As he completes his 75th orbit around the sun, Stephen King remains a massive influence in our lives, and a major presence in my own.
This week, on September 21, Stephen King turns 75, barely two weeks after the release of his 64th book, the critically praised Fairy Tale. With the advent of Carrie, his first published novel, in 1974, his career really took off after a trickle of short stories he sold for a number of years beginning in 1967.
Despite the book’s modest hardcover sales, it was the sale of the paperback rights (for $400,000) and the book’s subsequent success in that format that allowed King to transition from a day job as a lawyer to a full-time writing career, beginning a career that has made him one of the most well-known and successful authors of all time and is still going strong 48 years later.
Although it wasn’t Carrie, I also discovered Stephen King’s writing in paperback form. Instead, it was King’s second book to be published, “Salem’s Lot,” which I found in a drugstore in the little Long Island town of Rocky Point. When I was visiting my grandparents in their vacation home, I would always go to that store for comic books, magazines on monster movies, and books. I had no idea that day’s book purchase would have a long-lasting effect on my life.
the first time reading Stephen King
I can still picture the dark cover, with what looked like a child’s face lifted in relief and a single drop of blood in the corner of its mouth. Of course, when I originally saw the title, I assumed it was about witches. Even though I was very young and was not yet allowed to read horror books like The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, I was quite aware of them. It is still a mystery how I persuaded my grandfather to buy “Salem’s Lot,” which appeared just as mature.
Salem’s Lot was my first King and continues to be one of my all-time favorites, likely because of that. I heard once about Danny Glick’s tragic passing and how his father threw himself into his son’s casket. Even though I had previously read some horror, I had never before come across a tale in which a child had passed away (a child roughly my own age, I should add).
Then, at some point in the narrative—I can’t remember precisely which scene—a light went on in my head and I realized I was reading a book about vampires. Vampires! in a little community similar to the one I was staying in! My prior exposure to bloodsuckers, like practically everyone else’s, had been limited to dated Universal and Hammer productions. It felt revolutionary to introduce them into late-20th-century America as King did.
After devouring “Salem’s Lot,” I returned to the same store to take Carrie from the same rack. When the film Carrie was released, I persuaded my mother to take me to watch it (I somehow managed to convince her to take me to a lot of age-inappropriate movies back then, ranging from Theatre of Blood to Jaws). The silver paperback cover of Stephen King’s brand-new book The Shining was then discovered while browsing the local mall’s book store.
That was read in two gulps, 200 pages per day spread over two days, and along with the horrors of the Overlook Hotel, it left me with vivid memories of the lovely, tragic bond between young Danny Torrance and his father, Jack, and how the hotel’s evil eventually couldn’t break apart their love.
King was likely my first adult read, similar to many others of my age. A lot of my early books were Star Trek episode novelizations, Planet of the Apes novelizations, non-fiction volumes about the production of various movies and TV shows, with a few original sci-fi and horror novels thrown in. I was allegedly an avid reader since the age of three or four. However, reading King was transformative, and his work eventually led me to discover that of the great Peter Straub (who we recently lost), the British titan Ramsey Campbell, and honestly lesser lights like Dean Koontz and John Saul who still managed to enthrall and terrify me, even if their work didn’t quite stand the test of time.
The King hits continued coming in the interim… only in a different way, and in a way that would give me a different kind of gift in addition to the man’s actual job, one that would produce fruit for many years.
The Hardcover Movement
Like the great majority of fans back then, I had bought my first three or four King books in paperback, including the illustrious short story collection Night Shift. At the time, I really had no idea how the publishing industry operated, with the relatively expensive hardcover version coming out first and the less expensive, smaller, less durable paperback following six to twelve months later.
When I went to spend the weekend at my dad’s apartment, it all changed one day. When I was just two years old, my parents divorced, and it was finalized when I was four. I agreed to spend Sundays and even entire weekends with my father at his home in Queens as part of the arrangement. Although I was aware that he was my father, I had no meaningful recollection of him being in my life prior to that time. To me, he appeared to be little more than a generally pleasant guy who picked me up on weekends and kept me amused.
My father was a reader as well, and his modest abode was lined with a full wall of books. He received the majority of his books in hardcover as part of his membership in the Book-of-the-Month Club, or something similar. So you can imagine how surprised I was to find a new Stephen King novel, The Stand, on his shelf that day.
It kind of blew my mind that King had already written another book, an 800-page behemoth, while I was only finishing The Shining and Night Shift. I quickly took my father’s book and read a good portion of it at his house before taking it home with me to finish reading it once the weekend was through. I was unable to halt and stay there for a while.
The books came more rapidly after that: I swiped my dad’s hardcovers of The Dead Zone (which is the first book that ever made me cry) and Firestarter before finally starting to buy my own, beginning with Different Seasons and Pet Sematary. From there it was hardcovers all the way, especially since I started working after school jobs and having some money of my own.
But reading those books at my father’s place did something else: it gave us common ground. We were alike in some ways, not alike in others, with different interests (my dad was a football and hockey fan; I enjoyed baseball but generally stayed away from sports). My dad didn’t open up emotionally either, and it wasn’t until I was in my early 20s—after he had moved to Florida and I hadn’t seen him for a few years—that we finally began to talk about some things, like the end of his marriage to my mother and some of the other ups and downs of his life (the guy was bit of a renegade for the first half of his life).
But we always talked about the latest King books. That was one of the strongest connections we had—not just King, but our general love of reading and other authors we both liked. Yet it always came back to Stephen King and his works. It was a conversation we kept going for decades, right up until my father suddenly passed away in March 2021. His last King book was, I think, Later.
Many Happy Returns
Stephen King’s effect on the horror genre, on popular literature, on filmmaking, and on pop culture is vast and indelible. He is the most popular author of his time; his books have sold hundreds of millions of copies; and many of the films based on his work are now considered classics of horror cinema. This includes Brian de Palma’s Carrie, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Rob Reiner’s Misery, and more recently, Andy Muschietti’s It.
He’s been part of our lives for nearly 50 years, and an especially important, deeply personal part of the lives of what he calls his Constant Readers: the ones who have been on the ride with him for most of this time, some stretching back all the way to the beginning, others hopping aboard the dark train with the novel It or the brilliant film adaptation The Shawshank Redemption.
I’m one of those Constant Readers, and I have shelves full of King books staring at me as I write this, ranging from crumbling paperbacks to pricey limited editions. I have my share of King signatures, although I’ve only met the man, very briefly, twice. An interview remains the top item on my bucket list and is likely to be there until and if it ever happens.
Reading Stephen King taught me about the power of storytelling and memorable characters, the complexity and mechanics of the craft itself, and the awe that truly great books could inspire in a reader. His novels, short stories, and movies have provided endless hours of joy and entertainment. His literary voice is instantly familiar and feels, whenever I open a new book of his, like that of an old friend. In many ways he is an old friend and has been for years, even though I don’t know the man.
The reach of his work unites everyone who has ever read him, and I’m pleased to say that it united my father and I, right up until Don Kaye Sr. passed beyond the realm of human understanding. That is top of the list when it comes to the gifts that Stephen King – without even being aware of it – has given me over the years.
Happy 75th birthday, Stephen King, and thanks, on behalf of two longtime Constant Readers. Long days and pleasant nights to you, sir.