Stephen King King, Stephen (Vol. 17) - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

King, Stephen 1947-

(Full name Stephen Edwin King; has also written under the pseudonyms richard Bachman and John Swithen) American novelist, short story and novella writer, scriptwriter, director, critic, and nonfiction writer.

King is a prolific author of best-selling horror and suspense fiction. In his novels and stories, he blends elements of the traditional gothic tale with those of the detective story, the modern psychological thriller, and science fiction. His works feature colloquial language, clinical attention to settings, and an emphasis on contemporary problems, including marital infidelity and peer group acceptance, all of which lend credibility to the bizarre, often supernatural incidents that dominate his narratives.

Biographical Information

King was born in Portland, Maine. His father, a merchant sailor, left the family when King was a year old, leaving King's mother to support him and his older brother. King began writing short stories as a child, and while a student at Lisbon Falls high school in Maine he won an essay contest sponsored by a scholastic magazine. King published short stories in various magazines and completed manuscripts for many of his later novels while attending the University of Maine at Orono, earning a B. A. in English in 1970. After graduating, King took a position as an English instructor at the Hampden Academy in Hampden, Maine, where he stayed for two years. From 1978 to 1979, King served as a writer-in-residence at the University of Maine, and was granted the university's Career Alumni Award in 1981.

Major Works of Short Fiction

King has published several collections of short fiction, including Night Shift and Skeleton Crew, which are comprised of detective stories, science fiction, and horror tales, and other collections, such as Different Seasons and Four Past Midnight, which focus primarily on the terrors of everyday existence. In "Gray Matter," which appeared in Night Shift, Richie Grenadine, "a big fat man with jowls like pork butts and ham-hock arms," gradually mutates into a glob of gray protoplasm after a work-related injury forces him to stay at home, where he drinks a case of beer nightly. The Body, a novella that appeared in Different Seasons, is narrated by Gordie lachance, a thirty-four-year-old writer modeled after King, and traces the narrator's coming-of-age experience when, as a ten year old, he and three friends set out to find the body of a young boy who had been hit by a train. The Body was adapted as a screenplay and was produced as the film Stand By Me in 1986. The library Policeman, which appeared in Four Past Midnight, expands on the childhood myth of policemen who are sent by the library to arrest children whose books are overdue. In "The Ten O'Clock People," collected in Nightmares and Dreamscapes, smokers who limit themselves to a few cigarettes a day are the only people who can see the hideous aliens intent upon taking over the planet because these smokers belong to a personality type that is not susceptible to the psychological disguise worn by the aliens.

Critical reception

Many critics fault King for unwieldy and lengthy narratives, one-dimensional characters, hackneyed subjects and use of cliches, excessively vulgar language, and frequent digressions, but credit King's ability to create scenarios in which eerie, supernatural events occur in everyday settings and involve ordinary characters, a combination that makes the situations more plausible and realistic, and consequently more frightening and compelling to the reader. Although some critics agree with Paul Gray, who referred to King as the "master of post-literate prose," many commentators have praised King's talent for writing stories that appeal to a broad audience and affect his readers on many levels. robert Cormier has commented: "King still writes like one possessed, with all the nervous energy of a young writer seeking his first big break. He never cheats the reader, always gives full measure. . . . He is often brilliant, and makes marvelous music, dark and sinister."

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

Night Shift 1978

Different Seasons 1982

Skeleton Crew 1985

Four Past Midnight 1990

Nightmares and Dreamscapes 1993

Other Major Works

Carrie (novel) 1974

Salem 's lot (novel) 1975

*Rage [as richard Bachman] (novel) 1977

The Shining (novel) 1977

The Stand (novel) 1978

The Dead Zone (novel) 1979

*The long Walk [as richard Bachman] (novel) 1979

Firestarter (novel) 1980

Cujo (novel) 1981

*Roadwork [as richard Bachman] (novel) 1981

Stephen King's Danse Macabre (nonfiction) 1981

The Dark Tower; The Gunslinger (novel) 1982

*The Running Man [as richard Bachman] (novel) 1982

Christine (novel) 1983

Cycle of the Werewolf (novel) 1983; also published as Silver Bullet, 1985

Pet Sematary (novel) 1983

The Talisman [with Peter Straub] (novel) 1984

*Thinner [as richard Bachman] (novel) 1984

IT (novel) 1986

The Dark Tower: The Drawing of the Three (novel) 1987

Misery (novel) 1987

The Tommyknockers (novel) 1987

The Dark Half (novel) 1989

The Dark Tower: The Waste lands (novel) 1991

Needful Things (novel) 1991

Gerald's Game (novel) 1992

Dolores Claiborne (novel) 1993

*These five novels were collected in 1984 as The Bachman Books.

