The latest adaptation of It debuts this weekend (and given the title, it can be tricky to talk about... luckily, in written form we have italics). The podcast Fighting in the War Room covered the debut of the film on this week's episode and kicked off the episode asking the question - what pop culture thing (book, movie, etc.) had a major impact on you as a kid?
I remember watching The Princess Bride over and over again or getting so upset about a cartoon called Scruffy that my parents had to hide it from me (I recently found it on Youtube and it does not hold up) or never missing an entry to 'TGIF' on ABC. But two guys loom over my childhood more than any others - R.L. Stine and Stephen King.
Growing up, I was always a Reader, capitalization intended. I was also introverted and extremely shy, so this was a match made in heaven. I remember going to family dinners at restaurants and opening a book as soon as I was finished with my food. When visiting relatives, I usually sat in a corner and read. At school, I finished my homework early and then read the rest of the period. I also got to class early and sat at my desk and read until class started. Today, I'm a bit more social but still belong in the Readers' club. I enjoy doing things on my own, especially eating out at restaurants. There might not be anything as decadent to me as a good meal at a nice restaurant with an excellent book. Last year, while traveling, I was mostly by myself. So on a long subway ride or a train from one European city to the next or a meal by myself, I had a book .Sure, there was people watching, but eventually that gets old and you open a book or power up the Kindle app. There's always a book going on my Kindle, for those moments I'm stuck in a long line or end up doing something by myself when I was expecting a friend. There's usually a physical book in my purse, just in case. Your bumper sticker reads "I'd Rather Be Fishing." Mine reads "I'd Rather Be Reading."
I like to read. I like to reread books. I'm the guy in the Twilight Zone, overwhelmed by all the stuff out there there is to read and how little time I have. That doesn't stop from rereading my favorite Edith Wharton novel for the fourth time.
In elementary school and middle school, reading was quantified. There was a program - each book was awarded a number of points based on complexity and length. You were evaluated at the beginning of the year and given a range. Here are the books you can manage. Then you would go to the library, pick out a book in your range, read it, and take a quiz to ensure you understood what you were reading. If you passed the quiz, you were awarded those points. Each semester, a student had to acquire so many points. Depending on the teacher, the points were displayed in some fashion. And usually there was a scoreboard for the whole school, to see who had the most points.
I didn't care about reaching the limit, I cared about having the most points. I would go for books that were more dense, but shorter and worth more points. This led me to read books like Frankenstein years before I was capable of understanding the thing itself. Occasionally, we would leave our school library and go to the public library. These books weren't labeled, so we would have to ask the teacher how many points a book was worth. I remember picking up The Diary of Anne Frank, because it was a thick book and I recognized the cover, and asking my teacher. She told me the number and it was ridiculously high and I remember grinning, thrilled at the prospect. Obviously I had no idea what was in store for me or I wouldn't have been so chipper.
In sixth grade, I was in an advanced math class. That meant that each morning, while my fellow students took sixth grade math, I went downstairs with the older kids and took Pre-Calculus. Afterwards, I went back up to my sixth grade classroom. Most of the time, they had about fifteen or twenty minutes left of class. I would sit and read. One day, I asked if I could take a quiz on the book I had just finished. A few days later, I did the same thing. It became a joke, I was going through books so quickly. It became something of a stress for me. I felt pressured - at least once a week I needed to take a quiz in those spare fifteen or twenty minutes, to maintain my reputation as a book worm, to get a laugh out of the class.
I don't remember if I ever had the highest points in the school but I usually had the highest number of points in my class.
But the best books weren't part of the points program. Because these books weren't really school-friendly. I don't remember picking up R. L. Stine but at some point I did. First, it was the Goosebumps series. When living in Portland, I went to Powell's and discovered their collection of the books, the covers and dripping font bringing back my childhood more than any Barbie or American Girl Doll ever could. I remember devouring the books, making friends with a boy in my class named Josh, the only thing we had in common being these books. But what else did we need? Stine's publisher had a contest, to meet the author, and I submitted my name, sure I would win. Girl's First Contest! I had every book and it had the shelf of highest honor on bookshelf, above the childish Boxcar Kids and Babysitter's Club series. Real talk - I purchased one of my favorite entries while I was at Powell's and read it that afternoon. I don't recommend revisiting them. Honor your childhood. As I got older, I embraced his Fear Street series with aplomb. The cheerleader books and historical fictions were my favorite. The books were always written about high school age kids, but clearly meant for those a few years younger, occasionally gory, violent, and sexy without ever crossing a PG-13 boundary. One summer, my friend and I re-enacted our favorite covers of the books. Country kids gotta do something when school's out. But in the grand scheme of things, R. L. Stine was just a gateway drug.
