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Stephen King is a prolific and immensely popular author of horror fiction who blends elements of the traditional gothic tale with those of the modern psychological thriller, detective, and science fiction genres.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Childhood in Maine
Born in Portland, Maine, on September 21, 1947, King is the second son of Donald Edwin King, a master mariner in the U.S. Merchant Marine, and Nellie Ruth Pillsbury King. His father abandoned the family when King was two, and King remembers nothing of him except for finding a box of his books in 1959 or 1960, an experience he relates in his non-fiction work Danse Macabre (1981). King’s mother was highly influential, reading to him and later encouraging him to submit his manuscripts to publishers. She died of lung cancer in 1973.
King, his mother, and his older brother, David Victor, lived with relatives in many places: Durham, Maine; Malden, Massachusetts; Chicago; West De Pere, Wisconsin; Stratford, Connecticut; and Fort Wayne, Indiana. Nellie Ruth King kept the family together by working at a succession of low-paying jobs. In 1958, the family moved to Durham, Maine—later fictionalized in much of King’s work as Castle Rock, Maine—to care for her parents. King finished elementary school in a one-room building in Durham and attended high school in nearby Lisbon Falls. He gained his first experience as a professional writer while still in high school by covering high-school sports for the Lisbon Enterprise. He published his first story, ”I Was a Teenage Grave Robber,” (1965) in Comics Review, a fan magazine, and wrote his first novel-length manuscript, ”The Aftermath,” about life after an atomic-bomb explosion.
King received a scholarship to the University of Maine at Orono. He majored in English and minored in speech, and wrote a column, ”King s Garbage Truck, for the Maine Campus, the student newspaper. He also participated in student politics and the antiwar movement, which opposed United States involvement in Vietnam. During this period he also published the first fiction for which he was paid, ”The Glass Floor” (1967), in Startling Mystery Stories. While still an undergraduate, King taught a seminar, ”Popular Literature and Culture,” after criticizing the English department s traditional approach to literature. He graduated in 1970 and, unable to find a teaching job, pumped gas and worked in a laundry. He later incorporated these experiences into his fiction.
Success with Carrie
On January 2, 1971, King married Tabitha Jane Spruce, whom he had met in college. Prior to writing full-time, he worked as a teacher at Hampden Academy. During this time, King—with encouragement from Tabitha—completed the manuscript for Carrie, a story partially written in response to allegations that King could not write about women. The tale was also inspired by an odd girl with whom King went to school. He had originally thrown out his first few pages because he was convinced the story was not worth pursuing. The pages were salvaged by his wife, who persuaded him to continue. In 1973, the work was accepted for publication by Double-day & Company. This allowed King to commit to writing full-time.
In 1976, when Salem’s Lot (1975) was published in paperback and a paperback edition of Carrie was released in conjunction with Brian De Palma’s film adaptation, King became a best-selling author. The two paperback editions of Carrie sold more than 3.5 million copies. In 1978, he was writer in residence and instructor at the University of Maine at Orono. Because of a course he taught there, and because Bill Thompson, who edited King s first five books at Doubleday, invited him to write about the horror genre, King produced Danse Macabre (1981), a nonfiction book that analyzes horror in literature, film, and other popular culture.
The Dark Tower Series: King’s Magnum Opus
After the release of Carrie, King went on to publish dozens of novels, short stories, comics, and nonfiction books during the following three decades. While many of these contain traditional elements of horror fiction,
King’s writing frequently includes elements of science fiction, fantasy, and psychological insight. Among the most popular of these are the seven books of The Dark Tower (1982-2004) series that ties much of the thematic content from King s other novels together. Inspired by old western movies, Arthurian legend, and the work of authors including Robert Browning and J. R. R. Tolkien, these books concern the quest of the last surviving gun-slinger, Roland Deschain, whose only goal is to find and reach the Tower. Many characters, places, and events from the series appear in other popular works by King, including The Shining (1977), The Stand (1978), It (1986), Insomnia (1994), and Bag of Bones (1998). King himself appears as a character in the series, tying the writer s real-life persona in the mythology of his fiction.
