Why I Still Think Stephen King is one of the Best American Writers of All Time

Long time readers of this blog may remember that I grew up in the  magazine and book distribution industry. So sometime around 1977, when the first paperback edition of Stephen King’s “Salem’s Lot” showed up (sans cover) on the carpeted stairs leading to our second floor, I snagged it, made a beeline for my room, and didn’t come out until it was done. That took awhile. It’s a long book.

The book made it’s way around my circle of friends. Many of us worked on the school newspaper and we all had the reading bug. It was the mid to late ’70’s so we were all open to pretty much anything we could try and experience. Soon, the catch phrase, “There’s lot’s more of us now” was heard in the newspaper office and it’s all over my Junior Year yearbook.

If that phrase is meaningless to you because you’ve never read the book. Get it. If that phrase is meaningless to you because you’ve read the book, but don’t remember it. Get the book. It’s held up better than you’d think over the years.

Why on earth am I suddenly so excited about a thirty six year old novel written by one of our better known, wealthy and celebrated novelists in the country? I recently had the opportunity to sit through the audiobook version of “Salem’s Lot” on a long ride out and back to Kansas to pick up my daughter from college. I managed to hear about three quarters of the book and the rest will be heard piecemeal while running errands over the next few weeks.

What I’ve always liked about King is his honesty, the depth and openness of his characters. While I will never want to have a beer with a politician, a night spent in Matt Burke’s living room having beers with Ben Mears and Susan Norton and listening to old rock and roll records sounds like time well spent. I love Kings ability to describe the New England landscape and towns that we both love and know so well (Although I don’t get to live there anymore). Some people I know are big fans of his “Dark Tower” series. They always left me cold. For me, Kings’ best work is this book, “The Stand,” “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon,” “The Shining”, “Cell” and most recently, “Under the Dome”. There are others too, but King has written many books. These are the ones I always think of when I consider his work.

Let me share with you the passage that got me to sit up in the middle of the Iowa cornfields and pay attention:

Fall and spring came to Jerusalem’s Lot with the same suddenness of sunrise and sunset in the tropics. The line of demarcation could be as thin as one day. But spring is not the finest season in New England-it’s too short, too uncertain, too apt to turn savage on short notice….

But when fall comes, kicking summer out on its treacherous ass as it always dones one day, sometime after the midpoint of September, it stays awhile, like an old friend that you have missed…

Get the book. Read this passage. If you’ve ever lived in New England, you get this. If you’ve never been in New England, you will get it, and you will want to witness it for yourself. And the seasons will stay with you.

In his earlier books King wrote about working class people – people I grew up around, if not with. The descriptions always resonated deeply with me. It gave me a glimpse into the lives of people who I knew from school, saw in the neighborhoods of my working class city. But I always wondered what their lives were like. His descriptions ring true.

Over the years I’ve seen critiques of his writing that imply that Stephen King is a hack. A pulp writer. Not serious. Nonsense. He gets America. Spend a few minutes reading one of his columns from Entertainment Weekly. He gets our culture. He loves our culture. When he critiques it, he does it with love and insight. And I’m very glad that I had a long, back aching, Jolly Rancher chomping opportunity a week ago to get reacquainted.

He’s an old friend, and he was missed.

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