“The Boogeyman” . . . The title alone is probably enough of a hook to get a horror fan to the local multiplex instead of waiting for streaming. As a lifelong fan of most things creepy, I was intrigued by the trailer, and this particular fright flick came with an extra incentive to see it on opening night; the “King” himself—Stephen King—gave us the short story adapted for film.
Let’s save the debate over horror as a worthy genre for another day and talk about what writers can learn from one of the most prolific and successful ones of our time. The best way to learn from King is to read what many consider to be the best book on writing, his aptly titled “On Writing, a Memoir of the Craft.” In it, he offers his rags to riches to addiction and beyond story, along with a casual but expert textbook on storytelling and mechanics. If you know anything about King, you understand he didn’t grow up in a picket-fence family or get an MFA from an Ivy League institution. At his mother’s urging, he earned a teaching certificate and left college with it “like a golden retriever emerging from a pond with a dead duck in its jaws.” A flourishing career didn’t make a perfect life, but thankfully King turned his distress and piercing powers of observation into stories that haunt the world.
King has crafted more than 60 novels and in excess of 200 short stories. Granted, productivity and creativity can sometimes be mutually exclusive. King candidly professes in “On Writing” that there’s “nothing new under the sun.” He states that there are no new ideas—simply new combinations of ideas such as the way “adolescent cruelty and telekinesis” came together to form “Carrie.” In this era of prequels, sequels, reboots, remakes and reimagining, some may think it’s natural for King’s catalogue to be further exploited, but he’s been consistently relevant for decades. One might say his stories are timeless, but in effect, they are relentless. Like the telltale heart, the dissonant chords he strikes in our psyches are always under the surface ready to disrupt our worlds. Common anxieties and deeper sources of discomfort can be rich subject matter in any genre.
A few more highlights from the book:
On Vocabulary: King says never dress it up too much, especially if you’re using longer words as though you’re ashamed of the shorter ones.
On Reading: “You cannot hope to sweep someone else away with the force of your writing until it has been done to you.”
On Editing: King shares a principle he learned from Strunk and White via “The Elements of Style”: omit unnecessary words.
The last one resonates with me. I spend much of my day “tightening” copy and making paragraphs flow, but good editors and writers who self-edit well are not misers bent on reduction; they’re fantastic at choosing the stories, words and phrasing that make their points—and as King notes about the legendary Elmore Leonard, they leave out “the boring parts.”
The book also relates the evil of adverbs and both teaches and demonstrates description that makes readers “prickle with recognition.” King’s medium happens to be the macabre, but the lessons are universal. If his publishing history isn’t enough to affirm credibility, his cinematic hits include “The Shining,” “Misery” and “The Shawshank Redemption.” With that said, if you are a horror fan, see “The Boogeyman.” It’s an original take on the fear of darkness and a little girl whose family doesn’t believe her—at first—when she tells them what’s lurking there. There are quirky characters, comedic moments, and at least one scare that made the audience shriek the night I saw it.
One final note for the writers out there: face whatever fear fuels your procrastination or keeps you from making your points. Wean yourselves off adverbs and write about what makes you uncomfortable. Chances are, it’s relatable, and if you can do that, the boogeyman himself can’t stop you.