Dementia, Pee Fetishes, and the Horrors of Obesity: A Month With Stephen King
If I don’t die young from the weight of a thousand projects crushing my chest, then I will consider myself a failure. Which is why last month (February), I challenged myself to read every single Stephen King story (published in a collection) within the month’s pathetic twenty-eight days. The idea was, afterward, I would write an awesome article about what I’d learned from the experience and LitReactor would pay me a lot of money and I would get offered a book deal and my own TV show and maybe later I’d run for president if I found some spare time.
I am afraid to report the challenge was not successful.
Okay, well I guess I wasn’t too afraid to report it, since I just did. It’s still embarrassing to talk about, though. I thought I was unstoppable. I thought if I set my mind to something, I’d be able to do it, no matter how great the challenge.
But oh my god, you guys, Stevie King has written a lot of short stories. More than I certainly remembered, at least. Right off the bat I realized there was no way in hell I’d be able to include his collections consisting entirely of novellas, which would eliminate from my to-read list the following: Different Seasons, Four Past Midnight, and Full Dark, No Stars. Apparently many people view Hearts in Atlantis as a story collection, which is insane to me since it’s obviously a novel, so I also crossed that one off the list. This left me with the following to read in the month of February: Night Shift, Skeleton Crew, Nightmares & Dreamscapes, Everything’s Eventual, Just After Sunset, and The Bazaar of Bad Dreams. Six books in one month. Six fucking huge books, since we’re talking about King here. And not even a normal month. Only twenty-eight days. Are you laughing out loud right now? Well, nobody will know unless you type “LOL” in the comment section.
I came very close to finishing all six collections in February. I managed to knock out the first five, but I simply ran out of time before finishing 2015’s The Bazaar of Bad Dreams. I’m fairly confident if I’d focused solely on King that month, I would have knocked it out with no problem, but in February not only did I read five of his story collections, I also read Universal Harvester by John Darnielle, Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough (check out my interview with her), and The Dime by Kathleen Kent (read my review). You can get a lot done in twenty-eight days, but not everything.
I’d read the first four collections years ago, but never got around to Just After Sunset until this challenge. I still forced myself to go through each story again. Some of them I remembered fondly, and many others my memory had successfully erased like a hacker frying a compromised hard drive.
So let’s break it down, book by book.
"NIGHT SHIFT" (1978)
When you bring up Stephen King story collections in conversation with somebody, you’ll probably receive one of two responses: “Haha reading is for pussies” or “Night Shift is King at the top of his game.” Both responses might actually be correct, but in this article I’m choosing to focus on the latter. It was King’s first collection, and it proved that not only was he a master of full-length horror novels, but he also excelled at short stories. Many people even claim his short stories are better than his novels, which I’d disagree with, but hey, it’s still a popular opinion. I wouldn’t say every story in this collection is a winner, but the majority are strong. I mean, hell, this is the book that collected “I Am the Doorway,” “The Boogeyman,” “Sometimes They Come Back,” “Children of the Corn,” and “Quitters, Inc.” It’s also the collection that included truly insane works of art like “The Lawnmower Man” and “The Mangler,” both of which I love dearly, even though I understand why they’re not viewed with much popularity. Not everything in here holds up, of course. “Jerusalem’s Lot” reads like bad Lovecraft fanfiction and I wouldn’t assign “Battleground” to my worst enemy. Still, all in all, a solid book. His best collection, though? Nope.
"SKELETON CREW" (1985)
Skeleton Crew holds the title of “best collection,” I’d wager. This collection starts off with one of the greatest things King’s ever written: “The Mist.” Of course, sadly, it’s immediately followed by one of the first stories he ever wrote: “Here There Be Tygers.” It is, uh, not very good and probably should have been omitted from the table of contents. However! Right after that one, we’re introduced to one of his more iconic stories: “The Monkey”! Other standouts include: “The Jaunt,” “The Raft,” “Word Processor of the Gods,” “Survivor Type” (lady fingers they taste just like lady fingers), and “The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet.” In this collection, King definitely shows a bit more depth than in Night Shift, without losing his penchant for ludicrous ideas. There are a few duds here, but for the most part it’s the best collection of stories he’s released.
