I have a weird relationship with Stephen King books.
They’re kind of more than books to me these days, since I’ve read so many of them. When I was 15, his memoir On Writing blew me away. At 16, Carrie destroyed and rebuilt my ideas about genre fiction. At 20, Bag of Bones made me sleep with the bathroom light on.
There’s a specific pleasure in a good Stephen King book (although not all of them are good; I’m looking at you Maximum Overdrive). He’s an interesting writer in that, when he gets it right, you barely notice his prose. You just get swallowed up into the story.
But that isn’t too say he’s just a storyteller. His books – even the ones about haunted cars or vampires attacking small towns – tend to have an emotional grace. He touches upon serious themes: dealing with loss (Pet Sematary), morality versus the rule of law (The Green Mile), the power of hope (The Shawshank Redemption). He handles these ideas with depth and conviction. You get the sense that he really believes in what he’s saying.
Which is why it’s becoming harder for me to love Stephen King books the way I used to. There’s just such a high standard to compare them to every time I crack one open.
This month, though, I took a look at one of his newer ones, Joyland. Although published under a crime fiction imprint, the novel is classic King: an eerie setting, a mystery involving a murdered girl, a young man dealing with his first heartbreak.
It’s not as epic as the The Stand or as nail-biting as Cujo, but the story hit home for me. It reminded me of what it felt like to read King for the first time. It’s a charming book, and sweet, and a little scary. In other words, a master of his craft at work.
But more importantly, it reminded of what I like most about King’s work: you can tell just how much the dude loves writing. He’s said in the past that he needs it to function, that his art is a support system for his life, rather than the other way around.
And that, I think, remains his biggest strength.