Summers are for Stephen King
His horror stories should be read now, when the entire hemisphere has left the lights on
The first time I read Salem's Lot was on a camping trip when I was 12. I didn't sleep for the next week. It was perfect.
Ever since, I've been convinced Stephen King's books are the ultimate summer reads. Not because they make me feel nostalgic, but because there is truly no better time of year to dip into his gargantuan oeuvre. Maybe that's a bit counterintuitive — isn't horror best enjoyed during the bluster of an autumn evening or in the black nights of winter? — but the opposite is true. King should be read in the summer, when the entire hemisphere has left the lights on.
Horror stories are far more estival than autumnal. Before I ever read King, I learned to love being scared at summer camp, where the older kids would tell us ghost stories by campfire and flashlight. Horror ripens when the pole is tilted toward the sun — when school is out, children are unsupervised, heat makes people crazy, unexplored woods begin to beckon, and families return to the sites of old traumas in the name of tradition or recreation. Halloween, with all its associated spooks and nighttime wanderings, might be a fall holiday, but the best horror is not about the darkness. The best horror is about what you finally, terribly, glimpse in the light.
King might not be America's greatest horror author, but he is without a doubt the most prolific and best known. He's written over 60 novels and several hundred short stories, which means that even as I've been knocking off several a year since I was a preteen, I still have dozens more left to go. Depending on your age, you could likely read a Stephen King novel every summer for the rest of your life. And like returning to the lake house after a year away, settling back into King is strangely comforting since his style, technique, and themes remain largely consistent across his decades of work.
Although he is famously hit-or-miss, I'd maintain it doesn't much matter which King you pick up so long as you do so between about June and September. My technique has been finding copies of King's books in guest houses or motel lobbies — how I came across The Mist, Dreamcatcher, and Duma Key — or grabbing what looks interesting in a bargain bin at the local independent bookstore. Sometimes you get a dud, like the time I spent real American dollars to buy Cell (certifiably Stephen King's craziest book), but sometimes you end up with The Gunslinger in your hands, and inadvertently open up an entire summer spent in the Dark Tower universe. (If you insisted on a place to start, I'd recommend Pet Sematary, but the happenstance of picking up a random King and having no idea what you're getting is truly one of the best parts).
For more hectic trips, when I don't have large chunks of time to spend chipping my way through something like Under the Dome or 11/22/63, I like to seek out King's short story collections, several of which diehards will tell you are his best works. (You'll hear a lot about Skeleton Crew and Night Shift, but my two cents is that "That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is in French," from Everything's Eventual, is his greatest). The short story collections can be pieced together exclusively in bedtime sessions, if the day is too full of relatives, or if you, like me, resort to trashy romances set in Nantucket when suntanning.
There are a lot of people who will still complain that Stephen King is just plain bad. Regardless of the literary merit you think King does or does not have, that type of qualitative assessment doesn't much matter for summer reading: What King is, above all else, is intensely readable. I might have had my eyes popping out of my head the entire time I was reading Desperation (another very weird book!) but I also didn't want to put it down. Summer is for page-turners, sometimes even mindless page-turners, and no one can credibly argue that King is boring.
I will confess there is one drawback to reading King in the summer: The length. I am carting my book for this year, the deliciously summery It, back and forth across the country, which I think qualifies me to skip arm days at the gym for the rest of the year. If you're an ebook reader, this isn't a problem; in that case, the page counts are even an asset since one of his stories might last you the entire season. King rarely writes carry-on luggage books, though, and I'm half-tempted to suggest the ol' ultralight backpacker strategy: Buy a paperback copy, rip it into two or three chunks, and just take the pieces on the plane as needed. Or do as I do, and dedicate your entire carry-on to The Stand.
Eventually, though, as the days shorten after the solstice, my reading of King begins to wane too. Once or twice I've tried reading him in the fall — Misery, Cujo were false-starts — and been unable to rekindle the feeling that comes with having King in hand in the summer. Even without school to demarcate the seasons anymore, summer remains a kind of limbo, the days thick and sticky as if time is somehow slower, or doesn't exist at all.
King's latest novel, The Institute, comes out this September and sounds like a thrilling return to form. But I know better than to try to read it then. I will wait until summer comes again, when, like a reverse Persephone, I descend into his underworld once more.