If you were to ask me who my favourite author was, I’d probably stall for time before attempting to change the subject. I don’t do favourites. Some people make up lists of their top books, films, music, actors or pencil sharpeners and rank them in order. I’ve never been able to do that. For me, I either like something or I don’t. Trying to quantify them beyond that is hopeless. What I choose to do
at any point depends on too many other factors; you wouldn’t choose chocolate ice cream for breakfast even if it is your favourite food.
If pushed, I may have to say that my favourite author is Terry Pratchett. It’s an answer with plenty of evidence – I have an entire set of Discworld novels and I am familiar with the lives, personalities and history of all the major players: Rincewind the inept wizard, Granny Weatherwax the mountain witch, Sam Vimes and the City Watch, Archchancellor Ridcully at Unseen University and Death (who always speaks in CAPITAL LETTERS).
I certainly admire and enjoy Pratchett. He has been a massive influence on my own writing. But I’m not going to talk about Terry Pratchett. Never mind the man having over fifty books published, regularly hitting the bestseller lists and making efforts to save the orang-utans. No, I’m more interested in the influence on my work of a very different author – an American writer by the name of Stephen King.
There’s good evidence for King to be my favourite author, too. I have a large number of his books (including the entire seven book run of his Dark Tower magnum opus). His style has been a big influence on my work. I’ve even been photographed outside his house. And I’m always excited to hear he has a new book out. He, too, has an impressive pedigree – dozens of bestsellers, numerous movies.
What interests me most of all, however, is how variable he can be.
Pratchett is an author who, in my opinion, has never written a bad word in his entire career. The earliest of his Discworld novels lack some of the warmth and style of the later ones, but all of them have at least been very good. The sheer research involved is phenomenal, as each book is crammed with subtle references and jokes that relate to other works and things in our own world. He has developed a style of humour that is fairly unique – few fiction authors would even consider using footnotes, while Pratchett uses them to make jokes later in the main text.
I cannot say the same about King (not the footnote thing, the general quality). When he writes well, the results are epic and lasting. The setting of his Dark Tower series is immense – not just a world, but many worlds linked together, and the depth of them is palpable. He can also write some wonderful characters, giving us a look into their thoughts and feelings.
His horror leans more towards the psychological than the traditional, yet often combining the two – he has written about vampires, aliens, demons, ghosts, telekinesis, time travel and even brought about the end of the world for “The Stand”, but these are often the background to the story and not the story itself. He is also prone to what he calls “diarrhoea of the typewriter”, often producing books thicker than the table you read them on, and he has written some pretty awful books, too. “Cell”, for example, was utterly absurd from beginning to end, and though “Under The Dome” took decades for him to finish it I can’t help but think he shouldn’t have bothered.
The Dark Tower series is his entire career in microcosm. The first book in the series was almost impenetrable. By far the shortest, it employed a range of literary tricks, such as telling the story from the view of the main character remembering himself telling someone else his story – a flashback within a flashback, essentially. It didn’t so much end as simply stop after a psychedelic journey through the concept of size and the universe.
Books two through four, however, are astonishingly good – spinning a strange world with its own rules that links back to our own. The lead character gains friends. The characters develop. Then, after book four, he stopped. Three more books were planned for the series, but it took many years (and a car accident that nearly killed him) for King to carry on. And the final three books are good, but lack the surrealist majesty of their predecessors – like he wrote them as work, rather than for the joy of them.
So King has hits and misses. What makes the hits work?
Almost certainly his characters. There are very few outright monsters in King’s novels – even the most evil of men have their reasons for their actions, however warped and twisted. The key moment in King’s writing career was while writing “The Shining”. It’s a variation on the classic haunted house tale, only this time it’s a haunted hotel. Family moves in for the winter, weird things happen, head of family is possessed and tries to kill the others. King could have left it at that, and it would have been fine. Boring, but fine. If you’ve only ever seen the film version, you’re missing out – the book is much better. Stanley Kubrick completely missed the point, boiling it down to the boring version and making some very poor casting decisions.
The key point is that the hotel doesn’t possess Jack Torrance. It’s more complex than that. Jack is an alcoholic – a recovering one at the start of the novel, but succumbing to all the habits and mood swings of drinking again once the family is snowed in (despite there being no alcohol at the hotel). The hotel uses his alcoholism to turn him against his family, which is all the more horrifying given the effort and loss that Jack has suffered to prevent exactly that in the past. He grew up with an alcoholic father, swearing he wouldn’t do the same thing, and as the hotel starts working on him he begins to empathise with the father he used to hate. A demonic possession would be a force taking him over.
This is far worse. This is a force changing his perspective, warping his values and memories so he chooses to act against his nature. This is brainwashing. We aren’t frightened by ghosts and haunted houses (or hotels) because we know these things are fiction, but the idea that we could turn against our loved ones is another matter. We know it happens in real life – and what we don’t want to admit is that it could happen to any of us.
This was a pivotal moment in my writing career. I realised that characters could be motivated by things other than plot or desire. The human mind itself is filled with darkness and mystery, and sometimes we do things without knowing quite why. Instead of heroes and villains, we just have people – doing good or bad things, but always because they think it is the right thing to do, or sometimes because the drive to do it is stronger than their power to resist.
This is true in reality as well as in good fiction. No one really plans to do evil just because they want to do evil. No one chooses to hate any more than they choose to love. We can justify wars against evil men, which is why we struggle to think of Hitler as a man who painted watercolours, or bin Laden’s love of volleyball. We prefer to think of them as caricatures, because then we can pretend that evil deeds are only done by evil people, not by the likes of us.
I’ve learned a lot from reading Pratchett. But I’ve learned a lot more from King – both the good stuff and the bad. For that reason, I value King more as the greater influence on my work. He’s not my favourite author as I don’t do favourites. But, on balance, he’s definitely in the “Like” list.
I’d be interested to find out who has influenced your writing. Which author have you learned from the most? If you said “I want to write like _____” who would it be?