I hadn’t read Stephen King since I was 12. Needful Things, which came out in 1991, was the last gasp of what you’d probably call a childhood obsession. Over about 16 months, helped by an aunt who ran a used book store in rural Montana, I devoured them all — The Stand, Misery, even his pseudonymous Bachman Books. I was hooked on the horror and drama, of course. But there was an inkling in the breakneck reading that I was being driven by desires more important than mere titillation.
On reflection — and as inspired by this latest reading — I now realize that my King thing was more than a child’s first crush on scary stories; it was a young man’s effort to figure out how to be an adult. Because — more than macabre tales — King’s novels almost always take some big-hearted stand on what is wrong and what is good and how we should live. (Cujo was about the frailty of man in the face of animals; The Stand about the inherent danger of big cities and the technology that comes with them; Pet Semetary cautioned us not to love animals — or each other — too much.) And a King book is invariably a very long book, a fact that made reading any of them feel like that much more of an accomplishment.
For a young man, there were also male characters to emulate. I’ll never forget one of the lead characters in It: He was a limousine driver, and we got deep into his head as he drives to help conquer a homicidal, sewer-dwelling clown. Years later, more memorable than the hash of metaphors belied by the clown battle was how this guy had conquered being a chubby kid by spending an entire summer eating salads. (He also drove two miles over the speed limit, the optimum rate for both gas efficiency and cop avoidance.)
But that older, slimmer me of course moved one. After my own summer eating salads, I gave up King for a brief fling with Chrichton, then a torrid affair with Grisham, then a workmanlike relationship with Clancy. By the time I was actually old enough to drive two miles over the limit, I had grown into what a whole new realm of literature, one in which a young man wasn’t grasping as furiously at the heavy, obvious emblems of adulthood. By then I didn’t need to: Manhood was staring me right in the mirror. I wasn’t as much reading to learn how to read and how to mimic; by then, mired, for real, in the high-school/college questions of how to live and what to do, I had graduated to the more subtler literary questions of beauty, discourse, rebellion, etc. And reading a 1,000-page book wasn’t any longer some feat of courage.
Nearly 20 years after the last time I’d read King, I was perusing my snobby journals and encountered glowing reviews of a novel in which a small Maine town is trapped under a giant, impenetrable dome. How perfectly compelling! “It has the scope and flavor of literary Americana,” Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times. That was argument enough to try King again. I bought Under the Dome and gave into an old familiar feeling: Hefting a 1,000-page book, I disappeared.
As I read obsessively over three days, plunging into the fast-paced fantasia with the bad old mania of a 12-year-old, I discovered not words to live by, but utterly unbelievable characters who spoke in hoary old cliches: (Actual quote from the novel: “He was high as a kite, happy as a clam, cools as a cucumber, other similes may apply.”) Were King’s books always this ridiculously half-baked? I encountered old men who were very, very bad; young women who were very, very horny; buff dudes who were very, very good; and a story line that ran very, very fast. (Nowhere else I’ve read has a lesbian couple been added to a story more gratuitously or more ridiculously.)
Still, I read and read, ignoring friends and family. I walked to the kitchen, thumbing pages as I took zombie steps. I forgot to eat, then I stopped sleeping. Then bad things started happening: I reached to hold a baby, looked in its gentle eyes, and imagined it biting my fingers off. At night, I was dreaming the world was ending in a lake of fire.
So not only was the book a hastily assembled dude’s ensemble, it had made me go a little crazy. But what did it mean that a book could still be so irresistible — every waking moment I was reading — yet at the same time be written so brutally and inelegantly? How could a writer — 20 years ago — have given me an idea of how to live, but now he made babies scary and sleep the terrain of doom?
Hundreds and hundreds of pages later, the experience seemed like more than a cruel lesson in the hazards of reading genre fiction. King had been my man, the guy who showed me how to love getting lost in a book. Sure, I’d given him up, but it’s not like I’d determined for good that our time had been wasted. Surely, though, my disappointment in reading Under the Dome felt like something final, the actual last gasp, some kind of referendum on the kind of writing that had first made me a reader.
How many times do you say goodbye, forever, to someone who had once been so important to you? Maybe it’s just that I’ve outgrown you, Mr. King. Never again, perhaps, will your big, too-fast books beckon, never again will I mount the semi-athletic trick of gorging on one of those lurid doorstops.
But never say never. As I read the final pages, I suppose I realized that King — in his ingenious knack for never letting something die — had left room for a return. Like some lurking sewer-clown or the overeager boy of 12 I once was, I guess there’s part of me that will always be curious, part of me that will always be up for the 1,000-page challenge. After all, who among us can resist the simple notion of a summer of salads, or life under a dome — no matter how ill or ill-at-ease they might make us.