Michael Mewshaw (essay date 1978)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Night Shift, in The New York Times Book review, March 26, 1978, pp. 13, 23.

[Mewshaw is an American novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, and critic. In the following review, he provides a negative assessment of Night Shift.]

Still in his early 30's, Stephen King has already produced three novels—Carrie, Salem's lot and The Shining—which, by a process as eerie and unfathomable as their spooky plots, mutated into "packages." (A "package," for anyone not familiar with lit-biz argot, is a thin envelope of words, flexible enough to contain huge volumes of money and hot air. Once floated in book form, it is likely to become a best seller, then a "major motion picture" or a short television series.) Having signed a multibook contract for more than $1 million, Mr. King has now published a collection of his short stories, most of which first appeared in Cavalier magazine, and there seems little likelihood that Night Shift won't be commercially successful.

Yet for all this, Mr. King remains disarmingly modest. In a foreword he concedes that much horror fiction is formulaic and that he is "not a great artist." He is simply obsessed by the subject of fear, wants to convey this obsession as palpably as possible, and believes he can best do so by emphasizing "story value." "Characterization, theme, mood, none of these things is...

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Bill Crider (essay date 1978)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Night Shift, in Best Sellers, Vol. 38, No. 1, April, 1978, pp. 6-7.

[Crider is an American novelist, educator, and critic. In the following review, he praises the realism of King's stories in Night Shift.]

[The stories in Stephen King's Night Shift] all begin in our normal world, where everything is safe and warm. But in almost every instance, something slips, and we find ourselves in the nightmare world of the not-quite real, where vampires walk, where there are demons to be summoned or exorcised, where innocent people suffer and die for reasons neither they nor we can quite understand, where there are (just as we had always feared) things in the cellar.

Such stories require a willing suspension of disbelief, of course, but they also require an author who is an expert manipulator, one who can make horror seem not only plausible but almost logical. King is an expert, and many of these stories will not be easily forgotten. Every smoker who has ever wanted to stop should read "Quitters, Inc." School teachers will get a chill from "Sometimes They Come Back." Afraid of rats? read "Graveyard Shift." Hate machinery? Try "Trucks" or "The Mangier." Perhaps the latter is the best example of King's skill at what he does. The idea of a steam ironer possessed by a demon seems laughable, but no one who reads "The Mangier" is going to laugh for very long.

The narrator of "Gray Matter" says, "I am saying that there's things in the corners of the world that would drive a man insane to look 'em right in the face." Stephen King writes about the things in the corners, and he forces us to look into their faces.

Thomas Gilford (essay date 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Stephen's Quartet," in Book World—The Washington Post, August 22, 1982, pp. 1-2.

[Gifford is an American novelist and critic. In the following review, he lauds King's conversational writing style in Different Seasons.]

It's not often that a single individual puts you in mind of both J. B. Priestley and Yogi Berra, but when someone does you might as well pay attention. An extraordinary occurrence. But then Stephen King, who managed this paradoxical feat, is not an ordinary writer. Though, to further confuse the issue, it is precisely King's remarkable ordinariness that makes him what he is, one of the world's best-selling authors—and one who pretty well...

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Kenneth Atchity (essay date 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Stephen King: Making Burgers with the Best," in los Angeles Times Book review, August 29, 1982, p. 7.

[Atchity is an American poet, editor, educator, and critic. In the following review, he offers a positive assessment of Different Seasons.]

In the afterword to [Different Seasons], Stephen King calls his "stuff " "fairly plain, not very literary, and sometimes (although it hurts like hell to admit it) downright clumsy." He summarizes a career of horror novels as "plain fiction for plain folks, the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and a large fries from McDonald's."

To find the secret of his success, you have to compare King to Twain,...

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Alan Cheuse (essay date 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Horror Writer's Holiday," in The New York Times Book review, August 29, 1982, pp. 10, 17.

[Cheuse is an American novelist, short story writer, autobiographer, and critic. In the following review of Different Seasons, he articulates King's strong points and shortcomings as a fiction writer.]

"The most important things lie close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you've said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying...

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David Morrell, Alan Ryan, and Charles L. Grant (essay date 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Different Writers on Different Seasons," in Shadowings: The reader's Guide to Horror Fiction: 1981-1982, edited by Douglas E. Winter, Starmont House, 1983, pp. 38-43.

[Morrell, Ryan, and Grant are all noted authors of horror and suspense fiction. In the following forum, which originally appeared in the journal Fantasy Newsletter in 1982, they each provide an analysis of one of the four novellas in the collection Different Seasons.]

[David Morrell on Rita Hayworth and Shawshank redemption:]

Writers can be loosely separated into two groups—those who put in and those who take out. So F. Scott Fitzgerald believed. By this...

