This is an obvious one, I guess – the master of suspense, the aeroplane novel extraordinaire, Stephen King.
Often – as he would complain himself through his work, particularly in the character of Paul Sheldon in Misery – the ire of literary snobs, King is nonetheless an inventive and sharp writer, as John Gardner put it in The Art of Fiction: “Not everyone is capable of writing junk fiction: It requires an authentic junk mind… The most elegant techniques in the world, filtered through a junk mind, become elegant junk techniques.” That’s something to aspire to. And I’d bet history will be kinder to him (see this re-reading Stephen King series on The Guardian website).
There’s a reason, beyond sales, that so many of his books have been turned into award-winning films. The prose is clean, the language engaging, his characters always fallible, human, and believable, even in the most unlikely settings.
Even if you’re not keen on his brand of fiction, I’d still recommend his autobiography/informal textbook, On Writing. Contrary the image of King as the ultimate hack, banging out thousands of words a day, countless novels a year, powered by whisky and cocaine, you find a man who is in love with reading and writing. He writes: “Come to it any way but lightly… If you can’t or won’t, it’s time for you to close the book and do something else. Wash the car, maybe.” His advice on craft is practical, sensible, and delivered with wit and charm.
Dog Country (excerpt below), a short story in my latest collection, Fresh Blood Orange, is in part an homage to King, featuring an American writer of genre fiction going mad in an isolated cabin in the northland, haunted by his ex-wife, his literary aspirations, and, of course, something supernatural.
Read Fresh Blood Orange here.
Photo: By “Pinguino” (“Pinguino’s” flickr account) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
…Refurbishment over the years meant there wasn’t much of the original outpost left, just an imitation, but Montgomery Cabin was still a far cry from luxury. One room served as living quarters, kitchen and dining room while the other had enough space for a camp bed. There was a chemical toilet outside and a small shed containing a snow shovel, a rusty axe, miscellaneous lengths of rotten rope and enough wood to keep the fire going for a couple of days – as Hugh promised. Ed would soon have to get chopping.
On first opening, the front door had given a satisfying creak and a cold breath of air was released from inside, smelling of damp and earth. There was a low coffee table, its varnish chipped and scratched, and two plaid armchairs, ugly but comfortable. An amateur snapshot of the forest taken from the hill hung on a nail on the wall. However, the general dingy interior was lifted by a beautiful fireplace and chimney. Hanging above the hearth was the skull.
Its hollow eyes met Ed’s as soon as he stepped inside. It was missing the lower jaw and top teeth and a deep crack ran from the temple to the holes where the nose would have been. It was certainly human. In the middle of the forehead was an extra hole – a perfectly cut circle. Some would have thought it was a bullet hole but Ed knew it wasn’t. “Trepanning,” he said to himself. Trepanning was a surgical ritual carried out by various tribes around the world – including the native peoples of the Yukon. A flap was opened in the skin of the forehead and a hole was bored right into the skull beneath. It let the voices of the gods straight into the brain…