‘Premium Harmony’ by Stephen King

King is a (the?) master of horror. Over the years I’ve loved his tales of zombie pets, demonic cars and telekinetic teenagers, but in ‘Premium Harmony’, he presents the real-life horrors of marriage and mortality. Within our mundane, pedestrian lives we are jolted into remembering that we should not forsake our loved ones, and we should appreciate what little we have before it’s snatched away from us. The focus on everyday, otherwise unimportant details (the purchase of cigarettes, the products on sale in Wal-Mart) and the subtle jibes and constant bickering between the married couple are what fascinate me in this piece. There is an agonising double blow in this story which left me completely shaken, idolising King for being so mercilessly brutal.

First published in The New Yorker, December 1, 2009, and available to read online for subscribers. Collected in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, Scribner/ Hodder & Stoughton, 2015

‘The Mist’ by Stephen King

I know this isn’t the end of the list as you are reading it, but this is the last slot I have to fill and I struggled to decide which story to name. I was tempted to throw in a Chandler novella because I love Chandler the bestest, but none of those are really a patch on the novels they were cannibalised to create. I thought about a Roger Zelazny piece because really people should still be reading Roger Zelazny. For a nanosecond I toyed with Robert E Howard as a nod to the ghost of my adolescence –and to be really perverse to Jonathan – but let’s face it, he was a fairly shitty writer and his minor significance lies outside of his actual talent as a writer.

Then there is the King.

I love Stephen King. I don’t love everything he has published – god, I stopped trying to even keep up years ago. (‘No mas, no mas,’ to quote Roberto Duran.) But beyond the brand and the astonishing commercial success and the mostly awful adaptations stands a brilliantly entertaining – and frankly brilliant – writer. Not every book, lord knows, but enough of them.

At his best King is more readable than anyone. The ShiningThe Dead Zone, Misery… spectacular stuff. And there are rib-tickling (or rib-cracking) short stories, especially the early, pulpy stuff collected in Night Shift.

I’m cheating by choosing ‘The Mist’, I know. Really it is a short novel, though it originally appeared in a short story anthology: Kirby McCauley’s legendary Dark Forces. But it contains everything that makes King so much fun to read. The storyline is stripped down to Lifeboat circumstances: a bunch of people who don’t all get along, trapped in a tight space with limited hope of survival. It is gussied up with an unexplained fantasy backdrop/MacGuffin, but it works because of one thing: characterization. 

King just does it so well, so easily. Even when you don’t believe every word of his dialogue – and King can get a little hokey – you believe in and care about his characters to the last page. That’s the first rule of writing, I know, but few succeed in doing it as well as Mr King does.

I remain, now and forever, his humble subject.

First published in Dark Forces, edited by Kirby McCauley, Viking, 1980. It was collected in King’s own Skeleton Crew, Putnam, 1985, and later republished as a stand-alone volume, Signet, 2007

‘The Body’ by Stephen King

So there it is: how I re-learned to love short stories. But before moving on to a list of stories-I-just-like, one final foray into autobiography. As I look back over my teens and 20s, the other unforgivable absence from my personal literary canon is, unquestionably, the work of Stephen King. As with short fiction, this absence was based on unreasoning prejudice. Somewhere along the way, in my teenage years, I came to identify myself as someone who didn’t like horror. This was based in part on the genuine terror I felt in the wake of reading Nicholas Fisk’s SF-horror mash-up, Grinny, at an impressionable age (the cover of the 1980s edition still gives me the heebie-jeebies). But it was also based – and it pains me to admit this – on the embossed covers. I think I had some notion that embossed covers indicated a lack of seriousness, and I took myself *very* seriously, back then. I realise now, of course, that taking against a cover in this way makes me not so much serious as a pompous, but we live and learn. Anyway, luckily for me, I hooked up with my husband in my 30s, and among many other good qualities (including, of course, an encyclopaedic knowledge of short fiction) he possessed a full back-catalogue of Stephen King, and a desire to get me to read all of them so we’d have something to talk about. I read The Stand, nearly passed out from fear, and was hooked.
And so: ‘The Body’. Yes, it’s technically a novella, but it’s a mere minnow by Stephen King’s standards, and this is my list, so you’ll have to suck it up. I loved King’s work for its ability to exude menace and build tension, and on occasion scare you out of your wits, but I love it most, I think, for its contribution to the project of writing the US. He’s the undisputed laureate of smalltown America: of Main Streets and gas stations and high schools, and of the people who inhabit them. And he’s also a mastercraftsman at the art of reaching back through time and writing childhood – again, that specifically late-20th American childhood which was free from external threats, and so, when it was looking for conflict, turned on itself, waged internal wars.
‘The Body’ exemplifies all of this, perfectly. Told in flashback by an author, now grown up, it’s the story of four friends, on the cusp of adolescence, who overhear talk of the body of a dead boy, apparently by the train tracks outside of town, and set off to find him. It’s a coming of age story, set in the torpid, empty days of summer, as all such stories should be, and overlaid with an odd, twisted quest-narrative: over the course of their journey, the boys dodge speeding trains, avoid junkyard dogs, and come out of a pool of standing water covered in leeches. In the cultural memory, it lives on in the saturated colours of Rob Reiner’s excellent film of the book, Stand By Me, but it’s King’s version that has stayed with me. The writing is superb, the psychological investigation far deeper and richer, and the final line is one for the ages; grief for childhood, and innocence, and old friends, cast in unsentimental vernacular. “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve,” says the narrator. “Jesus, did you?”

Originally published in Different Seasons, Viking Press, 1982

‘All That You Love Will Be Carried Away’ by Stephen King

King is a rite of passage, and he certainly was mine when I first read Pet Sematary at a very impressionable age. However the older I got, the more I enjoy his short stories – they are more delicate than his verbose novels and they give you King at his very, very best. I don’t know what it is about this tale of a salesman who collects graffiti in bathrooms while on his travels – but it grabbed me when I read it in his collection Everything’s Eventual, in 2002. I read it once a year and it’s a beautiful, poignant tale with an almost happy, almost suicidal ending.

First published in The New Yorker, January, 2001. Collected in Everything’s Eventual, Sribner/Simon & Schuster 2012

‘The Library Policeman’ by Stephen King

Other than books assigned by teachers, most of what I read as a teenager was horror (I dabbled ever so slightly in fantasy and sci-fi), and until Stephen King’s collaboration with Peter Straub Black House in 2002, which I just could not get through, I had read every single thing King ever published. The way others can discuss Pynchon for hours making obscure paranoid connections between various characters in Gravity’s Rainbow, I can talk for days about the influence of drugs and alcohol on King’s early novels and the effect that getting sober had on his prose. And as much as some of his novels tend to sag and bloat, his short fiction has always been exemplarily pared down to the bones. David Foster Wallace’s ‘The Soul Is Not a Smithy’ owes a clear debt to King’s shorter fiction (I’m thinking especially of the Bradbury-riff ‘Suffer the Little Children’). But it is this novella that I remember most clearly, perhaps because it has a premise so preposterous that there is no way that it should ever be scary — a man forgets to return a book to the library and suffers the wrath of the supernatural Library Policeman — and yet, this was the first time I stayed up all night, too scared to sleep, terrified of what might be lurking in my closet, or under my bed.

Included in Four Past Midnight, Viking, 1990