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For anybody who has never read any of King's books or seen any of the films that have been made of those books1 - read on! Possibly one of the most widely read authors, King's name has become synonymous with the horror genre.
A skilful builder of character, King's strengths lie in his ability to let the reader into their lives and get the reader to care about what happens to them. Regardless of the fact that much of what King writes is of a fantastical nature, he has the talent to persuade the reader that what is happening is real. Some, though, would criticise - and perhaps rightly so - King's tendency to dwell on detail and build the story from the ground up. While this is helpful in letting the reader become familiar with characters and situations, the books can be very large and a tad long-winded! A good introduction to King would be to read one of his short story collections, such as Different Seasons.
Stephen King - the Man
Stephen Edwin King was born in Portland, Maine, USA in 1947. His parents separated when he was a toddler and he and his elder brother, David, were raised by their mother, Ruth. After some years living in various parts of the country, primarily to be near her husband's family, Ruth, Stephen and David moved to Durham, Maine to look after Ruth's sick parents.
King's grandparents passed away and Ruth had to work in an institute for frail elderly folk to make ends meet. King attended school in Durham and Lisbon Falls High School before going to the University of Maine in 1966. He studied English and wrote a column for the campus newspaper. He graduated in 1970.
King missed the draft for Vietnam, being declared 4-F, unfit for service, for a number of reasons; perforated eardrums being one of several. In 1971, he met his future wife, Tabitha, in the library where they both worked. His first sales, short stories in the main, were to men's magazines.
In 1973 came the break for which he and Tabitha had been waiting; Doubleday accepted his first novel, Carrie. More good news followed shortly after, when his agent told him that there was a large paperback deal for Carrie being negotiated, which would allow him to give up teaching and write full-time. Carrie was published in 1974.
The Kings moved about the country, settling for a while in Boulder, Colorado, where King finished writing The Stand, most of which is set in Boulder. He and Tabitha have three children, Naomi Rachel, Joe Hill and Owen Philip2.
To say that King is prolific is probably an understatement, having written at least 40 books to date; not to mention numerous film scripts, tele-plays and, more recently, a story that he is publishing on the Web, in instalments, that people can download for $1 a time! A list of all that he has published would be pretty boring, so there follows a 'categorisation' of his work, trying to show that he does not just write horror stories. These categories are subjective, and while some may disagree with certain books that appear under specific headings, others, obviously, will not.
- Real World (RW)
- Horror (H)
- Fantasy (F)
- Short Story Collections (SSC)
- Collaborations (C)
- The Bachman Books (BB)
That some of the books could live quite happily under one or more of the headings is inevitable. Where one book could sit in another category, the abbreviation will appear after the title, indicating such.
The Real World
King has said that he works on the 'What if...?' principle. The books in the Real World category put this in to practice more than effectively. Rooted in Anytown, Anywhere (although, more usually, somewhere in Maine) these books concern people who wander in to a space where, in King's words, '... the fabric between what is real and what is not, has been stretched... things start to happen'.
The earlier books do tend to lean more towards the horror side of things - The Shining(H), Cujo, Dead Zone, The Stand, The Dark Half(H) - but more recent novels have been much more firmly founded in King's own special version of reality. Misery is probably the best known of these books, due not a little to the superb film adaptation that starred James Caan and Kathy Bates. Dolores Claiborne is another of this ilk3,as is Gerald's Game. Needful Things (H) and Rose Madder (F,H). Although comparatively recent offerings tended to veer back towards the 'horror' side of things, they gave rise to two of King's most excellent villains: Leland Gaunt in Needful Things and Norman Daniels in Rose Madder - which is, disregarding the fantasy element for a moment, a terrifying study in wife abuse and what some women will endure in the name of love. This is a subject that is given another airing, along with child abuse, in Dolores Claiborne.
Up to date now, with three of King's finest 'Real World' novels, The Green Mile, Bag of Bones and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. Not only has The Green Mile recently been made into a superb film, starring Tom Hanks, it caused a stir in the publishing world when King elected to release it in six, monthly instalments; much the same way as Thomas Hardy and Dickens published some of their work. It was a stunning success and was later re-issued in a complete volume; possibly the only time a book has appeared in the bestseller lists on seven separate occasions. Bag of Bones is probably the closest King has come to writing a 'traditional ghost story', and it is none the worse for that, but it seems to lack some the trademark characterisation that is prevalent in other King novels. The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is the shortest of King's novels, but probably his most concise.
