The number one cause of insomnia? Stephen King (but I love him anyway!)

Somehow I missed the memo that Stephen King’s new book came out yesterday until it was too late to go and get it.

Full Dark, No Stars

I have no idea how this happened, because I’ve gotten every one of his books the day they came out since I was 12.

You might be asking yourself why I’m such a huge Stephen King fan, especially when you take into consideration that I refuse to read anything by many other bestselling authors, like John Grisham or James Patterson.

The answer is simple: Grisham and Patterson are hacks.

Okay, granted, my definition of hacks probably varies from the definition that anyone else would give you, because I also consider Charles Dickens to be a hack. His books were only so long because he got paid by the chapter.  And he needed as much money as he could get.  For booze.  Hack.

All three of those authors are/were hugely successful hacks. But in my book, (no pun intended–but go buy it anyway!) anyone who finds something that sells well, then basically writes the same type of thing for the rest of their careers to keep churning out bestsellers that are fundamentally the same as all their other books is a hack.

Which is also why I refuse to read most chick lit, with the ONLY exceptions occurring when the books have truly original concepts and characters. Because if I read one more book about an early 30-something girl who works for a magazine/newspaper/tv station who gets dumped by her boyfriend/fiancé/husband then goes on a self-discovery kick and eventually finds Mr. Right, who SEEMS to be Mr. Wrong until the last two chapters when we find out that he’s been in love with her all along and they live happily ever after, I’m going to stab someone.

Literally. I will stab someone.

And that brings me back to why I love Stephen King: the stabbings.

I’m kidding. Kind of.  But not about the fact that I will stab someone if I need another chick lit book.  I’m 100 percent serious about that part.

You could argue, however, that Stephen King, like many other writers, sticks to a formula that works. For example, in all of his books, someone or something goes crazy and kills people. But it’s always something super creative and different that goes crazy and kills people. And even though I’ve read all of his books (many of them more than once), Stephen King ALWAYS keeps me guessing (usually incorrectly) about what’s coming next.

Of course, there’s also one major problem with me reading Stephen King books: I have a massively overactive imagination and am completely convinced that once I’ve read something scary in one of his books, it is then lurking in my house waiting to get me.

Statistically, I know this is unlikely. If there IS an evil force in my house, why would it wait until I was suspicious of it to attack me? Wouldn’t it prefer to have the element of surprise? Although, if I were an evil supernatural creature (shut up, no, I’m not!), I’d probably want to wait until someone was afraid of me to attack because the element of fear would be more fun than the element of surprise.

But because I have a ridiculously overactive imagination, it’s not usually the stuff that you’d expect to scare me that scares me the most. For example, I’m not all that scared of ghosts. But every single time I wake up in the middle of the night and have to go to the bathroom, I HAVE to turn on the bathroom light and make sure that the scary dead bathtub lady from The Shining isn’t in there waiting for me. No, not the one from the movie. She didn’t scare me; I found it pretty funny that Jack Nicholson made out with her. But the dead bathtub chick from the BOOK still scares the hell out of me. Because my mind makes her much scarier than any movie ever could.

The Shining

 
The supernatural stuff isn’t his strongest suit though. Don’t get me wrong, he’s REALLY good at that. But deep down, I DO know that most of that stuff can’t be real, so it tends to only scare me late at night, when I’m alone.

Instead, the best part of Stephen King’s writing is his identification of the fear in situations that we can’t control. I know full well that there probably isn’t going to be a giant dome that drops down randomly from the sky one day and cuts Rockville off from the rest of the world like in Under the Dome. But Stephen King creates such a completely believable world in his books that you feel like YOU are in that town with his characters. And it makes you wonder what you would do if you were in the situation that they were in, even though your rational mind KNOWS that is highly unlikely.

Under the Dome: A Novel


 Because what if our cell phones DO start emitting something that destroys rational thought like in Cell. I almost never actually TALK on my phone. I’m going to be one of the people who has to figure out how to save society if that happens. (Well, okay, probably not. The zombie creatures will most likely kill me within the first few minutes of the crisis, so it probably won’t be ME saving the world. But what if by some random chance it is?)

