My first Stephen King book was “Carrie” as the tender young age of eleven. As a life long horror lover, I had spent elementary school burning through every R.L. Stein, Christopher Pike, and real life ghost story book I could find at the library. It was time for the next step and my mom, a King fan herself, had been anxiously awaiting the day when she felt I was old enough to be introduced to her favorite horror author.
I remember consuming “Carrie”, eyes wide, gaping at the naked, awful tale of teenage bullying, abuse and inevitable retribution. I knew I had entered into the world of adult horror and from there I devoured every King book I could get my hands on (and that I was allowed to read. However liberal, my mom did hold out on giving me a few of the more adult books).
The first forms of art are imitation. The artist (or writer) takes a while to find their own voice. My earliest manuscripts have sloppy styling of Stephen King all over them. Over time I have found my own voice, but just as a child continues to speak the phrases and hold onto the morals of their parents when they grow into adults, a writer retains the lessons they learned from their favorite writers.
Here are the lessons I’ve learned from the man who introduced me to the world of adult horror, and who remains the master of the genre to this very day.
Be as weird as you want
As an adolescent struggling with an exceedingly weird and creative mind in a sea of people who seemed to know innately how to be normal reading the internal dialogue of King’s heroes was like meeting a kindred spirit.
Blaine the train is insane. Dada chee?
It was funny, it was dark and it was weird and I loved it. Not only did I love it, but so his billions of fans. So much so that they all devoured his books too. Here was a man who not only embraced his weird, but let it spill out all over his pages, and people loved him for it.
So it’s taken some time, but now if I have the inclination to get truly strange in my stories I pursue it full force. Writers are weird. Lets just embrace that.
Know when the rules can be broken
King injects back story into his pages as he finds it relevant. he injects it as a recollection, a dream, an irritation, an explanation.
His heroes are not always likeable. Sometimes his villains are.
He uses prologues when he wants to.
He gives no fucks. He knows what works for his stories and he knows when the “writing rules” will get in the way of what he wants his readers to know.
Keep Humanity at the core
Whether we’re in another realm or another time or Derry, the theme of the story is humanity in it’s many awful and beautiful forms. It is humanity that gives depth to his books, the stories and characteristics and fears and hopes and struggles of his human characters as they deal with the horror in the world around them.
The mind is as scary as the monsters
Many of King’s scariest stories have no supernatural element to them at all. “Gerald’s Game” (one of those books I wasn’t allowed to read when I was younger) takes place almost entirely in the mind of the protagonist, so much so that when she is faced with the very human “monster” she is unsure of whether he is even real.
Many of his character take you through their decent into insanity. They suffer from repressed memories of abuse, they suffer from addiction. They are literally just freaking insane. And its terrifying because of the last point. They’re human and you can relate to them.
History is flexible
So the world ended in 1978 with Captain Trips. Then it ended again in the 90’s when Jake and Roland wandered through a different version of New York. It ended with mists. It ended with nuclear apocalypse. It ended and changed and ended some more and somehow, the fabulous Mr. King managed to tie all of it together and make it work in The Dark Towers series and even a bit in “The Talisman”. You don’t have to stick to the facts, but know them and make them work for you and if you’re going to change history, make it work.
Pop culture ages well in fiction
This one requires a special touch. King has been criticized for referencing pop culture in his books but he makes it work. How? he sets the date in his story. He knows that a story can take place in 1984 and still be relevant in 2015. In fact, those little details, the movies the characters go to see, the music they’re listening to, the cars they’re driving after, they mean something to readers. They wink at those who are immersed in the culture of the time, who lived during the time. And what’s more, when he makes little shifts to them (Nozz-a-la any one?) they feel like a little inside joke we’ve got with him.
Write what you know
Why are so many of King’s protagonists writers? Why do so many of his stories take place in Maine? Why do so many of his characters struggle with substance abuse? Because King calls upon one of the cardinal rules of writing and makes it his signature. He knows Maine like the back of his hand. He knows the weird mind of a writer. He goes as far as to inject himself into his stories and make his experiences part of them.
This is a basic rule, but there is nothing basic in how Stephen King pulls this off. Even when he’s in the story, he makes it about the character, the people, the terror. His stories do not appear to be written about himself (a rookie move that my earlier stories suffer from) but they have his life and his innate knowledge all over them.
That is what makes them authentic. That is what makes them terrifying.
What have your favorite authors taught you about writing?