King, Stephen (1948—)

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King, Stephen (1948—)

Stephen King's connections with horror fiction are so compelling that for many he virtually embodies the genre; he has become, in words consciously echoed by more than one commentator, the unchallenged "King of Horror." His reputation is well-deserved, resting as it does on a strongly colloquial narrative style that has proven particularly appropriate to his brand of horror, and on a prolific output that includes at least 60 novels and books of nonfiction in some 25 years, along with well over 100 published short stories, more than double that number of nonfiction articles ranging from scholarship to fan writing, in excess of two dozen theatrical and television adaptations of his works, and seemingly endless variations on audiocassettes, videocassettes, and even Broadway musicals re-telling his stories. His popularity has made him a legitimate "brand name writer," as witnessed by references to him and his creations in films, television specials, sitcom episodes, syndicated newspaper cartoons, and elsewhere. As a writer, he has continuously redefined the commercial possibilities of horror fiction, beginning with his first appearance on the bestseller lists with 'Salem's Lot in 1976. In August 1980, Firestarter, The Dead Zone, and The Shining appeared on the lists simultaneously, marking the first time that an American author was represented by three books. During one week in January 1986, King had five titles simultaneously on the national lists: the hardcover editions of Skeleton Crew and The Bachman Books and the mass-market and trade paperback editions of The Talisman, The Bachman Books, and Thinner. Since then, instance of two, three, and four titles appearing simultaneously are frequent enough not to occasion much more than passing notice: the exceptional has become the norm—for Stephen King, at least.

At the same time, King has used his facility with the conventions of horror fiction to achieve more than base titillation and terror. From the beginning, his books have been constructed not only on strong narratives and intriguing characters but also on insights into contemporary American society in the closing quarter of the twentieth century. More than any other single author in the field, King speaks for the experiences, expectations, achievements, and disappointments of the "Baby Boomer" generation, often coupling his cosmic horrors and monsters with references to the minutiae of daily life: Gypsy curses share the pages with Ding Dongs, and apocalyptic plagues with Payday bars (reformulated in a chocolate variety to bring the candy bar into line with King's description of one in The Stand). His novels have examined flaws in American education (Carrie and Rage), ramifications of America's love-hate relationship with the automobile (Christine), the failure of the American family (The Shining, Roadwork, Christine, IT, Rose Madder), America's obsessive consumption of energy regardless of the cost (The Tommyknockers), and America's potentially suicidal flirtation with devastating technology (The Stand). King has also reflected a distinctly political/social agenda, with what are essentially feminist tracts in Gerald's Game and Dolores Claiborne and more balanced but still socially conscious themes in Rose Madder, Insomnia, and Bag of Bones. In most of his novels and stories, however, he constructs an artful balance between story and commentary, rarely allowing theme to overmaster narrative. In this, if in nothing else, King has demonstrated himself a master of his art.

King's centrality as a master of contemporary popular fiction is no accident; rather, it is the result not only of a native genius for storytelling but also of an extraordinary dedication to his craft. Born on September 21, 1948, King had spent about three-quarters of his life committed to storytelling by the end of the twentieth century. Beginning with derivative stories and juvenilia including self-published chapbooks such as The Star Invader, King had placed his first marketable story by the age of 17; then written major portions of at least three novels, composed nearly 18 months of weekly columns for his college newspaper, and published seven short stories before graduating from the University of Maine at Orono in 1970.

A decade later, King had made his permanent home in Bangor, Maine; completed the first draft for what many consider one of his masterworks, It ; had seen the publication of ten books, with film versions of several; and enjoyed the first of many triple-title entries in the bestseller lists. A further decade later saw King publish the original version of The Stand, using his unique position to restore hundreds of pages cut for its first publication and thus to re-emphasize King's mastery of his chosen genre.

And as the year 2000 approached, King confirmed his stamp on American publication with the appearance of the six-part novel, The Green Mile (each short paperback episode rising immediately to bestseller status); two novels published simultaneously by two "authors"—Stephen King's Desperation and Richard Bachman's The Regulators —using the same casts of characters as imagined by two distinctly different personalities and both verging on an awareness of the numinous in human life; a novel, Needful Things, that systematically destroys King's trademark city, Castle Rock, while at the same time asserting the reality of The White—the image of cosmic order and rightness that lies at the core of many of his novels; and the most recent episodes of a decades-long, multi-volume tale-in-progress, "The Dark Tower" series, which promises to fulfill not only King's significant promise as novelist but also his position as heir to the grand traditions of Renaissance epic, the American Western, apocalyptic fantasy, post-apocalyptic science fiction, and mythic romance.