Cell: A Novel


 And in my mind, his scariest books are the ones that have little or no supernatural elements in them. While The Stand DOES have some supernatural parts, the idea that a super virus could kill off most of the world isn’t actually all that far-fetched at all.

The Stand: Expanded Edition: For the First Time Complete and Uncut (Signet)


I think his scariest book is Cujo, because every single thing that happens in that book COULD happen. Even today with cell phones, it’s an exceptionally plausible story. Because let’s face it, there are definitely still areas with no reception. Like my parents’ house, which resides in the black hole of all cell service. (Which I immediately realized was a good thing when I read Cell, because in case of a cell-phone based apocalypse, I could hide out there long enough to figure out how to save the world.)

Cujo (Signet)


So I’ll be going to Barnes and Noble after school today to pick up the newest Stephen King book. Which also means I’m going to be tired tomorrow, not from staying up too late reading, but from staying up too late because I’ll be afraid to go to sleep.

But I’m still going to love every minute of it. Bring it on Mr. King. I’m ready.

Although I’m probably going to feel differently once I’m reading it.  Oh well.  To quote the late Warren Zevon, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”  Although if the afterlife is anything like a Stephen King story, I’ll actually be roaming the earth and killing people when I’m dead.  But I’m not too worried about that.  I’m more worried about the dead chick in my bathtub, the clown in the sewer, and the Walkin’ Dude.

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If I am a monster, these books are my Dr. Frankenstein (which is pronounced Fronkensteen)

Anyone who knew me as a child is probably not remotely surprised that I turned out to be a writer because books have always played a huge role in my life. There are a handful of books, however, that have been more influential than others in making me into the person I am today. So if I am a monster, the following books are my Dr. Frankenstein (which happens to be nowhere near my list).  Except for the first one, they’re in no particular order.

Any list of books that have helped shaped me has to start with Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind.

I first read it at ten years old, and have read it over twenty times since then. It was even the theme of my bat mitzvah (which worked pretty well, as we had the party at an antebellum mansion). When I first read the book, I wanted to be Scarlett O’Hara.

She was so determined, some unabashedly unstoppable. And to a young girl whose mother once described her as possessing the “evil, going-to-take-over-the-world-someday gene” (yes, she meant me), Scarlett was the female role model who didn’t exist anywhere else.

As I’ve aged, I’ve gotten deeper shades of meaning out of the book. I get frustrated with anyone who spouts off the BS from James Loewen’s book, Lies My Teacher Told Me, because his argument against Gone With the Wind ignores the fact that a novel can be historically accurate in showing the racism of a time period without being a book that promotes racism. But the main thing that struck me as I got closer to the age that Scarlett is at the end of the book is that by the time I was old enough to understand that I did NOT want to be like her, it was too late for me in many ways.

Perhaps the most significant effect that Gone With the Wind has had on my life however, has nothing to do with Scarlett O’Hara. Because from the moment I started reading my mother’s old tattered copy from the 1960s (which didn’t even survive that first reading, let alone the subsequent readings), I knew that I had to be a writer. And one of the best compliments I have ever received came from the website IWriteLike.com, which compares samples of your writing to that of famous authors and tells you who your style is most similar to. And when I put the entire text of Beyond the Palace into the program, I was told my writing style was most like Margaret Mitchell’s.

My novel is less than a third of the length of hers, but despite its heft, Gone With the Wind is worth every single page.

The next book on my list is Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.

I know, I know, Pride and Prejudice is every Austen lover’s favorite book. But Sense and Sensibility is darker, which I think lends so much more realism to the story. So many of the problems in Pride and Prejudice center around the class divide, which doesn’t really exist in the world I live in. But the problems in Sense and Sensibility can still keep people apart today. The characters, written over two hundred years ago, are multi-dimensional enough to ring true even now. We have all been Marianne Dashwood at times and followed our hearts, only to be emotionally ravaged when we learn that love isn’t always enough to make a relationship work when two people have different priorities.

And we’ve all been her sister, Elinor, in love with someone we can never have and kept forever from that person by the hateful Lucy Steeles of the world.

