Before I ever saw a movie, a TV series, or picked up a book, I listened to the audiobook version of a short story of Stephen King’s called The Mist. On quite a few long middle of the night trips from North Carolina (where a number of his stories were based in as well as filmed in) to Hampton, VA, my father would throw on this cassette tape classic depicting a monster filled mist that descends upon a small New England town. Centered in on townsfolk trapped in a supermarket, the chilling tale drips with tension, dread, hopelessness, and danger almost from start to finish. I remember feeling an oddly curious fear anytime this story was played. As if the story was going to change each time I listened to it, I would anxiously listen to how it played out hoping for the ending to be different. When it was done, I would release a disturbed breath of relief that it was done yet I would still feel the adrenaline of the reenacted tension. That same unique fear is a feeling that would remain in virtually every book, show, and movie of King’s that I’d experience from that point on.
Recently, I revived my relationship with his work by watching IT. Just like when I’d repeatedly listen to The Mist, I watched the movie with a curious fear and tension as if the characters would do something different than the other times I had watched the 90’s TV series or the book. Creeped out, though not that scared, by the freakish and unsettling visuals of Pennywise the Clown, I tapped into the nostalgic disturbing adrenaline that I always have reading/watching/listening to virtually any Stephen King story. While not to the point of nightmares, I still found myself drawn back to that same place of discomfort that King’s work expertly solicits. When it was done, the only thing I could think of was how much I wanted to re-watch the old TV miniseries with Tim Curry.
As someone who’d like to think he’s a writer as well, I’m amazed at the shelf life of Stephen King’s work. His regular use of being wary of human nature is something that seems very basic and simple yet, because of that, makes each story universal. No matter the country or culture, being afraid of abusers, bullies, sickness, or of just plain wicked and lustful curiosities that plague the minds of jealous or self conscious and/or powerful men is something any human can relate to. Regardless of the age of his work, whether in print or in visual media, that universal ‘oh the wickedness in the core of man’s heart’ is ever-present. King’s goal is rarely ever to make you scream with gore and slasher movie style violence. Instead he plays around with the reality of inconspicuous, disturbed people on the brink of doing the unthinkable everywhere and mixes it all up in a tale that lies just beyond reality.
I honestly cannot think of another author whose fictional work affects me the same. Still, I realized that in all my days, I’ve probably only finished about three (The Dark Half and a couple of the Dark Tower books) of the roughly seven (including Under The Dome, The Stand, and collection that has The Mist in it) of his books that I’ve bought. In the midst of those dreadful numbers, I’ve watched and loved quite a few of his films and shows, particularly The Shining, IT (movie and show), Maximum Overdrive, and Needful Things taking top ranking for myself. That said, we all know that the books are always better than the movies so it is ridiculous that I’ve avoided his novels. When asked by my wife why I like King’s work when it clearly unsettles me, I couldn’t really formulate a sensible answer. I stumbled around with excuses and explanations like, “he couples the worst in human nature as the focal point while occasionally dabbling with the supernatural.”
Maybe I’m trying to use King’s horrors to justify the recent horrors of today. Maybe I’m searching for the nostalgia in his work to soothe my stress. Regardless of the reason, I crave the answers to the many mysteries he’s woven throughout his career. Now I just have to figure out which unsettling deep end of a novel to leap into.
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