Matthew Jackson returns for a special Halloween guest post. Jackson has been sporadically guesting for us for a while now, most notably his series on Horror Lit 101. An avid reader and reviewer, he reviews adult fiction for BookPage, is an entertainment journalist at Blastr.com, and has a short story in the current issue (#360) of Weird Tales Magazine. You can visit him online at his Tumblr and Twitter.
Whenever people find out that I’m sort of a book person, and especially when people find out that I’m an actual real-live professional writer (we don’t get out in the wild much), they try to find something to ask me that I can reliably answer without either boring them with technical details or boring them with philosophical double talk (writers, I think are either experts at philosophical double talk or experts at evading any philosophical talk whatsoever). So they ask me some version of this:
“Who’s your favorite writer?”
There was a time when I considered this an opportunity to display my reading range, to reveal that I’d taken on some really heavy stuff, man, and I got it. So, for the longest time, my answer was William Faulkner (a 17-year-old saying his favorite writer was Faulkner was, I thought, rather impressive). The answer occasionally evolved to include writers like Cormac McCarthy and Allen Ginsberg, and then Joyce Carol Oates. But while all four of those writers are among the most gifted and brilliant I’ve ever read, and while they all no doubt rank among my favorites, I wasn’t being truthful. If you ask me who my favorite writer is, and I’m giving the most honest answer from deep down in my bones, it’s not any of those people, nor is it Michael Chabon or Philip Roth or Ernest Hemingway.
My favorite writer is Stephen King.
I will admit to once being embarrassed by this knowledge, and therefore not admitting it, I suppose because I wanted to give an answer that was more in-line with the conventions of the literary establishment. But I give this answer loudly and cheerfully now, no matter who I’m talking to, because I long ago came to the conclusion (as should we all) that the “literary establishment” can go to hell. Stephen King is my favorite writer, and what’s more, the competition for the top spot isn’t even close. Even among all those great writers I mentioned above, he towers over everyone. He’s at the top of my literary universe. There are a number of reasons for this, but I think the simplest (and truest) one is that there’s some intangible bit of his fictional universes that fill up my brain as I’m reading. The best books are always the most immersive, and whenever I read a Stephen King novel, his world is my world.
But it’s also about roots. King was the first “grown-up” writer I ever sought out. See, I grew up in the ‘90s, and that was a time when Stephen King was still the biggest publishing juggernaut on the planet (this was when J. K. Rowling was still in her superstar infancy). He was the only writer I’d ever seen who had TV commercials to promote his books. His paperbacks were in every grocery store, at everyone’s yard sales. It’s still true, but back then it was somehow truer: Stephen King was ubiquitous.
So, in my adolescent brain, reading a Stephen King novel meant that you’d somehow arrived at adulthood. You were part of that great mass that King himself has come to call “Constant Reader.” But my introduction to the King canon was likely different than most. For whatever reason, rather than picking up something short but iconic – The Shining, perhaps, or Pet Sematary – I picked up what remains King’s longest, most ambitious single novel: The Stand.
Even after a career of nearly four decades encompassing all manner of scary and non-scary stories, I still consider The Stand to be King’s best work. It’s sprawling and majestic and so clear in my head that it still stands as my favorite novel. On the other end there’s Gerald’s Game, perhaps the only King novel I outright loathe, but overall his body of work is one that keeps me coming back. I re-read his longest novels over and over again, I reach for particular short stories to brighten my day, and I keep re-visiting the audio version of his memoir On Writing (which he reads). No other writer has ever kept me so hungry for the words.
Why, you ask? Well, apart from King’s role in my reading youth, it’s kind of hard to say. I’m not trying to cop out here, but I really feel that when you talk about favorite writers, what really causes that connection is something invisible. I could talk about how he manages to be extremely attentive to detail while never being overwhelming about it. I could talk about his incredible ear for dialogue. I could talk about the almost cinematic images he crafts that haunt me even years after reading them (the old woman in the tub from The Shining, the sandalwood handles on Roland the Gunslinger’s revolvers). I could talk about the fantastic blend of fear and humor. I could talk about his ability to travel far beyond his “horror master” label and deliver fantastic tales of human hope, compassion, and love. I could talk about all of that, but if you ask me why Stephen King is my favorite writer, and I really think about it, I find the honest answer is much, much simpler.
Stephen King’s writing just feels like home.
So, in the spirit of Halloween sharing, I’ve shared my favorite writer with you, but since this is a blog about reading, and I believe it would be a kindness to leave you with some useful information, I would like to present a brief reading list for the works of my favorite author. If you’d like some chills this Halloween courtesy of Mr. King, here’s where you can go.
High School Hell: Carrie
Vampires That Don’t Sparkle: Salem’s Lot
Haunted Houses, Haunted People: The Shining
The Ultimate Monster: IT
The End of the World As We Know It: The Stand
The Horror Variety Pack: Night Shift
The Horror Within: The Dead Zone, The Dark Half
Spooky Pets: Cujo, Pet Sematary
Horror-Free: Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, 11/22/63, The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger
Happy All Hallow’s Read, gang.