Confession time: I have never read anything by Stephen King. I know, I know. But I can explain.
During my childhood and teen years reading Stephen King was largely out of the question, because God. I grew up in a conservative Christian home (which I’ve talked about one or two times), and Stephen King was evil. I can’t actually remember my parents ever saying anything directly about King. It’s possible they would have let me read him, though I doubt it. When it came to King I policed myself. He terrified me. I just knew the devil would take my soul if I read any of his books, and junior high is hard enough without that (this did not apply to watching movies based on his books, because evil is weird and nuanced like that). I read plenty of things way beyond my maturity level, including a book about finding the right coven for me, but King stayed on the shelf. The library shelf, not mine. In adulthood, after I stopped believing Stephen King was Lucifer’s pen name, I didn’t read him partially out of apathy and partially because I really doubted anyone who sold that many books upon which that many big budget movies were based was actually any good.
I still have no idea if he is actually any good, because his 1983 book Cycle of the Werewolf, the book I chose as my introduction to this modern master, is so freaking short and insubstantial. The book is 126 pages long, but fewer than half of those actually have any text on them (yes, I counted). The world was desperate for anything from Stephen King in 1983, and this book is a testament to how eagerly publishers satisfied that need. Originally conceived as a calendar with art by Berni Wrightson and extremely short vignettes by King, the idea was expanded into a book when King complained about the length limitations of the concept. It was expanded into what amounts to a short story but actually turned into a book with a combination of extensive illustrations from Wrightson, large type, creative use of intentionally blank pages, and greed. What we’re left with is a book that can be read in about an hour.
“Around seven o’clock on the night of the full moon, a wind springs up–the first chill wind of that long summer season. It brings a rack of clouds from the north and for a while the moon plays tag with these clouds, ducking in and out of them, turning their edges to beaten silver. Then the clouds grow thicker, and the moon disappears…yet it is there; the tides twenty miles out of Tarker’s Mills feel its pull and so, closer to home, does the Beast.” – page 88
The story itself reads like a movie treatment. Scenes are hastily sketched and little character development is provided. The prose feels rushed, like a rough draft was hammered out and edited little before submission to the publisher. It feels more than anything like a campfire story, which might have been the point. Let’s assume it was.
Cycle of the Werewolf tells the story of a beast slaying citizens of Tarker’s Mills, a fictional small town in Maine. A chapter is given to each month, and each month brings an attack. This set-up makes for fun atmospheric play with the weather of this American Everytown, and King distorts the lunar calendar to allow the attacks to happen on our around major holidays in most months (he addresses this in the afterword, defending his honor by asserting he knew it was inaccurate but he just couldn’t resist). Ultimately a child with a disability figures out the identity of the beast and comes up with a plan to defeat it. If you’ve seen the movie Silver Bullet, based on the book, you know who the beast is and whether or not the child succeeds.
The book is, as I said, pretty insubstantial, but that’s not such a bad thing. If you’re looking for a fun, quick read for a dark and stormy night as Halloween approaches, this could be an excellent pick. It’s thin, but the atmosphere and tone make for good, campy fun. It could even be read aloud with likeminded family or friends. I still need to read another Stephen King book to find out if I like him or not, but this was an amusing diversion on an early Fall evening.
Cycle of the Werewolf is available to be checked out at Greenville Public Library.