep me from talking about books, especially when I was inspired to make the king of horror the topic of my book list.
Because he is the king of horror, it might be easy for some to dismiss Stephen King as a genre writer (as though every writing isn’t some kind of genre anyway); but he’s really just a good writer, period. I don’t think I actually read a King book until I discovered the Dark Tower series in university but I certainly grew up watching his movies and actively avoiding others. Here’s my top 10 (starting at the top):
The Dark Tower series – I haven’t seen the movie as yet (don’t know if I want to – sorry, Idris) but I love this series. These were maybe the first King books that I read and it was mind-blowing – no seriously, it messed with your mind…but it was also gritty like a dusty old western and rule bending as in literally moving between something like the world we know and this barren wasteland in almost a split personality way (that’s how I thought of it then, anyway). I’m pretty sure I read them out of order too…someone further down the dorm (I was in university, remember) may have had a copy of The Drawing of the Three and, once I recovered from that, I wanted more, so I went back to The Gunslinger and then jumped ahead, to the point where I don’t know anymore which book I read when but these characters and the world of the story have stuck with me.
On Writing: a Memoir of the Craft – before this, my go to book on craft was Writing Fiction by Janet Burraway, which I was introduced to in university, and while Burraway is still a go to for me King’s On Writing is the best book on craft I’ve ever read. Technically a memoir but if you’re paying attention, you’ll learn. Bonus, because of this book, I went back and did a cover-to-cover read of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style (another one from my uni days), which King highlighted as a definitive work on craft. I shared some of what I drew from this book in a post over on my other blog – consider it a primer.
Misery – it’s a writer’s worst and best nightmare, isn’t it…to have a super fan (good) to have an obsessive super fan who doesn’t understand the difference between fact and fiction and will kill you before she lets you kill her favourite character (not so good). I loved both the book and the movie (a rare enough thing) – Kathy Bates and James Caan brought these well drawn characters to life in the most heart-stuttering way; you know the movie’s good when you already know what’s going to happen because you read the book and you still jump when it does. You know you’re a writer though when the most terrifying thing she does to him (in your mind) is not kidnapping and hobbling him, but making him burn the only copy (no back-ups anywhere) of his new manuscript. Horrors.
Stand by Me – I’ve never read the book, The Body, on which this movie is based, but early teenage me loved this tale of four pre-to-early-teen boys on an adventure. I think that’s how I saw it then, though it was about so much more – about family (the ones you’re born in to, the ones you make), loss (of a brother, of innocence), and change (growing up). It is a perfectly rendered film in many ways – not a jump out of your skin horror in any way, though it does have a body in it; rather a reminder that oftentimes the real horror is to be found in real life: the bully on the corner, the nightmares you can’t escape, the loneliness of being in a family struggling in silent grief, the forces so much larger than you when you are a child. Plus as one of the characters is a writer – a King trope – you have a story (the pie eating contest) within a story (the boys’ adventure), within a story (technically, since the main story is itself a flashback). It is a very tender film from the Richard Dreyfuss voiceover to the bond between the boys, especially the characters played by Wil Wheaton and River Phoenix. Ask me how much I loved River Phoenix back then; he was the most talented of that generation. RIP, River.
Firestarter – I remember my sister and I watching this movie as a kid, it’s one of those movies I think of from that time in my life, so maybe that’s where its allure lies because I did try re-watching it as an adult once and the effects were laughably bad. But this story, notwithstanding the fireballs, isn’t really about the effects, it’s about a father and daughter, flight, fight, and sacrifice. Drew Barrymore and David Keith created a believable bond, and the paranoia the story sparks – your government is not to be trusted – certainly caught on didn’t it.
Cujo – Another memory from my childhood, another memory with my sister. The Cujo in question is a dog, a rabid dog who terrorizes a woman and her son who are trapped and running out of air in a stalled car. That’s it and it was scary. What was with the scary dog movies back then? And somehow, I still emerged with an affinity for dogs (notwithstanding that rabid dogs also terrorize characters in other favourite fiction like To Kill a Mockingbird and Their Eyes Were Watching God)…and a healthy fear of cats. Go figure.
