'Fear Itself: The Horror Fiction of Stephen King' (Not Exactly A Review)

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Fear Itself: The Horror Fiction of Stephen King (Not Exactly A Review)

(Photo Copyright Mark Sieber 2016)
(Photo Copyright Mark Sieber 2016)

One of my favorite activities is treasure hunting at thrift shops, flea markets, estate and yard sales. I do it just about every weekend. I’m not looking for a deal on golf clubs, or vintage clothing. I don’t look at the tools or the toys. I pass the knick-knacks and the cooking supplies right by.

You probably guessed it. I look for books. And vinyl record albums. Movies, too but not as much as I used to. Books and records are mostly my things nowadays.

Sometimes I will be at a thrift shop, and I’ll see a jag of books all in the same genre, or bunches of them by an author or two. It always makes me sad. I imagine, and it’s usually true, that a reader and collector has passed away. His or her books found no new home from family or friends, and they get dumped at a thrift shop. Occasionally they will be inscribed, or have those accursed owner’s bookplates in them. The bane of any serious book collector.

I was at a Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughter’s thrift shop last weekend, and I saw a bunch of books by King and Koontz. A few other things, like a couple of Ramsey Campbell novels and the odd V.C Andrews or Mary Higgins Clark. The earthly remains of a lover of suspense and the supernatural. One of us, in other words.

Sad, as I said.

I had most of the stuff, and for the most part what I didn’t have, I didn’t really want. But one title captured my eye.`It was a nice trade paperback of Fear Itself: The Horror Fiction of Stephen King.

I picked it up with reverence. I owned this book back in the old days. The days when I was first becoming a serious fan of the horror fiction genre.

Fear Itself is an anthology of essays on King’s work by various authors, critics, and filmmakers. Stephen King provided a lengthy essay in it, and his friend and sometime collaborator Peter Straub wrote a personal appreciation. There are contributions by Charles L. Grant, Fritz Leiber, George Romero, Bill Warren, Douglas E. Winter, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Alan Ryan, and others.

There had been a Fear Itself hardcover published by Underwood-Miller a couple of years before it was done in mass market trade paperback. I couldn’t afford hardcovers in those days. Especially not small press items. I bought the trade PB of Fear Itself for the whopping price of $7.95. Plus tax. No mean financial setback for little old me in the year of 1984.

That was thirty-two years ago. Wow. A sobering notion, but one I have to come to grips with. Over three decades have passed.

A few snatches of quotes stayed in my brain from Fear Itself, but for the most part the contents of the book have been swallowed up by the passages of time. I’ve been flitting through the book, pausing to read bits and pieces here and there. It’s bringing back a tsunami of memories and emotions.

Nineteen-Hundred-and-Eighty-Four. What a time that was for me. I was twenty-three years old, and I had been a science fiction fanatic for most of my life. Not the media stuff for the most part, but in the printed word. I had been gradually making a hard transition from SF reader to died-in-the-wool horror fan, and Stephen King was one of the main catalysts of my transformation.

King was pretty much as huge then as he is now. He reigned over the bestsellers lists, and movie adaptations were hot. I liked all of them, and I was able to watch the movies at local drive-in theaters. Is there anything better than that?

I had been watching things like Cujo, Children of the Corn, The Dead Zone, Firestarter, Christine. Some of these don’t hold up so well. Hell, Children of the Corn didn’t much hold up on first viewing, but I liked them all. A couple of six-packs with some buddies at the drive-in helped make them all palatable.

I was so much in love with horror at the time. There are very few things in my whole life I have been as certain of, with as much sincerity and dedication and utter conviction, as I was of my love of all things horror. Horror claimed my heart and soul. It has cost me some relationships, a whole lot of money, and possibly even a few shreds of sanity, but my passion for horror is cemented into every fiber of my being. If I had to point to a spot where it all came together, this book–this Fear Itself nonfiction anthology–is as good a place as any to go.

Indulge me while I submit a quote from Peter Straub’s delightful introductory essay, “Meeting Stevie”:

…our genre had to live in the wider world of literature or it was merely a warped species of children’s novel, that it had to be as well written as any other sort of novel to be worth anything.

That’s one of the things in the book I kept close to my heart. Maybe too close.

This was a time before Splatterpunk, and while I loved, adored, that whole crazy time in the genre, I fell in love with horror by reading King and Straub, yes, but also Charles L. Grant. Ramsey Campbell. Karl Edward Wagner. Hugh B. Cave. John Farris. Ray Russell. Richard Matheson and Robert Bloch, of course. David Drake. And many others.