King writes about that which he knows, and he has a good memory. Children and old folk generally get to have the 'starring roles' in his novels, and the little girl in Tom Gordon is one of his most endearing and believable characters. All of the novels in the 'Real World' have either been made into movies or television 'mini-series' or are in post or pre-production.
Although branded as a horror writer, and King himself professes to be just that in Danse Macabre, the early novels are the only ones that fit happily into this category - they are 'traditional' horror stories. King appears to have back-pedalled somewhat, in terms of categorising himself as a horror writer, yet he doesn't find it too difficult to slot horror stories into three distinct areas, maintaining that all 'horror' is a version of one of these three categories:
- The Vampire
- The Werewolf
- The Thing without a Name
King's early novels, starting with Carrie, all fit very nicely into the above boxes and all, with the exception of Salems Lot, have children or teenagers at the heart of the tale; although children do have a role to play in this somewhat traditional vampire story. It is perhaps his most complicated novel, having six major protagonists, and moving between their childhood and the present day. As is so often the case with King's horror novels, when it is translated to the (in this instance) small screen, it loses so much of its impact - although Tim Curry did make an awesome Pennywise.
Christine and Pet Sematary, both earlier novels, fit nicely under the 'Thing Without A Name' banner, but after these were published (and once again turned into pretty ropey films) King seemed to veer away from the more traditional aspects of his craft, moving to stories more rooted in the 'real world' and fantasy than out-and-out horror. Until, that is, 1996, when he published a charming little tale of ancient evil entitled Desperation - another in the 'No-name' box. It seemed that he was attempting to return to his earlier formula, but it was not as successful, from a story point of view, as many of King's fans would have hoped for.
The Shining is one of those books that, while firmly fixed in the real world, is very close to that place where reality is stretched, and it often spills over into the horrific. Kubrick's film of this story was a huge success, and while it stuck fairly closely to the spirit of the book, being the man that he was, Kubrick couldn't help himself, he tampered with the ending, supposedly 'improving' upon it. It would be interesting to see what could be done with this story today, with the advances in special effects that have been made. King himself says he was;
'... deeply disappointed in the end result. Kubrick just couldn't grasp the sheer, inhuman evil of the Overlook Hotel... and made the film into a domestic tragedy... because he couldn't believe, he couldn't make the film believable to others.
It was in 1983 that King first dabbled in the more unusual, and perhaps innovative, side of publishing. Cycle of the Werewolf is another tale with a child at its heart, but this book, published in softback, was accompanied by some superb black and white line drawings, and full colour illustrations, by Berni Wrightson. This aspect of King's craft, the use of illustrations within the text, rather than a comic book format, was experimented with a year earlier, when King published a small volume with a little known publisher in the States. This was The Dark Tower: Volume1 - The Gunslinger. More of that work later. Silver Bullet was the resultant film of the 'werewolf' volume; and it was another turkey!
Growing up in the mid-fifties, it's hardly surprising that King lists as his influences many of those wonderful old B-movie sci-fi epics such as Them!, The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers and on and on... as well as the old horror flicks too4. So it follows that he would, eventually, begin to write similar stories.
The Tommyknockers' (H) is a pretty standard sci-fi tale, with a few King embellishments, and Insomnia (RW) manages to drag in elements of classic Greek myth too. King's major delving in to the world of fantasy is The Dark Tower series, thus far consisting of four volumes:
- The Gunslinger
- The Drawing of the Three
- The Waste Lands
- Wizard and Glass
It tells the tale of the Gunslinger, Roland, and his search for the 'Tower'. It is set in a post-apocalyptic world that could be ours, but perhaps is not, but the people who accompany Roland on his quest (and surprise, surprise, one of them is a child) are drawn from 'our' world. Apparently inspired by the Robert Browning poem Childe Roland, King actually began work on the story as early as 1970. He has expressed a deal of surprise that a 'work in progress' has remained 'alive' for so long and at the reaction that it has engendered. The latest volume was published in 19975. King himself says that writing adventure/ fantasy is easy, but the writing of love stories (which is what Wizard and Glass essentially is) he finds infinitely more difficult.
