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27 Nov 2008

My introduction to Mr. King – Today’s entry began a few months back, when OCN (“Korea’s Number One Channel!”) was showing the film 1408. I caught bits of it in passing, and it looked like a nice, spooky ghost story, so I looked up the schedule online and found a time when I could sit down and watch it. I ended up enjoying it quite a bit—it had just the right amount of spookiness and weirdness in it.

“I love truly scary stuff. I am absolutely fascinated by ghost stories.”

I suppose I should mention at this point that I don’t like horror films. At least, that’s the way I’ve always thought of my cinematic tastes. The truth is that “horror” is a pretty broad genre, and it’s a few subgenres that I don’t like. I don’t like, for example, “slasher” films like the Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street series. Graphic violence is really not my thing. Quite a few years ago I saw Seven in the cinema and got physically ill. I started sweating, I felt nauseous, and I actually had to leave before the film ended for fear that I would throw up. Simply put, when it comes to graphic violence and gore, I am and always have been an extreme wuss.

To me, though, that’s not really horror. I don’t feel horrified when I see things like gore and violence, I feel disgusted and ill. Where is the horror in that? But while I may not like slasher films or the popular new genre of “tortureporn” (Saw, Hostel, etc.), I love truly scary stuff. I am absolutely fascinated by ghost stories. In fact, what I considered to be the crown jewel in my senior portfolio at university (creative writing majors don’t write senior theses, we put together portfolios of our work) was a ghost story set in modern Japan that drew on elements of traditional Japanese ghost stories.

That should explain why, even though I intensely dislike much of what passes for “horror” these days, I really enjoyed 1408. It didn’t give me nightmares, although it did give me some things to think about at night for a few days. Then, about a month or so later, I decided to write a quick review of the film for a message board community I frequent. In the process of writing this review I discovered that the film was based on a short story by Stephen King. I had never read anything by King before, nor had I ever seen a film based on a King story before (it has since been pointed out to me that The Shawshank Redemption is based on a King story, and I have seen that; after doing a bit of research, I've discovered that I've seen, at least in part, other King works as well: Carrie, The Shining, The Running Man, and Secret Window), so I was a little surprised. It wasn’t what I expected from King. What did I expect? I don’t know, maybe something a little more like the horror I generally avoided. I certainly didn’t expect a really good ghost story (it’s actually a twist on the old haunted inn genre).

So I went to the trusty internet and looked up the short story, and I discovered that it is part of a collection entitled Everything’s Eventual. The fact that King had at least one collection of short stories out immediately improved my opinion of him. Novels are great, but they’re commercial by nature. Short stories on the other hand, are different, in part because there isn’t as big a market for them in the States and in part because of the form itself. If an author has written enough short stories to put together a collection, you know they care about their craft.

The next time I was at the library at SNU I decided to borrow, along with the various academic books I needed, a copy of Everything’s Eventual. It is a collection of “14 dark tales,” including “1408.” This was, of course, the first story I read, and I was floored. Like I said, the film is great, and the effects really convey the weirdness and spookiness of the story, but the original short story cleverly uses language to get you inside the head of the protagonist. It’s a completely different experience from the film, but I enjoyed it just as much, if not more.

I had not intended to read anything other than “1408,” but after enjoying it so much I couldn’t help myself. I flipped to the beginning of the book and began with the first story, “Autopsy Room Four.” This one was told from the perspective of a man who wakes up on a gurney and is rolled into a room where doctors prepare to perform an autopsy on him—yet he can’t speak, move, or otherwise let them know that he’s still alive (or at least thinks he is). Ah, I thought, here comes the horror I was expecting. Except it wasn’t. As strange as it may sound, the story ended up being really funny. A guy is about to get flayed alive and it’s funny? It’s true that I did squirm at times, but it genuinely was funny—I laughed aloud at several points while reading.

I went on to the next story, called “The Man in the Black Suit.” As soon as I began reading it, I got excited—King was writing a folk tale of the “meeting the devil in the woods” variety. I devoured it whole, and as I read, I could no longer deny the realization that had been creeping up on me: I had grossly underestimated Stephen King as a writer.

How could I underestimate a writer I had never read? Well, that’s easy. People do it all the time. For me, it was a combination of my dislike of “horror” and my impressions of King, which were primarily that he a) wrote the type of horror I disliked and b) pandered to the lowest common denominator. I figured that anyone who sold so many books and had so many of those books made into films had to be a lowly panderer, right? Or, um, I guess he could also be a really good writer. For some reason, the latter never occurred to me. When I finally did realize this, though, I felt a strange mixture of emotions. On the one hand I was embarrassed. King is an excellent writer, probably better than I could ever hope to be, and yet I had dismissed him. On the other hand, though, I was excited at having found a new author. I’m not naive enough to think that all of his work is going to be stellar, but it’s clear he has exceptional talent, and I’m looking forward to reading more of his work.

I did finish the collection, by the way. Some of the stories weren’t even really what you could call horror at all, like “The Death of Jack Hamilton” or “In the Deathroom” (these are the only two stories that have the word “death” in the title, by the way). A lot of them dealt with supernatural themes, and I enjoyed most of them. The last story in the collection, “Luckey Quarter,” seemed to me to be a little derivative of some of the themes already covered (and to better effect) in the earlier stories, but it might have just been a quirk of placement. The story before that, “Riding the Bullet,” is a twist on an urban legend and was very enjoyable, though, so things still ended well.

There is something else for which I must thank Mr. King as well: his collection of short stories is the first time in a while I have read fiction for pleasure. Most of my reading is academic, and even the non-academic reading I’ve been doing of late has tended to be non-fiction. The last fiction work I read was Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys, but that was over a year ago. I had forgotten how much I liked reading a good story (or stories, as the case would be here). I can’t say that I’m going to have oodles of time for recreational reading in the near future, but I am going to try to do more of it. It certainly provides a nice counterbalance to the often dry academic reading I have to do.

Now that I have written this, it seems a bit silly, but it’s been on my mind, so up it goes. By the way, The Long Walk, written by King under the pseudonym Richard Bachman, was recommended to me, so if any family members out there were wondering what sort of books I might like for Christmas... well, there’s one, at least. (Oh, I almost forgot... happy Thanksgiving!)

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