Okay, what I’m about to admit is quite scary, maybe even a little bit shameful, and especially during this month of hauntings, haints, and hellhounds, but I have never in my life read a novel by Stephen King.
Yet, for as long as I can remember, the name “Stephen King” has haunted me, almost with a shine all its own. Not so much the name of this most famous of horror writers, but the imagery and design of the books he’s written. They had an uncanny way of making my imagination run amok, trying to piece together just from the covers what the stories that lay in wait between those covers were like. But I’ve only ever read brief snippets, and based on what I read, I was convinced that if the stories themselves wouldn’t thrill me to death, then the page count would surely kill me!
My first encounter with a Stephen King book cover was when I was all of nine years old, way back in the neon-clad 1980s. Tucked away in the shelf of a dark-stained wooden bar cart where my mother kept all her occult and horror books was a copy of Pet Sematary, its bock-lettered spine snugly nestled between ESP in Life and Lab and The Exorcist. I slid it out, stared intensely at the Linda Fennimore cover taking in all the details: the graveyard crucifixes reaching toward a crimson sky just above the macabre cat hissing at me, its green eyes almost translucent and glowing; the shadowy figure holding what could only be a child in his arms––a dead child?––and the trees that could only look on and surmise, like me, of the horrors to come. And of course, the hand-written lettering of the title. My imagination sparked, but I dared not open the book to read a word of it.
A few books away from Pet Sematary, a copy of Christine, but without the dust jacket, so I had no imagery to help me out. When I would stumble upon Craig DeCamps’s deceivingly simple cover years later––the title “Christine” twisted out in chrome pipes, the profile of a single skull like a weird hood ornament, and the not-so-subtle reflection of blood on the chrome letters, it captured the premise of the book perfectly of a ‘58 Plymouth Fury out for murder and mayhem.
Years later, whenever my sister Renee would drive us out to Millcreek Mall, I would spend my time at Waldenbooks where I would see many other novels by Stephen King, all brandishing cover art that to this day are an iconography of my childhood and adolescence. Covers that ran shivers down my back as I tried to slink past them unnoticed. The creepy toy monkey seated atop Skeleton Crew; It with Bob Giusti’s green fingers reaching, reaching, ever reaching out to pull us under the sewer grate; even Bill Russell’s eerily silent shop on the cover of Needful Things were all the stuff of nightmares, some subtle, others staring us straight in the face with its terrifying gaze.
The names of the illustrators and designers may not be household staples, but these particular illustrations left an indelible mark on my psyche, and as time went by, I gained a more profound appreciation for book cover artwork, particularly that of science fiction and fantasy novels. Michael Whelan, whose work I explored in a prior Nostalgia’s Revenge! post, is by far my all-time favorite, and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that he did some work on the Dark Tower books; there’s even a whole chapter dedicated to Whelan in The Stephen King Companion. Then you have the work of Dave Christensen, who drew the covers for The Shining and ‘Salem’s Lot, two books that released before I ever set eyes on my first King cover, but the chilling sense of dread in both is ever present––a dark mansion looming high above the small town of Jerusalem, and what’s with those strange-faced dogs gazing out from the cover of The Shining?!
It’s gotten to a point that, these days, I spend way too much time and energy scouring estate sales for Stephen King hardcovers, softcovers––anything I can get my hands on. It’s happened a few times; I’d arrive at an estate early enough and snag all the King I could find; fortunately, oftentimes there are whole bookcases devoted to the master of horror! I once found a treasure trove of SK hardcovers stacked seven high in nondescript paper bags in a garage; these were all book club editions, but from the golden age of the eighties and nineties and all with those classic covers I love. Occasionally I’ll stumble on a gem––a true first edition of Pet Sematary, for instance, which I sold to a good friend of mine whose copy was lost to a flooded basement. Then there are times I miss out on a good lot of books. But this quest to seek out those covers I can’t get enough of is what fuels me with a chill exhilaration.
Now, imagine if I had actually sat down and read one of these books cover to cover in my youth! That said, it’s never too late, is it? I’m planning on reading some King this year beginning with The Gunslinger and complementing that with Night Shift, since I figure I’ll be able to make it through short stories better than any of his thousand-page-plus tomes. Then in January, I plan on reading Cycle of the Werewolf, since I can read one part per month and get my King fix that way. All baby steps toward the biggies, sure, but we all gotta start somewhere, right?
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As always everyone, thanks for reading this installment of Nostalgia’s Revenge! (and You’ll most likely read from me again in January.
J.T. Trigonis is a published author, professor, and born-again collector of vintage action figures, comic books, and CDs.