Stephen King’s writing spans more than 40 years and more than 60 books, and while the content of his fiction varies widely, lying underneath it is a picture of the contemporary world that his “constant readers” devour, buying over 350m copies of his novels. This makes him one of the most successful authors in the world – not bad for an English teacher who threw his first novel in the bin to be rescued by his wife Tabitha, who convinced him to publish it.
King’s career began with the publication of Carrie in 1974, the story of a teenage girl’s transition from girl to woman, and from bullied child to vengeful adult. The central character remains one that readers can relate to: a lonely child whose life is filled with emotional abuse.
This is an important aspect of King’s success. His stories are not usually about superheroes that live in an unrecognisable landscape, they are everyday people, living in a recognisable America. More than this though, the stories he tells are a reflection of the lives of these ordinary people, even as they contain horrors and supernatural events that are extraordinary. The Shining, one of King’s most famous novels, is the story of a dysfunctional and abusive family unit. It deals with emotional and physical abuse – and the anger and neglect of an alcoholic parent, under the guise of a haunted house story. It was a story that King was familiar with himself, as he has spoken openly about his troubles with alcohol.
Themes like these are found throughout King’s work. Loss of innocence, abuse, and the battle between good and evil are woven into his stories. He weaves these tales together, linking them to each other in a web that readers take great pleasure in discovering.
One of the greatest abilities King has as an author is being able to understand the fears of his readers and to translate those fears into a work of fiction. From abuse to the loneliness of poverty and hunger, King is able to connect to his readership and to offer them a sense of hope: people just like them, he seems to say, can overcome any trial. Like the children in IT, or The Body (which was famously made into the movie Stand By Me), King tells his readers they can achieve extraordinary things when they work together for a common good.
King writes primarily to the working class audience he grew up among, whom he calls his “constant reader” and he excels at providing detailed and familiar description of life in a working class environment. In The Stand, for example, Arnette is a kind of working class everywhere and through his portrayal of this town he highlights the problems faced by working class families across America in both the late seventies and late eighties, as employment was disappearing.
Although King is considered to be a horror writer, his work encompasses so much more than horror. He has written detective fiction (such as the Bill Hodges trilogy), time travel stories (11.22.63), science fiction, and westerns, as well as horror – sometimes all in a single novel, as with The Langoliers and the Dark Tower series. He writes in a style that makes his fiction accessible to people aged from 15 to 100, a style that has made him one of the most popular authors in the world.
Recognition as a ‘real’ writer
But just because King is one of the most popular authors on the planet, does this make him one of the great American writers, like Edgar Allen Poe? Or is he merely a master of pulp fiction – good for reading on a plane but not to be taken seriously? King’s success as a writer has only recently translated to serious literary success. Popular fiction has long been considered as trashy and not been taken seriously. Slowly, however, King’s work is being considered for its literary content.
Stephen King’s Gothic by John Sears is a ground-breaking academic work on the author. It is inspiring a growing number of academics who find literary value in King’s writing and there have been several academics who have championed King as a serious literary author, including Tony Magistrale, who has written several books on King and his work. Recently, a special issue of the Science Fiction Film and Television journal was dedicated to King and a new journal Pennywise Dreadful: The Journal of Stephen King Studies is set to launch is first edition in November.
As King approaches his 70th birthday in September, his popularity does not seem to be declining. There are several new adaptations of his works, including IT, Gerald’s Game and Mr Mercedes and his forthcoming collaboration Sleeping Beauties, with son Joe Hill, is being hotly anticipated. The blend of realism, social commentary and horror means that the Grandmaster of horror’s career is still going strong, and he is – finally – being considered as a “real” writer.