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Let’s just get the really nasty stuff out of the way first, OK?

In almost every Stephen King novel—both the bad and the brilliant, the old and the new—there exists a certified lose-your-lunch money shot. As the words of this sick-minded scene—usually lurking somewhere around the shadowy center of the work—scritch and scratch off the page and into your brain, you can sense the specter of King’s self-satisfied grin glowing above the whole crimson mess.

In 1987’s Misery, the queasiness commences when “number one fan” Annie Wilkes fears that her hapless captive—best-selling romance hack Paul Sheldon—is feeling a little too mobile after his near-fatal car accident:

The axe came whistling down and buried itself in Paul Sheldon’s left leg….He heard the blade squeal against bone as she wrenched it free….Then he saw her raising the dripping axe again….He tried to pull back in spite of the pain in his leg and knee and realized that his leg was moving but his foot wasn’t. All he was doing was widening the axe-slash, making it open like a mouth.

In 1992’s Gerald’s Game, Jessie Burlingame finds herself shackled to a bed after her husband, Gerald, keels over from a heart attack during some kinked-up sex at their quiet mountain cottage. But things don’t get really bad for Jessie (or Gerald, or the reader) until a stray dog wanders in looking for a light snack:

[The dog] lowered its head, first sniffing the now-attractive aroma of dead lawyer with all the delicacy of a gourmet, then closing its teeth gently on Gerald’s lower lip. It pulled, applying pressure slowly, stretching the flesh further and further. Gerald began to look as if he were deep in some monstrous pout. The lip finally tore off, revealing his bottom teeth in a big dead grin. The dog swallowed this small delicacy in a single gulp, then licked his chops.

And in the new Dreamcatcher, Bangor, Maine’s, favorite son tops himself with a money shot to out-blech ’em all. In the 617-page novel

—written while King was recovering from a much-publicized car accident, and due in stores March 20—four hunting buddies, friends since junior high who are linked by a telekinetic bond, do battle with visitors from another planet. The aliens, after landing their ship in the dense woods of southern Maine, quickly begin colonizing—by way of the human digestive tract. Enter the “shit-weasel,” a fiendish critter with “two feverish black eyes,” “a thick reddish-gold tail,” and “a mouthful of needles.” Shit-weasels mutate inside the body until hatching time—at which point they gnaw their way out the back door and start chewing up the scenery:

Something wet and heavy landed on Beaver’s back. Something that felt like a tail or a worm or a muscular segmented tentacle curled between his legs and seized his already aching balls in a contracting python’s grip….The thing lay wet and cold and heavy from the nape of his neck to the small of his back, like a rolled-up, breathing rug, and now it began to utter a feverish high-pitched chittering noise….Beaver screamed again, wriggled toward the door on his belly….The muscular rope between his legs squeezed again, and there was a low popping sound from somewhere in the liquid haze of pain that was now his groin….Oh Christ, the Beav thought. Mighty Christ bananas, I think that was one of my balls.

To discuss King without offering up these goriest of details just wouldn’t be scholarly. Or very much fun, for that matter. After all, the really nasty stuff has always been as much a part of his work as his ubiquitous brand-name references. Someday soon, however—and I’m absolutely sure of this—King will be mandatory reading in college lit courses everywhere, and not for those chittering shit-weasels, either. Because if you peek through your fingers and look beyond the bloody axes and carnivorous curs tearing through King’s 30-plus books, and dutifully seek out Northern towns such as ‘salem’s Lot and Northern men such as Jud Crandall, what you’ll find behind them is an adept, compassionate, and prolific chronicler of the provincial United States—not to mention, during these past few years, the most imaginative, technically gifted, and accessible American man of letters since Mark Twain.

For all its scenes of vampiric bloodletting—and numerous goo-spewing money shots—1975’s ‘Salem’s Lot is mainly a sweepingly elegiac portrait of small-town America, from the blue-collar souls who populate the local watering hole to the town gossip who peers out her window at all hours of the day. (“What ‘salem’s Lot knew of war and burnings and crises in government it got mostly from Walter Cronkite on TV,” King writes. “[T]he Lot’s knowledge of the country’s torment was academic. Time went on a different schedule there. Nothing too nasty could happen in such a nice little town. Not there.”) In just his second book, King was already displaying unrivaled talents for pacing and story structure—but he was just getting started nailing down small-town life in ways that would have made Thornton Wilder weep.

