Anyone who knows me can attest that I am a huge fan of Stephen King’s writing. I have virtually all of his books in hard cover, including a few duplicates. He is by and far my favorite author, and I have read many of his books repeatedly. Most of the world knows him as a horror novelist, and of course horror novels are his bread and butter. But he’s written more than that genre, most famously his Dark Tower series, which is a mixture of western and fantasy (though there are some gruesome elements as well). But what is it about his writing that caused me and many others like me to become one of his “constant readers”?
I first got to know King’s work like many people did, through the film and television adaptations of his novels and short stories. As a child, the mini-series Salem’s Lot frightened me (fingernails on a window still freak me out) and the edited-for-TV version of Carrie thrilled me (it was only years later that I saw the full theatrical version, which I still think is an amazing piece of filmmaking). My older friends had a copy of the novel The Shining and said it was the scariest book ever written, and when Stanley Kubrick made a feature film out of it, I had to be content in seeing photos from it in Fangoria magazine until I was able to catch it on HBO. When I did finally see it, it blew me away. I attempted to read the book when I was 12 or 13, but just wasn’t yet able to handle it. However, every time King released a new book, I would read the cover and psych myself up for when I would one day be ready to tackle his writing in its raw form on the page.
More and more of his fiction became movies, and I devoured them all, even if the adaptations were terrible (I still don’t know how Children of the Corn spawned a zillion sequels). I was pleasantly surprised when I went to the movies with a number of my high school friends to see Creepshow to discover that not only did Stephen King write the screenplay, but he also acted in it! But as he would later prove with movies like Maximum Overdrive, he didn’t take movies seriously, and Creepshow was cartoonish fun, an homage to old E.C. horror comics—he even released a graphic novel of the film in print. This was an early example of how King would have fun with his writing and try new, innovative means of storytelling. That creativity is one of the aspects about him that I admire the most.
My moratorium on reading his novels came to an end on my 17th birthday when both my dad and my sister gave me one of King’s books each as gifts (The Talisman and The Stand respectively). I tore through those novels and instantly fell in love with his writing style, and to this day those books remain two of my favorites not only by that author but of any I have read. Perhaps it’s the fact that neither of them were horror in the truest sense—The Talisman is a fantasy adventure and The Stand is a epic fantasy/horror. Both featured cross-country journeys with characters that felt so real that they weren’t merely fictional depictions, but rather friends. They were people who I could go back and visit repeatedly and enjoy to “hang out with”, even if I knew their sometimes unsavory fates. For those who met their untimely ends, it was always an emotional experience for me to relive those scenes.
I became a voracious reader of Stephen King and bought everything he had written up to that point. I read Pet Semetary while riding in the car with my family from Oklahoma to Michigan and couldn’t turn the pages fast enough (that is still one of the scariest books ever written). It became an annual tradition that I would receive his latest work as a birthday present, usually from my dad. My collection grew at the rate of King’s prolificacy. I even happened upon same rare publications, such as a first edition paperback of Roadwork, which he wrote under the pseudonym Richard Bachman and the limited edition printing of The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger.
The Gunslinger was a curiosity because it was listed in the front of his books among his other works, but was unavailable at the time in any book stores, and no one seemed to know exactly what it was. Upon doing some pre-Internet research, I discovered that it was a collection of five short stories that had been published in the ’70s in The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy that were loosely connected and told the story of a gunslinger in a post-apocalyptic world tracking down the mysterious Man in Black. The novel was published with illustrations by the amazing Michael Whelan with two limited printings that sold out almost instantly. I found one copy in a local library in a small town in northern Michigan, checked it out, read it…and returned it, only to later learn that it was worth quite a bit of money. That’s what I get for being honest. But that’s okay, because the universe smiled on me and I was able to purchase first editions of the second and third books, both of which were also in limited run. It was only years later, after those first three books were released to the masses in paperback, that the rest of the series was readily available in book stores.
Even though The Dark Tower was published in limited edition less as a marketing gimmick and more because Stephen King did not believe anyone would be interested in his futuristic western fantasy due to his reputation as a master of horror, this still set the stage for unusual ways that he released some of his books. Similarly, he wrote four books as Bachman until someone discovered that the fifth, Thinner, was actually him in disguise. He claimed that since they were not his normal types of stories that people associated with him, he created a pen name to see if they would sell without his famous moniker attached. Largely, they didn’t—though a terrible film adaptation of The Running Man was made starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Even though he “killed off” Bachman, King still published other “Bachman books” as he saw fit.
One such book was The Regulators. The interesting thing about that book was that it hit the bookstores the same day as Desperation, published under King’s own name. Both books used the same characters and supernatural villain, but existed in alternate realities, so they were variations on the same story. Even the covers shared the same artwork, so if you put a copy of each together you saw the full picture. This was a cool experiment, but not his only one. The Green Mile was initially released in six small paperbacks published once a month in order to capture the feeling of old-time serials printed in magazines. Dolores Claiborne and Gerald’s Game told the stories of women in perilous situation, and they both occurred on the same night of a full moon—and in each, the protagonist “sensed” another woman in trouble, which was the only connection the two books shared. Cycle of the Werewolf was technically an adaptation of the movie Silver Bullet, which Stephen King scripted, but the publication was a trade paperback novella with illustrations by the legendary Berni Wrightson. Lately, King has tried his hand at detective stories with the trilogy of Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, and End of Watch (to be published June 2016). He’s also recently done a couple pulpy novels Hard Case Crime books, The Colorado Kid (adapted as the TV series Haven) and Joyland. He even pioneered e-books with the first-ever long-form fiction released to a mass audience in digital format only, 2000’s Riding the Bullet (later to be printed in the collection Everything’s Eventual).