Before there was Regina George of Mean Girls, there was Lucy Steele, befriending Elinor with the sole intention of crushing her rival. If you’ve never read this gem, pick up a copy now. You’ll have to be able to get past the Victorian language, but if you do, you’ll find a surprisingly raw love story that resonates incredibly strongly despite being written by a long-dead British spinster.

Stephen King’s The Stand makes the cut next.

I know, that’s a huge jump from Jane Austen. But Stephen King creates a whole world in this novel (granted, he kills 99 percent of that world off within the first hundred pages, but that’s the basic plot of all Stephen King books–someone or something goes crazy and kills people), and the ability to do that, to breathe actual life into a set of characters is something that mortals are seldom able to accomplish. I also know that a lot of people label Stephen King as a hack because of the practically superhuman speed at which her churns out novels. But every time I pick this book up, I’m still amazed by the ease with which he can juggle so many people’s lives and make ALL of them three dimensional.

My books are far from the horror genre so far (although I probably WILL venture into Stephen King’s territory at some point in my career. I’m just waiting for the right story to hit me), but one element of his work has inspired everything that I’ve written, and that is that all of his characters who wrong others have a chance for redemption in the end. They all make a choice to do good or do evil, and the lesson I have taken from that for my writing is that there’s no such thing as a purely good or purely evil character. Everyone is the star of his or her own plotline, and they are all able to make redemptive choices. They don’t all choose to redeem themselves, in fact most of them don’t. But they have a reason for their behavior and the free will to choose their own path, and I have tried to give that same ability to my villains as well.

While there are a dozen books that people call “The Great American Novel,” I think that title belongs unarguably to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

This is the book I turn to when I lose faith in humanity. When I feel that everyone is ONLY ever looking out for him or herself, I read this book to humanize myself again. With the POSSIBLE exception of Jean Valjean from Les Miserables, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a better character in all of literature than Atticus Finch.

He manages to be caring and strong at the same time, but most of all, he’s REAL. Most characters who care more for others than themselves are no more than weak foils to the protagonists. Amelia in William Makepeace Thackery’s Vanity Fair or Jane Bennet in Pride and Prejudice are shining examples of these morally righteous characters who are too weak to be that likeable. But Atticus, even as he cries over the injustice of Tom Robinson’s death, reminds me that there IS true, genuine goodness and strength in the world.

The end of the novel, no matter how many times I read it, leaves me surprised, touched, and less jaded with the world. If you haven’t read this one since you were in school, read it again. The first eight pages will bore you if you don’t remember enough of the story for it to make sense, but when you get past those eight pages, you’ll thank me. I promise.

And last, but by no means least, is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

I’m ashamed to admit that when I read this in high school, I hated it. And to be honest, I still think that all of the female characters in it are horrible. But Fitzgerald was so far ahead of his time in so many ways. Nick’s one-third life crisis resonates so strongly with what my generation currently faces that I wonder how earlier generations could have identified with it as strongly as we do. I feel like the baby boom generation WANTED to get married and start having kids in their twenties, like Daisy and Tom do. But Nick flees to the east to escape from that world, and finally, after everything that he sees that summer finds that at 30 years old, he is “five years too old to lie to [himself] and call it honor.” And in the gap that I’m now seeing between myself now and the person I was merely a few years ago, I’ve come to realize just how talented Fitzgerald was at capturing the human condition as it is now, some eighty-five years after he wrote his greatest novel.

One of my college professors used to tell us that everyone should read The Great Gatsby every five years because as your situation in life changes, so will your take on the book. Bruce Springsteen described “Born to Run” as a song that has kept him company on his journey through life, and that it has grown with him as he has aged, and I think The Great Gatsby has that same quality to it. Which, coming from me, is some of the highest praise possible to give.

I’ll get into the books that shaped me the most as a writer another day, but if you like what you’ve seen on my blog or in my first novel, take another look at these five books while you’re waiting for my next book. Which is coming. Soon. I promise. All I need is a title. I was thinking along the lines of “No TV and no beer make Homer… something something.”