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Thread: In Appreciation of Stephen King by John Lees

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    Default In Appreciation of Stephen King by John Lees

    John Lees is one of my favorite comic book writers. I subscribe to his newsletter, and a recent issue was devoted to Stephen King, why he admires him, and includes his top ten favorite books with justification for why.

    Thought folks here might be interested. Let me know if this is in the wrong place and I can move/delete.

    https://mailchi.mp/984b13160b48/its-...4?e=4aeb95b714

    Text is below in case anyone doesn’t feel like clicking though.

    Spoiler:
    Hiya pal!

    This past weekend we got our first flourish of lovely summer weather here in Glasgow. Sadly, it didn't last long, as by Tuesday the sun had started to fade again, and now the rain and cold are back. Classic Scotland! But the sun going away means I have a good excuse to hole up at my desk and write, and this week I've got a newsletter topic lined up I've been looking forward to writing about.

    In Appreciation of Stephen King
    Stephen King is perhaps the first ever person I can remember being aware of as a famous writer. Before I knew of Charles Dickens or Edgar Allen Poe or Jane Austen, or even of childhood favourites like Dick-King Smith and Roald Dahl, I knew the name "Stephen King." I recognised it from the covers of books my Granda got out the library, that KING surname looming large on the front of texts I would not be allowed to read, and me seeing it attached to the titles of various scary movies I was aware of at a far-too-young age, including of course IT, which I've already talked at length about first watching when I was but a little kid. So, King is a figure I've been aware of pretty much my whole life, someone who I've always associated with stories I love. And once I was old enough to start reading his novels, with me reading my first what must have been a good 17 years ago, he quickly established himself as my favourite author.



    Stephen King must surely be considered one of the most famous, successful writers in the world. This can be attributed both to the longevity of his (still active) career, and the fact that so much of his work has been adapted for film and television, expanding his reach beyond even the sizeable audience reading his actual prose.I seem to recall reading that King has the most adaptations of any novelist, and I struggle to think of anyone else that comes close. And while he's never really gone out of vogue (there has been at least one film/TV show based on the works of Stephen King released in the majority of years between 1976 and now), it seems we are in a period of reinvigorated interest in King. This year alone, we have already had a new Pet Sematary film, and coming up we have It: Chapter 2, In The Tall Grass and Shining sequel Doctor Sleep hitting cinemas, while on TV Mister Mercedes and original Kingverse drama Castle Rock are currently ongoing, and The Outsider, Lisey's Story and a fresh adaptation of The Stand have all been announced as coming up. All this AND King has a new book called The Institute coming out in September!

    So, what is it about King that's so appealing? There are a lot of answers to that, but I feel the best way to narrow it down would be to talk about what it is about his work that's appealing to me. As I believe is obvious by now, I am a horror fan. I love scary stories in all mediums, and this is what initially drew me to Stephen King's novels. With the aura of terror that had built around his output, I wanted to experience it for myself. And to this day, the most scared I have ever been reading novels has been when reading King. He can put you on the edge of your seat fearing for a character's safety. He can craft imagery to repulse and horrify you. And he can construct deeply unsettling ideas and concepts that will sit in the back of your head and niggle at you long after you've finished reading.

    But there's more to King than being the proverbial "King of Horror." People forget that the likes of The Shawshank Redemption, The Dead Zone and Stand By Me are among the most well-loved adaptations of his work. His horror works well because it's so deeply rooted in humanity. When it comes to building up believable casts of characters who feel real and lived in, King is up there with the best. One of my favourite tropes of his work is when he develops his characters with their various grounded, relatable interpersonal dramas going on, and in the background there is a distant monstrous threat getting steadily closer and closer, until eventually all those regular dramas that could be a compelling narrative on their own get waylaid by the onslaught of the horrific and their life-or-death stakes. But even in stories when such an interruption doesn't occur, the backbone of King's stories are always his characters, and his deft balance of crafting these full, nuanced figures while still always utilising them in service of plot.

    However, as a counterpoint to the "he's great because he's not just a horror writer!" argument that above paragraph might seem dangerously close to invoking, one of the things I admire most about King is what a champion he has been of genre fiction. And I think it's great that, in his lifetime, King has gone from someone the high-brow literary critics turned their noses up at and sneered at as a purveyor of cheap populist trash, to an author acknowledged as one of the greats, whose work is studied in college courses and treated as significant cultural texts, all with King himself making very little concession to "respectability" or doing much different from what he's always done.

    People sometimes ask me what comic writer I would most like to model myself after. My usual answer is that I'd rather be the First John Lees than the Next Whoever Else. But if I were to think of any writer who I'd like to be compared to, it probably wouldn't be a comic writer, but rather it would be Stephen King. I'd like to capture that similar balance of human drama with genre mechanics, and I could see myself employing a similar model of utilising a horror grounding to branch out into other genres. And, of course, having even a fraction of his success would be nice!