The Richard Bachman Novels
In an effort to keep his name from being overpublished, and in response to the reluctance of the publishing community to release multiple works by the same author in a given year, King released several works under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. These novels include Rage (1977),The Long Walk (1979), The Running Man (1982), Roadwork (1981), Thinner (1984), The Regulators (1996), and Blaze (2007). King secretly used the Bachman name until 1984, the year his pseudonym was revealed to the reading world. The two Bachman novels published after that time were begun prior to 1984, but later rewritten or completed. Never one to back down from a good story, King has explained that these works were ”discovered among the personal effects of the ”deceased Bachman.
Commercial Success and Personal Pain
The popularity of King s fiction brought him commercial success ranked among the ”forty highest-grossing U.S. entertainers” according to Forbes magazine in 1996. In 1997, King left Viking Penguin, his publisher. In the most recent decade of his career, King has published more than two dozen books, including novels, short story collections, and nonfiction works.
On an afternoon in 1999, King was hit by a vehicle while he was walking down a road near his home in Maine. Despite a collapsed lung and multiple fractures to his leg and hip, King was able to make a full recovery and continue writing. Shortly after the accident, he wrote an eBook (available only on the Internet), Riding the Bullet (1999)—a ghost story that was adapted to film in 2004. Later that year, King finished his memoir On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000) in which he discusses the role writing played in the process towards recovery after the accident. He writes, ”Life isn t a support system for art. It s the other way around.
In 2003, King was awarded The National Book Foundation s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Also in the early 2000s, King completed the final three installments of his popular Dark Tower series. The last one, titled Dark Tower VII: The Dark Tower, was released in 2004. That same year he cowrote a TV series, Kingdom Hospital, for ABC, which was inspired, in part, by a Danish series by Lars von Tier. Also in 2004, King released a pop-up version of The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (1999), a work that anticipates his nonfiction work Faithful (2005), a book co-written with Stewart O’Nan about the 2004 baseball season and the Red Sox. Tom Gordon, a Red Sox player, guides the lost protagonist in The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon through her walkman. In October of 2006, King was awarded the Grand Master Award by Mystery Writers of America.
King and his wife Tabitha spend their winters in Florida and live the remainder of the year in Maine. King maintains an intense writing schedule, taking only three days off per year. His latest novel, Duma Key (2008), is set in Florida and is about a construction worker who suffers a terrible accident.
Works in Literary Context
King’s fiction features colloquial language, clinical attention to physical detail and emotional states, realistic settings, and an emphasis on contemporary problems, including marital infidelity and peer-group acceptance, which lend credibility to the supernatural elements in his fiction. His stories often emphasize the presence of horror or evil in commonplace situations. Influenced by the naturalistic novels of writers such as Theodore Dreiser and Frank Norris, King confesses to Paul Janeczko in English Journal that his personal outlook for the world’s future is somewhat bleak. On the other hand, one of the things he finds most comforting in his own work is an element of optimism.
The Horror of the Commonplace
King’s writing frequently concerns to such subjects as growing up in the 1950s, life in small towns, the devastating impact of politics on ordinary human beings, technology in modern life, childhood (especially in Carrie, Cujo (1981), and It), and parenthood (especially in The Shining, Cujo, Pet Sematary, and The Dark Half, which was published in 1989.) Moreover, Misery and The Dark Half explore writing and the powerful relationships that writers have with their fans. Regardless of their subjects, King’s novels display a strong moral bent, a sympathy for working people and residents of small towns, and a sensitivity to the often extreme cruelty of the ordinary world.
The Female Consciousness
Although many of King’s novels stem from his personal experiences, others examine the lives of young women growing up in the United States. This trend begins with his first novel, Carrie, and continues with Dolores Claiborne (1992). In between are The Stand, in which one major character is a pregnant adolescent; Firestarter (1980), whose main character is a girl with the mental ability to set fires; Cujo, whose heroine and her son are trapped in her broken-down Pinto by a rabid Saint Bernard; and Gerald’s Game (1992), whose protagonist, handcuffed to the bedposts by her aging husband, must face her past as a sexually abused child and a future without her husband. Although many of King’s earlier works are limited to a focus on women who are strong in their traditional maternal role, King seems to be moving to a full exploration of female consciousness and everything that lies behind women’s public personas.
