So I’m on vacation in Key West (yes I really write every damn day, no matter what) and decided to read some Florida-based short stories to settle in to the area a bit. While on the plane, I checked out Stephen King’s new short story, “Laurie” that he released as sort of a teaser for his novel The Outsider.
And it like totally didn’t make me terrified of alligators at all.
J/k it made me super extra terrified of alligators, but mostly just reminded me how much of a boss Stephen King is at creating easy and readable short stories. The man has a knack, a borderline creepy knack, for arresting my attention. Specifically with his short stories, I’m generally besotted. Love him or hate him, it’s undeniable: he excels at the craft.
So what Makes Stephen King so compulsively readable? Let’s look at his through the lens of “Laurie” (free online!) As usual, I recommend reading the story before reading this post, ‘cause it’s spoiler city over here.
1. His reputation precedes him
I’ve read so many Stephen King novels and short stories that stepping into one of his stories is like having lunch with an old friend. An old friend who likes describing graphic, grotesque horror scenes three quarters of the way through the lunch. So while reading “Laurie,” I immediately settled into King’s cadence and characters – allowed myself to be lulled into that false sense of security all while the knowledge simmered, just under the surface of my mind, that he was getting ready to pull out that intense, trademark King shocker.
He didn’t disappoint.
2. His characters are sympathetic and he’s not afraid to be funny
Stephen King does a really good job at characterization, something that I find super lacking in a lot of contemporary short stories. It’s almost a cheap trick: he tells you up front what you’re supposed to love about the characters. In “Laurie,” for example, the protagonist is Lloyd, an elderly gentleman living in Florida whose wife died six months ago. His overbearing but loving sister Beth springs a puppy on him in an attempt to bring him back from the brink of grief. The puppy is adorable. This is just a short story, but King has an incredible way of making me sympathize with his characters’ plights and traits. And the dialogue is often funny:
“A pet is the absolute worst present you can give someone,” Lloyd said, “I read that on the internet.”
“Where everything is true, I suppose.”
That’s the thing about his writing and his characters: yeah, there’s a lot of suspense and a generally creepy vibe but he’s not afraid to pull back those elements periodically and inject a little humor and levity in his short stories.
3. The element of mystery
Despite all the cute, heartwarming sweetness inherent in the story –“puppy and old man bond after tragedy” — Stephen King always find a way to ramp up the mystery. Like I was saying in the previous point, he’s able to vacillate seamlessly between heartwarming and upsetting:
“What Lloyd saw in those amber eyes was only watchfulness. Evaluation.”
Well that’s a weird way to describe a dog’s eyes – OMG IS THE PUPPY EVIL?
Guess you have to read to find out.
4. He uses words we know
Stephen King uses normal, everyday language. This is a tenant of his style. In fact, in his treatise on the craft, On Writing (one of the best writing memoirs I’ve ever read), he says this:
“Put away your dictionary, your encyclopedias, your World Almanac, and your thesaurus. Better yet, throw your thesaurus into the wastebasket. The only things creepier than a thesaurus are those little paperbacks college students too lazy to read the assigned novels buy around exam time. Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.”
This is true in “Laurie,” where they were no unrecognizable words. Simple, clean language. Where you think more about the story than the words used to say it.
5. Generally unpretentious writing
This relates back to the previous point about clean writing and simple vocabulary: King is not pretentious. Ever try to read David Foster Wallace? RIP and everything, but every time I read him I literally feel like he’s judging me through the pages for having a lower IQ than he does. And I love Cormac McCarthy but damn, not all those words are necessary (for a lark, check out this list of weirdo words he uses in Blood Meridian). Reading writers like Joyce, McCarthy, and Wallace is incredible, but intimidating. It makes me feel like shit. King makes me feel like I could be a writer too. He even makes silly writerly mistakes, like injecting too much exposition into dialogue:
“Yes,” she said, “With mother gone and dada a functional but basically hopeless drunk, I had to be.”
That’s some crap I would do – it’s relatable writing!
6. He’s really good at scary
This is one I can’t put my finger on. Many authors write about scary things but I never feel the visceral alarm I do while reading King. He can make me lose sleep for weeks. Another author could describe the same thing and it would disappear from my consciousness in a day. What is it he does differently? Is it the pacing?
I won’t give anything away about the ending of “Laurie,” but if you do read it, I invite you to analyze what he does in the last part of the book. How he accelerates the drama. How he build suspense. How he gives a little information when a lot is implied.
So what do you think? Are you a Stephen King acolyte? Do you find him incredible easy and enjoyable to read? Or are you among the many who find him overrated?