My induction into the cult of Stephen King’s constant readers (the nickname of his biggest fans) happened at the Coles bookstore in Toronto’s Yorkdale mall one summer day in the late 1970s. about 12 years old, a voracious reader since the age of four but inclined to encyclopedic non-fiction works about sharks, minerals or war. In the 1970s, I was also a budding expert on cryptozoology (the study of the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, and other legendary creatures), UFOs, haunted houses, and the Bermuda Triangle.
After scouring the store for suitable titles and finding myself empty, I drifted to the horror fiction section, where I had recently purchased a novelization of the movie “Grizzly,” a rip-off “Jaws.” on a – you guessed it – man – eating a grizzly bear. As I scanned the rows of grim paperbacks emblazoned with monsters, bloodthirsty vixens and gleaming butcher knives, I kept coming back to a minimalist gray cover containing a single image no bigger than a silver dollar. , of a faceless boy, centered below a few lines of text, including the title – “The Shining” – and the author’s name, Stephen King. The plot synopsis – Danny Torrance, a boy with psychic powers, is trapped with his family in a haunted, snowy hotel – altered my imagination, perhaps because, like Danny, my father worked in a hotel. I bought the novel, read it at my friend’s cabin, and 40 years later I still read (pretty much) every book King publishes.
This is a lot of books. Since publishing “Carrie,” his first novel, in 1974, King has published more than 70 works of fiction, several under his pseudonym, Richard Bachman, and even a few nonfiction books. His work also includes fantasy, sci-fi, suspense and detective fiction, but King will be best remembered as a horror writer, the man who dragged down an unsavory genre by slashing and screaming in front of publisher’s catalog and suburban bookstore.
With the beloved Maine author turning 75 on September 21, an assessment of his work and influence is in order.
King’s vast cultural impact is well documented. Film adaptations abound and have grossed billions, while pop culture institutions from “The Simpsons” to “Stranger Things” are replete with allusions to his work. Our collective pop consciousness is so saturated with King’s fictional characters, from Pennywise the clown to pig’s blood-soaked Carrie White to axe-wielding Jack Torrance, that we reflexively dump their images into digital memes knowing that everything the world will. obtain the joke.
It’s true that horror fiction was on the bestseller list before “Carrie,” but King almost single-handedly pushed it up several steps on the literary ladder, both in the eyes of the public, the critics and even many aspiring authors. He reimagined and reinterpreted tired tropes and genre characters — the vampire, the haunted house, the devil — for a savvy, pop-savvy readership no longer afraid of rattling chains in a gothic castle. He abhorred sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, along with an underrated literary sensibility. When King won the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2003, many older cultural guardians were horrified to see the award given to a simple gender writer. The King legion of Constant Readers, many of whom hold positions in universities, media and publishing houses, didn’t see what the fuss was about.
Dig below the macro-cultural level, however, and you’ll find even more evidence of King’s influence spreading like a benevolent kudzu weed. In preparing to write this article, I spent some time going through my collection of pre-1977 horror paperbacks. What stood out to me was how short most of them were. Of the three best-selling horror novels from the late pre-King era – “Rosemary’s Baby”, “The Exorcist” and Thomas Tryon’s “The Other” – only “The Exorcist” exceeds 300 pages. The works of Richard Matheson and Ray Bradbury, whom King cites as his main literary influences, exceed the 300-page mark, while HP Lovecraft, the controversial progenitor of contemporary horror, has written only two very short novels. ‘horror. Until the 1970s, horror novels tended to be long on plot and short on characterization, although “The Other” and “The Exorcist” pointed in the direction of a type of fiction. denser, more character-driven horror.
It was Stephen King – and to a lesser extent, Anne Rice in her Vampire Chronicles – who paved the way for the horror doorstop, works brimming with character detail, interior monologues, flashbacks, subplots and enough minor characters to require a list of names at the front of the book. King’s novels, with few exceptions, are long, some of which span over a thousand pages. The popularity, especially of longer works (“The Stand”, “It”, “The Tommyknockers”) convinced many aspiring publishers and authors to go further or go home. The length of King’s novels, while not always warranted, speaks to the seriousness he brings to the genre.
I would say King’s greatest innovation is his use of children and young adults as protagonists. It’s not as if young people were absent from fiction and horror films before 1974. But before King’s groundbreaking works, children, if they appeared in fiction and horror films, were generally villains – “The Turn of the Screw” and “Village of the Damned” come to mind – or the passive receptacles of evil, as in “The Exorcist” and “Rosemary’s Baby”, or the victims to be protected by guardians adults, as in “The Birds”.
King is the great American childhood novelist. No author since Dickens has so cohesively and artfully brought the excitement and terror of childhood to life. He takes us inside a child’s troubled imagination, shares his silly jokes and brings his outsized dreams for the future to life. Children know they are vulnerable, King reminds us: their fragile psyches are painstakingly attuned to the adults who care for them, adults who often turn out to be monsters, literally or figuratively. King recreates this drama from the inside, from the child’s perspective.
These fictional evocations of childhood, notably in “It” and “The Body” (beautifully adapted for the screen as “Stand By Me”), are also imbued with a nostalgia for those endless summer days before the internet, days spent riding bikes, reading comic books and, admittedly, dodging the local bully and the odd mongrel dog. As the massive popularity of “Stranger Things” reminds us, there’s a thirst for stories that unfold before digital technology swallows youth culture in its voracious maw.
King has unofficially marked the occasion of his 75th birthday with a new novel called “Fairy Tale”, a work of dark fantasy told by the kind of sensitive, troubled and intelligent child the author etched into our imaginations ago. decades. He began the novel by asking himself a question at the start of the long COVID pandemic: “What could you write that would make you happy?” The answer is “Fairy Tale”, although the question could just as easily be changed to “What could you write that would make your constant readers happy?”
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