Lessons from Stephen King

I am currently reading/listening to the audiobook version of Stephen King’s short-story collection Nightmares & Dreamscapes. I’m alternating between reading the book and listening to the audiobook for my long, monthly trips to and from Bloomington. The audiobook is a real treat, with a lot of great narrators (Stephen King himself, Whoopi Goldburg, Tim Curry, Rob Lowe, Kathy Bates, Yeardley Smith, the list goes on), even though the stories are, weirdly, out of order, and going back and forth between the audiobook and the print book is a little confusing. But in any case, it’s a fantastic collection, and I’m learning so much from it. Like:

1. Anything can be terrifying.

There’s a great Family Guy joke about Stephen King’s apparent willingness to try and make anything scary (lamp monster, rawr!), but here’s the thing: he can. There’s a great story in Nightmares & Dreamscapes called “Chattery Teeth” in which–well, I don’t want to give too much away, but suffice it to say that it’s possible to make a ridiculous child’s novelty toy into a horrifying object. Or toads. Or a street.

2. You can push a story too far–but you should try it, anyway.

Something I’ve noticed about a lot of these stories–something that is very noticeable when listening to the audiobook–is that often, a section will close, and my brain will tell me “The story is over,” and then the same narrator will start up again, and the story will continue for another few minutes. Now, if I had the print version in my hands, the bit of my brain that is always reading a little ahead will know that the story isn’t over, but when the spoken version is coming at me for the first time, I have no way of knowing when the story will end. What I’ve noticed is that Stephen King tends to push his narrative past what seems like a natural stopping point. Sometimes, it really works–his story “Rainy Season” went on well past where I expected to (switching to the POV of earlier, minor characters, and giving an incredibly creepy ending to an already freaky story), and it was ultimately to good effect. Sometimes, it doesn’t–I felt as if “Umney’s Last Case” got pushed past a certain point and, when the story was over, I wished it had ended a great deal earlier. But the point is, sometimes it really works, and it’s made me consider whether or not I push my story far enough along their tracks–long enough to see if something else is there, or if the tracks just end. You never know until you try.

3. Spend time with everything.

As a child, I remember picking up Stephen King books at the drugstore, and marveling at their weight and size. Even as an adult, a woman pursuing a writing career, I am still in utter and absolute awe at anyone who can weave a narrative that’s over a thousand pages long. It’s like someone handed them yarn and knitting needles and walked away, and they wove a scarf that could envelop the entire house ten times over. It’s just marvelous. But listening to this audiobook has given me a kind of insight that, as an aspiring novelist, I find incredibly interesting, even though it seems obvious: spend time with everything. With your characters, major and minor, with the landscape, with the objects and the stories and the internal monologues. When every word is being leveled at you by a narrator that you can’t speed up or slow down (I’m a fast reader, so I can blaze through a story in a tenth of the time it takes to be read to me), you really feel the meticulous time that a writer is spending with everything. Stephen King is really good with this. Every scene is felt out so thoroughly that, after having gotten through a bunch of his stories, I can absolutely see how he can write such hefty novels–he obviously puts as much care and attention into every scene. The length is absolutely natural.

4. You can infuse pathos into anything.

“Chattery Teeth” is gross and terrifying and suspenseful, but it’s another thing that I didn’t expect: moving. Some minor introductory characters have their own beautiful little arcs that are established in a very subtle way. What initially seem like almost throwaway background figures (a couple who own a gas station) become weighty in their own way–not just because of the functional role they have in the plot, but as human beings. You get the sense that the world of Stephen King is so immense, so completely imagined, that later in the story, when we come back to the same characters, you get the sense of everything that has happened and moved behind the scenes of the main story. It’s an incredible effect, and not easy, and yet Stephen King does it effortlessly. He may be a man of concepts and ideas–and is he ever!–but he gives his concepts and ideas such fully formed human characters that you hardly notice.

5. Baseball is always boring./Stephen King can get away with anything.

I only found one story completely unreadable (well, I guess, unlistenable) in this collection, and it isn’t even a story at all, it’s a nonfiction piece that Stephen King published in The New Yorker about Little League baseball. I don’t understand what it is with writers that I adore insisting on writing about baseball. As great as baseball is to watch, I have yet to read a story about baseball that is even a little bit interesting. I also, after skipping through that story (I gave it a solid thirty-minute listen before I gave up!), couldn’t help but wonder how this story made its way into an otherwise fantastic–and I do mean “fantastic“–and fictional collection. I found the answer on the dust jacket of my print copy–the essay is included as a “bonus” story. A bonus story? Like a toy in a Cracker Jack box? Damn, SK. You can get away with just about anything, can’t you?

6. I need to write a Harris Burdick story.

If you are a writer and you haven’t read “The Mysteries of Harris Burdick”, leave your computer right this minute, go to the closest library, and check this book out. Published in the 80s by children’s book author Chris Van Allsburg, the book is a giant writing prompt with beautiful illustrations and provocative captions. Stephen King took one of them, “The House on Maple Street”, and made it into a wonderful story that absolutely does the image justice. It’s really inspired me to go back to that book and use it to jump-start my brain.

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