King’s creativity isn’t limited to marketing, but also in how the stories are told. He’s known for his massive tomes, with three of his books topping 1,000 pages. But he’s also written numerous novellas and short stories, with ten collections to date of such work. He’s always playing around with the format. Christine is broken into three sections, the first and third of which are told first person by the protagonist, but the second is told third person due to the fact that the hero is hospitalized and is pretty much out of the picture during that time. Mr. Mercedes and its sequels are partially written in present tense. Twice he’s revisited now-grown characters who were children in previous books with Black House and Doctor Sleep. We see the point of view of a rabid dog in Cujo. Hearts in Atlantis contains five loosely-connected stories that link to the overall universe of The Dark Tower, in which most of his stories also exist. Yes, he’s created an interwoven fictional existence that encompasses practically his entire body of work—and also includes a fictional version of himself.
His characters are often biographical in nature. Many of his protagonists are writers of one form or another, and many suffer the same problems that he has faced. Jack Torrence from The Shining and Jim Gardener from The Tommyknockers, for instance, are alcoholics (as is the grown-up Danny Torrence in Doctor Sleep) much like King himself. Gary “Jonesy” Jones from Dreamcatcher and Edgar Freemantle in Duma Key both suffered injuries after being hit by vehicles, as King did in real life. Gordy LaChance, the 12-year-old narrator of “The Body” (which was adapted as Stand By Me) was clearly a young version of King in a fictionalized version of his childhood.
As stated earlier, I felt like many of his characters were friends because they were so realistic and complex, and he knows how to write about good people. Even though people consider Stephen King “creepy” because of his subject matter, the people who populate his stories and fight the gruesome horrors are usually kind and good-hearted. Stu Redman, Johnny Smith, Jack Sawyer, Roland of Gilead, John Coffey, Lisey Landon, the kids from Derry, Sheriff Pangborn—the list goes on of characters that the reader loves. Even Jack Torrence, the ill-fated caretaker of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining was a good man at heart, and unlike his cinematic counterpart actually saves the lives of his wife and son at the end of the book. These character contrast the absolute evil that King can also create—Pennywise the Clown, Randall Flagg, Christine, Margaret White, the Crimson King, Annie Wilkes, the ghosts of the Overlook, the creatures that came out of the Mist, He Who Walks Behind the Rows, the Superflu, and many other supernatural and human horrors that spring from his imagination. If nothing else, King is excellent at depicting good versus evil, often with the gray area of the human frailties in the mix.
As he grows older, so do his protagonists, who often reflect periods of his own life. An example is retired detective Bill Hodges in the trilogy beginning with Mr. Mercedes. Bill finds new purpose in life even in his 60s and proves that his mind is still sharp and he is good at what he does (in this case detecting) despite his age, not unlike the author. But King has never shied away from writing about children, as some of his best work examines childhood and the traumas involved in growing up. He does not shy away from killing kids (such as in the shocking and tragic ending of Cujo) or acknowledging their sexuality (as in the infamous and unfilmable conclusion to It). He’s even put himself in the mindset of female characters multiple times, starting with his first published novel, Carrie, which dealt with a teenage girl experience her first period (something difficult for a male writer to sympathize with even without all the telekinesis).
Criticism has been levied at King, some of it fair and others perhaps overblown. Many people feel that his endings are often weak, though I think that’s mostly people confusing the endings to movie adaptations with their source material. The conclusion of the final installment in The Dark Tower series angered fans—after all, Ka is a wheel. In recent years, a lot has been made of his overuse of the convention of the Magic Negro, which basically says that any black character who appears has some sort of supernatural power. When I first heard of this, I scoffed at the implication of racism because I always felt that his portrayal of black people was positive and also King’s politics are very liberal. But upon reflection, it seems those who levy this accusation have a point as it’s a recurring theme in much of his writings. Similarly, too many of his characters are caricatures of religious mania and he comes off as anti-religious. However, by his own admission he has his own strong religious beliefs, but is strongly opposed to organized religious. And not to sound too much like Annie Wilkes, but his books are filled with extreme violence, strong profanity, and intense sex, which can be off-putting for sensitive readers (he even makes fun of his use of language in It by proxy of horror author Bill Denbrough).
Yes, I agree that he can rely too heavily on certain themes. I can live without seeing another black character with psychic ability or a holier-than-thou Bible-thumping woman or a guy who was run down by a car in any of his stories. But the fact is that despite recurring concepts, his plots are all unique—even when he’s borrowing ideas from other sources. Let’s face it, ‘Salem’s Lot is a retelling of Dracula. The Shining is just a ghost story. We’ve seen movies of cars coming to life to kill people, many books have been written about parallel universes, and countless stories have been told about aliens invading the Earth. But King takes these tropes and makes them his own. He doesn’t recycle his own plots, unlike many other popular “name brand” authors who find a template that proves successful and keeps turning out variations of it. You never know what to expect from Stephen King, both in plot and in how the book is put together.
I look forward to continuing to be surprised, thrilled, and frightened by him—hopefully for years to come.