‘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