Stephen King turns 75 years old this week (Sept. 21, to be exact), just two weeks after the publication of his 64th novel, the already acclaimed Fairy Tale. Aside from a trickle of short stories he sold for a number of years starting in 1967, his career really began in earnest with the 1974 arrival of Carrie, his first published novel.
While the book sold modestly in hardcover, it was the sale of the paperback rights (for $400,000) and the novel’s subsequent success in that format which enabled King to become a full-time writer and launch the historic career that is still going strong 48 years later and has made him one of the most successful and well-known writers of all time.
It was in paperback that I first encountered the work of Stephen King as well, although it wasn’t Carrie. Instead it was King’s second published novel, ‘Salem’s Lot, which I spotted on one of those spinning metal racks in a drug store in a small Long Island town called Rocky Point. That store was my go-to for comic books, monster movie magazines, and books whenever I was staying at my grandparents’ summer home. Little did I know that buying that book that day would impact my life for decades to come.
Reading Stephen King for the First Time
I remember being drawn to the cover, all black with what appeared to be a child’s face slightly raised in relief, a single drop of blood at the corner of its mouth. The title of course made me think at first that it was about witchcraft. Although I was very young, I was keenly aware of horror titles such as The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, which I was not yet allowed to read. How I convinced my grandfather to purchase ‘Salem’s Lot (which seemed just as adult) remains a mystery to this day.
‘Salem’s Lot was my first King, and remains one of my absolute favorites, probably for that reason. I recall reading about the terrible death of Danny Glick, his father throwing himself on his son’s coffin. While I’d read some horror before, never before had I encountered a story in which a child died (a child roughly my own age, I should add).
And then I remember getting to a point in the story, I don’t recall exactly which scene, when a light switched on in my head and I realized that this was a book about vampires. Vampires! In a little town like the one I was staying in! Like almost everyone else, my experience of bloodsuckers up until then had been relegated to dusty Universal and Hammer movies. What King did by bringing them into late 20th century America felt nothing less than revolutionary.
I devoured ‘Salem’s Lot and then went back to grab Carrie from that same rack in that same store. When the movie of Carrie came out, I talked my mother into taking me to see it (I somehow managed to convince her to take me to a lot of age-inappropriate movies back then, ranging from Theatre of Blood to Jaws). And then perusing the local mall’s book store one day, there it was: the silver paperback cover of The Shining, the brand-new novel from Stephen King.
That went down in two huge gulps, 200 pages a day over two days, and etched into my mind along with the horrors of the Overlook Hotel was the sweet, doomed relationship between little Danny Torrance and his father, Jack, and how the malignancy of the hotel could ultimately not destroy their love.
Probably like a lot of people my age, King was in many ways my first adult reading. I had been a voracious reader reportedly since the age of three or four, and a lot of my early books consisted of Star Trek episode novelizations, Planet of the Apes novelizations, and non-fiction works about the making of various movies and TV shows, with a few original sci-fi and horror novels sprinkled in. But reading King was transformative, and his work eventually led me to discover that of the great Peter Straub (who we recently lost), the British titan Ramsey Campbell, and frankly lesser lights like Dean Koontz and John Saul who still managed to enthrall and terrify me, even if their work didn’t quite stand the test of time like the others.
Meanwhile the King hits kept coming… only in a different way, and in a fashion that would give me another kind of gift—beside the man’s work itself—that would bear fruit for years to come.
The Hardcover Revolution
I had purchased my first three or four King books, including the monumental short story collection Night Shift, in paperback, the way that the vast majority of fans back then probably did. At the time, I really had no understanding of how the publishing industry worked, with the relatively expensive hardcover edition coming out first, followed six months to a year later by the cheaper, smaller, less durable paperback.
That all changed one day when I went to spend the weekend at my dad’s apartment. My father and mother had separated when I was just two years old, finalizing the divorce when I was four. As part of the deal, I spent Sundays and sometimes whole weekends with my father at his place in Queens. At the time, I had no real memory of him being a presence in my life before that; although I knew he was my dad, he was in some ways just a relatively nice guy who came to pick me up on weekends and entertain me.
My father was a reader too and had a whole wall of books in his smallish apartment. He belonged to the Book-of-the-Month Club or something like that, which sent most of his books in hardcover. So imagine my surprise when I scanned his shelves that day and discovered a new Stephen King book called The Stand.
The fact that there was another new King book—and an 800-page monster at that—already out while I was just finishing up with The Shining and Night Shift kind of blew my mind. I instantly borrowed my dad’s copy, reading a decent chunk of it at his place and taking it home with me after the weekend was over to continue. I couldn’t stop and leave it there for a whole week, of course.
The books came more rapidly after that: I swiped my dad’s hardcovers of The Dead Zone (which is the first book that ever made me cry) and Firestarter before finally starting to buy my own, beginning with Different Seasons and Pet Sematary. From there it was hardcovers all the way, especially since I started working after school jobs and having some money of my own.
But reading those books at my father’s place did something else: it gave us common ground. We were alike in some ways, not alike in others, with different interests (my dad was a football and hockey fan; I enjoyed baseball but generally stayed away from sports). My dad didn’t open up emotionally either, and it wasn’t until I was in my early 20s—after he had moved to Florida and I hadn’t seen him for a few years—that we finally began to talk about some things, like the end of his marriage to my mother and some of the other ups and downs of his life (the guy was bit of a renegade for the first half of his life).
But we always talked about the latest King books. That was one of the strongest connections we had—not just King, but our general love of reading and other authors we both liked. Yet it always came back to Stephen King and his works. It was a conversation we kept going for decades, right up until my father suddenly passed away in March 2021. His last King book was, I think, Later.
Many Happy Returns
Stephen King’s effect on the horror genre, on popular literature, on filmmaking, and on pop culture is vast and indelible. He is the most popular author of his time; his books have sold hundreds of millions of copies; and many of the films based on his work are now considered classics of horror cinema. This includes Brian de Palma’s Carrie, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Rob Reiner’s Misery, and more recently, Andy Muschietti’s It.
He’s been part of our lives for nearly 50 years, and an especially important, deeply personal part of the lives of what he calls his Constant Readers: the ones who have been on the ride with him for most of this time, some stretching back all the way to the beginning, others hopping aboard the dark train with the novel It or the brilliant film adaptation The Shawshank Redemption.
I’m one of those Constant Readers, and I have shelves full of King books staring at me as I write this, ranging from crumbling paperbacks to pricey limited editions. I have my share of King signatures, although I’ve only met the man, very briefly, twice. An interview remains the top item on my bucket list and is likely to be there until and if it ever happens.
Reading Stephen King taught me about the power of storytelling and memorable characters, the complexity and mechanics of the craft itself, and the awe that truly great books could inspire in a reader. His novels, short stories, and movies have provided endless hours of joy and entertainment. His literary voice is instantly familiar and feels, whenever I open a new book of his, like that of an old friend. In many ways he is an old friend and has been for years, even though I don’t know the man.
The reach of his work unites everyone who has ever read him, and I’m pleased to say that it united my father and I, right up until Don Kaye Sr. passed beyond the realm of human understanding. That is top of the list when it comes to the gifts that Stephen King – without even being aware of it – has given me over the years.
Happy 75th birthday, Stephen King, and thanks, on behalf of two longtime Constant Readers. Long days and pleasant nights to you, sir.