Rose Madder and/or Dolores Claiborne – I was torn between which one of these two to talk about next but as they both deal with the common theme of women overcoming violent abusers, I decided why not both. Rose Madder is hazier in my memory. I read the book and was so spooked by the whole disappearing in to the picture thing (yes, there’s a whole other mythical world inside of a painting and it’s there that she *spoiler alert* ultimately dumps her murdering abuser) that I didn’t read another King until On Writing. Dolores Claiborne’s scary stuff is less of the other-worldly variety, more in the vein of a thriller rather than fantasy horror – but then I can only speak for the movie. It has a cast that I absolutely love Kathy Bates, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and David Straithairn (you might remember him as Tom Cruise’s older brother in The Firm; he was also great as Edward R. Murrow in Good Night and Good Luck…oh yeah and he’s in the Bourne films too, apparently). Part of what drew me in to this film though was the tension between the mother and the daughter; mother-daughter dynamics are always relatable, even without the extenuating circumstances.
The Stand – germ warfare leads to post apocalypse leads to the gathering leads to the rise of evil – that’s the general arc of this one (the mini-series, not the book), as I remember it (I could be wrong on the details but it was one of the more epic tales of this type, a tale we’ve seen since play out in variations from 28 Days Later to Contagion to The Walking Dead). Included in the cast were favourites like Ruby Dee.
The Shawshank Redemption – Based on the novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption: a Story from Different Seasons, this is now considered a classic; and it is, from the grounded performances of Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman to the beautiful prison escape. It is a slow boiling film but the pay-off is worth it. One of the things that stood out for me is how the walls of a prison can eventually settle around your mind and your spirit – though it never did so with main character Andy who managed to hold on to his will to live free despite being wrongfully imprisoned, raped, and used in other ways. At least, I hope he never loses it. I mean we don’t know right. We’ve seen throughout the course of the film other characters re-offend or commit suicide to escape the scary confusion and loneliness of freedom – but maybe Red and Andy will be okay; after all, they have each other.
Carrie – the Sissy Spacek version because that’s the only one that matters (sidebar: my favourite Sissy Spacek film is Coal Miner’s Daughter – hard to believe she played Loretta Lynn and the blood covered teenager above around the same time in her career – but she did and was nominated for an Oscar for Carrie, so much for horror not being Oscar worthy, and won for Coal Miner’s Daughter…anyway). I believe I both read the book and saw the movie but it’s been so long in the case of both – very long – like all the way back to my childhood long. King wrote in On Writing about the girl that inspired Carrie, an isolated girl from his high school days and, in the end, prom blood bath aside, this book is at heart that all too common high school film about the person that doesn’t quite fit in and is terrorized for being different. Of course, in Carrie’s case she’s also terrorized at home by her mad mother. I think one of the things this book underscores though is that though Carrie is telekinetic (and homicidal), her powers are not the point, her humanity is.
Bonus – Secret Window – don’t judge me. I know this (based on the King novella Secret Window, Secret Garden) is one of Johnny Depp’s lesser works but I liked it (and not just because Depp was still kinda quirkily delish back in the early naughts). Good cast: in addition to Depp, notably John Turturro as the writer accusing Depp’s writer character of plagiarizing him. Clearly, I have a thing for the ones about writers. But the omg moment for me was the *spoiler alert* crack climbing up the ceiling when the character and me (the viewer) realize just how unreliable of a narrator he’s been, given that he lost touch with what’s real and what’s not, and that in addition to being quite mad he’s also quite murderous. The mind is a fragile thing, isn’t it.
That’s it; that’s 10 and an extra. Still on my King-to-read list meanwhile are 11/22/63 and/or The Long Walk, the summaries of which intrigue me.
How about you, have you read or seen any of these? What’s your King favourite?