King would revisit variations of the Lot in Cujo (1981), It (1986), The Tommyknockers (1987), and Dolores Claiborne (1993), to name just a few. His quaint little villages are often found nestled in the oranges and browns of autumn—King’s favorite season as much for its atmosphere of dying light as for its proximity to All Hallows Eve. “Children of the Corn,” a truly creepy short story from the 1978 collection Night Shift, is about a one-street (ghost) town policed by scythe-wielding teens; it works because King describes the silent burg—the lone streetlight, the thick smell of fertilizer, the looming white church—as if he’d been living there for years. The Body, a novella from 1982’s Different Seasons that would later become the movie Stand by Me, lovingly details Castle Rock, Maine—a fictional though fully fleshed-out town King would journey back to in several works—as seen through the eyes of tough but altogether innocent 13-year-old boys. (The Body also includes the perfect campfire-story-within-a-story: “The Revenge of Lard Ass Hogan,” King’s playful homage to Twain’s “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”)

If King has never had much interest in big cities, he’s had less interest in big-city people. He’s a guy who claims he’d rather listen to the Red Sox on the radio on the porch than watch the game on TV in the family room. His characters have always felt the same way. The have-not heroes of The Stand, King’s 1978 opus about a flulike virus that wipes out most of the population of the United States, are fully realized 9-to-5ers who work for their paychecks and spend most of their time on the clock hoping that there are a few Buds back home in the fridge. (A mighty fine thesis could be written about the role of beer in King’s work: Someone’s always popping a can top, and the writer often takes great relish in describing that first swallow after a long day.) In 1983’s Pet Sematary—the author’s flat-out scariest work, if that’s what you’re looking for—King unveils his finest rendering of the New England everyman: mannerly Jud Crandall, who invites the doomed Louis Creed over to share some suds, cigarettes, and one killer secret:

[T]he voice was so thick with Down East accent that for a moment Louis’s tired, confused mind refused to translate the dialect: Got t’get the stinga out ‘n put some bakin soda on’t. ‘T’ll go daown.

He turned and saw an old man of perhaps seventy…standing there on the grass. He wore a biballs over a blue chambray shirt that showed his thickly folded and wrinkled neck. His face was sunburned, and he was smoking an unfiltered cigarette. As Louis looked at him, the old man pinched the cigarette out between his thumb and forefinger and pocketed it neatly. He held out his hands and smiled crookedly…a smile Louis liked at once—and he was not a man who “took” to people.

But for all the good-natured neighborliness of the folks in his earlier books—King once described The Dead Zone’s antihero, Johnny Smith, as “an everyday, jes’-folks sort of guy,” a tag that could be fastened to most of his characters—there has always existed a restless seed of evil in each. The denizens of the Lot become selfish and hurtful long before they sprout fangs and suck blood. One by one, most of the lonesome travelers of The Stand turn to the dark side. And even Jud Crandall ultimately lets loneliness overcome him, leading Louis Creed to the devil’s playground of the pet sematary.

In his 2000 memoir, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft—the first autobiographical section of which is the best, most moving thing King has ever written—the author discusses, among other personal hardships, his ongoing bouts with alcoholism and cocaine addiction. Misery, The Tommyknockers, The Shining (1977), and plenty of others were written while the author was loaded on one intoxicant or another. (“At the end of my adventures I was drinking a case of sixteen-ounce tallboys a night, and there’s one novel, Cujo, that I barely remember writing at all,” he says.) Toss in the fact that his father abandoned the brood when the writer was barely old enough to crawl, and you begin to see why King—who has always had tremendous faith in his writing—has never had such faith in himself and in his fellow man.

Until now, that is.

Between 1998 and 2001—we’ll call this King’s “happy” period (which commenced, by the way, when King jumped from longtime publisher Viking to Scribner)—the author hammered out Bag of Bones, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Hearts in Atlantis, On Writing, and Dreamcatcher. These aren’t so much horror books as exhaustive, blow-by-blow explorations of that moment of indecision between giving up and going forward.

And all of these books—King’s ultimate legacy—are worthy of the finest compliment I can muster: They make me want to write.

Bag of Bones, King’s evocative love letter to his wife, novelist Tabitha King, is the heavy-hearted account of a man literally haunted by his betrothed, who has just been killed in a car accident. In the past, King would have shied away from the grieving process—hell, someone’s always kicking the bucket in his books—skipping instead to one-year-later land and only hinting at the torment suffered. But for Bag of Bones, King unflinchingly sticks around for the toughest times and takes the widowed protagonist through every shaky step of emotional recovery:

My strength was robbed by grief. If the bed hadn’t been there, I would have fallen to the floor. We weep from our eyes, it’s all we can do, but on that evening I felt as if every pore of my body were weeping, every crack and cranny. I sat there on her side of the bed, with her dusty paperback copy of The Moon and Sixpence in my hand, and I wailed. I think it was surprise as much as pain; in spite of the corpse I had seen and identified on a high-resolution video monitor…in spite of the graveside service with its ashes to ashes and dust to dust, I hadn’t really believed it. The Penguin paperback did for me what the big gray coffin had not: it insisted she was dead.