"NIGHTMARES & DREAMSCAPES" (1993)
Two things were released in 1993: Max Booth III and Nightmares & Dreamscapes. Neither one has aged remarkably well, although the latter at least had the benefit of being well-received initially, whereas the former has been universally despised from day one. I’m not saying this collection is 100% terrible. It’s worth reading for “The Night Flier,” “Chattery Teeth,” and “The Moving Finger,” and there’s a few other average ones floating around, but for the most part this collection just isn’t that good. It doesn’t help that toward the end we’re hit with random essays about baseball. Look, it’s clear with all of King’s collections that he’s just throwing in everything he’s ever written instead of carefully curating a table of contents, but it’s never been more obvious than with Nightmares & Dreamscapes. Pass.
"EVERYTHING’S EVENTUAL" (2002)
This was the first Stephen King story collection that came out after I’d learned to read. My mom bought the paperback at the grocery store and I read it before she even had a chance to crack the spine. Honestly? There’s really not a bad story here. I still think I enjoy Skeleton Crew more, but Everything’s Eventual is an underrated gem. If I listed the standouts, it would be almost the whole table of contents.
"JUST AFTER SUNSET" (2008)
I think I tried reading Just After Sunset when it was first released, but something about the title and the terrible front cover threw me off, and I never made it very far. I was pleasantly surprised to try again last month and discover that this collection is actually pretty strong. Although, we start off on a negative note with “Willa,” which reads like the same afterlife tale every writer eventually pens. Nothing new there. Very predictable and yawn-inducing. But after that we’re hit with a truly suspenseful story called “The Gingerbread Girl.” Other standouts: “Harvey’s Dream,” “Rest Stop,” “N.,” and “The Cat from Hell.” And oh boy, what a treat “The Cat from Hell” turned out to be. In the same spirit of his earlier, I-don’t-give-a-fuck days, this story is about a hitman who is hired to whack a cat. It’s insane and I loved it. In Skeleton Crew’s story notes for “Survivor Type,” King talks about asking his retired doctor neighbor weird questions to help research stories. One of the questions he apparently asked him involved the logistics of a man swallowing a whole cat. I figured it’d been for an abandoned story that never saw the light of day, but oh man, I couldn’t have been more wrong. “The Cat from Hell,” ladies and gentlemen. The. Cat. From. Hell.
"THE BAZAAR OF BAD DREAMS" (2015)
Despite not finishing this book in the month of February, I still read a good chunk of it (and finished it the following month). King’s short fiction is still as good as ever. We start off with a pretty cool novella called “Mile 81,” which is—surprise surprise—about an evil car (something King has never written about before). The majority of the stories in here are well worth your time, especially “The Little Green God of Agony.” I don’t know why I haven’t heard more people in the horror community discussing it.
Six collections read in just over a month’s time. Was it exhausting? You bet. Would I recommend it? No, probably not. I think if you read too much of the same author in a short span of time, you’re liable to develop strange emotions. I’ve read so much goddamn Stephen King in the last month, he no longer even seems like a real person, but an imaginary friend. I’m starting to have fake conversations with him when I’m alone. The other day I searched his name on Google Images and just stared at his photo for twenty uninterrupted minutes and I don’t even know why.
I’m turning into one of those “weird Stephen King guys.” You know the ones. They buy those bootleg T-shirts advertised on Facebook that feature Pennywise fan art. They walk around hunched over, grinning at storm drains. Instead of “thank you” they say “thankee sai.” If they want to get really creepy, they’ll start a podcast devoted entirely to discussing his work. Ugh. I think I’m going to vomit. Yup. There it goes. I am officially vomiting. I hope you are pleased with yourselves.
Reading all of those collections so close together also made me realize a few important details about King, too. About his writing, yes, but also about who he is as a person. If you read six goddamn story collections in a row from any author, you’re going to learn a lot. For instance:
Stephen King hates fat people
It’s true. He is absolutely disgusted by people who are overweight. It seems like I’ve always known that, but I’d never actually put much thought into it until reading “Night Surf” from his Night Shift collection. Now, “Night Surf” has one of the coolest opening sentences of any short story King’s ever written:
After the guy was dead and the smell of his burning flesh was off the air, we all went back down to the beach.
But then it also has this unfortunate exchange:
“Do you love me?” Susie was asking. “That's all I want to know, do you love me?” Susie needed constant reassurance. I was her teddy bear.