    From here, I thought it would be a fun exercise to rank my top ten favourite Stephen King books, and talk a little about what each one means to me.

    10. MR. MERCEDES
    I'll sometimes read commentary that suggests Stephen King's creative heyday was the late 70s/early 80s, and that the years and decades since have been spent coasting on that rash of seminal hits with nothing new of substance to offer. I'd disagree with that sentiment strenuously, and would actually argue he's been doing some of his most interesting stuff lately, exploring ideas like aging, mortality and the passage of time that are clearly weighing on his mind. In fact, this number 10 spot was a toss-up between this and another recent offering, Doctor Sleep, though both explore such similar thematic terrain I felt like I couldn't include both. What I particularly like about Mr. Mercedes is that it's King, at this stage in his career, experimenting and trying his hand at a different genre, here doing his first procedural crime thriller, a genre many a writer has built their entire careers on without managing to do something of this quality. What's so clever about this is that it sets up the usual arc we get in these novels - the mastermind genius serial killer who is ten steps ahead of everybody - then quickly utterly deflates it, undercutting said killer to show he's smart but nowhere near as clever as he thinks he is, as slovenly retired detective Bill Hodges runs strategic circles around him in quiet, unassuming fashion. A book that zags when you expect it to zig, and all the more enjoyable for it.



    9. CUJO
    I'm a sucker for a sad dog story, and that's what Cujo is at heart. Sure, said dog might go on a murderous rampage through Castle Rock, but Cujo's a victim too, it's not his fault he's gone rabid. Indeed, Cujo's struggle to be the good boy he's always been, and the horror of losing himself through his limited understanding, is some of the most emotionally affecting stuff I've read from King. I may have rated this higher if not for it being slightly hampered by some less than thrilling side-plots featuring some of the more hamfisted writing I've seen from King. And it's a shame, as where the book is at its best, it's absolutely thrilling, a breathless page-turner, the lack of chapter breaks making it all the more compulsive a reading experience. Indeed, much of the book's second half is one extended, harrowing set-piece, brutal in its simplicity. What really strikes me in this, one of King's meanest stories, is how it's all built on a string of utterly colossal bad luck. Every wrong decision that could be made is taken, every possible helping hand is waylaid by some other event, old cars will chug along enough to get you to the bad place before packing in forever once you're stranded. The amount of things that go wrong is enough to leave you screaming at the pages. It's a shame this is arguably now best known as the book King can't remember writing, due to being in the depths of drug addiction at the time, as it has so much to recommend it.



    8. THE DEAD ZONE
    An early example of "the Master of Horror" foregoing the genre he was best known for and leaning heavier on the human drama, The Dead Zone gives us one of King's most likeable protagonists in Johnny Smith, After years spent in a coma following a car accident, Johnny Smith wakes up with psychic powers, able to tell the past, present and future of whoever he touches. In terms of where the book stands, I'd likely rank it as just outside the top tier of the very best King, but still highly compelling. It's a quiet book, but one that's rich in emotion. And while it's immersed in the 1970s, it manages to feel relevant to the political scene of today.



    7. REVIVAL
    Another recent entry from the King canon, and this one packs a punch, and has some real teeth. Not that it's immediately obvious. For much of the book's duration, it feels like another "quiet book", concerned with the passage of time and growing old. But as it so happens, this is all a trap, weaved into the tapestry of what ultimately makes the book so disturbing. The book tells the story of Jamie Morton, and the various pivotal moments in his life where his life crosses paths with the enigmatic one-time minister Charles Jacobs, spanning from Jamie's childhood to his own middle age. Much of this is drama and character work, but there's a mystery running through the background as well, the mystery of the secret electricity and its healing powers. And King does a fantastic job of crafting this sense of something unknowable and horrifying we can't quite quantify lurking in the spaces between the lines on the page, just out of reach. And once we reach the climax where it all comes to the fore, it results in some of the most horrifying, distressing material of King's career, moments that haunted me and still linger in my head. Up there with King's scariest work.



    6. THE SHINING
    Famously, Stephen King did not think highly of Stanley Kubrick's classic film adaptation of The Shining. He felt that it totally failed to capture the spirit of his story. And I can see where he's coming from: the film explored the concept of the hotel as a mirror, drawing out the madness and evil that was always there. But in the novel, the Overlook Hotel itself is more actively evil, and King's version of the story is the tragedy of the fundamentally good Jack Torrance being corrupted to act against his nature. I would argue that both approaches are interesting ones, and that neither is invalid. And while The Shining tends to split people into camps - book or film? - I for one would argue that both are excellent in different ways.



