Stephen King and Real-World Fear

Full disclosure: I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to scary films. However, when it comes to novels, horror might well be my genre of choice, and that has a lot to do with Stephen King.

I’ve grown up reading his books, having picked up ‘Misery’ in the school library when I was twelve. Maybe it was because I started at a young age, but I never found the books to be as nerve-wracking as the movies. Better? Yes. But as much as I become engrossed in King’s words I’m not on edge like at the multiplex. I think it’s because there’s no chance of, say, Pennywise leaping out of the page, smashing through the words like a plate glass window to make me jump. I’ve been accused of being desensitised by those I’ve recommended King novels too when I’ve claimed that ‘they’re not that scary’. The ideas and concepts still jar with me; just in a different way.

Yet, there have been incidents in a pair of Stephen King books that have scared me so much I’ve been scarred by them for days. The thought of them, when I see these books on the shelf, brings it all back. Part of that is because the subject matter contains nothing supernatural. It’s just stuff that can happen to any one of us at any time. It’s the real world and it can suck. It also happens that I read these stories at the right (wrong?) time in life for them to have a real impact.

Six months after I was married, I picked up Bag of Bones. I devoured the 700-page tome within a week and still think back on it as one of my favourites. I’m not sure it tops many lists, but I personally find it’s very unfairly underrated. The thing that terrified me though was at the very start. We meet Mike Noonan while learning of the sudden death of his wife. It’s completely random – she had an aneurysm that had gone unnoticed and simply died in a car park going about her day-to-day life. Being newly wed at the time, the reality of such terror hit hard.

And then there was last week, when I picked up an old copy of The Bachman Books and turned to Roadwork, which I’d not yet read. For those of you who’ve not read Roadwork, I once again highly recommend it. It’s certainly one I’d put high up on my list of all-time King favourites; popular opinion or not. Many write this book off as plodding or dull, but as the character of Barton George Dawes descends into madness, the pacing is spot on in building up to the eventual, inevitable climax. But, it wasn’t Barton’s resistance to change and how easy it was for a man to lose everything that terrified me, or his mild schizophrenia (shoutout to Freddy. Hey, George!). It was the backstory we pick up as we go along in which we discover that he lost a young son. And while his wife did her best to move on, he just couldn’t deal with it, so when more change comes to his life he just falls apart.

As a father, reading of Bart’s anguish constantly put a lump in my throat. As with ‘Bag of Bones it’s a scary, horrible thing that can happen to anyone at any time. We can all relate to the idea of losing someone we love and care about. And King does a masterful job of penning these situations with just the right combination of detailed description and sheer bluntness. While clowns and vampires and lift shafts full of blood spring to mind as scary visuals, sometimes it’s the real world that’s the scariest thing of all.

And then of course, you have The Dead Zone. The horrors there might have become a reality to all, surpassing the novel, leading more or less into The Stand… but that’s a different article for another day.

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