Short Reading Lessons in Writing: An Introduction to Stephen King

A morning short story reading group meets at one of our library branches on the second Monday of each month.  The library provides the short stories, snacks, and a staff member to make coffee and keep things moving along. 

That staff member is me.

And this is what I learned today about how readers see writers.

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When I told the group that we would be reading a Stephen King story, I saw more than a few noses wrinkle.  One of our regulars said, “I hope it isn’t too gory, because I don’t like those at all,” and there were many nods around the room.

I promised it wouldn’t be—and it was easier than a non-King fan might think to find stories without a drop of blood or the hint of a monster, human or otherwise.

In fact, that was the point of choosing a Stephen King story in the first place—I wanted to show the group, most of whom had only seen movies based on his books, that there was more to him than his (well-earned) reputation as a Blood-Soaked Monster Wrangler might imply.

Part of this is because it’s my job to broaden their horizons a little, but also because it’s my personal opinion that Mr. King wouldn’t have the longevity he’s had as an international best-selling author if the man couldn’t actually write. 

I’d originally chosen “Stationary Bike,”* because it’s about a subconscious fantasy gone just a little too far and how moderation in all things is a good idea, even in this age of All or Nothing perfection.

But while I was wrestling with the admin photocopier, a passing supervisor—and fellow Stephen King fan—mentioned that there was a lot of strong language in the story.  I reviewed, and there is.

While I’m not a proponent of censorship and in my opinion, Mr. King’s language choices are never gratuitous, several of the members of my group have mentioned that four-letter words tend to kick them out of a story.

That was the last thing I wanted to happen, especially since Mr. King’s reputation wasn’t winning him any points with most of this crowd anyway.

So I switched to my close-second choice, “Ayana,”**  a story about death, miracles, and motivations:

Charlie, the narrator, is waiting with his family at the deathbed of his father.  A woman walks into the hospital room with a blind child and, despite the protests of the dying man’s family, guides her to the patient.  The girl, Ayana, kisses Charlie’s father, and, upon leaving, touches Charlie on the hand.  Charlie’s father immediately goes into complete remission—and though his relatives refuse to call it a miracle, Charlie does.

Especially when, months, later, a stranger appears to take him to visit a dying child in a hospital.  He is called on several more times over the next decade or so, and though he doesn’t know for certain what happens to the people he kisses and has no idea how or why he or they were chosen, he answers the call until his time of miracles ends as quietly as it began, leaving nothing but his belief that they did actually happen.

“Ayana” is so completely open to interpretation that it’s difficult to describe without using one’s own values.   There are many loose ends here—the reader doesn’t know any more than Charlie does about what might be happening.  We all believed that Charlie was telling the truth and we all believed that he was the kind of responsible man whom we would want distributing miracles .  . but who was in charge of all this?  Who chose the guides?  The miracle-carriers?  The recipients?  And why?

There were fourteen of us and we all had our own takes, filtered by our own experiences and belief systems.

It was a riotous meeting, let me tell you—we ran over by ten minutes and the industrial-sized percolator was dry.

Everyone loved this story with the single exception of a reader who fully admitted that she didn’t like mysteries without solutions—and even she thought that it had been very well-written.

And everyone barring myself and one other reader was surprised that Stephen King wrote stories like this.  Descriptions that made them see, details that made them believe, and characters that made them feel.  That’s a direct quote, by the way.

During our discussion, I saw their concept of Stephen King morph from Gorefest Broker to Excellent Writer.

I asked if anyone was interested in reading more King, and everyone thought they might give him a try, though they asked me to find other stories this “complex,” by which they meant “no paranormal monsters or demons” and, if possible,  “no blatant nightmare fodder.”

I said I’d do my best, and mentioned that I’d brought along those copies of “Stationary Bike” just in case.

Every single reader took one.  They thought that, having seen what Stephen King could do, strong language wouldn’t be a problem.   And after the meeting, two of them asked me to take them to the horror section so they could look through his novels.

We got ’em, Mr. King—we got ’em.

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*From Just After Sunset, which I highly recommend.  It’s a nice mix of what Mr. King does best.

**Also from Just After Sunset.