(The entire section is 1982 words.)

Algis Budrys (essay date 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Different Seasons, in Fantasy & Science Fiction, Vol. 64, No. 2, February, 1983, pp. 61-9.

[Budrys is a russian-born novelist, short story writer, editor, and critic. In the following review, he lauds King's storytelling method in Different Seasons, comparing King's style to that of Roald Dahl and John Steinbeck]

Different Seasons, a collection of four novellas by Stephen King, is an excellent piece of reading. Although one of the stories is little more than a set-piece in imitation of Roald Dahl, and another is most interesting as a gritty documentary on life in a state penitentiary, garnished by a slight and anti-climactic...

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Douglas E. Winter (essay date 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Mist" and "Different Seasons," in Stephen King: The Art of Darkness, New American library, 1984, pp. 86-94, 104-11.

[Winter is an American fiction writer and critic. In the following essays, he examines The Mist and Different Seasons.]

In The Mist, Stephen King conjures the quintessential faceless horror: a white opaque mist that enshrouds the northeastern United States (if not the world) as the apparent result of an accident at a secret government facility. This short novel is a paradigm of the complicated metaphors of Faustian experimentation and technological horror consistently woven into the fiction of Stephen King. Those who read The...

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Susan Bolotin (essay date 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Don't Turn Your Back on This Book," in The New York Times Book review, June 9, 1985, p. 11.

[In the following review, Bolotin provides a mixed assessment of Skeleton Crew.]

Stephen King's fiction, at its best, is equivalent to the post-Expressionist art found in the tiny galleries of Manhattan's East Village, where painters, sculptors and collagists often turn to the aggressive headlines of tabloid newspapers for inspiration. What erupts in their work is an apocalyptic world, at once magnetic and repulsive, in which good howls at evil, nature runs headlong into technology, humor provides life's one grand escape and "control" is a word with little meaning....

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Peter Nicholls (essay date 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Skeleton Crew, in Book World—The Washington Post, June 16, 1985, pp. 1, 13.

[Nicholls is an Australian critic. In the following review of Skeleton Crew, he lauds King's use of colloquial images and dialect, while asserting that occasionally King's use of vulgar language or imagery is detrimental to his narratives' effectiveness as well as his characters' appeal.]

Stephen King could no doubt make a megabuck deal for a paraphrase of the telephone directory, so a simple short-story collection (his third) may seem unsurprising. When you think about it though, it reveals a commendable absence of greed. Even for Stephen King (and...

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James C. Dolan (essay date 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Skeleton Crew, in Best Sellers, Vol. 45, No. 5, August, 1985, p. 168.

[Dolan is an American educator and critic. In the following review of Skeleton Crew, he suggests that King's stories are powerful because of the "realization by the reader that the line between his own life and that of the horror tale is very fine."]

You need only cable TV to know how much this country during the last few years has been in the throes of a horror film epidemic, the "Halloween Syndrome." If you have the stomach for it, you may have been able to see enough to sort the artistic from the trash. I suspect that Night of the living Dead would be near...

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Leonard G. Heldreth (essay date 1987)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Viewing The Body': King's Portrait of the Artist as Survivor," in The Gothic World of Stephen King: landscape of Nightmares, edited by Gary Hoppenstand and ray B. Browne, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1987, pp. 64-74.

[Heldreth is an American educator and critic. In the following essay, he provides a thematic analysis of The Body, discussing King's treatment of maturation and use of narrative writing to "[shape] important experiences into a form to be communicated."]

Steven King begins The Body with "The most important things are the hardest things to say. . . . Words shrink things that seem limitless when they were in your...

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Michael A. Morrison (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Stephen King: Time Out of Joint," in Book World—The Washington Post, August 26, 1990, p. 9.

[In the following review, Morrison offers praise for Four Past Midnight.]

Regular visitors to the world of Stephen King know that its horrors burst forth from the least likely places—the four novellas in [Four Past Midnight] find horror in a transcontinental night flight, a camera, a small-town library, and a quiet Maine summer town during the off-season. Some of the environs and themes in these stories are familiar; others are not. One is the penultimate Castle rock story, a prequel to the forthcoming Needful Things. Another, King tells us, is the...

(The entire section is 861 words.)

Andy Solomon (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

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

[In the following review, Solomon asserts that while Four Past Midnight contains many of King's weaknesses as a fiction writer—including awkward prose—the collection is successful in providing readers with a way to escape the frightening aspects of modern life.]

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,...

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Edward Bryant (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Four Past Midnight, in locus, Vol. 25, No. 4, October, 1990, pp. 23-4.