Yet even at his most breathtakingly apocalyptic—or at his most mundanely political and social—King remains true to his roots. An outline of King's titles at the end of the 1990s suggests his wide-ranging interests and his ability to tell stories about almost every traditional monster or conventional terror associated with horror fiction, while transforming that monster into an emblem for contemporary events, problems, or concerns. Carrie (1974) blends narrative with pseudo-documentary to detail a naive girl's confrontation not only with menstruation but with ill-defined and partially understood psychic powers. 'Salem's Lot (1975) revitalized the vampire tradition by emphasizing the underlying isolation and disintegration of community implicit in the figure of the Undead feeding unsuspected on the energy of the living. The Shining (1977), one of King's finest, most literary, and most cohesive novels, interweaves sophisticated literary layerings with a traditional ghost story, while at the same time dissecting one American family and demonstrating how fragile family bonds can become in times of social upheaval.

Also in 1977, King published the first of six pseudonymous novels, under the name "Richard Bachman." The first, Rage (1977), partially completed prior to King's enrolling at the University of Maine, Orono, embodies a scathing indictment of American education as King portrays a protagonist, a high school student, who murders a teacher and holds his class hostage—events perhaps startling in fiction at the time but, as King seems to foreshadow in the novel, occurring only too frequently in real life by the close of the twentieth century. Subsequent "Bachman" books included The Long Walk (1979), Roadwork (1981), The Running Man (1982), Thinner (1984), and—after a decade-long hiatus during which "Richard Bachman" surfaced primarily in in-jokes among readers and critics—The Regulators (1996). All except Thinner and The Regulators were early works, more recognizably mainstream than anything King had published until Gerald's Game and Dolores Claiborne, with appropriately socially-oriented themes—the inequity and insanity of military draft in The Long Walk, the 1974 oil crisis in Roadwork, the depersonalizing effects of the media in The Running Man. These novels frequently suggest horrors but remain primarily psychological and evocative rather than physical and explicit, demonstrating once again that King is capable of more subdued and realistic treatments than many of his critics might allow.

In 1978, The Stand appeared. Although the novel was structurally deformed by editorial deletions amounting to some 400 manuscript pages (restored in the 1990 unexpurgated, revised version), this epic fable of technology-gone-mad, of wholesale death, and of the struggle to restore order from chaos remains one of King's strongest novels. The complex web of character and subplot—particularly in the restored version—gives the story unusual resonance and demonstrates King's deft hand at characterization, often with a single character, is sufficient to generate a realistic presentation. The Stand is also central to King's vision of the struggle between Light and Darkness, with its villainous Randall Flagg reappearing as the Magician Flagg in The Eyes of the Dragon (1985, 1987); as the Man in Black in The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger (1982); and as LeLand Gaunt in Needful Things (1991); with subtle echoes in Insomnia (1994), Rose Madder (1995), and The Drawing of the Three (1987), The Waste Lands (1991), and Wizard and Glass (1997)), in which readers discover that the world of The Stand may belong to an alternate reality threatened by forces surrounding the Dark Tower.

1978 also saw the publication of King's first collection of horror tales, Night Shift, which included not only early versions of materials treated in 'Salem's Lot and The Stand, but also the inspiration for a number of subsequent films: Graveyard Shift, The Boogeyman, Trucks, Sometimes They Come Back, The Ledge, The Lawnmower Man, Quitters, Inc., Children of the Corn (and its multiple sequels) and The Woman in the Room. The stories established King as a master of short fiction as well as novel, and in stories such as "Night Surf" and "I am the Doorway" give play to his occasionally surrealistic, almost poetic imagination.

The Dead Zone (1979), Firestarter (1980), and Cujo (1981) further demonstrate King's ability to meld horror with realism, science fiction with science, fantasy with imagination. Readable, engaging, and ultimately frightening beyond their suggestions of monsters, each attacks a manifestation of contemporary culture: insanity disguised as rationality, uncontrolled science in league with power-hungry politics, families disintegrating under the internal pressure of selfishness and the external pressures of economics and, again, politics. They also provide useful background to King's critical assessment of horror in fiction and film, Danse Macabre (1981), which describes the evolution of dark fantasy from 1953 through 1978. Danse Macabre is both entertaining and enlightening, not only defining a genre but often reflecting the autobiographical and literary impulses behind King's own fictions.

