Stephen King

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Horror is often based on unintended consequences for well-intentioned people. How does this bear out in Stephen King’s work?

Explore connections in the King “universe” and how it influences the reading of a novel. Does knowing how different books relate to one another change the reading of a work?

Horror often posits an unfair or unjust world, a belief that King reinforces in some works and at other times denies. Is there a discernible pattern to when King seeks justice in his fiction and to when he does not?

Explore King’s use of pop culture in his writing— how he approaches it stylistically and the ways in which it enriches his work thematically.

In King’s novels, human frailty often plays a role in the furtherance of evil. Find specific examples and trace their development in the course of a story.

What do readers learn about the life of writers in King’s work? How is creativity both a gift and a bane to King’s characters?

Consider how horror unfolds in a specific King work. How does foreshadowing help lay the groundwork? What surprises occur suddenly? What twists upend expectations? In terms of technique, how successful is King when he tries to create fear?

Other Literary Forms

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Stephen King is best known for his horror novels, which he is known for publishing at the rate of approximately one per year, several under the name Richard Bachman. Many of his novels have been made into films, and he has written several screenplays himself, including original works specifically for the screen, such as Cat’s Eye (1984) and Stephen King’s Sleepwalkers (1992). His teleplay Storm of the Century (1999) was also published in novel form the same year. A few of his poems have been included in his short-story collections, and he has written an analysis of horror fiction entitled Danse Macabre (1981).


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Stephen King became, in a relatively short time, one of the most popular writers in the United States. Nearly every book he has published has reached the best-seller lists, whether in hardback or paperback, and has often remained there for months. He is respected in the field of horror fiction, and several of his books have received World Fantasy Award nominations. He has received the World Fantasy Award for his short story “Do the Dead Sing?” (1981), a British Fantasy Award for Cujo (1981), and a Hugo Award for his nonfiction work Danse Macabre. He has won special recognition for his contributions to horror fiction by both the British Fantasy Awards and the World Fantasy Awards. In 1986 Skeleton Crew won the Locus Award for best collection. The short story “The Man in the Black Suit” won a World Fantasy Award in 1995.

Other literary forms

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In addition to his novels, Stephen King has published many short stories, including the collections Night Shift (1978), Nightmares and Dreamscapes (1993), and Everything’s Eventual: Fourteen Dark Tales (2002). The collections Different Seasons (1982) and Four Past Midnight (1990) contain novellas, two of which are of central importance to King’s body of work. In The Body, a boy’s confrontation with mortality shapes his developing identity as a writer. In The Mist, King in his satirical and apocalyptic mode brings Armageddon to the Federal Foods Supermarket as an assortment of grade-B film monsters that inhabit a dense fog.

The relations of King’s fiction with the electronic media are many and complex. Much of his fiction has been adapted to both the large and small screens, although it usually plays best in the mind’s eye. Several of King’s screenplays have been produced, including Maximum Overdrive (1986), a film he also directed. A relatively...

(This entire section contains 277 words.)

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successful mixed-media venture was his collaboration with George Romero onCreepshow (1982), a film anthology inspired by the D.C. Comics’ blend of camp and gore and based on King’s own book version. Creepshow II, written by Romero and based on King’s stories, appeared in 1987. King’s teleplays include The Stand (1994), which is based on his novel, and Storm of the Century (1999), which was written expressly for television broadcast. In 2002, he wrote the script for the television miniseries Rose Red. In addition to his works of fiction, King has published numerous articles as well as a critical book, Danse Macabre (1981). In 2000, he published On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, and in 2003, he began to publish occasional columns on popular culture in Entertainment Weekly magazine.


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Stephen King is perhaps the most widely known American writer of his generation, yet his distinctions include publishing as two authors at once: Beginning in 1966, he wrote novels that were published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. He won many British Fantasy and World Fantasy Awards, including the latter for overall contributions to the genre in 1980. King was at first ignored and then scorned by mainstream critics, but by the late 1980’s his novels were reviewed regularly in The New York Times Book Review with increasing favor. Beginning in 1987, most of his novels were main selections of the Book-of-the-Month Club, which in 1989 created the Stephen King Library, committed to keeping King’s novels “in print in hardcover.”

