How Stephen King Became the Shakespeare of Nightmares

André Carrilho

With film adaptations of The Dark Tower and It lurking around the corner, novelist Benjamin Percy considers Stephen King’s impact on the American psyche.

"Didn’t you say this was the scariest book you’ve ever read?” My ten-year-old son had pulled the hardcover off the shelf and now held it with two hands. His shoulders slumped, as if weighed down by my own decades-old nightmares. The darkness of the dust jacket offset the red lettering of the title: It. A boat—folded from a newspaper and sealed with Turtle Wax—rushed on a current of rainwater toward a sewer grate from which a clawed hand reached.

“I’m going to read this,” my son said, turning the book over and studying the author photo, and I said, “No,” maybe a little too loudly.

My son asked why, and I didn’t have a good response. Not at first. It was in fifth grade, after all, when I stole the same novel off my parents’ bookshelf. I knew they would have disapproved, and I read it with the same forbidden pleasure that I took when sneaking looks at my father’s Playboy magazines or when watching R-rated movies at our neighbor’s house.

Stephen King’s It awakened my brain, opened up emotional chambers I didn’t know existed. I related so closely to the seven kids who make up the Losers’ Club—their dreams and anxieties my own—and by following them into adulthood, I grew up a little myself. I remember passages from that book so vividly I might as well have lived them. And this is not unique to It, which was published in 1986 and is getting a new film adaptation on September 8. I might own nearly all of King’s books, but really, they own me. And I’m not alone in this way. So many of us were raised by him.

I call prisons Shawshank. I call barking dogs Cujo. I have an SUV that leaks oil, that is constantly getting dinged and dented by other cars, that has inexcusably terrible gas mileage, and I call it Christine. I cannot walk down an empty hallway in a hotel without thinking about those dead-eyed twin girls. I cannot fall asleep on an airplane without worrying whether the other passengers will be gone when I wake up. I cannot close a window at night without thinking of Danny Glick scratching the glass and begging to be let inside.

Not long ago, when my family was cleaning up the litter in the ditch near our home, a semi blasted by, and I could not help imagining my daughter struck by it—like little Gage from Pet Sematary. I felt nauseous with fear and called her over and demanded she stay close. King is inescapable in this way. He is there—on every train track, at every lakeside cabin, in every culvert and marsh and funeral parlor, every bathroom and walk-in freezer and hogpen and high school dance—imprisoning me in a world of wonder and horror. Dostoyevsky might have said that “we all come out from Gogol’s overcoat,” but for this loyal reader, we all come out of King’s sewer grate. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say his cultural influence might be second only to Shakespeare’s.

The book I’ve read more times than any other is The Gunslinger, the first in the Dark Tower series, an epic work of dark fantasy about Roland of Gilead, a kind of interdimensional knight who carries a pair of oversize revolvers with sandalwood grips. It gives me gooseflesh now to type the first line: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” As a teenager I returned to the book regularly because I saw Roland as an ideal man, someone I ought to aspire to. I modeled my behavior after him, an invisible mentor. The adaptation, starring Idris Elba as Roland and Matthew McConaughey as the man in black, hits theaters August 4. I’m both excited and dreading it, because the story matters so much to me.

“So?” my son asked. “Can I read it?”

“Give it here,” I said. He handed me the book and I riffled through its pages, re- membering. “How about I tell you a bit about it first? Then you can decide whether you’re ready.” I told him about the newspaper boat vanishing down the sewer grate and the boy kneeling there and peering into the dark. And the clown—Pennywise—rising suddenly from the shadows, his face chalk-white, his mouth a red gash. In his hands he clutched a balloon and he offered it to the boy. “We all float down here,” I said in a helium-inflected voice. “You’ll float too.”

“That’s good!” my son said. “That’s—that’s enough. Don’t say any more, okay?”

We laughed, and I told him that a friend of mine who read It recently had to keep the book facedown in another room because it bothered her so much.

“How about this?” my son said. “I’m just going to peek at the first page.” It was the same tone of voice he used as a toddler when saying, “Chase me!” He wanted me to roar and pursue him with my hands made into tickle claws back then— and he wanted to dare the nightmare now.

“Go for it,” I said.

He opened the book slowly, as if something might spring out at him, a nervous smile twitching the corners of his mouth. He read aloud the first two words—“The terror...”— before slamming shut the book and returning it to the shelf, where it remains now, waiting to change his life.

Benjamin Percy’s novel The Dark Net is out August 1 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.