What Do Readers Enjoy About Stephen King?
I don’t remember my first Stephen King book. I know I started in my teens after a close friend’s recommendation and quickly became hooked. King was my favourite author and dominated my reading time. Even though lately I’ve diversified and expanded my reading list, I never go too long without reading (or re-reading) one of his books.
My love for King’s writing is not unique. His books include 65 novels and over 200 short stories and have sold over 400 million copies. King has nicknamed regular readers like me his “Constant Readers,” and in 1981, when Cujo became his fifth consecutive best-seller in a row, people joked he could publish his laundry list, and it would top the charts. When people crack this joke at me, I tell them I would buy it in hardcover and paperback.
What is it about Stephen King’s writing that we constant readers love so much? Why do we keep coming back? Everyone has their individual reasons, but here are four that keep me reading.
1. Stephen King’s characters
“Write compelling characters” is classic writer advice for a reason. Without people that matter, stories are empty shells. King is famous for his horrifying scenes, but it’s the people he brings us that make me care about what happens in those scenes. While a beautiful, dashing action hero can be an exciting and glamorous fantasy, King’s characters become your family. They are flawed people with complex lives.
Many are innocent victims burdened by the unfairness of life, such as Carrie White. Doubly cursed with an abusive mother and cruel schoolmates, my heart aches for her every time I reread her story. Or Andy Dufresne, convicted of a crime he didn’t commit and forced to spend decades in prison. Even Jack Torrance, whose personal failings trap his family in the Overlook Hotel, is still compelling as he tries so hard to be better. In King’s books, happy endings are not guaranteed and when a favourite fails, it’s gut-wrenching.
Along with his protagonists (“hero” doesn’t always fit), King populates his worlds with complex and diverse villains. The main antagonist of IT is Pennywise the Clown, the disguise of an interdimensional being who feasts on the fears of children. He is terrifying, but so are the human villains, like the sadistic Henry Bowers, or Beverly’s abusers, her father, and her husband. One of his darkest depictions of a human killer is Brady Hartsfield in the Bill Hodges Trilogy. The chapters spent in his twisted point of view are difficult to read, but also compelling.
2. Stephen King’s Sense of Adventure
When I pick up one of King’s books, I always know he is going to take me somewhere. After decades of writing, King has earned his readers’ trust. His latest novel, Fairy Tale, starts slowly with several hours of describing chores, but then Charlie, the protagonist, leads us on a fantastic adventure that is well worth the wait. Alternate dimensions/realities are a common feature in many of King’s books, such as Lisey’s Story and the entire Dark Tower saga. Ordinary people crossing into places beyond their comprehension.
Not every story is as large as IT. Some of the horrors are closer to home, like in Delores Claiborne, when Delores has to protect her family from her abusive husband, or in Misery, when Paul Sheldon is trapped by his number one fan. Cujo, one of my favourites, takes place mostly inside a car. These stories don’t offer the same sense of adventure that an alternate dimension does, but they are still journeys into people’s psyche and fears.
3. Stephen King’s Connections between his worlds (Easter Eggs)
The Dark Tower world is a current that runs through much of King’s work. Insomnia, Hearts in Atlantis, IT, Salem’s Lot, and many others have elements of the Dark Tower throughout them, and readers love looking for references and Easter eggs. It makes King’s books seem bigger since they feed into a wider mythology. I admit that while I am a big fan of King, I struggle with the Dark Tower series, and some of the connections are lost on me, but when Jake Epping ran into Richie and Beverly in 11/22/63, or Cujo was mentioned in Pet Sematary, I got excited.
4. The Catharsis and Comfort of Stephen King
When I read a good King book, I get lost in the story. During difficult times in my life, I’ve purposely sought out King’s books because of this. They let me escape my life for a little while and give my heart time to heal. I know that I’ll be wrapped up in his book and won’t be thinking about my pain. I also connect with the characters I care about, and being with them through a harrowing time makes me feel less alone in my own harrowing time.
King’s writing has a comforting tone that draws me in. His narrative style is naturally conversational and feels like he is directly telling the story to you. This is probably one of the main reasons I keep coming back. He often includes opening/closing notes to his Constant Readers in his work, like he is with you as you read and wants to know what you thought.
Authors care what our readers think of our work, but I feel like King, more than many others, wears it right on his sleeve. As he says in Finders Keepers, “And you, CONSTANT READER. Thank God you’re still there after all these years. If you’re having fun, I am, too.”
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Melody lives in Ontario, Canada and writes short, dark fiction. She has been published in several anthologies and online publications. In university, she studied Ancient Greek and Roman Studies and often infuses her work with elements of Greek mythology. She also loves reading, embroidery, and martial arts.