Stephen King

A master of plot mechanics, he revived the moribund genre of horror literature and became the richest writer in history. We could do worse.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published August 11, 2000 8:30AM (EDT)

King, Stephen 1947- ; b. Portland, Maine

FICTION BIBLIOGRAPHY: Carrie (1974), 'Salem's Lot (1975), The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger (1976), Rage (written as Richard Bachman, 1977), The Shining (1977), Night Shift (stories, 1978), The Stand (1978, republished in 1990 as The Stand: The Complete and Uncut Edition), The Dead Zone (1979), The Long Walk (as Richard Bachman, 1979), Firestarter (1980), Cujo (1981), Roadwork: A Novel of the First Energy Crisis (as Richard Bachman, 1981), Different Seasons (1982), The Running Man (as Richard Bachman, 1982), Pet Sematary (1983), Christine (1983), The Talisman (with Peter Straub, 1984), The Eyes of the Dragon (1984), Thinner (as Richard Bachman, 1984), Silver Bullet (stories, 1985), Skeleton Crew (stories, 1985), *It (1986), Misery (1987), The Tommyknockers (1987), The Dark Half (1989), The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three (1989), My Pretty Pony (1989), Four Past Midnight (novellas, 1990), Needful Things (1991), The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands (1991), Gerald's Game (1992), Dolores Claiborne (1993), Nightmares & Dreamscapes (stories, 1993), Insomnia (1994), Rose Madder (1995), The Green Mile (six installments, 1996), Desperation (1996), The Regulators (as Richard Bachman, 1996), The Dark Tower IV: Wizard and Glass (1997), Bag of Bones (1998), The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (1999), Hearts in Atlantis (novellas, 1999), The Long Walk (as Richard Bachman, 1999), Riding the Bullet (e-book, 2000), The Plant (serialized e-book, 2000).

He may not embody anyone's ideal of sophisticated literary craftsmanship, but Stephen King's work will probably be read more avidly and widely than that of any other writer in this book. His principal accomplishment has been the revival and modernization of the moribund tradition of horror literature, which had declined into a dusty subgenre confined to booksellers' rear shelves. A master of plot mechanics, King sets his best books in the recognizable, quotidian world of late 20th century America -- he is uniquely able to evoke terror from such ordinary objects as storm drains, vintage automobiles and refrigerator magnets, as well as from classic Gothic settings like the empty yet malevolent Overlook Hotel of "The Shining." Like any good horror writer, he plays shamelessly on our fear of death, and on our half-delighted suspicion that all the rational Enlightenment thinking of the last 300 years has utterly failed to comprehend the true chaos of the universe.

The monsters, ghosts and insanities that lurk beneath the bucolic landscape of King's territory in rural Maine are often diabolical, extraterrestrial or ancient in origin. But King's central themes are strikingly serious and contemporary. His greatest concern is with the survival, vindication and ultimate triumph of the weak and vulnerable. The tangible results of evil in King's universe include bullying, racism, wife beating, rape and, above all else, the abuse and murder of children. Few authors in any genre have ever captured the fragility and terror of childhood with such precision, and King's instinctive sympathy for the plight of the nerd, the fat kid, the scapegoat, the queer, is a great source of his appeal.

But there is of course a darker side: King's fixation on manhood. As the ominous, oft-repeated mantra of "Pet Sematary" puts it, "A man's heart is stony ground. He grows what he can, and tends it." In that novel, perhaps King's most terrifying and most profoundly resonant, the things that grow in Dr. Louis Creed's heart (and in the haunted Native American burial ground whose power he cannot resist) hardly bear talking about -- a dead child and dead wife are really the least of it. Throughout his work, King repeatedly suggests that every man is a potential vector for evil, that with the wrong stars overhead and the wrong demon at his ankles, he will channel a primordial bloodlust and become a wife killer, a child killer, a monster. Whatever this may say about the psychology of Stephen King (who has been married to writer Tabitha King since 1971 and has three grown children), the truly frightening thing is just how difficult -- on the evidence of the society around us -- this proposition is to disprove.

King's first successful book, "Carrie," helped to establish the 1970s market for commercial horror fiction (along with William Peter Blatty's "The Exorcist" and Thomas Tryon's "The Other"). One of his shortest and least sentimental novels, with a female central character combating a history of abuse, it prefigures the streak of earnest feminism that would surface two decades later in "Gerald's Game," "Dolores Claiborne" and "Rose Madder." The finest achievement of his early career is probably "The Shining," an unforgettable tale of a haunted, empty hotel, an overly sensitive child and a riven American family. "The Stand" and "It" are King's two sprawling, multicharacter epics in which children (and adults true to their childhood ideals) must battle incalculable evil, and for all their messiness and cloying sentimentality, their scope and narrative drive are irresistible.

When King turned to exploring the plight of women and the popular novelist's relationship with his readership (in "The Dark Half" and "Misery," one of his wittiest, most acrid books), he no longer dominated the bestseller lists as completely as before. Perhaps sensing that some of the fun had drained out of his work, King responded with the tremendously popular "The Green Mile," an artless, headlong death-row thriller published in six monthly installments that has something of the tone and emotional force of "To Kill a Mockingbird." After leaving his longtime publisher, Viking, in 1997 (following a much-publicized dispute over the size of his advance), King published the long-awaited "Bag of Bones," an attempt to write a literary ghost story in the vein of Daphne du Maurier. While only partly successful, this effort reinforces what we should have known all along: Whether you like him or not, the world's bestselling novelist is no hack, but an honest and committed craftsman. If someone has to be the richest writer in history, we could do a lot worse.

Recently, King's career has taken some unexpected twists worthy of his fiction. In June 1999 he was nearly killed when struck by a van while out walking near his summer home in western Maine. Then, as the new millennium dawned, King became the most famous author yet to bypass traditional publishing and make new work exclusively available on the Internet. The fairly routine creepy-hitchhiker novella "Riding the Bullet" was downloaded by some 500,000 readers when Simon & Schuster e-published it in March 2000. Perhaps more intriguing is the epistolary novel "The Plant," a horror satire set in the publishing world that King is making available through his own Web site for a voluntary fee of $1 per installment. Without the massive publicity accorded "Riding the Bullet," it has sold far more slowly, suggesting that, at least for now, even an author of King's status can reach more readers with paper and glue than bits and bytes.

See also: Much as King is indebted to Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker (neither of whom is nearly as bad as your college professors told you), as well as to Edgar Allan Poe and the original New England horrormeister, H.P. Lovecraft, this critic has long believed that his true literary ancestor is Charles Dickens. King and Dickens share a capacity for shamelessly sentimental yarn spinning and a love of the grotesque; both use their literary gifts to illuminate the ills of contemporary society. It's impossible to know whether King will share Dickens' literary respectability a century from now, but it's not inconceivable.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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