Article abstract: Through his storytelling abilities and vivid imagination, as demonstrated in his novels, short stories, and films, Stephen King has done much to move the horror genre into the forefront of popular literature. He has modernized many gothic or horror themes and techniques.
Stephen Edwin King was born on September 21, 1947, at Maine General Hospital in Portland, Maine, the second son of Donald Edwin and Nellie Ruth King. His brother David had been born two years earlier. When King was only two years old, his father, a captain in the merchant marines, deserted the family and never saw them again. This desertion placed hardships upon the young family, forcing them to move often in order for Nellie to provide for her two sons. In their search for a place to call home, the family lived in Maine, Massachusetts, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana. Finally, when King was six years old, the family settled in Stratford, Connecticut, where they lived for six years.
King became interested in the horror genre early in life. He listened to suspenseful radio dramas and eventually came under the spell of good storytelling such as in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883) and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) and horror films such as The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). The real potential of other worlds came into young King’s life in 1957 with the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik I. King’s teachers reported that one of his greatest passions was writing stories of his own, an activity that began when he was six years old.
In 1958, when King was eleven years old, his family moved to Durham, Maine. It was here that the future writer discovered that he had something in common with his absent father when he discovered an old trunk in the attic of his aunt and uncle’s garage that contained a box of his father’s books, including some by New England horror writer H. P. Lovecraft and some of Donald’s own early attempts at writing short stories.
King continued his interest in writing throughout his public education and, after graduating from Lisbon Falls High School, entered the University of Maine in Orono in 1966. At the University of Maine he pursued a degree in English, wrote the “King’s Garbage Truck” column for the campus newspaper, The Daily Maine, and submitted short stories to whatever publications he thought might be interested. In 1967, King made his first sale as an author with the purchase of his short story “The Glass Floor” for thirty-five dollars by Startling Mystery Stories. Even with his first sale, King continued his college education and filled empty hours by working campus jobs, writing, protesting local situations, and courting his future wife, fellow University of Maine student and library worker Tabitha Spruce.
King graduated from the university in 1970 and accepted a position as an English teacher at Hampden Academy in Hampden, Maine, in 1971. In this same year, King married the recently graduated Tabitha, who would eventually become a novelist in her own right. The young couple lived in a small mobile home and held second jobs, King in an industrial laundry and Tabitha in a donut shop, to supplement King’s meager teaching salary of $6,400 per year. During this time they began their family.
Although his early married life proved to be taxing, King did not forego his drive to write. Often the small amounts that his short stories brought were used to purchase medicine for his children or finance the repair of a major appliance. When he was not teaching or working in the laundry, King produced several manuscripts, often typed in the furnace room of the Kings’ mobile home. He would freely throw away pieces in which he saw no real potential. One such effort was saved from the garbage by Tabitha, who saw more than her husband did in the discarded germ of an idea. She argued that there was something of value to be found in the fragment that he had thrown away and that he should complete what he had begun. Following his wife’s encouragement, King finished the manuscript that was eventually published as Carrie (1974). With the sale of Carrie to Doubleday for a $2,500 advance (he later sold the paperback rights for $400,000 and saw the novel turned into an award-winning motion picture with Sissy Spacek), King knew that he could earn his way as a writer and gave up his teaching position to write full-time.
The books that followed Carrie were received with varying degrees of acceptance. After King published his modernized vampire tale Salem’s Lot (1975) and proposed that his third book, The Shining (1977), would be a ghost story, his agent feared that the young writer from Maine would be typecast, but King had no fear of failing at his craft or in his chosen genre. His later publication successes proved him correct.
In 1981, King published Danse Macabre to explore the horror film genre and to illuminate his fascination with both motion pictures and literature based upon investigations of humanity’s darker emotional and psychological sides. In producing his own works of horror, King soon found that the clearest way for him to approach a piece of fiction in progress would be to seek an answer to the question, “what if?” From his earlier works on, this question has been central to each of King’s works, and he answered it as it related to how individuals would act following almost total annihilation of humanity in The Stand (1978), to actions of obsessive fans in Misery (1987), the effect extraterrestrial visitors might have on a community in The Tommyknockers (1987), and to the reactions of various individuals to capital punishment in the six-part The Green Mile (1996).
In addition to his many novels, King also wrote numerous successful short stories that eventually appeared in collections, including “The Body” (Different Seasons, 1982), “The Woman in the Room” (Night Shift, 1978), and “Word Processor of the Gods” (Skeleton Crew, 1985). In addition, he produced six novels under the name Richard Bachman in order to publish works that did not quite fit the Stephen King persona and to allow him to publish more than one book per year. The true identity of Bachman, under whose name King published Rage (1977), The Long Walk (1979), Roadwork (1981), The Running Man (1982), Thinner (1984), and The Regulators (1996), was eventually made public because of the curiosity and research of a bookstore clerk.