The Connection Between Psychology and the Paranormal
King’s interest in the paranormal is usually reflected in his protagonists, whose experiences and thoughts serve to reveal psychological complexities and abnormalities. Carrie, for example, concerns a socially outcast teenage girl whose emotional insecurities lead her to take violent revenge on taunting classmates by means of telekinetic powers. In The Shining, malevolent spirits in a remote resort hotel manipulate a recovering alcoholic caretaker into attempting to murder his wife and child. Similarly, a haunted car in Christine (1983) gains control of an alienated teenage boy. Other works in which paranormal events recur include The Dead Zone (1979) and Firestarter.
Works in Critical Context
Although the critical reception of his work has not necessarily matched its sweeping success with readers, colleagues and critics alike discern within it a substantial and enduring literary legitimacy. In American Film, for instance, Darrell Ewing and Dennis Meyers call King ”the chronicler of contemporary America’s dreams, desires, and fears.” And fantasy writer Orson Scott Card, citing King’s “brilliant” exploration of current American myths and legends, proclaims in a Contemporary Authors interview with Jean W. Ross: ”If someone in the future wants to see what American life was like, what Americans cared about, what our stories were in the seventies and eighties, they’ll read Stephen King.” Moreover, says Card, in fifty years, King will be ”regarded as the dominant literary figure of the time. A lot of us feel that way.”
King is not yet a favorite with academics or literary critics, partly because they still regard him as ”Bestsellasau-rusRex,” as George W. Beahm notes in The Stephen King Story (1991), and partly because even his most tightly constructed works can be uneven. As he has admitted on many occasions, he recognizes terror and horror as finer emotions but even his best novels include occasional gratuitous violence and gore. However, he is gaining acceptance in the scholarly community: critical analyses of his works are regularly published by university presses, and the MLA References: includes articles on King every year.
Some reviewers of Carrie appreciated the horror of the title character’s life and death, while others bemoaned the violence in the novel. The hardcover edition sold a modest thirteen thousand copies, but the paperback edition, published in April 1975, initially sold more than a million copies. ”It was with Carrie that King established himself as the premier novelist of the supernatural, the dark, and the bizarre” according to Lois H. Gresh and Robert Weinburg in their recent book The Science of Stephen King (2007). In their revised edition of The Complete Stephen King Universe (2006), authors Stanley Wiater, Christopher Golden, and Hank Wagner note, ”The book is also significant in that it would be the first of many novels in which a much-put-upon protagonist would be a strong, willful female—rather than traditionally male—character.”
- Beahm, George. The Stephen KingStory. Kansas City, Mo.: Andrews & McMeel, 1991.
- Coddon, Karin S. Readings of Stephen King. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2004.
- Davis, Jonathan P. Stephen King’s America. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1994.
- Herron, Don, ed. Reign of Fear: Fiction and Film of Stephen King. Lancaster, Pa.: Underwood-Miller, 1988.
- Hoppenstand, Gary and Ray B. Browne, eds. The Gothic World of Stephen King: Landscape of Nightmares. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1987.
- Keyishian, Amy and Marj. Stephen King. New York: Chelsea House, 1995. Lloyd, Ann. The Films of Stephen King. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.
- Magistrale, Tony. Landscape of Fear: Stephen King’s American Gothic. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1988.
- Matthew, Donald. Stephen King. London: Hambledon and London, 2002.
- Murphy, Tim. In the Darkest Night: A Student’s Guide to Stephen King. Mercer Island, Wash.: Starmont House, 1992.
- Rolls, Albert. Stephen King: A Biography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2008.
- Schweitzer, Darrell. Discovering Stephen King. Mercer Island, Wash.: Starmont House, 1985.
- Spignesi, Stephen J. The Shape Under the Sheet: The Complete Stephen King Encyclopedia. Chicago: Popular Culture, Ink., 1991.
- Underwood, Tim and Chuck Miller, eds. Fear Itself: The Horror Fiction of Stephen King. New York: Signet, 1982.
- –. Kingdom of Fear: The World of Stephen King. New York: NAL/Plume Trade Paperback, 1986.
- Wiater, Stanley, Christopher Golden, and Hank Wagner. The Complete Stephen King Universe: A Guide to the Worlds of Stephen King. New York: Macmillan, 2006.
- Winter, Douglas E. Stephen King: The Art of Darkness. New York: Signet, 1986.
- Zagorski, Edward J. Teacher’s Manual: Novels of Stephen King. New York: New American Library, 1981.
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