“No,” I said. She was getting fat, and if she lived long enough, which wasn't likely, she would get really flabby. She was already mouthy.
The story takes place after a deadly disease has wiped out a good chunk of the population, but the narrator seems more upset about his girlfriend’s pants size. He’s making fun of her pretty much from beginning to end. Now, to be fair, I understand this isn’t meant to be King’s perspective but the narrator’s perspective, and this narrator is a real piece of shit. But the story certainly got me thinking about King and his other work, and I realized that almost any time King wants to make a character seem repulsive to the reader, he makes them overweight. Usually the target happens to be the narrator’s wife or girlfriend, but King also gives men their fair share, too. If you think I’m crazy, then you haven’t read Thinner or “The Body” or “Premium Harmony” or...well, you get the point. Does King actually hate fat people? I doubt it. But he certainly likes to fall back on them when in desperate need to make his audience instantly dislike a character.
Oh, by the way, did you ever notice that Stephen King might have a pee fetish?
Stick with me here...
Have you ever been afraid? Truly terrified? It seems likely the answer is yes. Now, think back, when you were terrified, did you immediately piss your pants? If you answered yes, there’s a 99% chance you are a character in a Stephen King story. In King’s world, when a character is afraid, they instantly lose control of their bladders. It happens so frequently in his work that it’s more noticeable when it doesn’t. I wait for these peeing sessions now with great anticipation. I love them. Here’s an especially sweet excerpt from “The Boogeyman”:
Billings stood rooted to the spot as the closet door swung open. He dimly felt warmth at his crotch as he wet himself.
I understand why he so often describes his characters pissing themselves, sure. It’s an easy method of describing fear. Is it realistic? Probably not. It’s more often distracting than anything. And that’s not the only evidence I have that supports my pee fetish theory. In case you haven’t noticed, King loves writing about this stuff. Like, really loves it. There are major pee plot points in Gerald’s Game, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, and The Green Mile, and those are just off the top of my head. And let us not forget the wonderful pee-shy Howard Mitla from “The Moving Finger.”
The great thing about King is he can make the most ridiculous shit entertaining
Stephen King once wrote a story about a man trapped on an island who ate pieces of his own body to survive. He wrote a story about a lawn mowing service that instructed their employees to get completely naked and eat the customers’ grass. He wrote a story about a giant finger that poked out of some dude’s sink and a story about tiny eyeballs appearing on somebody’s hands. This guy once wrote a story about a serial killer that turned out to be a fucking laundry press machine. Do I need to remind you about “The Cat from Hell”? Well, I’m gonna, anyway: a hitman is hired to whack a cat and the story ends with him swallowing the cat alive. The. Cat. From. Hell.
Not everything King writes makes a lot of sense, but you know what? They’re almost always entertaining. The wackier King gets with his plots, the more fun I have reading them. He doesn’t seem to let loose with his wild side too much these days, but once in a while these kind of stories still slip through the cracks.
His fears have evolved
Lately, King’s gotten more serious. He’s not the young up-and-comer from the seventies and eighties anymore. In September, he’s going to be turning seventy years old. Holy shit.
Pick up Just After Sunset or The Bazaar of Bad Dreams and you’re going to find stories about dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease. King used to be terrified of technology, but these days his focus seems to point mostly to the natural progression of life. The sad truth is, King will not live forever. He probably only has one or two more collections in him and maybe fifty more novels, but that’s it.
His body will expire, but his words will live forever.
For many readers of horror, King served as their gateway drug into the genre. He continues pounding out quality fiction to this day, despite what some people might claim. He has inspired me since as long as I can remember and even when he eventually passes, I’ll return to his work over and over again.
While reading his short fiction bibliography last February, I remembered why I loved him so much in the first place. I realized I didn’t want that love to fade like it has in the past. So I made an insane, spontaneous decision and started a podcast dedicated to discussing his work. The podcast is called Castle Rock Radio, and it is the consequence of reading too many short stories in one month and briefly losing my mind.
Yes. I’ve become one of those weird Stephen King guys.
I don’t know what to expect from this podcast, but I feel like it’s what I’ve always wanted to do. I just didn’t realize it until I pitched this extremely dangerous reading challenge.
But seriously. Don’t try this challenge at home. You might die.
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