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Stephen King at 70: You author Caroline Kepnes on discovering yourself in King's stories

Sometimes literally.

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KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/Getty Images/Dowling Pugliese/ Ace Photography

Stephen King celebrates his 70th birthday on Sept. 21. In honor of the author’s milestone, EW is presenting tributes to the man whose Constant Readers think of as “Uncle Steve.”

Part II: Caroline Kepnes, author of the novels You and Hidden Bodies, which tell the story of a book-loving, charismatic sociopath named Joe Goldberg, who tends to develop obsessions that go violently out of control. King praised You as: “Totally original. Never read anything quite like it. … Hypnotic and scary. A little Ira Levin, a little Patricia Highsmith, and plenty of serious snark. Cool stuff.” 

Here’s what Kepnes has to say about his influence:

Like so many of us, I can mark whole eras of my life by Stephen King books.

I connected with his voice because he was writing like the people I knew and overheard in my life. He hears people, the relationship between interior life and speech pattern. That’s part of his genius, the distinctive singularity of his range, the unmistakable tone of his voice. I learned a lot about myself by thinking about what the hell it was exactly that made his stories click.

But even before all that, when I was a kid, the man was on my radar. In our house, my dad had a chair the way so many dads do. He was always watching something, always reading something.

Early on, I noticed his demeanor would be affected by what he was reading. The books about spies and missiles made his face drawn. Put on Fantasia and he was the kid. But he was the most fun when he was fired up over something like The Stand.

Knopf

King’s books have this super-psychological effect on people. They heighten your senses. Your humor gets dark. It’s as if he gives you a magnifying glass into human sensitivities. You could feel it in our house. I wasn’t “old enough” to read King’s stories, but I was already witnessing the power of his talent.

And then there’s the other side of that, the frustration of being a kid in the ‘80s, too young to see Children of the Corn, grr. I went through the ritualistic experience where you defy your mom even though you know she’s right. The call to the darkness is too strong. Your older brother watched it… So you see the movie and you can’t go to camp the next day because you’re sick from not sleeping. The world looks different to you. The lake is no longer a lake. There might be monsters in there. The monsters could very well be the swim instructors (as I’d long suspected).

You get older and you’re the monster. I had so much to say but I didn’t know where to begin. The first short story I wrote as a teenager was from the perspective of a dead girl. I was genuinely curious about what it might be like to be dead. The book On Writing didn’t yet exist, but the lessons were evident in the Stephen King things I’d read. He wasn’t a teenage girl, but tell that to Carrie.

A little later, you read The Shining and you connect with this adult character who is failing at adulthood. We all treasure this story, it belongs in the time capsule for the world, crashing so many issues together. Stephen King is in your head and you’re in Jack’s head and it’s downright fun… in that sick twisted way where there’s no sleep. That’s why I was loved writing short stories, for the head games.

Still later, graduating from college, being lost in New York and the lady at the temp agency was telling me to buy pantyhose and remove “short story contest winner” from my resume. I got home to my gross apartment and read The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon and everything was fine. It really was. I kept writing. I won a fiction contest with a story about a recent college graduate who was pretty lost, too.

The world was changing and people were carrying phones around and here he came with Cell, his 2006 novel about an electronic pulse that wipes the minds of everyone who happens to be on their mobile phones. There is warped peace in seeing your new, burgeoning fears about connectivity fully realized, for sure. He says we survive because we’re “the craziest, most murderous motherf—ers in the jungle”.

He writes so many books that sometimes you don’t read them right away. Then one day, you’re in a bad place and the world feels flat and you start Gerald’s Game. I’m forever grateful for the clarity of Prince the dog’s voice, his fears, his anxiety. He’s starving … and here is a dead man, just going to waste. Prince got my blood pumping. I mean this is a dog. And this dog’s conundrum is heartbreaking and terrifying. I love that territory, where your head spins. Poor this one, poor that one, poor humans, poor animals! The dog is not of service to us humans. The dog is trying to live. And life sometimes means death.

Yes, death.

Pocket Books

It was a few months after my dad died. And when you have that kind of dad who’s lively and he dies very slowly over two-plus years, it’s your own real-life horror movie just for your family. And then guess what? It doesn’t end! I would pick up my dad’s books and flip through the pages. One of those books was Different Seasons.

There was a part of The Body that jumped out at me: “There were things that bothered me about the body of Ray Brower — they bothered me then and they bother me now. A bad bruise on the side of his face, a scalp laceration, a bloody nose. No more — at least, no more visible. People walk away from bar-fights in worse condition and go right on drinking. Yet the train must have hit him; why else would his sneakers be off his feet that way? And how come the engineer hadn’t seen him? Could it be that the train had hit him hard enough to toss him but not to kill him?”

Those words shook me — they bothered me then and they bother me now — and they helped. It was like, okay, this is life now, kiddo. Find a way to deal with it. A few months later, I wrote my first book, You.

A couple months after my book debuted, I was blowing my nose in the The Beverly Center. I had a cold, a fever, but I needed to get presents. Out of nowhere, my phone started to go crazy. The good kind of crazy. Stephen King had Tweeted about my book. What a gift. What a thrill. My mom was right. There was nobody who would have been more excited about this than my dad.

I was halfway to my car when I realized I left my wallet in Kitson. When I went back to get it I told them about the King tweets. They looked at me like I was crazy. After all… it’s Stephen King!

His name could be in the dictionary. He means something to us. That’s why I was bowled over again earlier this summer when I started to get messages from people who were staying up late to read his latest, a book he co-authored with Richard Chizmar, the all-consuming Gwendy’s Button Box. As one friend said, “Um… there are Kepneses in here. A girl and her dad. Is that for you?”

Yes, I learned, those Kepneses were for me. Stephen King is a genius, and he’s also a generous, smiling soul. As I well know as a reader, as a writer, his gifts can change your life.

King at 70:

Monday: Part I – Cemetery Dance’s Richard Chizmar hails the master of the macabre