[Bryant is an American science fiction novelist, short story writer, playwright, and critic. In the following review, he finds the novellas in Four Past Midnight highly entertaining.]

At least for us outsiders, there seems to be a lesson in Stephen King's new collection, Four Past Midnight. Just as happened in the similarly structured four-novella set, Different Seasons, the master story-spinner of the American century demonstrates what he can do when he writes comparatively short and direct, punching right to the heart and brain, cutting to the bone,...

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Arthur W. Biddle (essay date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Mythic Journey in The Body'," in The Dark Descent: Essays Defining Stephen King's Horrorscope, edited by Tony Magistrale, Greenwood Press, 1992, pp. 83-97.

[Biddle is an American educator and critic. In the following essay, he examines The Body as a narrative that follows the traditional pattern of the "mythic journey."]

There's a high ritual to all fundamental events, the rites of passage, the magic corridor where the change happens. [King, The Body]

"The magic corridor where the change happens" is the special territory of Stephen King. This zone of extraordinary power takes many shapes....

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Gene Doty (essay date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Clockwork Evil: Guilt and Coincidence in 'The Monkey,' " in The Dark Descent: Essays Defining Stephen King's Horrorscope, edited by Tony Magistrale, Greenwood Press, 1992, pp. 129-36.

[Doty is an American educator and critic. In the following essay, he explores themes and narrative technique in "The Monkey. " ]

In "The Monkey," Stephen King has used an extremely unlikely object to arouse terror in his readers, a toy that is "nothing but cogs and clockwork" [Skeleton Crew]. This [essay] will explore the means by which King makes the monkey's association with the deaths in the story convincing and answer William F. Nolan's charge that, while powerfully...

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Ray Olson (essay date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Nightmares and Dreamscapes, in Booklist, Vol. 89, No. 21, July, 1993, p. 1918.

[In the following brief review, Olson responds favorably to Nightmares and Dreamscapes, noting King's successful imitations of such writers as Conan Doyle and Raymond Chandler, as well as such television shows as "The Twilight Zone" and "Alfred Hitchcock Presents."]

When you're reading him, you can think that Stephen King is the best writer in America. [Nightmares and Dreamscapes, his] first collection of shorter stuff in eight years, includes plenty of reasons for harboring that litcritically heretical thought. Mind you, nothing in it suggests King's...

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Publishers Weekly (essay date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Nightmares and Dreamscapes, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 240, No. 31, August 2, 1993, p. 62.

[The following is a laudatory review of Nightmares and Dreamscapes.]

[Nightmares and Dreamscapes] is a wonderful cornucopia of 23 Stephen King moments (including a teleplay featuring Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, a poem about Ebbet's Field and a brilliant New Yorker piece on Little League baseball) that even the author, in his introduction, acknowledges make up "an uneven Aladdin's cave of a book." There are no stories fans will want to skip, and some are superb, particularly "You Know They Got a Hell of a Band," in which a husband and...

(The entire section is 220 words.)

Edward Bryant (essay date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Nightmares and Dreamscapes, in Locus, Vol. 31, No. 4, October, 1993, pp. 29, 31.

[In the following review, Bryant praises Nightmares and Dreamscapes for its wide range of subjects, tones, and moods, and commends King's revisions of his previously published stories.]

In the introduction to his new story collection, Nightmares and Dreamscapes, Stephen King refers to the volume as "an uneven Aladdin's cave of a book." That's a good analysis, an apt potential blurb that will never be used, and is a bit harsher on the book than it deserves. King notes that he publishes a reprint collection about once every seven years (the first two...

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Richard E. Nicholls (essay date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Nightmares and Dreamscapes, in The New York Times Book Review, October 24, 1993, p. 22.

[In the following review of Nightmares and Dreamscapes, Nicholls declares that while critics may not be impressed by King's "baggy—if exuberant—tales, "fans will find the collection entertaining and satisfying.]

Pay no heed, Stephen King says in the introduction to Nightmares and Dreamscapes, to the critics, their voices "the ill-tempered yappings of men and women who have accepted the literary anorexia of the last 30 years with a puzzling (to me, at least) lack of discussion and dissent." There's certainly nothing skimpy...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Collings, Michael R. The Annotated Guide to Stephen King: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography of the Works of America's Premier Horror Writer. Mercer Island, Wash.: Starmont House, 1986, 176 p.

Book-length bibliography of King's works through 1986.

Collings, Michael R., and Engebretson, David A. The Shorter Works of Stephen King. Mercer Island, Wash.: Starmont House, 1985, 202 p.

Annotated bibliography of King's short fiction through 1985.


Collings, Michael R. The Many Facets of Stephen King. Mercer Island, Wash.: Starmont House, 1985, 190 p.


(The entire section is 438 words.)