Thursday 28 July 2011

My Dad, Stephen King, and Me

I'm sure it's very uncool to talk about Stephen King nowadays - the guys been too popular for too long now. There was a brief period when it seemed semi-fashionable in literary circles to praise him as being a 'natural storyteller' or some other patronising drivel, and to mention how he didn't just write horror, oh no. Which he doesn't, obviously; he's written children's books, crime novellas, coming of age stories, and whatever the hell we're supposed to call The Dark Tower series (meta-textual cowboy alternative-reality fantasy?) But liking King only for his non-horror work is a bit like being one of those people who only like Nirvana's acoustic album. Basically, you're missing the point.

But I get too excited about things I like to ever be considered cool, and I've reached an age now when I can cease worrying about that. I doubt my Dad ever seriously worried about it either.

But, if you like books; scratch that, if you love books, you might well find my Dad cool, in his own way. And you'd certain find what was called "the spare room" in my parent's house cool. Because it was full of books. It still is, ever month he seems to find a way to stuff more in. I suspect my Mum likes the fact he's now bought a Kindle purely because it might stop them having to take out a second mortgage just to store all his books. (And I've still got 100+ stored there too, besides the 500+ in my current house. Sorry Mum - one day I will take them away, I promise. And this time, I mean it.)

As a kid and young teenager I wanted to raid my Dad's book collection; rather than stopping me read his 'adult' books, he carefully recommend ones to me. At quite a young age I was reading a lot of his classic sci-fi: Asimov, Clarke and the like. I mean, a lot of it was over my head, but there was no real sex or violence in those books for my dad to worry about. Nothing scary.

But I exhausted those, and kept pestering him for other books, and one day when I was about fifteen he handed me this:

Salem's Lot, 1977

I'm sure not the only person who remember this cover; it certainly made an impression at the time - a stark image with only one small splash of colour, no writing at all, with an embossed face as black as the background it rises up from. What you can't tell from this picture is how the cover changed if you turned it in the light - at one angle the girl's face looked happy, at another blank. Depending on the light, she could look alive or dead. The image above really doesn't do it justice, but I think it's one of the greatest covers I've ever seen.

It is of course Salem's Lot by Stephen King.

I read it in about a day. And then I read Thinner I think (what a one to pick next!) and then Night Shift and then...

What impressed me at the time was how serious the writing seemed. Even writing about something like vampires, he treated them - and more importantly the people of Salem's Lot - seriously. (Not that Asimov & Co. weren't serious writers, I just wasn't at an age to appreciate it then.) It wasn't a dramatic epiphany or anything, just a gradual realisation that books were actually better, and deeper, and more important than even a book obsessed child like me had realised. I'm wary of people describing events as 'life-changing', but that moment when my Dad handed me Salem's Lot certainly seems like one to me. It seems to be the moment something started. To me, it seems like there's a chain of cause and effect from that moment, to the publication of  The Other Room - and teasing you, I know my next book, The Shelter, certainly wouldn't have been written unless I'd discovered Stephen King at an early age...

So that's why Stephen King will always be a bit cool to me. But more importantly, so will my Dad.


Anonymous said...

Lovely post. Just lovely.

And that's one hell of a cover.

Unknown said...

I read It first.

Blew my young mind.

Much love for King. I can't hang with him for 1000 pages anymore, but his tight works are tight.

Neil Schiller said...

Bizarrely, I read Thinner first. Didn't make a huge impression on me - or maybe it did because about six months later I was drawn back to him and read Salem's Lot. Then I was hooked.

Agree with pretty much everything you say here about King. I think he is criminally underrated.

Mark West said...

Great post and I've never seen that cover, that looks great.