King was People magazine’s Writer of the Year in 1980. One of his most appropriate distinctions was the October 9, 1986, cover of Time magazine, which depicted a reader, hair on end, transfixed by “A Novel by Stephen King.” The cover story on the “King of Horror” correctly suggested that his achievement and the “horror boom” of the 1970’s and 1980’s are inseparable. Like Edgar Allan Poe, King turned a degenerated genre—a matter of comic-book monsters and drive-in films—into a medium embodying the primary anxieties of his age. His revitalization of the horror genre and his increasingly good reviews from mainstream newspapers and journals culminated in his receiving his most illustrious award in 2003: the National Book Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

King’s detractors attribute his success to the sensational appeal of his genre, the main purpose of which, as King readily confesses, is to scare people. His fiction is graphic, sentimental, and predictable. His humor is usually crude and campy. His novels are often long and loosely structured: It, for example, comprises more than eleven hundred pages. In an environment of “exhaustion” and minimalism, King’s page-turners are the summit of the garbage heap of a mass, throwaway culture. Worst of all, he is “Master of Postliterate Prose,” as Paul Gray stated in 1982—his writing takes readers mentally to the movies rather than making them imagine or think.

On the other hand, King’s work provides the most genuine example of the storyteller’s art since Charles Dickens. He has returned to the novel some of the popular appeal it had in the nineteenth century and turned out a generation of readers who vastly prefer some books to their film adaptations. As Dickens drew on the popular culture of his time, King reflects the mass-mediated culture of his own. His dark fantasies, like all good popular fiction, allow readers to express within conventional frames of reference feelings and concepts they might not otherwise consider. In imagination, King is not merely prolific; his vision articulates universal fears and desires in terms peculiar to contemporary culture.


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In the traditional mystery story, a crime (usually a murder) has been committed, and the guilty party must be caught by a detective or the crime must be explained by characters in a logical fashion. Mystery stories often depend on suspense, which is generated by the detective’s pursuit of the criminal, or by events that raise doubts about whether the murderer will be found out. In the end, however, a rational view of the world is triumphant; that is, clues to the crime lead to the apprehension of the criminal. Stephen King’s mystery stories introduce elements of the supernatural and the irrational that cannot be resolved by the deductive method employed in a classic of detective and mystery fiction. The world is less stable than adults are usually willing to admit, King suggests. He often takes a child’s point of view, harking back to the fears that most adults have felt to demonstrate that their anxieties have not been overcome but have been merely repressed. Horror, King implies, is the subtext of human life—the frightening unknowability of things that human beings dare not face. There are malevolent powers out there that cannot be accounted for in a modern, secular world.


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Beahm, George W., ed. Stephen King from A to Z: An Encyclopedia of His Life and Work. Kansas City, Mo.: Andrews McMeel, 1998. Encyclopedic compendium of entries on every aspect of the author’s fiction and biography.

Beahm, George W. The Stephen King Story. Kansas City, Mo.: Andrews and McMeel, 1992. A good, updated biography of King. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Stephen King: Modern Critical Views. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1998. This is the best single collection of essays about King, many collected from other sources listed here, but including previously unreprinted pieces from journals or non-King-specific books. High-quality pieces cover a range of themes and King’s works through Needful Things. Good chronology, bibliography, and index.

Collings, Michael R. Scaring Us to Death: The Impact of Stephen King on Popular Culture. 2d rev. ed. San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1997. Examines King’s influence on the rise of horror fiction in the United States.

Collings, Michael R. The Work of Stephen King: An Annotated Bibliography and Guide. San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1996. Provides both a good chronology and useful descriptions of some of King’s hard-to-find works, as well as a copious annotated list of secondary sources.

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.

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.

Hohne, Karen A. “The Power of the Spoken Word in the Works of Stephen King.” Journal of Popular Culture 28 (Fall, 1994): 93-103. Discusses the tension in King’s work between slang speech, which codifies a knowledge rejected by those in power, and monologic orality, which embodies that power; claims his works illustrate the tension between official and unofficial languages and ideologies that exists not only in literature but also throughout society.

Hoppenstand, Gary, and Ray B. Browne, eds. The Gothic World of Stephen King: Landscape of Nightmare. Bowling Green, Ohio: Popular Press, 1987. The collection of academic criticism of King includes an introduction by Hoppenstand and essays on themes (“Adolescent Revolt,” “Love and Death in the American Car”), characters (“Mad Dogs and Firestarters,” “The Vampire”), genres (King’s “Gothic Western,” techno-horror), technique (“Allegory”), and individual works.

King, Stephen. Bare Bones: Conversations on Terror with Stephen King. Edited by Tim Underwood and Chuck Miller. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988. Though many of the interviews collected in this volume become somewhat repetitive, they provide a good sense, in King’s own words, of what he is trying to do in his fiction and why he does it. The interviews were held between 1979 and 1987; the opening transcript of a talk King gave at the Billerica Public Library is most useful.

