Stephen King King, Stephen (1947 -) - Essay


(Gothic Literature)

Stephen King (1947 -)

(Full name Stephen Edwin King; has written as Steve King, and under pseudonyms Richard Bachman, John Swithen, and Eleanor Druse) American novelist, short story writer, novella writer, scriptwriter, nonfiction writer, autobiographer, and author of children's books.

Stephen King is a prolific and immensely popular author of horror fiction. In his works, King blends elements of the traditional Gothic tale with those of the modern psychological thriller, detective, and science fiction genres. His fiction features colloquial language, clinical attention to physical detail and emotional states, realistic settings, and an emphasis on contemporary problems. His exploration of such issues as marital infidelity and peer group acceptance lend credibility to the supernatural elements in his fiction. King's wide popularity attests to his ability to tap into his reader's fear of and inability to come to terms with evil confronted in the everyday world.


King was born in Portland, Maine, on September 21, 1947, to Donald Edwin King, a U.S. merchant marine, and Nellie Ruth Pillsbury King. His father abandoned the family when King was two years old. King, his brother, and his mother went to live with relatives in Durham, Maine, and then to various other cities. They returned to Durham to stay in 1958. King was very close to his mother, who supported the family with a series of low-paying jobs and read to him often as a child. She later encouraged King to send his work to publishers. She died of cancer in 1973 without seeing the enormous success her son achieved as a writer. King published his first short story, "I Was a Teenage Grave Robber," in Comics Review, in 1965. He also wrote his first full-length manuscript while still in high school. King received a scholarship to the University of Maine at Orono, where he majored in English and minored in speech. King has a deep political awareness, and was active in student politics and the anti-war movement; with the exception of his short story "The Children of the Corn," he has avoided setting his stories in the 1960s and 1970s because of the painful and difficult issues associated with the time period. After his graduation in 1970, King was unable to secure a teaching position, and worked as a gas station attendant and in a laundry. On January 2, 1971, King married novelist Tabitha Jane Spruce; the couple has three children. King spent a short time teaching at the Hampden Academy in Hampden, Maine, until the success of his first novel Carrie (1974) enabled him to focus on writing full time. In 1978 he was writer in residence and instructor at the University of Maine at Orono; this experience informed his Danse Macabre (1981), a series of essays about the horror genre. King suffered a serious health challenge on June 19, 1999, when he was struck by a van while walking alongside a road near his home. He sustained injuries to his spine, hip, ribs, and right leg. One of his broken ribs punctured a lung, and he nearly died. He began a slow progress towards recovery, cheered by countless cards and letters from his fans. King had also begun work on a writer's manual before his accident, and the result, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000), sold more copies in its first printing than any previous book about writing. In addition to King's advice on crafting fiction, however, the book includes a great deal of autobiographical material. The author chronicles his childhood, his rise to fame, his struggles with addiction, and the 1999 accident that almost ended his life. While King has played with the idea of giving up publishing his writings, his legion of fans continues to be delighted that the idea has not yet become a reality. In 2004, under the pseudonym of Eleanor Druse, King published The Journals of Eleanor Druse: My Investigation of the Kingdom Hospital Incident. He has also continued with his "Dark Tower" series with the publication of The Dark Tower V: Wolves of the Calla in 2003. King completed the final two installments of the series—The Dark Tower VI: The Songs of Susannah and The Dark Tower VII: The Dark Tower—in 2004.


King's fiction has extended into a variety of categories within the horror genre, including vampire and zombie stories, tales of possession, and incidents involving a character's discovery of supernatural powers. He has also successfully branched out into science fiction, fantasy, and westerns. Most of his adult protagonists are ordinary, middle-class people who find themselves involved in some otherworldly nightmare from which they cannot escape. Many of his stories have elements of Gothic fiction. Most notable among these are 'Salem's Lot (1975), The Shining (1977) and Pet Sematary (1983). 'Salem's Lot centers on a series of mysterious deaths in a once-idyllic New England village. The Shining tells the tale of Jack Torrance, an alcoholic writer who brings his family to live in an empty mountain hotel for the winter. Demonized by the spirits that haunt the hotel, he tries to kill his wife and child but ultimately kills himself instead. In Pet Sematary, a college professor resurrects his young son, who is killed when he ventures onto a nearby highway, by burying him in his neighbor's pet cemetery. The child, like the family's cat before him, returns, but with sinister results. Other King novels cited for containing elements of the Gothic include The Dead Zone (1979), Christine (1983), Cycle of the Werewolf (1983), The Talisman (1984), Bag of Bones (1997), and Black House (2001).


Reviewers who have analyzed King's novels often praise the rhythm and pacing of his narratives. Others praise the author for his ability to make the unreal seem entirely plausible. Critics who dismiss King's work usually accuse him of being a formula writer, but his supporters assert that this is part of King's talent, and praise his ability to adapt the Gothic and melodrama in popular literature for contemporary audiences. Heidi Strengell recounts King's repeated use of the Gothic double in his oeuvre, and highlights the numerous forms that double assumes. Critics have also pointed to the influence of literary classics, especially Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Bram Stoker's Dracula, and Herman Melville's Moby Dick on King's use of the Gothic. Jesse W. Nash, on the other hand, argues that King's Gothic is particularly rooted in popular culture and his own life experiences and therefore represents a singular, postmodern interpretation of the genre.

