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Patton Oswalt on a Lifetime of Reading Stephen King Books

This weekend marks the 40th anniversary of Carrie, Stephen King's first novel, published on April 5, 1974. Gilbert Cruz spoke to actor, comedian, and King fan Patton Oswalt for this as-told-to piece.

I cannot remember the actual first Stephen King book that I read. It could have been Salem’s Lot. But I do have very vivid memories of reading The Stand when I was about 10 or 11. All the older kids were reading it. I remember very distinctly that thick paperback with the dark cover with the human face and the crow face on it, and how there was just something so sinister about it. I was a big Close Encounters fan, and they kind of aped that movie's poster with the highway and the light.

You started seeing The Stand everywhere. It was the equivalent at the time of something being viral. Not only did I see Stephen King's name on books my friends were reading, but it was also on a lot of my teacher’s desks. Before I knew it, I was in. He had me. I remember my friends and I would play a game — Who should play Larry Underwood? Who should play Randall Flagg? Who should play Nick Andros? That just showed you how real and alive The Stand was. A lot of his books were a premium for us because we could make little flip animation movies in the margins. If you were reading a Beverly Cleary book, the most you could make was a seven- or eight-second film. But if you got a Stephen King book, you could do an epic. You had space to really stretch out and do your film. I had a copy of The Stand in which I made this huge outer space story where I had ships pursuing each other. There was a whole sequence where one ship landed and got unloaded. I was very proud of it.

I was so young that I didn’t know anything about how the adult world worked. And King was my first entrée into those mundane things that adults have to worry about. Some of his books happen to be fantastical, but they were also very aware of — these are the bills you have, this is how you pay them, this is how adults talk when kids aren’t around. I grew up in Northern Virginia and he and Spielberg were the ones that really nailed what it was like to live in the suburbs and grow up in the suburbs and watch people struggle with their marriages and with their careers and with their families. For all the fantastical elements of Spielberg’s movies and King’s novels, they really captured everyday life perfectly.

I read his stuff pretty deeply as a kid. And then college came along and I majored in English, so I was assigned a lot of stuff and my reading for pleasure fell away. Once I got out of college and wasn’t traveling so much as a comedian, I actually had time to do some pleasure reading again and I returned to King. Early on, it had been things crawling out of the sewers and vampires and monstrosities and stuff like that. And then as he got older and older, it was more about the fear of aging. It’s like I grew up with him. His stuff hits me now so perfectly.

When you’re an adult, you don’t know what is going to imprint and terrify a little kid. You can try to keep them safe from monsters and images from horror, but they’ll find something to be scared of. There’s a scene in Thinner where the main character, who has been cursed by a gypsy and is losing a ton of weight, is being made to eat oranges or he’ll die. He’s having heart arrhythmia because he’s so skinny. At one point, he’s walking toward his car and he’s just holding a huge bag of oranges and he’s really unsteady because he’s so thin. And some little kid sees him and the book flashes forward in just one sentence to tell you that the kid will have a nightmare that night — the stick man is going to make me eat oranges! One scary thing and you’re way too young to deal with it and then it just fucks you up.

There are so many images that have stuck in my head. Randall Flagg and his boot heels clacking on the highway as he remembers all the people that he has run into and you slowly realize that he is the main conduit of evil in the world. The very last letter in the novel Carrie — you’ve just seen what this ugly, awkward outcast can do with all of her powers, and now there’s this letter being written by this half-literate woman down south. Her little daughter basically has Carrie’s powers, but she’s blonde and blue-eyed. And the mother says she’s going to be a world-beater some day. Well, is she going to grow up to be good or just total evil? What do we have waiting for us?

There are also some very drily humorous things in his books. One of the driest humorists is Glen Bateman in The Stand. There’s just that very icy, Northeastern, New England sense — after you live through a few New England winters, you get sort of a reserved view of the world, I imagine. But then at the same time, one of my favorite characters is Gary Pervier in Cujo, who is one of the most profane, hilarious characters I’ve ever read. He’s all, I don’t give a shit, I don’t give a fuck. King’s really good at that saltiness, that flavor. Like an Elmore Leonard or a David Mamet, he loves listening to people talk, especially when people have a very specific way of talking. And he loves to get that flavor into what he writes.

Especially now that so few people read, I have to say, if you want to sit down and read a book and have a great, great fucking story told to you by someone who knows what they’re doing and knows where they’re taking you, that’s Stephen King. There are a couple of clunkers in there, but you’re talking about so many books, for God's sake. Most people, they can build their reputation on two or three. This guy has written a small bookstore of his own stuff. That is how hard he has played the shit out of his own game.

Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson and Photo by Getty