    5. SALEM'S LOT
    This vampire story will always hold a special place in my heart, as it was the first Stephen King novel I ever read. I was in my early teens, acting as a counselor at a summer camp. away from home for the better part of a month. There was no TV, and this was before the age of readily accessible internet on your phone, so in my spare time or in my room at the end of the night, Salem's Lot is what I had for company, and I scared myself silly. The story of Salem's Lot had built up a lot of power in my mind before I read it. My Gran had a stroke while watching the TV movie before I was born, and though she insists the two were unconnected, I remember being convinced that it was her being so frightened by the story that it had sparked the attack. That along with the frightening stills I'd seen of Mr Barlow from said film had me believing this would be a big scary thing to conquer. As it so happens, when I finally saw the film a couple of years back, it wasn't all that impressive. But the book remains suitably frightening, still one of the most disturbing takes on the vampire mythos I've encountered, all the more so for grounded it all is in the everyday world.



    4. THE GIRL WHO LOVED TOM GORDON
    This is probably the least well known of the Stephen King books on this top ten, likely because it's the only one to never have a film/TV adaptation (or at least have one in active development, in the case of Revival). George Romero spent several years trying to get a film off the ground but couldn't get interest or funding for it anywhere. And it's a shame that this is not more acclaimed, as in my opinion it's up there with his finest works, and is his best book of the past 20 years. It's a short, slender novel, which speaks to how it's all meat, no fat. A barebones, white-knuckle onslaught of a book, it covers the ordeal of 9-year-old Trisha McFarland when she strays from the trail during a family hiking trip and, in her attempts to catch up after being separated from her mother and brother, gets increasingly lost in the vast forest. Faced with the threat of starvation, the elements and a terrifying, possibly supernatural creature pursuing her, Trisha's only solace and tether to the outside world is her trusty Walkman, through which she follows the exploits of her hero, baseball player Tom Gordon. This is such a stressful read, and I don't think I've ever had another book where I've been so tempted to skip forward to the last page to see whether or not everything is going to turn out okay. At just north of 200 pages, you'll blitz through this book in a couple of sittings, and so I'd highlight this as a top choice for entry level King for curious new readers.



    3. PET SEMATARY
    If you ask me, this remains Stephen King's scariest book. The one that comes closest to Pet Sematary in the fear department for me is Revival. What this tale of the Creed family who move to an old house next to a pet graveyard and somewhere much more frightening beyond does so brilliantly is that it introduces an idea so horrible as to be unthinkable, and of course the characters dismiss it as such, it's too awful to even consider. But once that door is cracked open, once that horrible idea has been made possible, we know it is only a matter of time before it becomes inevitable. And reading on as all other doors shut and we move slowly but inexorably closer to this nightmare, all attempts to thwart it being blighted, we get a sinking feeling in our gut. An unrelenting, heartbreaking portrait of pain and despair, and the awful lengths to which it will drive people. In hindsight, my unpublished comic project Black Leaf, my first real foray into horror early in my career, was thinly-veiled Pet Sematary fanfic without me even realising it!



    2. IT
    I've talked at length before about the impact this story has had on me, so I won't go into too much exhaustive detail again. Conventional wisdom would seem to suggest that the best parts of It are the flashbacks to our central cast in the 1950s, when they were kids, back when they first confronted the ancient evil in Derry, Maine that most frequently takes the form of Pennywise the dancing clown. And this part of the book certainly produces some powerfully frightening set-pieces. Any reader who has completed this novel will likely have the scene with Eddie and the leper imprinted in their minds forever. But honestly, when I read the book, I think it might have been the adult stuff that resonated with me the most. It's understandable how these segments would translate less well to exciting adaptations than the childhood stuff, as so much of it is interior, but it's here that we really dig into these characters and who they are. IT is a scary book, but I also think it's an immensely sad book, the idea of childhood friendships that are so intense and all-consuming at the time fading away as children become adults and drift apart is something that really strikes a chord.



    1. THE STAND
    Stephen King's masterpiece. Here's another case where I can so vividly put myself in a point of time when I experienced this novel. It was on a trip to Spain, long sunny days out on the beach with this 1000-plus page doorstop for companionship. And I just got lost in this world, utterly gripped in its story of a pandemic wiping out most of humanity, and the epic battle of good versus evil that emerges from the wreckage. It has so many of the hallmarks of King's work, here at its most potent. That eye for character and building rich ensembles. The idea of the horrifying slowly drawing every close to the everyday world with its mundane human dramas that feel so important until suddenly they're not. The moments of sphincter-clenching tension: the Lincoln Tunnel scene is another all-timer of King terror. And in Randall Flagg, King gives us one of the all-time great villains of literature, an enigmatic force of evil that feels almost elemental. It's been many years since I read The Stand, and to be honest enough time might have passed that I could revisit it, something I rarely do for novels. Not just my favourite Stephen King novel, but my favourite novel, period.



