Friday, April 5, 2013

"They're all going to laugh at you..."

[This blog-post was originally written to feature a promotion for the remake of Stephen King's Carrie. Since the promotional videos are no longer online, these have been cut to get straight to the story of how I first started reading Stephen King, to meeting the legend himself...]

I’ve always been a big fan of Stephen King. This really does go back to my youth. In the past, before the internet and the masses of video games out there, there wasn’t really a lot to do except watch TV, go to the cinema, and in my case, play Dungeons & Dragons. I used to read, but my reading really consisted of my weekly subscription at the local newsagents to a comic (which started with Look-In, progressed onto the UK Spider-man reprints “Super Spider-man and the Titans” and then onto the comic that everyone had to read every week – 2000AD). 

When it came to books, I really didn’t read an awful lot as a kid. I used to get the novelisations of movies I’d been to see, so that I could relive the movie again and again. I could skip to the cool part, and while I was reading Lucas’ novelisation of Star Wars, I could picture the X-Wings over the surface of the Death Star, and the extra stuff about Biggs was like the deleted scenes of the Eighties…

Even then, I didn’t have much time for reading. That was until most of the gaming group vanished off to University and I found myself bored and unemployed, trying to write scenarios for Ghostbusters.

We didn’t have a great bookshop in my hometown. It used to be part corner shop, part card shop, and part bookshop all crammed into a room about the size of Harry Potter’s cupboard under the stairs. But they also sold vinyl records (yes, LPs and 12” singles) so I used to pop in there when there was something I was after, and they’d order it for me. But there was one book in there that unnerved me. It used to taunt me while the old lady that used to run the place rummaged through the delivery for whatever obscure Mike Oldfield or Jean Michel Jarre album I’d asked them to get in for me. The cover was of a drain with a pair of inhuman eyes staring out of the darkness. In the water, a lone paper boat drifted towards the void, while a red balloon floated to one side.

The book taunted me. It looked horrific. It was huge – longer than Lord of the Rings (which I’d tried to read when I was thirteen and gave up on – don’t worry, I’ve read it and loved it since, but that’s another story that involves Babylon 5). But something compelled me to get it. In the same way that the cover of Kult lured me into purchasing that game many, many years later.

That book, of course, was Stephen King’s “IT”.

I’d never read anything that long before, but there was something about the writing style that just pulled me in. It had everything I could ever imagine in a book. The lead characters – the Losers Club – appealed to me instantly, being one of those kids who wasn’t popular, suffered a little from bullying, and ended up with a group of like minded “nerds”. A group that formed bonds that would stay with us the rest of our lives. 

The villain of the piece, the IT of the title, appeared as the things these kids were afraid of. Bloody clowns. I hate clowns. What’s the point of them? And that mind-blowing ending that could never be captured on film, it just amazed me. A book that looked like a camp horror novel was far from it. It was brilliantly written, with characters you cared about. I was hooked. I couldn’t get enough of them. My record buying habit was replaced as I purchased most of Stephen King’s work up to that point. I blasted through Carrie in a week, faced heartbreak and returning evil in Pet Sematary, lapped up every moment in Christine, and survived Captain Trips in The Stand.

I watched the movies as well, bought the soundtracks of a couple, but as with all things, real life gets in the way. I got a job, which lead to art college, and moving away from home.

Luckily, my future wife was a big fan of Stephen King as well, and when we both ended up working at the same huge bookstore, Ottakar’s, we rekindled our love of King’s work. We caught up with his works and devoured the titles of his second renaissance – Insomnia, and Rose Madder especially, before Debs convinced me to give The Dark Tower a try and loaned me The Gunslinger.

When Lisey’s Story was about to be published in 2006, the publishers hosted an evening talk in London in association with one of the major newspapers, and we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to hear him talk in person. But as an added bonus, booksellers from around the country were invited to a private book launch in an old masonic temple behind the Strand in London the following day. We, of course, leapt at the chance.

King takes to the stage to sing with
Alabama 3. (Sorry about the
grainy photo)
The publishers of King in the UK have always been incredibly good to us, and our regular sales rep from Hodder came over to see us in the strange environment. There were complimentary drinks, nibbles and copies of the book, while Alabama 3 played on a strange stage to the rear of the building. The rep explained that Stephen King had been signing all day at some supermarket somewhere, and was exhausted and may not make much of an appearance, but he insisted that he’d try to get us to meet the man himself somehow. Then to make the evening even more surreal, Stephen King appeared in the venue, and took to the stage, joining Alabama 3 and singing along to a couple of songs. 

He apologised that he was worn out from a gruelling signing session and couldn’t stay, but the ever-wonderful rep from Hodder ushered us to where King would be exiting the building for the briefest of encounters. 

It’s at those moments that you realise that you don’t really know what to say.

What can you say to him? Do you ask how he is? Ask how he’s enjoying the UK? Something banal like that?

Or do you explain to him that he is really the reason I started reading books for pleasure? Without picking up that copy of IT I may never have ended up working in a bookstore (I still cite working for Ottakar’s as being one of the best “day job” experiences of my life).

The rep stopped King and his entourage briefly as they were making their way out of the building, and said that he just wanted him to meet some of the booksellers from Ottakar’s who were selling his books so enthusiastically. Stephen King stopped, and despite looking exhausted by the insanely long day he’d had, he shook our hands and said hello. 

Words were lost completely. It was as if I’d lost all power to communicate. I may have just made a meeping noise, but that’s about all I remember. Debs managed to thank him for all the hours of enjoyment we’d had from his books, though she always cringes at the thought as she opened her one line to Stephen King by calling him “dude”. 

I really don’t see that as a bad thing. He is a dude. The dude. He’s as Dude as Lebowski. He’s the grand dude of horror and suspense.

I like to think that in that brief moment, before he was whisked away (with the chocolate that Debs gave him) to rest and recover before yet another intense signing period, that just the smallest amount of particles from the hand of Stephen King himself remained on our shaken hands. And that somewhere, hidden at an atomic level, the smallest part of King’s writing ability has transferred itself to me. If it has, it is laying dormant somewhere, waiting to be activated, because I’m still churning out the same old crap as I ever was.


That was a bit more than I was expecting. Amazing how many memories just one trailer can conjure up. I guess, that’s the power of Stephen King. More power to you, dude.

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