In 1982, King published Creepshow, a comic-book anthology of five tales, and Different Seasons, a collection of four novellas including "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption," the inspiration for the subsequent Academy-Award winning film (screenplay by Frank Darabont, author of the film version of The Woman in the Room); the starkly realistic and semi-autobiographical "The Body," translated brilliantly by Rob Reiner into the first King film-adaptation aimed toward a mainstream audience, Stand By Me ; "A Winter's Tale," a traditional ghost story; and "Apt Pupil," a frightening analysis of reciprocal corruption recently released as a film. The concern for adolescent trauma at the heart of "The Body" and "Apt Pupil" continues in 1983's Christine, an oddly disjointed novel in which narrative stance shifts from first-person, to third, and back to first, but which nonetheless extends King's concern for anatomizing contemporary society while at the same time providing the backdrop for a chilling ghost story.

Cycle of the Werewolf (1983), originally conceived as text for an illustrated calendar, is King's first extended treatment of the were-wolf, but the major novel published that year was Pet Sematary, a disquisition on death that remains one of King's darkest and most powerful stories, as it directly confronts the reality of death and its effect on the human personality. The major characters must confront death and attempt a reconciliation to it. To the degree that they fail, the novel becomes a tragedy verging on desperation, culminating in what is arguably King's most chilling conclusion.

In 1984, King published a number of experimental works. The first collection of Dark Tower stories, The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger, introduced an on-going quest-cycle, incorporating elements of horror but transcending them to incorporate traditional Westerns, action-adventure, romance, and alternate-universe science fiction, all blending seamlessly into what may justly claim to be a legitimate twentieth-century epic. Subsequent volumes—The Drawing of the Three, The Waste Lands, and Wizard and Glass —emphasize King's ambitious format, his streamlined style, his interconnecting thematic structures, and his highly imaginative combinations of characters, settings, and plots. Similarly, The Eyes of the Dragon, published by King's Philtrum Press, is unique as King's major foray into overt fantasy. A story of a dying king, a wronged prince, and an evil magician, set in a mythical kingdom complete with dragons, The Eyes of the Dragon touches briefly on one of the alternate worlds of The Dark Tower but nevertheless stands alone as an important alternative to horror in King's works. The same year also saw the appearance of King's only collaborative novel to date, The Talisman, written with Peter Straub, one of the few writers who could then challenge King's preeminence in contemporary horror. An epic-quest that parallels the outlines of the Dark Tower stories, while alluding to writers as disparate as Mark Twain and C. S. Lewis, The Talisman balances between the reality of twentieth-century America and the idyllic potentials of the Territories, and blends horror with an innocent's journey across the face of a modern America populated by monsters both real and illusory, human and inhuman. Readers expecting a combination of King's colloquialism and Straub's meticulous formalism might be disappointed in a novel that is stylistically and structurally unlike anything either might write individually, yet which generates its own movement and power through the synergy of their imaginations. The fourth novel to appear in 1984 was King's final pseudonymous work, Thinner, a gritty assessment of the American obsession with dieting and weight. Combining a Gypsy curse with the hypocrisy of suburban life, Thinner was so obviously a King story that it led several researchers to unravel the secret of the "Richard Bachman" pseudonym.

In 1985, King published his second major collection of short fiction, Skeleton Crew, which contains some of his best short works, including "The Mist," "Raft," "Gramma," and "The Reach," the latter among his finest and most restrained short pieces. The collection was followed in 1986 by It, King's 'magnum opus' and the culmination of his year's-long concentration on children, childhood, and monsters. Criticized for its scope and length (over 1,100 pages in the American hardcover edition), it attempts a complex, multileveled, encyclopedic look at American culture and society between 1958 and 1985, in which seven children—and their grown-up counterparts—confront the monster in the sewers, the darkness beneath the surface of their lives. King stretches his storytelling powers to create an intricacy of text rivaled only by The Stand and the Dark Tower saga.

The next sequence of novels represents a shift in direction for King. Misery (1987), The Tommyknockers (1987), The Dark Half (1989), and "Secret Window, Secret Garden" from Four Past Midnight (1990), show King turning his imaginative microscope on himself —the writer as public personality and as private individual. Ranging from the "realism" of Misery, in which the only monster is a grotesquely insane human, to the "horror" of The Dark Half, in which the monster is a pseudonym-made-flesh (the novel is appropriately dedicated to Richard Bachman), these stories suggest the fine line between imagination and reality. Although they are unlike much of what might be considered 'classic' Stephen King, they have been well accepted by readers; the film version of Misery received the Academy Award for Best Actress and helped suggest King's increasing mainstream appeal.

