My earliest appreciation of language, prose, the beauty of a string of words elegantly woven into a story, came when I realized the right combination of words could evoke an immersive reality, like a video game. The use of “wafting” to conjure the smell of roast chicken emerging from a kitchen, in Roald Dahl’s Matilda. The ketchupy synesthesia of “bulbous, steaming” entrails spilling from the victims of dinosaur-mauling in Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. And oh, the rank but sweet “cinnamon” of a shaggy werewolf in winter from Stephen King’s Cycle of the Werewolf; it lingered, as if I were right there in snowy Maine, sniffing the air for my impending death lurking filthy in the woods. An innocuous spice, used to describe a monster that (probably) doesn’t exist and make it feel as real as the pungent pieces of bark I’d pick out of my daal during lunchtime. This was transformation—making the unreal real.
I might as well say, at this point, that there is no one writer that has influenced me the most. But out of the thousands of inspirations that led to my becoming a writer, King’s evocation of the spicy scent of werewolf deserves a special mention. King was one of the earliest writers of ‘grown-up’ fiction I ever read—the first book of his I had my parents buy me, at around eight or nine, from a cramped stall in the Calcutta Book Fair, was the resplendently illustrated Cycle of the Werewolf. I was so enamored of King’s storytelling abilities that he became a nigh-mythic figure, a superhero of sorts, his boldly enlarged last name on covers an indicator of his looming literary rank.
Because of book covers (this was pre-internet), I knew King was a famous bestseller. But I also knew that he was good. I read the first chapter of It bedridden with one of those eternal fevers so characteristic of childhood. King’s cursed city of Derry instantly became an alt-universe home, even though I’d been nowhere near America, let alone small-town 1950s Maine. Because of those combinations of words expertly deployed to trick your brain into opening a gate to other worlds, similar and dissimilar to the Earth we know. The reassuring-turned-ominous background notes of Fur Elise played by a mother (my mother played the piano), a boy sitting in bed with a fever (I was a boy sitting in bed with a fever), the relationship between brothers (I had a brother), the deep childhood fear of darkness (I hated switching off the light in a room with my back to the fresh unknown), the fragile dance of a paper boat on the raging swell of a flooded street gutter (paper boats in Kolkata monsoon), the vicious red of blood against a child’s yellow raincoat (gush of blood on the starched white of a school uniform, a nose battered by an absently swung water bottle). We all float down here. And float I did, into imaginative delirium.
I didn’t even realize until later that the opening was set during the ‘50s and not ‘modern’ times, because it felt like my present transformed into another setting, a familiar but parallel universe where I was an American boy making a paper boat for his little brother, where I was a little brother wondering what a clown was doing in the gutter where that boat disappeared. Transmutation–turning the word for a spice into the distinct musk of a creature that shouldn’t exist. King was a god-like being, scripting lines of code to brain-hack his Constant Readers into blossoming memories of lives unlived. I was a child, aghast in admiration. Storytelling wasn’t just a pastime: it was a replication of the human experience, a feedback loop to communicate with other humans.
I didn’t fully notice it yet, but when I started unconsciously imitating King’s phrases, his literary quirks, embedding little fragments of his potent prose into my own (like flowers twisted on to barb wire) to showers of praise from Creative Writing teachers and family, I began to want my own Constant Readers. Childhood was all play; making up worlds, stories, myths. I wanted to level up and do that forever, like Stephen King. I wanted the power to make other people live in my worlds, feel for my characters.
When I first saw an author photo of Stephen King, I was startled to find that he looked like a mere human being, with his face in full view, instead of some folkloric reality-weaver hidden under a hat and a veil of shadows, cowboy boots clomping over the highways of the literary multiverse like a chaotic neutral Randall Flagg. But his almost-apologetically unremarkable appearance reassured me too. Stephen King was just a person, like me. He had lived a childhood that fed the reality of those children in Derry. He had read comics and watched movies and read books that inspired him. Even Pennywise, his own legendary monster, was an amalgam of iconic pop cultural monsters that King grew up reading and watching. Anyone could write, if they had the ability and patience to string enough words together.
Some King paperback covers had the line ‘Words are his power’ under his name. When I first saw this on Misery, I was young enough that I thought it meant the protagonist had a literal, magic power that involved words (like incanting spells). I later realized that the line referred to King himself. It made sense. It also made sense that Misery features an author literally using his skill at stringing words together to save his own life.
Words are his power. I wanted them to be my power too.
I wrote a book called The Devourers much later. It has many, many influences, as does all my writing. But look carefully enough in the pages of The Devourers, and you might just find a half-werewolf whose rank body odor has something of the scent of cinnamon. Dear constant reader, it’s not a coincidence.
(The above essay was first published on the now-defunct unboundworlds.com, Penguin Random House’s sci-fi and fantasy site. I thought I’d throw it up again since it doesn’t exist anywhere else online, and watching It Chapter 2 got me thinking about King again. The painting up above is one of Bernie Wrightson’s illustrations for King’s The Cycle of the Werewolf novella)