King’s audience grew even larger as film and television versions of his works and original screen- and teleplays by King caught the attention of viewing audiences. Many of these versions have been passed off as weak at best; however, some have received rave reviews as well as major awards. The motion pictures with King ties that are generally considered the best are Carrie (1976), The Dead Zone (1983), “The Body” spinoff Stand by Me (1986), The Shining (1980), and Misery (1990). Among the King television movies and miniseries were Salem’s Lot (1979), It (1990), The Tommyknockers (1993), The Stand (1994), and The Shining (1997).
The name of Stephen King became familiar even to those who had never read any of his works. King maintained a high public profile and at the same time tried to maintain some degree of privacy for himself and his family. King made television spots for a major credit card and for a national publicity drive for library usage. He also visited many of the top network talk shows and appeared as a contestant twice on Jeopardy. Perhaps he gained the most attention with his 1994 cross-country motorcycle trip during which he touted his novel Insomnia and independent bookstores over the big chain stores.
Because of his vast audience and his high public profile, Stephen King became more than merely one who wrote scary stories. His works entered legal proceedings when defendants contended that they were encouraged to carry out their crimes after having read a particular King work. King has been condemned because of the use of evil in his works even though the works argue that the evil must be confronted. His residence in Bangor, Maine, was even invaded by a distraught and mentally unbalanced man from Texas who threatened to destroy the house.
The greatest contentious confrontations came, however, when critics and reviewers debated the significance and quality of King’s fiction. Many thinkers willingly passed him off as just an author who met the prurient curiosity of the reading masses. In contrast, other writers have compared King to Charles Dickens and Edgar Allan Poe and have considered him to be among the best of modern storytellers. Two entities who did not seem to be overly concerned with this ongoing critical battle were King himself and his fans.
Throughout his career, King approached his work with all seriousness, writing almost every day of the year. King also realized that he had led a charmed life and went out of his way to share his good fortune with others. He and his wife’s philanthropy was enjoyed by such diverse causes as the recreation program of their hometown of Bangor, Maine; various educational institutions, most noticeably the University of Maine; library rebuilding programs such as one in Old Town, Maine; and individual needy students whom they heard about from various sources.
In addition to their separate writing careers and their philanthropic gestures, King and his wife put most of their efforts into rearing their three children, Joseph, Naomi, and Owen. As in King’s fiction, one of his driving impulses was to ensure that his children had a normal, loving family life.
Beahm, George, ed. The Stephen King Companion. Kansas City: Andrews and McMeel, 1989. Beahm presents a comprehensive introduction to the works of King through analyses of the works, interviews with the authors, and comments by others.
Beahm, George, ed. The Stephen King Story. Williamsburg, Va.: GB Publishing, 1991. This is the most complete book-length story of King’s life.
Docherty, Brian, ed. American Horror Fiction: From Brockden Brown to Stephen King. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. This collection of essays places King’s works into context with other American horror writers.
Heller, Terry. The Delight of Horror: An Aesthetics of the Tale of Terror. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987. Heller provides an in-depth discussion of the artistic and psychological foundations of horror fiction. This discussion will lead the reader to a fuller understanding of the structures and themes appearing in King’s fiction.
Herron, Don, ed. Reign of Fear: Fiction and Film of Stephen King. Los Angeles: Underwood and Miller, 1988. The essays in this collection discuss the significance of film in the development of King’s reputation.
King, Stephen. Danse Macabre. 1981. New York: Berkeley, 1982. Although this work is a history of the horror film genre, it provides insight into King’s development as a student of all things horror.
Magistrale, Tony. The Moral Voyages of Stephen King. Mercer Island: Starmont, 1989. In this rather brief work, Magistrale attempts to clarify the underlying moral structures found in King’s fiction.
Reino, Joseph. Stephen King: The First Decade, “Carrie” to “Pet Sematary.” New York: Twayne, 1988. Reino introduces the works that began King’s writing career.
Reino, Joseph. Stephen King: The Second Decade, “Danse Macabre” to “The Dark Half.” New York: Twayne, 1992. Reino discusses the second twenty years of King’s writing career.
Underwood, Tim, and Chuck Miller, eds. Kingdom of Fear: The World of Stephen King. 1986. New York: New American Library, 1987. This is perhaps the single best collection of essays discussing King’s works. These essays are written by individuals who look at his works as perceptive critics and not as fans.