“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” That is the first line of what is likely my favorite from a long list of works by an author so well-known in my lifetime that in my mind, he carries this torch. Genre fiction author Stephen King — best known for his horror, but indeed he has touched so many genres it’s not fair to pigeonhole him as a “horror author as such” — is someone that inspires me, and not just because he wrote some books that I have enjoyed.
When I was younger, I was a huge fan of this guy. People in my high school classes would remark that I came in with a different book every day, and that’s largely due to King. I devoured his works. I kept a list of his novels, which ones I’d already read, and I visited local libraries frequently to try to score the ones that I hadn’t gotten to yet. I wrote a few fan letters, got a few form letters back in return . . . I get how that works. No big deal.
When I read his nonfiction book On Writing, that’s when I got a real window into who the man was. I mean, he never left us lacking for insight in the forewords and afterwords he wrote in his novels, and I always read those too. King was one of those authors who could make a connection to the Dedicated Reader with just a page or two of his own sincere words, and so I anticipated with On Writing, I’d get more of that with some amazing advice about writing . . . and a good sense of how the indefatigable King pumped out work after work, winner after winner.
It turns out, however, that On Writing was part autobiography, talking about King’s early years writing, as an English teacher, coming to terms with alcoholism (having written some of his best works on the bottle,) and once getting past that it seems he didn’t skip a beat but kept on going. The man was hit by a van and almost died. I almost gave up hope on the chances that King would live to finish the Dark Tower series, the one that began with that line about the gunslinger chasing the man in black. Not only did he come back from that but he kept on writing. Took that lickin’ and kept on tickin’.
These days, it feels like the horror genre as I knew it has slipped out the back door. It’s not what it used to be at its zenith, and sometimes we get a taste of the old days in film and tv, but King still writes stuff that speaks to me even if people still treat his old stuff like it’s camp. Not that I’ve picked up a book in the past decade. Having the opportunity to do that while operating in the modern paradigm . . . that’s unfathomable to me right now. But I do listen to audiobooks, and so the written word is not entirely wasted on me; these days I can pump those words right into my earholes while I’m busy adulting.
So yes, I still admire King. I admire that he’s still out there telling stories, even after all he’s been through. And even if one day he gives up that torch, it might well be taken up by Joe Hill: an author in his own right, and not just King’s son.
At the end of the day, I want to tell stories too. I’m not sure if anyone will think they’re worth paying for, but sometimes that’s not what it’s about.
Sometimes you just have to explore.