The Life of Stephen King and Impact of His Novels

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Table of contents

  1. What is Fear?
  2. Should We Take King Seriously?
    Where Would We Be Without King?

What is Fear?

(“Fear refers to an emotion or feeling induced by a perceived or threat of danger, which yields a physiological change that, subsequently, evokes a behavioral response (e.g. fight, flight, or freeze) Fear 2019”). Nothing about this description implies fun or pleasure yet most of us like being scared and no one knows how to scare us better than author Stephen King. King is recognized as one of the most successful horror writers of all time. Stephen King has had an uncanny ability to hit the commercial bull’s-eye from the beginning of his career. King is the antithesis of literature in that he has achieved a pop culture level of writing, that has pierced many medium to low reading demographics. At his best, King is a masterful storyteller. He can create worlds infused with a sense of right and wrong, good and evil. He writes of familiar family crises, fears of the unknown and the yearning to belong.

Who is Stephen King and How did he become America’s Storyteller?

Stephen Edwin King was born on September 21, 1947, in Portland, Maine. His parents, Donald and Nellie Ruth Pillsbury King, split up when he was very young. His father walked out on the family when he was only 2 years old. He and his brother divided their time between Indiana and Connecticut for several years with King eventually moving back to Maine with his mother and brother. King developed deep rooted emotional distress in childhood which continued to haunt him in adulthood. “From a very early age, I wanted to be scared…I wanted an emotional engagement with something that was safe, something I could pull back from.” (Stephen King) “As a young boy, King found a box of his father’s fantasy and horror fiction books, and he soon was enjoying science fiction as well as monster films. By the time he was 7, King started to write his own stories.” (Kimberlin 2019) (“As an insecure child, plagued by nightmares and anxieties, he feared everything from falling down the toilet pipes to clowns and deformity. He developed a paranoia about death. As he grew older, King discovered that he was only able to deal with these horrors in his mind through writing about them. Kimberlin 2019”).

Stephen graduated from Lisbon Falls High School in 1966 and stayed close to home for college, attending the University of Maine at Orono. While in school, King published his first short story, and met his future bride Tabitha. He met Tabitha in the stacks of the Fogler Library at the University of Maine at Orono, where they both worked as students. He and Tabitha Spruce married in January of 1971. About a month prior to his college graduation, King was arrested after binge drinking at a nearby bar and stealing traffic cones. While this seems to be just college kid trouble unfortunately, it was a sign of things to come. He graduated from the University of Maine with a degree in English in 1970. King took a job in a laundry and continued to write stories in his spare time until late 1971, when he began working as an English teacher at Hampden Academy.

In 1973, King sold his first novel and his career began with the publication of Carrie in 1974. The central character remains one that readers can relate to: a lonely child whose life is filled with emotional abuse. That story, written by a 26-year-old teacher / laundry worker and published for the first time on April 5th, 1974, would go on to transform King's life. 'Although Carrie helped usher in a boom period of huge popularity for horror fiction, it's also a very strange and unusual book – uncompromising,' believes American author Jeff VanderMeer. 'Carrie changed the paradigm by announcing a very American form of horror that broke with the past. That process might've been ongoing anyway, but a lot of horror and weird fiction was still in a kind of post-MR James/Lovecraft mode of parchment and shadowy alleys and half-seen horrors, and here was King dropping buckets of blood over everything and making characterization both more relaxed and more contemporary. But just as sophisticated, if more naturalistic, less stylized.' (Flood 2014) The book became a huge success after it was published, allowing King to devote himself to writing full time.

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Stephen’s next big break came in 1977. When King’s novel The Shining was released, set in a wintry ski resort and featuring a paranormal child (Danny Torrence) and a maniacal father (Jack Torrence), further showcased his unparalleled gift for psychological terror. Much of The Shining, is made up of the characters’ private reflections and feelings. “The tragedy of Jack’s story is especially poignant for King, who has admitted that The Shining has some autobiographical qualities. King has struggled with alcoholism, addiction and a frightening tide of anger towards his own children; all are central to Jack’s character in the novel, King wrote The Shining as a form of personal catharsis addressing these battles.” (ScreenPrism)

For a good portion of his career, King wrote stories at a breakneck speed. He published several books per year for much of the 1980s and '90s including Firestarter (1980), Cujo (1981) and IT (1986). King also published several books under the pen name of Richard Bachman because of King's concern that the public wouldn't accept more than one book from an author within a year. Four early novels include Rage (1977), The Long Walk (1979), Roadwork (1981) and The Running Man (1982) were all published using the pen name. King's brain seems to be able to create chilling stories at such an amazing clip, yet he's seen his fair share of horror in real life. When King was just a kid his friend was struck and killed by a train (a plot line that made it into his story 'The Body,' which was adapted into Stand By Me). While it would be easy to assume that this incident informed much of King's writing, the author claims to have no memory of the event. King writes about Maine a lot because he knows and loves The Pine Tree State. He was born there, grew up there, and still lives in Bangor.

Throughout much of the 1980s, King struggled with drug and alcohol abuse. In discussing this time, he admitted that, 'There's one novel, Cujo, that I barely remember writing at all. I don't say that with pride or shame, only with a vague sense of sorrow and loss. I like that book. I wish I could remember enjoying the good parts as I put them down on the page.' In his memoir On Writing, King wrote about the “part” in his brain that recognized the depth of his addiction and “began to scream for help in the only way it knew how, through my fiction and through my monsters” (King 2010), and he references Misery, in particular, with its imprisoned and tortured writer. Misery is one of my favorite books and I feel one of Stephens most personal books. Stephen King’s Misery is a dense novel, full of overlapping layers and meanings, some of which conflict. Misery is a book about addiction, in both a textual and metatextual sense. It is a book in which addiction is explored in multiple forms by both characters, and it is also a book about the nature of addiction “Misery is a book about cocaine. Annie Wilkes is cocaine. She was my number-one fan” (The Rolling Stone, 2014) He also refers to his excessive drinking multiple times throughout the book; to late nights, and late morning hangovers, downing Rolaids like candy.