    And as a bonus, here's a countdown of my top 10 Stephen King movie adaptations:

    10. IT
    This has held less power for me on each repeat viewing, with me getting the impression more and more that the material was just too big for director Andy Muschietti to grapple with, leading to him touching on a bunch of the story's big beats rather than really digging into any of it. But there's still a whole lot to like here. It's a visually impressive film, it wears its heart on its sleeve while managing to be both funny and scary, and the kids shine in their performances.



    Read my full review.

    9. DOLORES CLAIBORNE
    The lesser-known Kathy Bates Stephen King movie performance, but one that could very well be every bit as good. Ostensibly a murder mystery, but this more a deeply emotional family drama, one anchored by a pair of powerhouse performances from Bates and Jennifer Jason Leigh.



    Read my full review.

    8. THE DEAD ZONE
    Funnily enough, the film lands at the exact same point in my rankings as the novel did: just outside the top tier of Stephen King classics, but still pretty great in its own right. Christopher Walken as Johnny Smith and Martin Sheen as Greg Stillson remain two of the best bits of casting in any King movie, to the point where it's now impossible to read the book and not imagine these two as those respective characters. It also has one of my all-time favourite film line deliveries: "THE ICE IS GONNA BREAK!"



    Read my full review.

    7. THE MIST
    Frank Darabont is considered by many to be the greatest Stephen King movie directors, and it's a fair argument. He followed his double-bill of two all-time classics with this showcase of how he could do just as well tackling King horror. The creatures in the mist are formidable, but the truly frightening stuff here is the exploration what humanity is capable of. This also has one of the bleakest gut-punch endings in all cinema history.



    Read my full review.

    6. THE GREEN MILE
    Another Darabont effort, and one of the films that can most dependably reduce me to tears. For a film in such a grim setting, dealing with such dark subject matter, it has a massive heart. The Green Mile never fails to move me.



    Read my full review.

    5. CARRIE
    Stephen King's first published novel, and also the first Stephen King movie adaptation. It says a lot for it that all this time later it's still one of his best. And for what it's worth, I'd also still rate it as Brian De Palma's best ever movie. Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie are both astounding.



    Read my full review.

    4. MISERY
    Still one of the most genuinely stressful viewing experiences ever, this stripped-down battle of wills between James Caan's stranded author and Kathy Bates's obsessed fan is a masterclass of tension. I actually bought the book, and it's next on my reading list!



    Read my full review.

    3. STAND BY ME
    When I talked about Frank Darabont as the greatest Stephen King director, I should mention that probably his closest competitor would be Rob Reiner, who directed both Misery and this coming-of-age classic. A beautiful film that grows more poignant and bittersweet the older you get.



    Read my full review.

    2. THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION
    Widely regarded as one of the greatest films of all time, and with good reason. 25 years since its release, and this prison drama, by turns heartbreaking and uplifting, has lost none of its power. If you've never seen it, fix that immediately. If you have, revisit it: it's likely even better than you remember.



    Read my full review.

    1. THE SHINING
    There's a solid argument to be made that The Shining is the greatest horror film of all time. No matter how many times I rewatch, I still manage to find new, unnerving details in this classic story of the Torrance family and their fateful stay in the Overlook Hotel.



    Read my full review.

    And if you want to see my master list of all the Stephen King films I've watched and reviewed, you can find that here. I should note that there are a couple here, such as The Running Man, Apt Pupil and Dreamcatcher, that I have seen, but just not revisited recently enough to have a review on Letterboxd logged.

    So, what about you guys? What's your favourite Stephen King book? Is it one I've not mentioned? And have I encouraged you to give any a try?

    The Week That Was
    Not much time to go into the details of the week, but of course the big thing that happened for me is that Sink #8 was released. Did you grab your copy?



    Film of the Week
    Avengers: Endgame - Could it be anything else? I went to a midnight screening on Wednesday, and it was a monumental viewing experience. A triumphant culmination of the past decade of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

    Read my full review.

    Closing Thoughts
    I'd normally come up with something pithy here, but I'm running short on time. I have friends coming round for dinner in a few minutes. We're having a viewing party of Into the Spider-Verse!

    Your pal,

    John Lees




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    Gunslinger Apprentice NoAttitudeThisTime is on a distinguished road

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    Good read and thanks for sharing! Although I still don't understand why Kubrick's The Shining is number one on so many favorite adaptations-lists. Each to his own

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    Great article, thanks for sharing
    Wish List:
    Carrie 1st/1st
    The Gunslinger 1st/1st
    Roadwork 1st/1st

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    I liked that he ranked 'The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon' as high as he did. IMO it's one of King's most underrated.

    Slightly o/t but I highly recommend Lees' 'Sink' comic. It's a very good horror/crime series. Even has some evil clowns.


    A hound will die for you, but never lie to you. And he'll look you straight in the face.

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