Stephen King (born 1947) is a prolific and immensely popular author of horror fiction. In his works, King blends elements of the traditional gothic tale with those of the modern psychological thriller, detective, and science fiction genres.
Stephen King was born on September 21, 1947, in Portland, Maine. When he was two years old King's father deserted the family, leaving his mother to care for Stephen and his older brother. By the time King was seven he had begun writing stories. After discovering a box of horror and science fiction books in his aunt's house, he discovered his forte. In 1965 his first story was published in Comics Review.
King graduated high school in 1966 and pursued a bachelor of arts degree in English at the University of Maine at Orono. He graduated in 1970 and married Tabitha Spruce the following year.
King began work on a novel about a girl with telekinetic abilities entitled Carrie. When it was released in 1974, the book was an instant success and catapulted King into the top ranks of horror writers.
King's fiction features colloquial language, clinical attention to physical detail and emotional states, realistic settings, and an emphasis on contemporary problems, including marital infidelity and peer group acceptance, that lend credibility to the supernatural elements in his fiction. King's wide popularity attests to his ability to create stories in which he emphasizes the inability to rationalize certain facets of evil in seemingly commonplace situations.
King's interest in the demonic and the paranormal is usually reflected in his protagonists, whose experiences and thoughts serve to reveal psychological complexities and abnormalities. Carrie concerns a socially outcast teenage girl whose emotional insecurities lead her to take violent revenge on taunting classmates by means of telekinetic powers. In The Shining, malevolent spirits in a remote resort hotel manipulate a recovering alcoholic caretaker into attempting to murder his wife and child. Similarly, a haunted car in Christine gains control of an alienated teenage boy. Other works in which paranormal events recur include The Dead Zone and Firestarter.
Some of King's novels offer variations on classic stories of fantasy and horror. Salem's Lot, for example, is a contemporary version of Bram Stoker's novel Dracula set in an isolated New England town. In this work, a young writer and an intelligent youth combat a small group of vampires that turns out to include an increasing number of the town's residents. King's apocalyptic epic The Stand is close in structure to J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings in its tale of a deadly virus and the resulting battle between the surviving forces of good and evil. Pet Sematary, a version of W. W. Jacob's classic short story "The Monkey's Paw," tells of a physician who discovers a supernatural Indian burial ground where the dead return to life and succumbs to temptation after his child is killed. The Talisman, written in collaboration with English horror writer Peter Straub, also recalls The Lord of the Rings in its evocation of a fantasy world in which a boy searches for a cure for his mother's cancer. The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger and The Dark Tower: The Drawing of the Three are two in a series of episodes previously published in periodicals and inspired by Robert Browning's poem "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came." These books focus on a gunslinger who pursues a mysterious man in black toward the Dark Tower, "the linchpin that holds all of existence together."
King has admitted to writing five novels under the pseudonym Richard Bachman to avoid overpublishing under his own name. These novels seldom contain elements of the supernatural or occult, focusing instead on such themes as human cruelty, alienation, and morality. In Rage, a psychopath shoots a schoolteacher and holds a classroom hostage, singling out one pupil for physical and mental torture. The Long Walk and The Running Man focus on near-future societies in which people compete to the death in ritualistic games. Roadwork explores a man's reactions after observing his family, work, and home destroyed by corporate and governmental forces beyond his control. Thinner describes the fate of an obese man who begins to lose weight following a gypsy's curse.
It is intended as a compendium of horror that King has identified as concluding his treatment of children and supernatural monsters. Set in the fictional community of Derry, Maine, the novel focuses on a self-proclaimed "Losers Club" consisting of seven outcasts who successfully fought off a supernatural threat living below the town's sewer system in 1958, unaware that It resurfaces every twenty-seven years to control individuals and kill children as a sacrifice for adult sins. An amalgam of fears, It may appear as whatever frightens an individual, as a vampire or werewolf, or less melodramatically, in the form of crime, racial and religious bigotry, or domestic violence. When It telepathically recalls the Losers Club in 1985, the group's members must rediscover their childhood humor and courage to counter the limitations of adulthood. Although many reviewers considered the novel overlong, Robert Cormier 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."
King's recent fiction is often semiautobiographical in subject. Misery focuses on Paul Sheldon, a pseudonymous author of popular historical romances featuring an indomitable heroine known as Misery Chastain. After writing his first "literary" novel, Sheldon stages a funeral for his alias but suffers an automobile accident and awakes to find himself the invalid prisoner of a psychotic nurse who forces him to resurrect Misery by writing another book. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt commented: "[Unlike] much of Mr. King's fiction, this novel is more than just a splendid exercise in horror. … Not only must Paul create under pressure a story he doesn't particularly want to tell, but he must also make it plausible, even inspired, for Annie Wilkes is a shrewd connoisseur of storytelling, what one might call the ultimate editor and critic. Under her tutelage the experiences of meeting a deadline and being cut take on terrifyingly literal meanings." The Dark Half revolves around Thaddeus Beaumont, a writer who as a child experienced headaches resulting from the incompletely absorbed fetus of a twin lodged in his brain. Although Thad decides to give up his pseudonymous identity as an author of thrillers, his alter ego returns, intent on revenge and forcing Thad to teach him the craft of writing by holding his wife and child hostage. George Stade called The Dark Half "a parable in chiller form of the popular writer's relation to his creative genius, the vampire within him, the part of him that only awakes to raise Cain when he writes."
King has also written two short story collections, Night Shift and Skeleton Crew, comprised of detective, science fiction, and horror tales. Stephen King's Danse Macabre includes autobiographical essays and a critical history of the horror genre in films, television, and literature. Different Seasons consists of four novellas which, like the Bachman novels, focus on the terrors of everyday existence. King has also written screenplays for several films. These include Creepshow and Cat's Eye, which consist of horror vignettes presented in a humorous, comic-book style; Silver Bullet, an adaptation of an earlier novel, Cycle of the Werewolf; and Maximum Overdrive, an expansion of the short story "Trucks," which King himself directed. In this film, a passing comet inexplicably causes motor vehicles to come alive and hold a group of people captive in a highway diner.
Further Reading on Stephen King
Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 1, Gale, 1989.
Beahm, George, editor, The Stephen King Companion, Andrews and McMeel, 1989.
Collings, Michael R., Stephen King as Richard Bachman, Starmont House, 1985.
Collings, Michael R., The Many Facets of Stephen King, Starmont House, 1985.
Collings, Michael R., and David Engebretson, The Shorter Works of Stephen King, Starmont House, 1985.
Collings, Michael R., The Annotated Guide to Stephen King: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography of the Works of America's Premier Horror Writer, Starmont House, 1986.
Collings, Michael R., The Films of Stephen King, Starmont House, 1986.