With the recent film adaptations of Stephen King’s IT and Gerald’s Game being released in the run-up to Halloween, I’ve been getting so excited for the spooky season.
Despite being an avid reader with a keen interest in the horror genre, I’m ashamed to say that I’ve not read as many Stephen King novels as I would have liked. I’ve seen numerous adaptations of his films over the years – Secret Window, The Green Mile and The Shining just to name a few and the only books I’ve read are Carrie and On Writing. So I figured what better way to get into the Halloween spirit than to honour the king of horror himself, and embark on a Stephen King reading month throughout October!
I didn’t have any particular novel choices in mind before I started this, but I was keen to pick a few that I knew next to nothing about. My choices were also limited to those my sister already had in her bedroom (as I decided to start this challenge a few days into October). Anyway, here’s how I got on…
The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon
I decided to start the month with one of King’s shorter novels, and opted for one I’d never heard of before: The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. The novel reads like a stream of consciousness; told from the perspective of young baseball fan Trisha McFarland, who becomes lost in the woods after separating from her mother and brother.
I found this novel to be quite different from my experience with Stephen King so far, and going by the final line of the blurb: ‘There’s something else in the woods – watching. Waiting…’ I expected some more supernatural elements to the story. Instead however, I found myself enjoying how realistic the story line is. Although there were no scary characters attempting to kill or abduct Trisha, King manages to tap into the primal fear of one being left utterly and entirely alone in the wilderness, having to rely on your wits and instincts in order to survive.
The woods feel noisy and claustrophobic, and despite Trisha’s bravery, King unsurprisingly still manages to build the tension and fear of the ‘not even remotely human’ thing that’s following her, which she continuously refers to as ‘it’ (sound familiar?)
At times, I forgot that Trisha is nine years old, as she is ballsy, practical and swears more than your average nine year old! My nine year old self certainly wouldn’t have been able to survive that ordeal, that’s for sure. I found it interesting how Trisha often seemed to adopt voices that mimic adults, like when she tells herself “Don’t start that.” Of course, this becomes a more regular occurrence as she starts hallucinating and engaging in imaginary conversations with her baseball idol Tom Gordon.
While it may not be the most Halloweeny of King’s works, I enjoyed the fast-paced nature of The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, and I thought that it was different to other King stories I’m already familiar with. One quote in particular which stood out for me and summed up the story nicely has to be, “There is a point at which people who are cast upon their own resources stop living and begin merely surviving.”
For my second choice, I opted for a more traditionally scary novel, which I’d heard of before but didn’t know much about. And I absolutely loved it!
Misery follows famous author Paul Sheldon, who after suffering through a car crash, wakes up a captive in obsessed fan Annie Wilkes’s house. After finding out he’s killed off her favourite character in his book, Annie forces Paul to write a new book, bringing the character back to life as he lays bed-bound.
I can just imagine how painful parts of this novel would have been for King to write, as he imagines being forced to burn his greatest work of writing to date in exchange for painkillers. And yet by the end, you feel so satisfied by the destruction of Misery’s Return.
Paul makes several attempts in the novel to escape his room when Annie leaves, and I found myself feeling so tense during these moments that Annie was going to return any minute. King really masters the art of suspense building, particularly when Paul experiences a hint of freedom as a policeman shows up at Annie’s door. The gory scenes were so visual in my mind, I found myself wanting to squint away from the pages, and the terrifying character of Annie Wilkes is one that will continue to haunt me I’m sure!
In true King fashion, we’re left with a tense uncertainty about whether or not Annie is truly gone, as like Misery Chastain, she continues to haunt Paul’s psyche: ‘”You can’t kill the goddess. The goddess is immortal. Now I must rinse.”
I found it a bit harder to get into ‘Salem’s Lot, however this may have been due to being rundown with a cold when I started reading it! Once I did get stuck in, I enjoyed King’s take on the classic vampire/’living dead’.
The novel is told from a series of perspectives, particularly focusing on character Ben Mears, who is returning to the town Jerusalem’s Lot where he grew up. There are a few instances of residents going missing and suddenly dying, before Ben and a few others discover that they’re turning into vampires.
With so many different interpretations of vampires nowadays, I enjoyed how King’s vampires followed a more traditional form; they’re allergic to garlic, they fear sacred water and the holy cross and they can be destroyed through a stake to the heart.
Yet this doesn’t make them any less terrifying, as King of course doesn’t spare us any of the gory details: “She felt his teeth and he was biting her, sucking and biting, drawing blood”, “Danny Glick slipped through his bedroom window and plucked the baby from his crib and sank his teeth into a neck still bruised from a mother’s blows.”
Like many other traditional and modern vampire stories, there’s a sexual element to the vampires in ‘Salem’s Lot, and this only adds further to the disturbing nature of the novel, for example when Jimmy tells Ben “And when she was doing it, I liked it, Ben. That’s the hellish part. I actually had an erection.”
Overall, I really started to enjoy this classic vampire tale as I continued to read it, and it’s exciting to still find creatures like vampires scary.
After a busy month of reading, I finished Dreamcatcher just in time to celebrate Halloween! Dreamcatcher tells the story of four friends who have reunited for their annual hunting trip, only to find themselves caught up in an alien abduction. Known as the Ripley or byrus, the alien acts as a parasite; possessing whichever human is unlucky enough to become its victim.
When it possesses character Jonesy, it goes by the name of Mr Gray, and it’s interesting to read the perspectives from both characters, living inside the same body in Jekyll and Hyde fashion. As Jonesy still has some control, he’s able to work with his friends and the military to fight the Ripley.
Like many of King’s novels, Dreamcatcher is very bodily and grotesque, as the byrus causes its victims to produce gas and excrement which smell “something like mine-gas trapped a million years and finally let free,” and “something contaminated and dying badly.” As a reader, you find yourself scrunching up your nose in disgust!
After reading the novel’s blurb and finding out it was set in Derry, Maine, I was straight away reminded of It, especially when I knew the novel was centred around a group of friends. And sure enough, I was pleased to see that King references It when Mr Gray/Jonesy discover a plaque honouring “THOSE LOST IN THE STORM…LOVE FROM THE LOSERS CLUB,” above the chillingly red letters “PENNYWISE LIVES.”
I felt overall that Dreamcatcher was an interesting take on the alien parasite, and King really forces us to draw on the grotesque, physical aspects of horror, rather than the terror.
I think I chose a good selection of Stephen King’s novels, with The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon and Misery featuring more realistic scary situations, while ‘Salem’s Lot and Dreamcatcher delved into the realm of the supernatural. With some of the novels being years apart from each other, I also found it interesting to see how King’s writing has changed over the years.
All in all, I’ve really enjoyed my month of horror, and I’m certainly keen to delve into a few more Stephen King books I’ve got lying around!