by Jay Wilburn
This post first appeared on the Last Writes blog years ago. I believe it is not available anywhere at the moment, but I think the information still has meaning, so I am giving it a home here again.
I have begun rereading all of Stephen King’s novels and collections in order. There have been many starts and stops in the process for me. As I prepare to go in for a kidney transplant, I am packing the next several books. I might read during my two months of recovery and isolation. You can see my thoughts on the books I’ve reread here on the blog beginning with Before Carrie.
I’ve read a lot of Stephen King books. I’ve read more of his work than any other author I admire – maybe any other two or three authors’ works combined. It helps that he has written a ridiculous legacy of books and is still going. Even his more recent work speaks to me still. I enjoy his more critically bashed works in between his more seminal hits. Stephen King is finally getting recognized by the elite minds of literature that are some decades behind the rest of his readers around the world and through generations.
As I looked for the hook into my Dark Moon Digest sponsored Unofficial Stephen King month article, I started thinking back through all the key novels and works that spoke to me at particular moments in my life when I happened to read them. I realized that though many are timeless and stand alone in my mind separate from time and space, others are attached to my synapses at very particular time periods. The timeless novels include The Shining, Cujo, Carrie, Salem’s Lot, and countless others.
The time particular novels begin for me with It. This was the first Stephen King novel I ever read at a time when all my reading was science fiction and fantasy. It was either my sophomore or junior year of high school. It was one of those two years because of the timeframe when I would have been in Ms. Little’s room. She was the yearbook sponsor those years. I actually got the book as a Christmas gift from a girl that was way, way out of my league. I had mentioned being curious about the book at some point around the release of the mini-series. She thought I was funny and bought it for me at a time when I thought I wasn’t worth anyone’s attention. Shortly after, she went through a rough patch between boyfriends that were in her league and we messed around a little. She was kind enough as she broke it off and against my usual pattern, I let it go without getting broken-hearted attached. It happened so fast that my head was spinning. I read It over the Christmas Break that year and was hooked on King entirely separate from the psycho-sexual connotations attached to the gift. The length of the book, the darkness, the deep subplots, and the endless subtext gave me a powerful introduction to excellent horror writing that would set a high bar for me as a reader, and though I would not know it at the time, as a future, professional writer too.
The Stand should be in the timeless category because it is one of the few books I have read multiple times. For many years even after I became a teacher, I read it every summer. I bought my copy the year they released the unabridged version in hardback. It was the ultimate apocalyptic adventure and changed the structure of my imagination. The other day I opened it and found an envelope with my junior college roommate’s name on it. I had used it as a bookmark in that particular book for many years. Out of curiosity, I opened it and saw it was instructions for our associate’s degree graduation program. It happened to be after that roommate and I reconnected when he remarried the summer earlier. I posted about my bookmark on Facebook and we had a laugh.
During junior college, I went to a small college in a small north Georgia town. I was poor, had no car, and stayed on campus when almost ninety-five percent of the students went home every weekend. There was nothing there and nothing going on. A used bookstore opened in the town and I would walk the few miles there on Saturdays and spend money I had made from small campus jobs. I would read and trade back to make the next purchase cheaper. I usually held on to the King books. I read a lot of the short story collections on those weekends and the Dark Tower series that was still a trilogy back then.
Insomnia is a less revered work of King even by diehard fans. I bought and read it slowly over weekends my junior year of college during some rather trying times in my life. I took it in small and medium chunks. It was mine and my time. It was a gift I gave to myself when I was done with all that was demanded of me at that point in my life.
Nightmares and Dreamscapes was a lengthy short story collection of King’s that holds some of his better middle to late career stories in my opinion. I may love King’s short stories more than his novels. I bought this volume for my father’s birthday a few months before I got married. My father and I did not get along well, but we both enjoyed reading. I was staying over at their house the week leading up to his birthday and I was trying to read all the stories myself before I wrapped it for him. I was downstairs late at night and had the TV on, but turned all the way down as I read. He walked into the room and I hid the book under a blanket next to me. I did not have a back-up plan to explain why I was sitting in a room on the couch with the TV turned all the way down in the middle of the night. He switched it and started watching something else. I’m convinced he thought he had caught me up watching porn. My father died shortly after I got married in 1999 and I have that book of stories back on my shelf in my home right now.
Bag of Bones was given to me as a Christmas gift my fourth year of teaching school two months after my father died by a student whose dad owned a used bookstore in town. I had taught the student’s older brother my first year teaching before her parents got divorced. I read the book over the break that year. Teaching made me tired and I savored my breaks as time for me before I had children of my own. My mind was still buzzing from trying to come to grips with losing my father after so many years of troubled interaction. I wrote thank you cards at the beginning of the break to all the kids that got me something. In hers, I said I was enjoying the book and couldn’t wait to finish. By the time I got back for the New Year and delivered the cards, I had already finished.
I could list dozens of works I’ve read since then that sit on my shelves now. I grab up his novels and collections periodically through the years and devour them. I will mention 11/22/63. It was between the Thanksgiving and Christmas Breaks of my final year teaching of the school year where I would quit teaching in February. I had a former student commit suicide that year and was about done with the pointless nonsense that goes with being a teacher. I had completed my second novel that included suicide and time travel. My three month old had started experiencing severe seizures for which we were having to seek expensive medical care. I caught the flu between Thanksgiving and Christmas which burned the last of my sick days left from dealing with my son. It was during that recovery from the flu that I was losing money with each day I missed that I read 11/22/63. I was flat on my back, dealing with my kids, and going in and out of consciousness. I read the entire book in two or three days between all that. I was all ready not well, but I also got that thick-headed, dizzy feeling you get from reading nonstop for hours without realizing it.
After I quit my teaching job to care for my younger son and to make a go at being a full-time writer, my wife bought me On Writing for my birthday. King gives advice beyond sage about the art of writing – brilliant and moving. That book is moving and inspirational for any writer, but as a writer that took the dive into full-time writing, it feels like a call to arms against the forces of the world. I do this for a living because I demanded it into being. I improve because I hammer it out every day and scratch out the living like he talks about doing in the book from a different era.
Recently, I took part in the Summer of Zombie Blog Tour. My posts were promoted by other authors and readers. A few anthologies hit as I was promoting a new collection and for a moment, I ended up on the top 100 horror authors on Amazon and reached as high as 14. I was one page away for that moment from Stephen King that is perpetually number one. I do this for a living now and I can’t help but to believe that all these years I marked with the words and works of Stephen King played some part in that.