It was early summer, just after fifth grade and my parents were heading to the library. I don't remember what inspired the need, other than I knew I wasn't reading enough actual novels. My interest in horror was growing and I was trying to write my first scary stories, but needed to see how it was really done. Frankly, King's was the only name I knew. So I asked them to pick me up one of his books, didn't really care which one.
A couple hours later, my step dad handed me Cujo. I had seen a review of the film on tv and knew it was about a rabid dog which, frankly, didn't sound all that scary. I read it anyway and for my first adult novel, it didn't disappoint. I don't remember Cujo being scary, but I do remember it being full of profanity, sex, and violence and not being shy about any of it. And it was the most engrossing book I'd ever read. From that point I started reading everything by King I could get my hands on and got through everything up to Insomnia which came out my freshman year of high school.
My earliest attempts at writing horror were flimsy attempts to capture King's style. This was mostly fruitless and I could never find the 'horror' in my story. I could do violence, but it lacked scares. I wasn't able to relax and realize that I was only 12 and had plenty of time to find my own voice. Instead I read Pet Semetary and It and The Stand and The Dead Zone and Night Shift and Skeleton Crew, screaming inside my head "WHY CAN'T I DO THIS???"
I was full of self loathing and self doubt anyway and my reaction to any art that turned me on was to become obsessed and secretly hate it. I plowed through King's books hardly enjoying them sometimes, just wishing I could write something like that. Some books would suck me in to the point of pure enjoyment, like The Dark Tower I; The Gunslinger.
By the time Insomnia came out I had started writing comic book scripts almost exclusively. With the few short stories I was turning out I had embraced the fact that I couldn't be scary, but I could be disgusting. Everything I wrote was chock full of graphic and grisly violence (in part inspired by David Cronenberg's films and David Quinn and Tim Vigil's Faust; Love of the Damned).
I definitely placed too many expectations on King, expecting him to teach me how to write and then not valuing how entertaining his books were. Insomnia was the first one I didn't like, in fact couldn't finish. And around that time my English teacher, in a sly way, shamed me for not reading anyone else (I did love Shakespeare though, geez!) and my Spanish teacher recommended I read Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park (which sounded completely stupid at the time). Recognizing I needed to broaden my horizons, I read Jurassic Park and fell in love with it, realizing it was another way of telling the Frankenstein story.
I took a long break from King and got into Clive Barker and went back to some of the classics I'd skipped or missed. Eventually I got into a lot of Splatter Punk and then the Beats and from there I've been all over the map. It was only recently that I re-bought a few of my favorite King books from the thrift store. Mainly I wanted to finish the Dark Tower series and re read The Mist, which still stands as my favorite short story of his.
Stephen King has been around so long and created a body of work so large and is so widely read that he's like baseball or jazz or Coke, he's intrinsically tied to the American experience. Maybe not as widely respected as an author as, say Norman Mailer, but only because he's a 'horror writer' and the great powers that be and the Lit' Nazis don't respect horror or any genre fiction. The Stand will probably never be taught in a high school English class, but it's a hell of a lot more fun than As I Lay Dying (not to disrespect Faulkner!).
I think in the end what makes King one of my heroes is he gave me something to measure against as a writer. And he entertained the crap out of me. Stylistically, as a writer, I'm probably more like Jim Thompson while trying to capture Don Bajema's magic, but I know where I came from. I went from Robert Louis Stephenson to Stephen King before I went anywhere else.
Just for the hell of it here's my 10 favorite King stories, in no particular order...
10) Dark Tower I; The Gun Slinger
9) The Dead Zone
8) The Mist
7) Pet Sematary
5) Cycle of the Werewolf
4) The Dark Half
3) Quitters Inc
2) Children of the Corn
1) The Stand
Keep watching the sky, nerds!