King, Stephen. Danse Macabre. New York: Everest House, 1981. King researched and wrote this critical work on horror fiction and film at the instigation of his editor. He focuses on works since the 1940’s and discusses novels, B-films, and horror comics to support his thesis that monsters such as Godzilla are a way of making tangible the fear of such things as nuclear war.

Magistrale, Tony. Stephen King: The Second Decade, “Danse Macabre” to “The Dark Half.” New York: Twayne, 1992. Discusses King’s work in the 1980’s, including his nonfictional analysis of the horror genre in Danse Macabre, his Richard Bachman books, Misery, and the novellas of the Dark Tower saga. Also includes a 1989 interview in which King discusses fairy-tale references in his work, as well as his treatment of sexuality, masculinity, and race; discusses critical and popular reaction to his fiction.

Magistrale, Tony, ed. The Dark Descent: Essays Defining Stephen King’s Horrorscape. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992. This academic collection of interpretive essays covers subjects such as homophobia, treatment of female characters, and dialogic narratives in King’s work; the sixteen pieces examine most of King’s novels and some short fiction. Individual essay bibliographies, book bibliography, and book index.

Magistrale, Tony, ed. Landscape of Fear: Stephen King’s American Gothic. Bowling Green, Ohio: Popular Press, 1988. Placing King in an American gothic tradition with Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and William Faulkner, this study treats sociopolitical themes such as “The Betrayal of Technology,” individual accountability, innocence betrayed, and survival in the novels through It. The text is supplemented by a bibliography of scholarship from 1980 to 1987.

Miller Power, Brenda, Jeffrey D. Wilhelm, and Kelly Chandler, eds. Reading Stephen King: Issues of Censorship, Student Choice, and Popular Literature. Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English, 1997. Examines issues at the heart of horror fiction. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Reino, Joseph. Stephen King: The First Decade. Boston: Twayne, 1988. This book-by-book analysis, from Carrie to Pet Sematary, attempts to show King’s literary merits, stressing subtle characterization and nuances of symbolism and allusion. The text is supplemented by a chronology, notes, and primary and secondary bibliographies.

Rogak, Lisa. Haunted Heart: The Life and Times of Stephen King. New York: St. Martin’s. 2009. This easy-to-read biography examines King’s life chronologically by focusing on his books and their film adaptations. It also covers his childhood, his determination as a writer, his struggles with alcohol and drugs, and his near-fatal 1999 accident. Contains eight pages of black and white photos.

Russell, Sharon. Revisiting Stephen King. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002. Analyses of King’s later works, from The Green Mile through Dreamcatcher.

Spignesi, Stephen J. The Complete Stephen King Encyclopedia: The Definitive Guide to the Works of America’s Master of Horror. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1991. First published with the title The Shape Under the Sheet, this is an important guide for all students of King. Includes bibliographical references and indexes.

Spignesi, Stephen J. The Essential Stephen King: The Greatest Novels, Short Stories, Movies, and Other Creations of the World’s Most Popular Writer. Franklin Lakes, N.J.: New Page, 2001. A useful discussion of the horror writer’s works by a King enthusiast.

Underwood, Tim, and Chuck Miller, eds. Fear Itself: The Horror Fiction of Stephen King, 1976-1982. San Francisco: Underwood-Miller, 1982. This is another collection of articles on King’s work. The articles vary in quality, with Ben Indick’s “King and the Literary Tradition of Horror” providing a good introduction to the history of the horror genre. Douglas Winter’s essay, “The Night Journeys of Stephen King,” discusses several of the short stories. Includes a bibliography.

Vincent, Ben. The Road to “Dark Tower”: Exploring Stephen King’s Magnum Opus. New York: NAL Trade, 2004. In-depth study of King’s seven-volume masterwork, which revolves around the mystery of the tower from which the series takes its name.

Wiater, Stanley, Christopher Golden, and Hank Wagner. The Stephen King Universe: A Tale-by-Tale Examination of the Interconnected Elements in His Work. Los Angeles: Renaissance Press, 2001. A critical feast of all things King. The authors explore the common themes, places, and characters that run through King’s novels. Resources include a biographical chronology, a bibliography, and an index.

Winter, Douglas E. The Art of Darkness: The Life and Fiction of the Master of the Macabre, Stephen King. 1984. Rev. ed. New York: New American Library, 1989. Winter’s work provides a perceptive critical overview of King’s work, with long articles on each novel up to The Talisman and a chapter on the short stories in Night Shift and Skeleton Crew. Winter also includes summaries of King’s short stories, a short biography of King, and extensive bibliographies both of King’s work and of books and articles written about him.


Critical Essays