Stephen King King, Stephen (Vol. 113) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

King's fiction has extended into a variety of categories within the horror genre, including vampires ('Salem's Lot [1975]), zombies (Pet Sematary [1983]), possession (Christine [1983]), 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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Star Invaders [as Steve King] (short story collection) 1964
Carrie: A Novel of a Girl with a Frightening Power (novel) 1974; movie edition published as Carrie, 1975
'Salem's Lot (novel) 1975
Rage [as Richard Bachman] (novel) 1977
The Shining (novel) 1977
The Stand (novel) 1978; revised edition, 1990
Night Shift (short story collection) 1978; also published as Night Shift: Excursions into Horror, 1979
Another Quarter Mile: Poetry (poetry) 1979
The Dead Zone (novel) 1979; movie edition published as The Dead Zone: Movie Tie-In, 1980
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 story collection) 1982
The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger (novel) 1982
Different Seasons (short story collection) 1982
The Running Man [as Richard Bachman] (novel) 1982
Stephen King's Creepshow: A George A. Romero Film (screenplay) 1982
Christine (novel) 1983
Cycle of the Werewolf (short story collection) 1983; also published as The Silver Bullet, 1985
Pet Sematary (novel) 1983; (screenplay) 1989
Cat's Eye (screenplay) 1984
The Eyes of the Dragon (juvenile novel) 1984
The Talisman [with Peter Straub] (novel) 1984
Thinner [as Richard Bachman] (novel) 1984
Silver Bullet (screenplay) 1985
Stephen King's Skeleton Crew (short story collection) 1985
It (novel) 1986; first published in limited edition in Germany as Es, 1986
Maximum Overdrive [writer and director] (screenplay) 1986
Misery (novel) 1987
The Tommyknockers (novel) 1987
The Dark Half (novel) 1989
The Dark Tower: The Drawing of Three (novel) 1989
My Pretty Pony (children's novel) 1989
Four Past Midnight (novellas) 1990
Needful Things (novel) 1991
Dolores Claiborne (novel) 1992
Gerald's Game (novel) 1992
Rose Madder (novel) 1995
Desperation (novel) 1996
The Regulators [as Richard Bachman] (novel) 1996
Bag of Bones (novel) 1997

Tony Magistrale (essay date Spring 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Inherited Haunts: Stephen King's Terrible Children," in Extrapolation, Vol. 26, No. 1, Spring, 1985, pp. 43-9.

[In the following essay, Magistrale explores the role of children in King's work.]

On March 25, 1984, in Boca Raton, Florida, Stephen King delivered the closing address at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. Following a discussion about King's childhood readings in the horror genre, someone in the audience asked the author the question, "What terrifies you the most?" King's reply was emphatic and immediate: "Opening the door of my children's bedroom and finding one of them dead."

King's dread that his offspring...

(The entire section is 3293 words.)

Clive Barker (essay date January 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Stephen King: Surviving the Ride," in Fantasy Review, January, 1986, pp. 6-8.

[In the following essay, Barker discusses King's success with, and commitment to, the horror genre.]

First, a confession: I have no thesis. I come to these pages without an overview to propound; only with a substantial enthusiasm for the work of Stephen King and a potpourri of thoughts on fear, fiction, dreams and geographies which may bear some tenuous relation to each other and to King's fiction.

Theoretical thinking was never a great passion of mine, but ghost-trains are. And it's with a ghost-train I begin.

It's called—ambitiously...

(The entire section is 3132 words.)

James Egan (essay date Spring 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'A Single Powerful Spectacle': Stephen King's Gothic Melodrama," in Extrapolation, Vol. 27, No. 1, Spring, 1986, pp. 62-75.

[In the following essay, Egan analyzes King's use of elements of the gothic and the melodramatic in his work.]

The Gothic tradition which has survived into the twentieth century, after passing through the hands of the Gothic dramatists, Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Henry James, and Shirley Jackson, has evolved into a complex mixture of the sensational, the sentimental, the melodramatic, and the formulaic. True, a Gothic work such as Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House occasionally achieves belletristic status, but most examples of...

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Michael McDowell (essay date 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Unexpected and the Inevitable," in Kingdom of Fear: The World of Stephen King, edited by Tim Underwood and Chuck Miller, New American Library, 1986, pp. 83-95.

[In the following essay, McDowell asserts that King's novels are effective because of their rhythm.]

It was with some hesitation that I agreed to write about Stephen King's work. I was trained as an academic, with an eye towards analysis and criticism, but now I have only contempt for the sapping methods of literary "appreciation" taught in colleges and graduate schools. The idea of analyzing a volume of writing that I think very good seems unappealing and pointless. Increasingly, I find myself in...

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Carol A. Senf (essay date 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Donna Trenton, Stephen King's Modern American Heroine," in Heroines of Popular Culture, edited by Pat Browne, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1987, pp. 91-100.

[In the following essay, Senf discusses the female protagonists of King's Cujo and asserts that "Donna especially in her display of courage becomes a new American heroine, a strong woman with whom women in the twentieth century can be proud to identify."]

