I am on the record here, and in various other places I imagine1, as saying that I did not like my first experiences reading Stephen King. Before I ever read anything by King, I considered him a horror writer who wrote about crazy wild dogs and evil cars and clowns and you could pretty much guess what that kind of thing would be. But in the late summer of 2001, I decided to set my judgement aside and, you know, actually read a Stephen King novel. I was returning to Los Angeles after a vacation in Hawaii and for the plane ride home, I picked up ‘Salem’s Lot. I later reported that I enjoyed the first two-thirds or so, but when the monsters really started showing up, I lost interest. I finished the book, but the last third seemed silly to me2.
I didn’t read another Stephen King book for three years, at which point I picked up Needful Things. I don’t remember why I chose to try King again, or why that book. But in the last days of September 2004, I read it. My reaction was almost identical to what I experienced with ‘Salem’s Lot: I enjoyed the first two-thirds of the book, but when the town started going crazy, I found the story growing silly.
Eventually, I did come back to Stephen King and was surprised to discover I enjoyed his other books, and he has become one of my favorite writers. But until recently, I avoided rereading those two books I’d read early on. In March, however, I reread both of them and was surprised and delighted to discover that I enjoyed both of them. Indeed, I remembered very little of them from my first readings and my rereads showed me things that I had either missed the first time around, or hadn’t the experience to understand.
One thing I discovered about ‘Salem’s Lot was that its small-town life seemed like Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles. I’m not saying that the vampires in the story were like the Martian’s in Bradbury’s stories because that isn’t true. But the small town feel evoked in some of those Bradbury stories came through in the town of Jerusalem’s Lot.
Nor did the last third of the book seem silly this time around. It made a lot more sense. We were watching a town by drained of its life the way the people in the town were drained of their blood.
It’s not one of my favorite King novels, but I like it far better than I remember liking it more than a decade ago.
While I liked my reread of Needful Things more the second time around than the first time, I didn’t like it quite as much as ‘Salem’s Lot. That said, I once again felt like I saw King trying to do things in this novel that were beneath the skin of the page and I liked that very much. And once again, a Bradbury comparison came to mind while reading this novel. This seemed to be a kind of more horrific retelling of Something Wicked This Way Comes, with Leland Gaunt taking the place of Cougar & Dark, and Alan and Polly taking the place of Jim Nightshade and Will Holloway. Instead of a carnival coming to town, it is a shopkeeper.
These rereads really brought home the fact that not only my appreciation for a book can change over time, but my understanding of it grows with experience. I suspect the latter has a large part to do with my impatience with the books the first time around. Then, too, I have read much more of King’s work in the intervening years and have a much better idea of the big picture, of how the various pieces of the stories and novels relate together in the intricate way that they do. But I think this lesson carries to rereading pretty much anything.
Of course, there is a risk in rereading something. I got lucky in my rereading of ‘Salem’s Lot and Needful Things. I sometimes worry about going back and rereading some of my favorite books that I haven’t read for some years now (Isaac Asimov’s Forward the Foundation, for instance). There is always a chance that I’ll discover I don’t like them as well as I used to–and I’m not sure that’s something I want to find out.