I didn’t read all literary stuff. I devoured James Herbert books, but his stuff was steeped in the history of the horror pulp, and was a lot of fun.

It was easier to tell the good stuff from the crap in those days. There were exceptions, of course, but you had low-rent publishers, shitty covers, and lousy writing on the inside. I trusted blurbs a lot more in those days.

The years have flown by. I’ve had jobs, homes, romantic partners, but I kept reading horror. Trends have come and they have gone. Good writing is the one standard I’ve tried to hold to when I start a book and decide whether I care to continue on or to toss it away.

And while I have never stopped reading in the genre, I have grown cynical. Jaded. It’s really hard not to, when you’ve been around the periphery of the genre as long as I have.

Times have indeed changed. The days of stylists Charles L. Grant and T.M. Wright dominating the genre are long gone. Good stuff is there, of course. It always will be, as long as people are telling stories with written words. The horror fiction arena of 2016 is not what it was in 1984. Some will tell you that it is better. They may be right. It’s all in the perspective.

HeadFullI am deeply gratified to see Paul Tremblay’s astonishing A Head Full of Ghosts land the Stoker Award as Best Novel this year. It’s brilliant. I just now, today, this morning, finished Joe Hill’s magnificent The Fireman, and it clearly demonstrates the unlimited potential of horror and dark fantasy. Daniel Kraus’ remarkable The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch proves that some of the best horror fiction being published today can be found in the Young Adult category.

Getting back to the heart of the matter, reading through Fear Itself: The Horror Fiction of Stephen King is a sharp, poignant reminder of what and why I become such a devoted fan of the genre. It brings back the innocence I once felt. I’ve bcome more of a critical thinker when it comes to fiction. That’s kind of a good thing, but I think maybe we lose something when we wear the critic’s hat too tightly upon our heads. Sometimes it really is just about the fun. I think I’ve lost track of that over the years.

And that, my friends, is one of the things that make Stephen King so enduringly popular. He’s a good writer. A damned good one, but he also has a lot of fun with his readers. We’re in on the joke with him, and his generous wit is a big part of why so many of us are Constant Readers. Plus, as he has said before, he isn’t above a crude gross-out stunt to throw us off guard.

It was mostly Stephen King who got me into this whole horror fiction obsession mess, and now it is he who is reminding me of why it continues to mean so much to me. It’s all in the pages of Fear Itself, and it’s in the pages of King’s books. Just as it is in the worthy fiction being published today, whether it is in hardcovers by the major publishers, or in Amazon Digital Services.

Mark Sieber learned to love horror with Universal, Hammer, and AIP movies, a Scholastic edition of Poe’s Eight Tales of Terror, Sir Graves Ghastly Presents, The Twilight Zone, Shirley Jackson’s The Daemon Lover, The Night Stalker, and a hundred other dark influences. He came into his own in the great horror boom of the 1980’s, reading Charles L. Grant, F. Paul Wilson, Ray Russell, Skipp and Spector, David J. Schow, Stephen King, and countless others. Meanwhile he spent as many hours as possible at drive-in theaters, watching slasher sequels, horror comedies, monster movies, and every other imaginable type of exploitation movie. When the VHS revolution hit, he discovered the joys of Italian and other international horror gems. Trends come and go, but he still enjoys having the living crap scared out of him. He can be reached at horrordrivein@yandex.com, and at www.horrordrive-in.com.

2 thoughts on “'Fear Itself: The Horror Fiction of Stephen King' (Not Exactly A Review)”

  1. speaking of good writing, this was very well written, and spooky because it’s like it was pulled out of my head. I as well lived in those exact times and couldn’t agree more with these thoughts, I don’t normally comment but this needed some recognition

    keep up the good work, these are always good but this was exceptional

  2. Although not a hardcore horror maven I was an avid King reader back in the 80s. Reading and rereading his early works. I drifted in many other directions as a reader but have recently, thanks to a dear friend, rediscovered the stories and newer works of Stephen King, and an introduction to authors I had not read; Robert Mcammon, Joe Lansdale, Jonathan Janz, and Tom Monteleone just to name a few. I hope to soon tackle Joe Hill and a long list of others oft mentioned in Horror Drive-In.
    Thanks Mark for insite on reading and passion for the written word. I have a lot of reading to do. And you, please, keep on writing.

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