Needful Things (1991) departs radically from King's earlier novels. Set in the Castle Rock, Maine, his primary fictional landscape, this novel is his version of Mark Twain's "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg," complementing themes initiated in The Dead Zone, Cujo, "The Body," The Dark Half, Christine, The Talisman, and The Tommyknockers. When a new store opens, townspeople may find what they believe is their heart's desire and purchase it at a bargain price, contingent on the promise of a small trick. The consequent interlocking circles of purchases and promises magnifies the worst in the human nature, leading a powerful tale of sin and redemption through trial and suffering and forgiveness. Concluding with the destruction of Castle Rock itself, Needful Things closes out one segment of King's career with a complex and ultimately optimistic fable of good versus evil of the White confounding, however momentarily, the Dark.

Gerald's Game (1992) and Dolores Claiborne (1993), Insomnia, Rose Madder, and Bag of Bones (1998) suggest King's new focus. In each, theme threatens to overshadow storytelling; each indict excesses of patriarchalism, chauvinism, sexism, and/or racism, leaving little doubt that in sexual terms, males are monsters—or, as Rose Madder states explicitly, men are beasts. Gerald's Game, a thin book for King, both in page count and in content, received strong reviews from establishment journals but less favorable responses from readers awaiting further evidence of King's ability to combine commentary with story. In Gerald's Game, commentary clearly takes precedence, since the story could effectively be told in a quarter the length. Dolores Claiborne continues the social commentary, linking themes and episodes directly to Gerald's Game, but significantly returns in part to King's earlier focus on story. A literary tour de force, the novel is a single, uninterrupted monologue of over 300 pages that exploits the multiple possibilities in the title character's name (Dolores = "sorrow" + "clay-borne"). With Insomnia, King moves toward a balance between his desire to examine social problems—specifically spouse-and child-abuse—and his compulsion to tell his stories. In a daring move, King makes his protagonist a septuagenarian, and simultaneously commits himself to describing the tedium of an insomniac, yet ultimately the story creates its own momentum and moves itself and King's readers, one step further toward the Dark Tower itself. By the time Rose Madder appeared, King was again writing novels that created their social impact through the medium of the story. His protagonist is an abused woman—echoing the previous four novels—but her restoration to power and dignity becomes an integral part of a greater narrative, one that develops fully King's penchant for mythic themes. Much the same might be said for Bag of Bones, in which racism and child-abuse become elements in a story that becomes larger than the sum of its parts—ghost story side by side with social indictment, each concern echoed in the other, amplifying the other, and completing the other.

Perhaps the most conspicuous of all contemporary horror writers, certainly the most recognizable of them, Stephen King has been the subject of scores of books—scholarly, academic, biographical, bibliographical, documentary, and fannish; of hundreds of articles ranging from intense analysis to popular appreciation; of conferences and symposia; of scornful mainstream reviews and fan responses verging on idolatry; and of more media attention than perhaps any other living writer. He has altered the face of modern horror, and—working along with a handful of other writers of equal stature—has come closer than ever before to making this once-denigrated genre an accepted branch of literature. As he passes his fiftieth year and approaches the end of the millennium, King has more firmly than ever established himself as the "King of Horror" and as the master of an intricate and complex trade.

—Michael R. Collings

Further Reading:

Badley, Linda. Writing Horror and the Body: The Fiction of Stephen King, Clive Barker, and Anne Rice. Westport, Connecticut, Green-wood Press, 1996.

Beahm, George W. Stephen King: America's Best-Loved Boogeyman. Kansas City, Andrews McMeel, 1998.

——. Stephen King from A to Z: An Encyclopedia of His Life and Work. Kansas City, Andrews McMeel, 1998.

Collings, Michael R. Scaring Us to Death: The Impact of Stephen King on Popular Culture. 2nd ed., revised and expanded. San Bernardino, California, Borgo Press, 1997.

Hoppenstand, Gary, and Ray B. Browne, editors. The Gothic World of Stephen King: Landscape of Nightmares. Bowling Green, Ohio, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1987.

Lant, Kathleen Margaret, and Theresa Thompson, editors. Imagining the Worst: Stephen King and the Representation of Women. Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1998.

Magistrale, Anthony. The Moral Voyages of Stephen King. Mercer Island, Washington, Starmont House, 1989.

Power, Brenda Miller, Jeffrey D. Wilhelm, and Kelly Chandler.Reading Stephen King: Issues of Censorship, Student Choice, and Popular Literature. Urbana, Illinois, National Council of Teachers of English, 1997.

Punter, David. Gothic Pathologies: The Text, The Body, and The Law. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1998.

Timpone, Anthony, editor. Fangoria Masters of the Dark. Special Collector's ed. New York, HarperPrism, 1997.

Winter, Douglas E. Stephen King: The Art of Darkness. New York, New American Library, 1984.