One last book under the 'Fantasy' heading, and one for the children this time, The Eye of the Dragon is almost a traditional fairy tale, but it sees the return of one of King's most maleficent villains, the totally boo-able Randall Flagg, late of The Stand. To date, this is the only one of King's novels that hasn't been picked up by Hollywood or the small screen.
Short Story Collections
If you are coming to King for the first time, and feel a little intimidated by the thought of ploughing through a six-hundred page novel, try one of his short story or novella collections6. The short story collections are:
- Different Seasons
- Skeleton Crew
- Nightmares and Dreamscapes
These tales move across the entire kaleidoscope of King's talents and more readily display his ability as a writer of delicate and thoughtful prose: in particular is the story My Little Pony from the Nightmares and Dreamscapes collection. A gentle and moving tale of a youngsters perspective on growing old, it is, perhaps one of King's finest 'shorts' and is not in the least horrific.
Four Past Midnight and Hearts in Atlantis are collections of four novellas each; an excellent way of introducing yourself to the joys of a good 'King-ian' read!
Even his short stories and novellas are not free of the curse of the 'bad movie' syndrome. 'The Langoliers' from the Midnight collection was made into a very mediocre film, as was 'Graveyard Shift'7. However, there are quite marvelous exceptions to the rule. Rob Reiner's superb adaptation of the short story 'The Body' (filmed as Stand By Me) and the filmic rendering of 'Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption' were both drawn from the Different Seasons collection. And, more recently, another adaptation from the Different Seasons collection is Apt Pupil, starring Ian McEllan. Out of four stories in the collection, three have been made into films - all of which have been critically well received and box-office successes! And in post- or pre-production (at the time of writing) are movie versions of 'The Mist' from Skeleton Crew and two of the stories fromHearts in Atlantis ('Low Men in Yellow Coats' and 'Why We Were In Vietnam').
For a man who appears to spend all of his waking hours living in a weird and wonderful world of his own invention, it might seem strange to find out that he does actually have some spare time. What does he do? He spends it writing! The Talisman (F) was written with another author (Peter Straub) who has dabbled in the horror/fantasy end of the market. Straub has written such wonders as Julia, KoKo, Ghost Story and the marvelous Floating Dragon8.
First published in 1984, it is a tale that would make any fantasy writer green with envy! Jumping between two worlds, it has all the elements of the classic 'hero' stories, with a young boy trying to save his mother, who is the same woman in both worlds (it sounds complicated, but really is easy to follow), and trying to defeat his wicked uncle, who is all about world domination! It is a book that has been crying out for a really good film version; the Kennedy-Marshall Production Company - those fine people behind most of Spielberg's work - have now bought the rights and are turning it in to a mini-series. Once more, keep your fingers crossed.
The Bachman Books
Between 1977 and 1984, King wrote and published five novels under the pen-name 'Richard Bachman'. As to why, it is probably best to quote the man himself:
I've been asked many times if I did it because I thought I was overpublishing the market as Stephen King. The answer is no... but my publishers did. Bachman provided a compromise for us both. My 'Stephen King publishers' were like a frigid wifey who only wants to put out once or twice a year... Bachman was where I went when I had to have relief.
Bachman's novels are a distant cousin to the works of King, but the family pedigree can be seen if you look hard enough. These stories, while maintaining a little of the horror roots that established King, are certainly more mainstream in content, and over the years, Bachman built up quite a cult following for his blend of sci-fi and real world angst.
- Rage (RW) (1977)
- The Long Walk (F) (1979)
- Roadwork (RW) (1981)
- The Running Man (F) (1982)
- Thinner (H) (1984)
Even as Bachman, the lousy film adaptations hounded his work. The utterly appalling version of The Running Man has only a couple of similarities between itself and the book: the title and the game show format! Thinner fared little better.
From the outset, many of King's fans wrote to ask if he was actually Bachman: he lied. It took a tenacious bookstore clerk, Steve Brown, to go to the Library of Congress and uncover King's name on one of Bachman's copyright forms! King had carefully built up an elaborate 'life' for Bachman, even to the extent of having a wife and a young son, who died in an accident at the age of six!
Bachman died of 'cancer of the pseudonym' to quote King, but an 'undiscovered' Bachman surfaced in 1996, called The Regulators. It is the least satisfying and least enjoyable of King's work, and mightily confusing, because the characters names used in The Regulators (H) are the same as those used in Desperation, another not very satisfying book.
