Stephen King, the world’s bestselling horror writer, began writing in his college newspaper and then a number of pulp magazines before bursting on to the world scene with his novel of possession, Carrie, in 1974. This was followed by The Shining in 1977, a brilliant tale of a couple and their little boy who are snowed in for the winter in a Colorado resort hotel full of ghosts. In these books, and the many that followed, King took the centuries old traditions of the gothic tale, ghost story and sensation novel and successfully moved them on to a new era, inspiring a fresh generation of horror authors in the process. King has written over 250 novels, novellas and short stories, which have sold in excess of 350 million copies, winning every major horror, fantasy and science fiction award in the process. He is also one of the most anthologised – and filmed – writers who has ever lived, meaning that there is almost no one on the planet who has not heard of at least one of his novels or characters, even if they have never read any of his stories. He remains as popular today as he was when he debuted in the 1970s – even extending his talents to acting recently when he made a suitably creepy appearance on the hit series Sons of Anarchy! What has driven this man to write all his life and what has made him so phenomenally successful? Let’s take a look at King’s career, influences, writing style and legacy.
What made King into the writer he is today can only be speculated upon but it is possible to identify a series of formative events and experiences which may well have had a later influence on the author and his writing. The story is well known of how, when King was just two years old, his father left the family under the pretence of “going to buy a pack of cigarettes”, leaving his mother to raise King and his adopted older brother, David, by herself, sometimes under great financial strain. Then there is the fact that, as a child, King apparently witnessed one of his friends being struck and killed by a train. King makes no mention of this event in his own memoirs but, when quizzed about his earliest inspirations, he gave the following memorable account in a recent magazine interview. King tells of how, while browsing through an attic with his elder brother during his childhood, he uncovered a paperback version of a H P Lovecraft collection of short stories entitled The Lurker in the Shadows that had belonged to his father. “I knew that I’d found home when I read that book” King said.
Whilst Lovecraft was undeniably one of the earliest major influences on King, there were also many others. He acknowledges the influence of Bram Stoker, for example, particularly on his novel ‘Salem’s Lot, which he envisioned as a retelling of Dracula, had the dark count somehow ended up visiting America rather than London. King himself stated once “without Ray Bradbury, there is no Stephen King”, and there is undeniably a similarity in the writing style and themes in both authors’ work. Another horror master to whom King owes a debt is Richard Matheson, the author of I am Legend and The Shrinking Man. Both writers casually integrate characters’ thoughts into the third person narration, just one of several parallels between their writing styles. Oddly – or perhaps appropriately depending on how you look at it – Charles Dickens is one of King’s favourite authors to read and Bleak House one of his best-loved novels.
After Carrie was published, The Shining, ‘Salem’s Lot and The Stand soon followed. These early novels from the seventies remain some of his most popular but it must be remembered that King’s oeuvre was never limited just to horror. Novels like The Running Man work as straight thrillers (with a dash of science fiction), The Dark Tower books see King take on fantasy, and stories like The Body owe their impact more to nostalgia rather than to terror. It remains horror for which King is best known, however, and the anticipation surrounding the soon to be published sequel to The Shining shows that in this field he remains supreme. It is sobering to think that an accident in 1999 almost ended King’s career – and life. King was hit by a minivan and suffered horrific injuries – a collapsed right lung, multiple fractures of his right leg, scalp laceration and a broken hip. Despite the fact that for some time afterwards King suffered from almost unbearable pain – even while sitting down and writing – he continued to work on a revealing memoir that he had started before his accident occurred: On Writing.
An essential book for any author who aspires to be published, On Writing is a sobering account of the dedication that it takes to be a bestselling writer. King’s formula for learning to write well is: “Read and write four to six hours a day. If you cannot find the time for that, you can’t expect to become a good writer.” He therefore sets out each day with a quota of 2,000 words and will not stop writing until it is met. King also reveals that for him writing is a compulsion almost as much as it is a pleasure: “I was made to write stories and I love to write stories. That’s why I do it. I really can’t imagine doing anything else and I can’t imagine not doing what I do”. With such a compulsive personality, it is perhaps no surprise that King – like Jack Torrance in The Shining – has suffered from episodes of addiction to drugs and alcohol. Following an intervention from friends and family he has, however, been sober since the late eighties. His family has, indeed, been one of the few constants in his life and remain important to him. Both his wife Tabitha and his two sons, Owen and Joe, are published authors in their own right. Joe in particular is worthy of mention because he started out his career using the pen name Joe Hill, to avoid simply trading on his famous father’s reputation. He hasn’t done too badly for himself: his debut novel, Heart-Shaped Box, published in 2007, is soon to be adapted into a feature film. It seems that horror will have a King for a few years yet.