There’s a reason Stephen King is the best-selling novelist of all time: he’s good. He’s very good. There aren’t many who can do what he does. And what does he do? He writes great stories. He creates interesting characters. He is a master of plot, pacing, and suspense. He can work in any genre. In short he delivers the goods and he’s been delivering the goods for just shy of fifty years.
For a long time King was not taken seriously by the literary establishment. I remember once looking for a King book in City Lights Bookstore, that iconic San Francisco gathering place for poets, hippies, and bohemians. King’s books were of course in the Horror section. But Anne Rice of Interview with a Vampire fame was in the Literature section! I couldn’t figure that one out.
That time is no more. A new King book will now be featured in The New York Times Book Review. Surely you’ve “made it” as a writer if those guys cover your stuff.
Hard Case Crime has resurrected the look and feel of the paperback originals of the 1950s and 1960s. Many great writers like John D. MacDonald, Donald E. Westlake, and Philip K. Dick “made their bones” on such imprints as Avon, Ace, Ballantine, Berkley, Dell, etc. That market dried up a long time ago and books from that era are prized by collectors.
King has contributed three titles to Hard Case: The Colorado Kid (2005), Joyland (2013), and now Later. The latest is by far the best. The other two are good but a little tame for my taste. Later features something that King does better than anyone else and that’s a young protagonist. King does amazing kid characters. They think and talk and act like kids but they get involved in seriously heavy shit and have to do adult things in order to survive. King has written about childhood and adolescence probably more than any other American novelist. He has a sense of the loneliness and the lost innocence that all of us experience growing up and he has mined that terrain for decades. (If you really want an idea of King’s power as a storyteller and as a chronicler of growing up then you must read It.) In King’s world, dramatic and traumatic events from youth reverberate throughout an adult’s life and their attendant terrors return again and again until a spectacular catharsis breaks the spell.
If it sounds a bit like pop psychology, it is. The field of psychology has done more for writers than anyone else, generating a gold mine of possible motivations for almost any act. In King’s hands the links of the chain fit together. The journey the reader takes with the characters feels real even if it contains supernatural elements. The emotions—anxiety, panic, fear—that he evokes in the reader are real. Like I said, he’s a master.
I recommend Later as a good King “starter” book. Lots of people are turned off by the horror label or just don’t like scary stories in general. Later is scary but not in the way vampires or zombies are scary. Like any good writer King uses the forms and tropes of the scary story to talk about real-life things like trying to stay true to yourself in an oppressive and chaotic world. Reading King makes you examine your own life choices as you struggle with the impossible ones his characters have to make.
And if you like Later I’ve got a few suggestions for what you might read next!