The experience of being Richard Bachman helped King to write his eerily atmospheric novel, The Dark Half, about a writer who has a successful alter-ego, but is nowhere near as successful when he writes under his own name. So, he 'kills off' the pseudonym, even to the extent of being photographed next to a mock gravestone, and now the world knows that Thad Beaumont is really George Stark. Unfortunately, Stark doesn't like being dead...
Themes and Influences
King has a way of making his world familiar, and some of the characters and places that feature in one King book or story, have a habit cropping up time and again. It is a familiar device, employed by many different writers in as many different genres. Readers like the familiar, enjoy meeting characters that have appeared in stories that have moved, scared or inspired them , and love to revisit old haunts, if only for a little while.
Castle Rock is a town that appears time and again in many of Kings stories, and was finally written off in the novel Needful Things, but had appeared in many before that, including Cujo, The Dark Half and the novella 'The Sun Dog' in Four Past Midnight. Rob Reiner even named his production company after the town when he made Stand By Me.
Characters often make return appearances, in minor roles, throughout King's novels. Ace Merrill makes his first appearance in The Body and crops up again in 'The Sun Dog'. A thoroughly nasty teenage tough, he develops into an even nastier adult until his untimely end in Needful Things. While these stories are not concerned particularly with Merrill, it is a tribute to King's skill that we remember him from previous stories; he is familiar and links us back to other great moments in King's books.
Randall Flagg has already had a mention, but it is not only the villains who get to come back. Ralph Roberts, the elderly hero of Insomnia, makes a fleeting appearance in Bag of Bones; fleeting, but pivotal, nonetheless. Joe Wyzer also from Insomnia has a part to play in Bones as well!
Apocalyptic themes, while not the be all and end all of King's work, do feature to huge effect in The Stand and a novella from Skeleton Crew called 'The Mist'. Both stories have governmental blundering at their heart and both paint a terrifying picture of a post-apocalyptic world and a world in the throws of dying.
Again, to list all King's literary and filmic influences would consume more space than is necessary. But the early years of horror have had a profound effect upon King. The classic stories, such as Dracula, Frankenstein and Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde helped him formulate the categories into which he slots all horror fiction, broadly speaking. And more modern influences in literature abound, including the work of Poe, Lovecraft, Bloch and Bradbury.
Lists, lists, lists... you could go on forever, but the films have to be mentioned in a place apart. It has to be said that so few of King's stories have been made in to worthwhile films; the good ones could be counted on the fingers of one hand, which is sad because there is so much in a King story that would, given the right script/director/budget/cast, make for superb entertainment. The film of Firestarter is a good example of how to waste talent and money. $3 million was spent on special effects and the cast list read like a who's who of Oscar nominated talent: George C Scott, Louise Fletcher, Martin Sheen, to name but a few. King describes it as:
... one of the worst of the bunch of movies that have been made of my work... it's flavourless; it's like cafeteria mashed potato.
We can but hold out hope for those films presently being made... but it has to be noted that King himself is responsible for some of the real turkeys! Maximum Overdrive, which he scripted and directed himself is awful! Closely followed by a self-scripted piece of dross called Sleepwalkers. We can't, however, blame him for such gems as Pet Sematary 2, unless it is to chastise him for allowing them to use the name.
King's forays into television have been marginally more successful and the specially written piece The Storm of the Century (seen recently on British TV) has to have been one of the best representations of a King 'horror' piece that has yet appeared. We won't mention The Golden Years , but perhaps a passing nod to the TV mini-series The Stand - which did its best but could, and should, have been so much better, particularly as this is possibly the best of King's writing.
Now another King 'adventure in publishing'! He has, at time of writing, turned to the Web, as mentioned elsewhere in this piece, and written a story called The Plant. The idea is brave and King has said that he will publish three instalments, but if people aren't paying, then that's it! We'll never know what happens! The projected length of the piece is eight episodes, so if you do go to have a look, and decide to give it a whirl, please, don't forget to pay!!
That's it! Hope this has whetted your appetite for more of the Master of Modern Fiction and if it has, enjoy! If you've read some of King and not been impressed9,that's fine, perhaps you may try again one day.
It's a dance. And sometimes they turn the lights off in the ballroom. But we'll dance anyway, you and I. Even in the dark. Especially in the dark. May I have the pleasure?
- Stephen King Danse Macabre