Stephen King 1947–
(Full name Stephen Edwin King; has also written under the pseudonyms Richard Bachman and John Swithen) American novelist, short story writer, scriptwriter, nonfiction writer, autobiographer, and children's author.
The following entry presents an overview of King's career through 1996. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 12, 26, 37, and 61.
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 use 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 only two years old. King, his brother, and his mother went to live with relatives in Durham, Maine, then various other cities. They returned to Durham permanently 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. He 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 '70s because of the painful and difficult issues associated with the time period. After his graduation in 1970, King was unable to get a teaching job; instead he got jobs pumping gas and then working in a laun-dry. On January 2, 1971, King married Tabitha Jane Spruce, also a novelist; they have 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 an instructor at the University of Maine at Orono, which resulted in his writing Stephen King's Danse Macabre (1981), a series of essays about the horror genre.
King's fiction has extended into a variety of categories within the horror genre, including vampires ('Salem's Lot ), zombies (Pet Sematary ), possession (Christine ), and supernatural powers (Carrie). 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 in some supernatural nightmare from which they cannot escape. Many of his stories have elements of gothic fiction. Although several of the novels set up a clash between good and evil, the moral order in King's world is often ambiguous, with no clear victor. The Stand (1978) presents a conflict between good and evil, in which survivors of a world-decimating virus must battle against enormous odds to survive and defeat the demonic Randall Flagg and his followers. In several of King's works a religious undertone is evident, but he avoids overtly religious references. King plays on people's deepest fears in order to draw the reader into his narratives. Often the horror results from social reality instead of a supernatural influence. The breakdown of the social structures of love and understanding leads to a struggle between the individual and society and results in disaster. In Carrie, the title character is an adolescent who feels like an outsider in her high school. She suffers several humiliations until she finally loses control and gains revenge against her tormentors by destroying guilty and innocent alike with her telekinetic abilities. Even children are not immune from terror in King's writing. Children have acted as both threatened protagonists, such as Tad Trenton in Cujo (1981), and threatening antagonists, such as Gage Creed in Pet Sematary. Often children are sacrificed as a result of their parents' actions, including Creed in Pet Sematary, Danny Torrance in The Shining (1977), and Charlie McGee in Firestarter (1980). The perversion and corruption of the innocent is a recurring theme in King's fiction. Louis Creed in Pet Sematary cannot resist the lure of the Micmac burial ground, and his surrender to its evil lure is his and his family's undoing. Jack Torrance cannot resist exploring the dark secrets of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, and his curiosity leads him to insanity and eventually destruction. Arnie Cunningham succumbs to the lure of his possessed automobile in Christine. King is not afraid to take risks or use shocking gore in his fiction. In the novella Different Seasons (1982), a pregnant woman is beheaded in a car accident on the way to give birth, but her body survives. A doctor then helps the beheaded corpse give birth. King has also written several novels under the pseudonym Richard Bachman which rarely contain elements of the supernatural or occult, focusing instead on such themes as human cruelty, alienation, and morality.
Much of the critical discussion concerning King's work revolves around the value and importance of his novels as literature. Many reviewers dismiss King's fiction as lacking in literary merit because it is popular and because he produces so much of it. Others insist upon a critical commentary on specific aspects of King's fiction before dismissing the author as a panderer of popular trash. Reviewers who have analyzed King's novels often praise him for the rhythm and pacing of his narratives. Others praise the author for his ability to make the unreal seem so plausible. Tony Magistrale said, "one of the major reasons for King's commercial and critical success as a horror writer is his uncanny ability to blend and convolute the artifacts of everyday reality, replete with brand names and actual geographical locations, with the incongruous and startling details of an imagined realm." 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. James Egan stated, "King employs the Gothic and the melodramatic in accordance with the demands of popular formula literature, for he intends to offer his readers a combination of stock thrills and intriguing innovations, the security of the familiar and the unsettling delights of the unknown." Several reviewers criticize King for relying on coincidental plots and sketchy characterizations. Andy Solomon asserted, "By now, everyone knows Stephen King's flaws: tone-deaf narration, papier-mâché characters, clichés, gratuitous vulgarity, self-indulgent digressions." In recent reviews, however, critics praised King attempting to improve his characterization, especially his depictions of women, most notably with his characters Jessie Burlingame in Gerald's Game (1992) and Dolores in Dolores Claiborne (1992). Even those critics who question the value of King's writing as literature acknowledge his commercial success and enormous popularity.