For the past ten years Stephen King has been an enormously popular writer, and part of the reason for that popularity is the fact that his books feature ordinary human characters with whom the reader can readily identify. Moreover...

(The entire section is 3580 words.)

James Egan (essay date Winter 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Sacral Parody in the Fiction of Stephen King," in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 23, No. 3, Winter, 1989, pp. 125-41.

[In the following essay, Egan discusses how the sacral parody common to gothic literature is at work in King's fiction.]

Leslie Fiedler's observation in Love and Death in the American Novel that the Gothic is a parodic medium, "a way of assailing clichés by exaggerating them to the limit of their grotesqueness," has generally been supported by subsequent analyses of Gothic literature. Rosemary Jackson points to Gothic's tendency to "invert romance structures," for example, the quest, by twisting the quest into a "circular journey to...

(The entire section is 6738 words.)

Andy Solomon (review date 2 September 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Scared but Safe," in New York Times Book Review, September 2, 1990, p. 21.

[In the following review, Solomon argues that although there is nothing new in King's Four Past Midnight, it is a difficult book to put down.]

A decade ago, in Danse Macabre, Stephen King made his literary esthetic clear: "I try to terrorize the reader. But if … I cannot terrify … I will try to horrify; and if I find I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out. I'm not proud." The figures on his royalty checks suggest this strategy works, and he sticks to it closely in Four Past Midnight. Unlike Mr. King's adventurous novel The Eyes of the Dragon, this...

(The entire section is 611 words.)

Gail E. Burns and Melinda Kanner (essay date 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Women, Danger, and Death: The Perversion of the Female Principle in Stephen King's Fiction," in Sexual Politics and Popular Culture, edited by Diane Raymond, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1990, pp. 158-72.

[In the following essay, Burns and Kanner discuss the relationship between women and evil in King's work and assert, "On a complex and subtextual level, women are represented in ways that reveal male fear and envy of female sexuality and reproductive biology."]

I hope that this study may lessen the male-centering propensity and shed new light on the psycho-sexual role of woman; that it may indicate how much more that is...

(The entire section is 5979 words.)

Chris Pourteau (essay date Summer 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Individual and Society: Narrative Structure and Thematic Unity in Stephen King's Rage," in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 27, No. 1, Summer, 1993, pp. 171-78.

[In the following essay, Pourteau discusses the struggle of the individual against society in King's Rage.]

The seemingly popular conception among literary critics that Stephen King's writing ability is somehow "less" than those writers usually considered "great writers," or "literary writers," stems from the "considerable comment and controversy" about his "prodigious popularity and productivity." A primary thesis of Mark Schorer's essay, "Technique as Discovery," establishes that writers...

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Karen A. Hohne (essay date Fall 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Power of the Spoken Word in the Works of Stephen King," in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 28, No. 2, Fall, 1994, pp. 93-103.

[In the following essay, Hohne analyzes the use of official and unofficial language in King's fiction.]

Orality seems straightforward and decorative, occurring in texts as either the voice of the poet or the people and apparently functioning very much on the text's surface. In fact, as a way of embodying and/or discussing power, it can be a central organizing factor in a text. Orality indicates power relations both in terms of who values the spoken word and how that word behaves towards other languages. Precisely because orality is...

(The entire section is 4325 words.)

Michael Wood (review date 19 October 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Horror of Horrors," in New York Review of Books, Vol. 42, No. 16, October 19, 1995, p. 54.

[In the following review, Wood discusses the mythological allusions of King's Rose Madder and asserts, "The magical picture of Rose Madder … reminds us through fantasy how fantastic the unimagined everyday world can be."]

Stephen King has become a household name in at least three senses. He is a writer pretty much everyone in the English-speaking world has heard of, if they have heard of writers at all. He is regularly read by many people who don't read many other writers. And, along with Danielle Steel and a few others, he is taken to represent...

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Edwin F. Casebeer (essay date 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Stephen King's Canon: The Art of Balance," in A Dark Night's Dreaming: Contemporary American Horror Fiction, edited by Tony Magistrale and Michael A. Morrison, University of South Carolina Press, 1996, pp. 42-54.

[In the following essay, Casebeer traces influences from King's life that have affected his writing and delineates different stages and common elements in his fiction.]

Stephen King is the most popular horror novelist today (and also the most popular novelist). He is the only writer ever to have made the Forbes 500; his annual income exceeds that of some third-world countries. His works are a significant percentage of the book industry's annual...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Keesey, Douglas. "'The Face of Mr. Flip': Homophobia in the Horror of Stephen King." In The Dark Descent, edited by Tony Magistrale. New York: Greenwood Press, 1992, pp. 187-201.

Asserts that "one of the socially specific fears most often represented in King's horror is homophobia."

Quinn, Judy. "King of the Season." Publishers Weekly 243, No. 32 (5 August 1996): 293-94.

Discusses the simultaneous publication of King's Desperation and The Regulators under his pseudonym, Richard Bachman.

(The entire section is 146 words.)