Because this is about Stephen King, really. One summer, looking for something to read, my mom's friend gave me Rosemadder. She had just read it, enjoyed it, and even though there were some mature parts that might be too old for me, but I could probably handle it. Here is where I gave my Diary of Anne Frank grin again.
Real talk - Rosemadder isn't great. I tried to reread it recently and couldn't finish it. But it opened up the Stephen King world and for that I'm grateful. Stephen King is a great author to fall into, because there's so much there. A few years ago, when I started reading the Game of Thrones books, I was nervous because the length was so finite. Five books. Lengthy books but still, just five. Stephen King has the opposite problem. Go to your local book store, check out the Stephen King section, and try not to be overwhelmed. I have an entire bookshelf dedicated to the guy.
And, to be honest, I felt cool reading Stephen King. In seventh grade, I was still taking math classes with the older kids. And I was still doing my reading thing. One day, after finishing a quiz, I opened up my Stephen King book (I think it was Green Mile). An older girl dropped off her quiz and came by my desk. She asked me if I was reading Stephen King, surprised. When I told her yes, this is his name on this book, she was shocked, and a little pissed, as her teacher wouldn't allow Stephen King in her (the teacher's) classroom. And she (the classmate) was older than me! Similarly, one of my classmates would always talk to me about Stephen King. He didn't read him but his mom did. So I would have this weird pseudo conversation about his mom, if she had read the book yet or not, what she thought about it. And I thought I was cool, reading Mom books!
I plowed through most of Stephen King in middle school and high school. Since then I've revisited several of his books, most recently The Stand. And I have to say, reading them in middle school and high school, while not a waste of time, wasn't the most useful time to read them either. Sure, there's plot and pulp there for someone that age, but the character work and the pop culture references were all definitely lost on me. Some of the books hold up great (The Stand absolutely did). Others, not so much. I finished Insomnia earlier this year and wasn't that a slog. For some reason, I remembered The Dark Half quite fondly but a couple years ago reread it and did not understand high school me's fascination.
In high school, I did a book report on his Bag of Bones, one of my favorite novels of his. Site note - I tried to list a favorite in this entry and it's possible. There's the epics like The Stand or The Green Mile or Needful Things. There's the perfect short stories, like Skeleton Crew or Different Seasons. And then of course every entry into The Gunslinger world, including offshoots like Hearts in Atlantis. Don't make me choose. In college, I took a course in popular literature. Between Jurassic Park and The Firm was Night Shift. Today I have no problem speaking up in meetings but in college the shyness and introversion were too strong. I rarely spoke up in class unless I was singled out or the teacher was about to give up. Not when we were discussing that Stephen King collection, though. I seemed to surprise both my teacher and myself with my sudden diluge of opinions and ideas. Later that semester, I was also the only one who really spoke up in defense of chick lit, a discussion that was basically the (male) professor and I comparing Bridget Jones and Sex and the City. That summed up my pop culture focus in college - Stephen King and Carrie Bradshaw.
There's something comforting about Stephen King. Most of his books have a similar graphic, with the strongly colored spines and the sparse cover. It's usually the same writer's image, that picture taken by his wife Tabitha. There's probably going to be an introduction by the author, where he'll call you Dear Reader and sign it Uncle Stevie. And there are the Stephen King tropes - magical kids, tragic childhoods, abused women. Mystical New England settings and the varied histories of Derry and Castle Rock. It will maybe be scary but there will definitely be backstory you didn't need and the ending will probably fall just short of the landing. But there will also be great characters and occasional, surprising humor.
Reading Stephen King is like coming home. I don't have any good uncles. I have ones who are assholes, ones who never seem to have time for their family, or ones you don't want to be alone in a room with. I have two aunts that are always getting divorced and remarried, so I have uncles who come and go. But since picking up Rosemadder twenty years ago, I've had Uncle Stevie and I couldn't have asked for anyone better. He's influenced the person I am, the way I see the world, the voice inside my head, always narrating. And maybe it's just pulp and fun but I've never been so glad to find it.