King has always been clear about the inspiration he has drawn from respected literary forebears. His short story The Man in the Black Suit, an homage to Hawthorne about a man who meets the devil on a walk through the woods, won an O Henry award after being published in The New Yorker. His ongoing connection with and affinity to Edgar Allen Poe was first made explicit with his 1975 version of The Tell-Tale Heart, retitled Old Dude’s Ticker. HP Lovecraft inspired his 1987 science fiction novel The Tommyknockers. One of the greatest abilities King has as an author is being able to understand the fears of his readers and to translate those fears into a work of fiction. From abuse to the loneliness of poverty and hunger, King can connect to his readership and to offer them a sense of hope. In his books King has explored almost every terror-producing theme imaginable, from vampires, rabid dogs, deranged killers, and a pyromaniac to ghosts, extrasensory perception and telekinesis, biological warfare, and even a malevolent automobile. In his later fiction, exemplified by Dolores Claiborne, King departed from the horror genre to provide sharply detailed psychological portraits of his protagonists, many of them women, who confront difficult and challenging circumstances. King may simplify, but he does it without contempt for his characters or readers. He may write too much, but his best work endures. He may be, at times, sophomoric, but he also can be superbly Gothic.

Should We Take King Seriously?

My answer is ‘yes’. He keeps millions of readers engaged in the world of books, at a time when technology continues to transform reading in unpredictable ways. King has been one of the first to experiment with new technologies, coming up with online serial novels and the first downloadable e-book, Riding the Bullet. “It is hard to say how influential Stephen King is. “For the past four decades, no single writer has dominated the landscape of genre writing like him. To date, he is the only author in history to have had more than 30 books become No. 1 best-sellers. He now has more than 70 published books, many of which have become cultural icons, and his achievements extend so far beyond a single genre that it’s impossible to limit him to one even though Romano 2018”). King has become known for his amazing ability at describing the setting, the people and everything that’s going on so as you’re reading you can easily see everything playing out in your head with vivid details. At the beginning of his career, King was scorned by academia, considered a literary hack who produced trashy horror stories for the uneducated masses, the twentieth century equivalent of a penny dreadful writer. Now, several decades into his career, it would be difficult to dismiss King as anything less than one of the most influential writers of American and world culture. King’s writing offers the reader important insights into the darker side of existence. When he received the National Medal of the Arts, President Obama described his stories as “remarkable storytelling with a sharp analysis of human nature.” King’s stories resonate with his audience because they expose a formidable and dangerous human world, reminding readers to be wary. His writing is popular, but as Magistrale said in his presentation, “popular does not always equate with being sub-literary.'

Where Would We Be Without King?

Well we wouldn’t have modern works like Stranger Things, whose adolescent ensemble directly channels the Losers’ Club, King’s ensemble of geeky preteen friends from ‘It’. Without King, we wouldn’t have one of the most iconic and recognizable images in cinema history — Andy Dufresne standing in the rain after escaping from Shawshank prison — nor would we have the enduring horror of Pennywise the Clown, Cujo the slavering St. Bernard, or Kathy Bates’s pitch-perfect stalker fan in Misery. King’s influence on pop culture cannot be denied. Those inspired by King praise his ability to write horror in normal settings. His stories capture the way the uncanny can make its presence known in peoples’ everyday routines, especially in the suburban neighborhoods that his characters have lived in for years. “He fully immerses you in this alternate reality of New England with remarkable speed.” Stephen portrays the hidden darkness within human nature, revealing humans’ propensity for violence. Alcoholism and abuse are common elements his work, and readers follow and sympathize with characters in their struggles against personal demons.

King has effectively been translating America’s private, communal, and cultural fears and serving them up to us on grisly platters for half a century from the beginning, King was dismissed as a ‘genre writer’. But really, he is polymorphous. Though his work was sometimes disparaged as undisciplined and inelegant, King is a talented storyteller whose books gained their effect from realistic detail, forceful plotting, and the author’s undoubted ability to involve and scare the reader. His work consistently addressed such themes as the potential for politics and technology to disrupt or even destroy an individual human life. Obsession, the forms it can assume, and its power to wreck individuals, families, and whole communities was a recurring theme in King’s fiction, driving the narratives of Christine, Misery, and Needful Things. This is an important aspect of King’s success. His stories are not usually about superheroes that live in an unrecognizable landscape, they are everyday people, living in a recognizable America. More than this though, the stories he tells are a reflection of the lives of these ordinary people, even as they contain horrors and supernatural events that are extraordinary. Themes like these are found throughout King’s work. Loss of innocence, abuse, and the battle between good and evil are woven into his stories. He weaves these tales together, linking them to each other in a web that readers take great pleasure in discovering.

'As King approaches his mid-70’s he shows no signs of slowing down, with the television adaptation of ‘The Outsider’ set to release in January, 2020 on HBO and ‘If It Bleeds’ a novella set to release May 5th, 2020. It appears Stephen will go on thrilling and chilling his readers until the end. When asked why he writes in the horror genre, King says: 'I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out. I'm not proud. King and his novelist wife divide their time between Florida and Maine. They have three children: Naomi Rachel, a reverend; Joseph Hillstrom, who writes under the pen name Joe Hill and is a lauded horror-fiction writer in his own right; and Owen Phillip, whose first collection of stories was published in 2005.

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