After reading Night Shift by the dim porch light at the lakeside cabin in Maine, I went on a King-frenzy, reading all that had been released up to that point. The Shining, Carrie, and The Stand were my favorites from that period of his work, but probably the book that had the greatest impact on me as a writer was his nonfiction homage to the horror genre, Danse Macabre, wherein he relates his thoughts about the societal impact of horror (and perhaps more importantly to me, on horror), spicing the analysis with plenty of great King-ian anecdotes concerning his childhood, dealings with fans, the business, or other writers. In the last section of the book he discusses modern horror literature, and the books and authors he wrote about were ones I read eagerly.
Stephen King is one of the main reasons I wanted to be a writer, and I think it has a lot to do with me discovering him when I was so young. In much the same way that Mr. King and many of the horror writers of his generation claim that E.C. comics and Ray Bradbury inspired them to pick up pen and paper, I believe that many people of my own generation--if they are being honest--would point at Mr. King and credit him for similar inspiration.
And, callow youth that I was, I must admit that it wasn't just King's writing that attracted me--it was also his celebrity. More accurately, it was what I perceived his celebrity to be. I remember seeing him in his cameo in his movie Creepshow and thinking that, in addition to earning his living by the pen (and what a living it must be!), he was also doing it entirely on his own terms. The avuncular (albeit creepy-uncle avuncular) come-along-with-me style in which he wrote the forwards to his own material made him seem to be another presence in the room once I started reading the stories themselves; I could picture him (always the hulking, bearded guy of the early book jacket photos) wringing his hands, looking on with feverish glee and waiting to see my reaction as I read the next page. So on one hand I thought he was a writer who worked on whatever the hell he wanted, openly contemptuous of certain editors, critics, and armchair psychoanalysts, but on the other he seemed to me to be a writer who had a real fondness and respect for his readers. This rather unique duality in his work and persona was something something I would think about as I developed my own ideas of the writer/reader contract.
From King, I read just about every modern horror novel I could get my hands on for the next few years. And as this was during the 80's, I had an endless supply to choose from, and I read many that were great, and many that were not great but I still managed to enjoy, and I read many, many that were not great and not enjoyable, either. And when these began to outnumber the good ones, in my mind, at least I started reading...other things.
The summer before college I read a number of books, outside of what is typically classified as "genre" fiction, that began to affect my life dramatically. I was writing daily by graduation, with two novels, a few notebooks full of short stories, and a pile of rejection letters, mostly from indie comic companies, to my credit. I knew what I wanted to do with my life before I even set foot in a college classroom.
And it was around this time that I read what, for me, was the most terrifying passage I'd ever read in a book, for worse than any of the fiction King or his contemporaries had written.
It was in a book written by Dan Simmons, I writer who I began reading around that time and have never stopped reading, one whose books I scarf up as soon as they hit the stores. In this book, Mr. Simmons wrote about his "discovery" by Harlan Ellison at a writing workshop he was attending (or possibly it was Harlan's version of the same story; I think both authors have written about their fateful meeting).
Apparently, before Mr. Simmons was up to have his work critiqued, an elderly gentleman had his story read, and was told by Mr. Ellison that his time would be better spent pursuing an endeavor that he had a greater aptitude for. I remember reading that there were those who "mistake a love of reading for a talent for writing."
Ouch. Those words haunt me every day I sit down at the keyboard.
My reading wasn't all horror stories, though in the early going the horror stories were what I emulated. Late in high school and on into college I started reading more widely and fell in love with a number of authors and books that would influence my work heavily. I'll write about some of them in a later blog.