I met him 40 years ago at Lauriat’s, a bookstore that used to be at the South Shore Plaza in Braintree. I know this because he signed my copy of “The Dead Zone” For Beverly — With good wishes; it was a pleasure to meet you — be well. Steve King” and then added the date: August 24, 1979.
I was a big fan back then. I’m still a big Stephen King fan. My sister-in-law gave me his first book, “Carrie,” and I devoured it in a single day. I bought his second book, “Salem’s Lot,” the October morning it came out in 1975. I shivered in surprise and pleasure when the topiary moved in “The Shining.” (And have never looked at topiary the same way since.) I even took to reading stories from “Night Shift,” aloud to my children, (This, they tell me now, was not good parenting). The tale that frightened them most was about an astronaut who goes into space and comes back and seems to be OK. But, of course, he is not. His fingers start to itch and then they grow eyes and the eyes mess with his mind, and then?
Then there’s my favorite Stephen King book, “The Stand.” It’s about a plague that kills almost everyone on Earth. I read it — the first version — on a succession of October nights more than four decades ago. A lot of things have happened since, both in the big world and in my own little one, and there’s a lot I don’t remember.
But I remember “The Stand.” I remember Stu Redman sitting in a chair at some gas station in Texas as a guy crashed into the pumps. The guy was sick. And very contagious. I remember Larry Underwood, a young musician, making it big in Hollywood, flying to New York ready to strut his stuff, and then suddenly everyone is dying and he’s just a guy trying to make his way through the Lincoln Tunnel, a black hole full of stalled cars and dead bodies. I remember Frannie, a pregnant girl from Maine.
I don’t remember the names of real people I knew 40 years ago. But I remember Stephen King’s people.
“The Dead Zone,” the book King signed for me, was his fifth novel. Or that’s what people thought. The public wouldn’t learn until 1985 that King was so prolific that he was also writing under a pseudonym (Richard Bachman).
Last week, I finished King’s newest book, “The Institute.” (Google says King has written at least 80 books.) I read it the way I read “Carrie.” I could not put it down. And when I did, when I got to the last page, I thought, not for the first time, how grateful I am to be alive and on this planet at the same time as Stephen King.
Because he is once upon a time every time. The “real” world? He shoos it all away.
The different worlds he creates? Every one is scarier than this getting-scarier-by-the-minute real world we’re stuck in. But we’re spectators in his stories, not sitting ducks. King scares us, but he makes us feel safe, too. He takes us out of the driver’s seat, puts us in the back seat, and we’re kids again. Bring it on. It’s not real. We can take it. Plus King has a soft spot for the good guy.
I am grateful for Stephen King. I am grateful that his wife, Tabitha, in the early 1970s, fished the beginning pages of “Carrie” out of the trash and convinced him to keep writing the story. I am grateful that the guy who drove into him 20 years ago while King was out walking near his home in Maine didn’t kill him. I am grateful that King didn’t decide to write something highbrow, to change his style to fit into a literary world that snubbed him for too long.
I have read hundreds of books in my lifetime. And I have loved dozens that Stephen King didn’t write. But if I were on a desert island and could take only one author’s works, I would choose his.
Because Stephen King creates characters you care about. And he tells their stories. And his words don’t plod. They gallop. That’s his magic. With King it’s all about the ride, not the rider. No, “Look, Ma! See me. I’m writing! Look at this perfect simile.” Because King’s writing is a window. It’s not something to be looked at. It’s something to be looked through.
Beverly Beckham’s column appears every two weeks. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.