Principal Works

(Gothic Literature)

Carrie: A Novel of a Girl with a Frightening Power (novel) 1974
'Salem's Lot (novel) 1975
The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger (novel) 1976
Rage [as Richard Bachman] (novel) 1977
The Shining (novel) 1977
Night Shift (short stories) 1978; also published as Night Shift: Excursions into Horror, 1979
The Stand (novel) 1978; revised edition, 1990
Another Quarter Mile: Poetry (poetry) 1979
The Dead Zone (novel) 1979
The Long Walk [as Richard Bachman] (novel) 1979
Firestarter (novel) 1980
Cujo (novel) 1981
Roadwork: A Novel of the First Energy Crisis [as Richard Bachman] (novel) 1981

Stephen King's Danse Macabre (nonfiction) 1981
Creepshow (short stories) 1982
The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger (novel) 1982
Different Seasons (short stories and novellas) 1982
The Running Man [as Richard Bachman] (novel) 1982
Stephen King's Creepshow: A George A. Romero Film [adapted from the stories in King's collection] (screenplay) 1982
Christine (novel) 1983
Cycle of the Werewolf (short stories) 1983; also published as The Silver Bullet, 1985
Pet Sematary (novel) 1983
Cat's Eye (screenplay) 1984
The Eyes of the Dragon (juvenile novel) 1984
The Talisman [with...

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Primary Sources

(Gothic Literature)

SOURCE: King, Stephen. "October 4, 1957, and an Invitation to Dance." In Stephen King's Danse Macabre, pp. 1-15. New York: Everest House, 1982.

In the following excerpt, King comments on the dual nature of horror in popular literature and film.


If there is any truth or worth to the danse macabre, it is simply that novels, movies, TV and radio programs—even the comic books—dealing with horror always do their work on two levels.

On top is the "gross-out" level—when Regan vomits in the priest's face or masturbates with a crucifix in The Exorcist, or when the raw-looking, terribly inside-out monster in John Frankenheimer's Prophecy crunches off the helicopter pilot's head like a Tootsie-Pop. The gross-out can be done with varying degrees of artistic finesse, but it's always there.

But on another, more potent level, the work of horror really is a dance—a moving, rhythmic search. And what it's looking for is the place where you, the viewer or the reader, live at your most primitive level. The work of horror is not interested in the civilized furniture of our lives. Such a work dances through these rooms which we have fitted out one piece at a time, each piece expressing—we hope!—our socially acceptable and pleasantly enlightened character. It is in search of another place, a room which may sometimes resemble the secret den of a Victorian gentleman, sometimes the torture chamber of the Spanish Inquisition … but perhaps most frequently and most successfully, the simple and brutally plain hole of a Stone Age cave-dweller.

Is horror art? On this second level, the work of horror can be nothing else; it achieves the level of art simply because it is looking for something beyond art, something that predates art: it is looking for what I would call phobic pressure points. The good horror tale will dance its way to the center of your life and find the secret door to the room you believed no one but you knew of—as both Albert Camus and Billy Joel have pointed out, The Stranger makes us nervous … but we love to try on his face in secret.

Do spiders give you the horrors? Fine. We'll have spiders, as in Tarantula, The Incredible Shrinking Man, and Kingdom of the Spiders. What about rats? In James Herbert's novel of the same name, you can feel them crawl all over you … and eat you alive. How about snakes? That shut-in feeling? Heights? Or … whatever there is.

Because books and movies are mass media, the field of horror has often been able to do better than even these personal fears over the last thirty years. During that period (and to a lesser degree, in the seventy or so years preceding), the horror genre has often been able to find national phobic pressure points, and those books and films which have been the most successful almost always seem to play upon and express fears which exist across a wide spectrum of people. Such fears, which are often political, economic, and psychological rather than supernatural, give the best work of horror a pleasing...

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General Commentary

(Gothic Literature)

SOURCE: Strengell, Heidi. "'The Monster Never Dies': An Analysis of the Gothic Double in Stephen King's Oeuvre." Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-Present) 2, no. 1 (spring 2003): 〈〉.

In the following essay, Strengell maintains that the use of the Gothic literary mechanism of the double is central to King's works and serves as a symbol of the deep-seated fear of the average person's capacity for evil.

In Danse Macabre...

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The Shining

(Gothic Literature)


SOURCE: Gibbs, Kenneth. "Stephen King and the Tradition of American Gothic." Gothic New Series 1 (1986): 6-14.

In the following essay, Gibbs assesses the influence of Herman Melville's approach to the Gothic on King's work, particularly The Shining.

In the foreword to Night Shift Stephen King names many well-known literary forebearers from whom he derives the Gothic techniques central to his fiction—among those mentioned are Bram Stoker, the Beowulf poet, Henry James, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and, of course, Edgar Allan Poe; but he omits any reference to one major...

(The entire section is 4160 words.)

Pet Sematary

(Gothic Literature)


SOURCE: Nash, Jesse W. "Postmodern Gothic: Stephen King's Pet Sematary." Journal of Popular Culture 30, no. 4 (spring 1997): 151-60.

In the following essay, Nash examines the influence of the popular culture representation of sensational literature and the Gothic tradition on King's works, arguing that these influences led King to create a "postmodern Gothic."

Although sympathetic critics have given it an impressive literary lineage, Stephen King's novel Pet Sematary has resisted easy categorization. Mary Ferguson Pharr detects the influence of Mary...

(The entire section is 4301 words.)

Further Reading

(Gothic Literature)


Egan, James. "Antidetection Gothic and Detective Conventions in the Fiction of Stephen King." Clues: A Journal of Detection 5, no. 1 (summer 1983): 131-46.

Surveys King's use of Gothic elements throughout his oeuvre.

――――――. "'A Single Powerful Spectacle': Stephen King's Gothic Melodrama." Extrapolation 27, no. 1 (spring 1986): 62-75.

Analyzes King's use of the Gothic and melodrama.

Hicks, James E. "Stephen King's Creation of Horror in 'Salem's Lot: A Prolegomenon towards a New Hermeneutic of...

(The entire section is 511 words.)