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon—at 264 pages, a mere brochure of a novel for King—follows a lost 10-year-old girl as she navigates the dark wilds of the Maine woods with her favorite Red Sox pitcher as her spiritual guide. The book allows King to further explore the inner workings of the kids from The Body; he catalogues the irrational (and rational) fears that dance around us when we’re young—and the resolute strengths that allow us to finally check under the bed for monsters. Hearts in Atlantis, my favorite of King’s more recent novels, is five interconnected narratives about growing up in the Vietnam years; the titular tale not only nails both the college experience and the gambling-in-college experience, but fully illuminates that uncertain holding station between being young and being an adult (“the last major convulsion of childhood,” King writes). When King describes the University of Maine in the heat of the ’60s, he might as well be talking about any college, at any time:

Most of us don’t say much about those years now, not because we don’t remember them but because the language which we spoke back then has been lost. When I try to talk about the sixties—when I even try to think about them—I am overcome by horror and hilarity. I see bell-bottom pants and Earth Shoes. I smell pot and patchouli, incense and peppermints. And I hear Donovan Leitch singing his sweet and stupid song about the continent of Atlantis, lyrics that still seem profound to me in the watches of the night, when I can’t sleep. The older I get, the harder it is to let go of that song’s stupidity and hold onto its sweetness. I have to remind myself that we were smaller then, small enough to live our brightly hued lives under the mushrooms, all the time believing them to be trees, shelter from the sheltering sky. I know that doesn’t make any real sense, but it’s the best I can do: hail Atlantis.

But none of these happy books—or any of King’s books, when you come right down to it—can match the sheer bliss of On Writing, especially when the author is detailing his flat-broke pre-fame years. During this time, King and his wife struggled to take care of their two toddlers—who always suffered from one infection or another, requiring more and more expensive medicines—while simultaneously working at such soul-sucking places as Dunkin’ Donuts and stoking the dying embers of their literary dreams. But Stephen and Tabitha didn’t starve, of course. And when King, who was paid an advance of $2,500 for his first novel, Carrie, writes about finding out from his literary agent on Mother’s Day 1973 that the paperback rights would net him $400,000, the sense of release he births with a simply structured string of words is one of life-affirming beauty. King couldn’t have written On Writing five years before—or at least he couldn’t have written it so well.

Before it bloats into Close Encounters of the Third Kind proportions—King’s tackling straight-up sci-fi is usually a letdown—Dreamcatcher details the boys-to-men friendship of four regular guys who are finding that the terrain of their late 30s is hostile territory indeed—and the only way they can navigate it is to look for answers in days gone by. Although King ultimately loses sight of what he started in Dreamcatcher (the second half of the novel mainly focuses on a cartoonish military man with fantasies of firebombing the state of Maine, little green men and all), his depiction of suicidal shrink Henry, the makeshift leader of the quartet of friends, is captivating for its unabashed examination of depression:

There was the Hemingway Solution, of course—way back at Harvard, as an undergraduate, he had written a paper calling it that….The Hemingway Solution was a shotgun, and Henry had one of those now….There were pills. There was the old Baggie-over-the-head-in-the-bathtub trick. There was drowning. There was jumping from a high place. The handgun in the ear was too unsure—too much chance of waking up paralyzed—and so was slitting the wrists, that was for people who were only practicing, but the Japanese had a way of doing it that interested Henry very much. Tie a rope around your neck. Tie the other end to a large rock. Put the rock on the seat of a chair, then sit down with your back braced so you can’t fall backward but have to keep sitting. Tip the chair over and the rock rolls off. Subject may live for three to five minutes in a deepening dream of asphyxiation.

It’s not ruining Dreamcatcher to reveal that Henry never does get around to taking his life. In fact, when faced with the very real possibility of dying, that’s the last thing he wants to do. In the end, Henry—the latest embodiment of King’s appreciation for the living and breathing—chooses life, for all its promising beginnings, for all its bittersweet denouements. Of course, once you’ve done battle with a shit-weasel, how much worse can it get? CP