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Stephen King has spent half a century scaring us, but his legacy is so much more than horror

It’s a big year for King adaptations, but the movies only tell part of the story.

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

It’s nearly impossible to overstate how influential Stephen King is. For the past four decades, no single writer has dominated the landscape of genre writing like him. To date, he is the only author in history to have had more than 30 books become No. 1 best-sellers. He now has more than 70 published books, many of which have become cultural icons, and his achievements extend so far beyond a single genre at this point that it’s impossible to limit him to one — even though, as the world was reminded last year when the feature film adaptation of It became the highest-grossing horror movie on record, horror is still King’s calling card.

In fact, we’ve been enjoying a cultural resurgence of quality King horror adaptations lately, from small-screen adaptations like Gerald’s Game and Castle Rock to the upcoming remake of Pet Sematary, the first trailer for which looks like a promising continuation of the trend.

That means if you’re a King fan — or looking to become one — there’s no better time to rediscover why he’s such a beloved cultural phenomenon.

After all, without King, we wouldn’t have modern works like Stranger Things, whose adolescent ensemble directly channels the Losers’ Club, King’s ensemble of geeky preteen friends from It. Without The Shining, and Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece film adaptation, “Here’s Johnny!” would be a dead talk show catchphrase and parodies like the Simpsons’ annual Treehouse of Horror would be bereft of much of their material.

Without Carrie, we wouldn’t have the single defining image of the horror of high school: a vat of pig’s blood being dropped on an unsuspecting prom queen. Without King, we wouldn’t have one of the most iconic and recognizable images in cinema history — Andy Dufresne standing in the rain after escaping from Shawshank prison — nor would we have the enduring horror of Pennywise the Clown, Cujo the slavering St. Bernard, or Kathy Bates’s pitch-perfect stalker fan in Misery.

This is but a sampling born from a staggeringly prolific writing career that’s well on its way to spanning five decades. King has effectively been translating America’s private, communal, and cultural fears and serving them up to us on grisly platters for half a century.

King might have remained a struggling English teacher, but for two women: Tabitha King and Carrie White

High school is hell.

Born in 1947, King grew up poor in Durham, Maine, the younger son of a single working mother whose husband, a merchant mariner, abandoned his family when King was still a toddler. A lifelong fan of speculative fiction, King began writing seriously while attending the University of Maine Orono. It was there, in 1969, that he met his wife, Tabitha.

By 1973, King was a high school English teacher drawing a meager $6,400 a year. He had married Tabitha in 1971, and the pair lived in a trailer in Hampden, Maine, and each worked additional jobs to make ends meet. King wrote numerous short stories, some of which were published by Playboy and other men’s magazines, but significant writerly success eluded him.

Tabitha, who’d been one of the first to read Stephen’s short stories in colleges, had loaned Stephen her own typewriter and refused to let him take a higher-paying job that would mean less time to write. Tabitha was also the one who discovered draft pages of what would become Carrie tossed in Stephen’s trash can. She retrieved them and ordered him to keep working on the idea. Ever since, King has continued to pay Tabitha’s encouragement forward. He frequently and effusively blurbs books from established as well as new authors, citing a clear wish to leave publishing better than he found it. Meanwhile, Tabitha is a respected author in her own right, as are both of their sons, Joe Hill and Owen King.

Carrie, which King sold for a $2,500 advance, would go on to earn $400,000 for the rights to its paperback run. The story of a troubled girl who develops powers of telekinesis, Carrie is the ultimate “high school is hell” morality tale. Carrie faces ruthless abuse from her religious mother and bullying from high school classmates, and the book introduces us to two of King’s most prominent themes: small Maine towns with dark underbellies, and main characters written with care and empathy despite being deeply flawed and morally gray — in this case Carrie, her mother, and her bully Sue. The complicated bond between protagonist and antagonist is also a recurring motif in King’s writing.

Two years after Carrie’s publication, Brian De Palma’s 1976 film adaptation grossed $33 million on a $1.8 million budget, largely on the strength of advance critical praise and word-of-mouth reviews. Buoyed by the subsequent success of Carrie’s paperback sales, King would go on to churn out six novels (Salem’s Lot, The Shining, Rage, The Stand, The Long Walk, and The Dead Zone) over the next six years, establishing a prolificacy that would continue through much of his career.

“The movie made the book and the book made me,” King told the New York Times in 1979.

By 1980, King was the world’s best-selling author.

It’s taken decades for King’s work to be critically appreciated — in particular for its literary qualities

Tim Robbins celebrates the most hard-won jailbreak ever.

King’s work has appeared in magazines ranging from the New Yorker to Harper’s to Playboy. The author has influenced literary writers like Haruki Murakami and Sherman Alexie along with genre creators like the producers of Lost. And he’s won virtually every major horror, mystery, science fiction, and fantasy award there is. But King also spent decades being written off by both the horror writing community and the literary mainstream.

King once referred to critics perceiving him to be “a rich hack,” a perception that bears out in horror writer David Schow’s offhand 1997 description of him as “comparable to McDonald’s” — intended to characterize King as horror’s pedestrian mainstream. When a 1994 King short story, his first to be published in the New Yorker, won the prestigious O. Henry Award, Publishers Weekly declared it to be “one of the weaker stories in this year’s [O. Henry Award] collection.”

“The price he pays for being Stephen King is not being taken seriously,” one of King’s collaborators told the LA Times in 1995.

The critical disparagement of King often went hand in hand with genre shaming. In a 1997 60 Minutes interview, Lesley Stahl questioned King’s literary tastes, getting him to admit that he’d never read Jane Austen and had only read one Tolstoy novel. In response, King grinned that he had, instead, read every novel Dean Koontz had ever written — Dean Koontz being a notoriously lowbrow writer of thrillers. (That same year, the New York Times would compliment the breadth of King’s literary knowledge even while panning his epic best-seller The Stand.)

“Here you are, one of the best- selling authors in all of history,” Stahl continued, “and the critics cannot find much that they like in your work.”

To this, King replied, “All I can say is — and this is in response to the critics who've often said that my work is awkward and sometimes a little bit painful — I know it. I'm doing the best I can with what I've got.”

While King’s self-deprecation may have been a mark of respect for his critics, those critics were on the cusp of being proven wrong. This was in large part thanks to the sleeping giant that became The Shawshank Redemption, which drew popular attention to the fact that King could do more than “just” write horror, and helped kick-start critical reassessment of him and his work.

The film, written by longtime Stephen King adapter Frank Darabont, is based on one of King’s most literary works, a 1982 novella about an agonizingly slow prison break. Shawshank flopped when it opened in theaters in 1994, but it was nominated for seven Academy Awards — more than any other King adaptation. As indicated by its long reign as the highest-ranked film on IMDB, it has gone on to become one of the most popular and beloved films ever made.

By 1998, under the oversight of a new publisher, King’s books were actively being marketed as literary fiction for the first time. From the mid-’90s through today, King’s critical and cultural reputation has advanced as thoroughly as it stagnated before.

In a 2013 CBS interview, we see the marked difference with which contemporary media has come to view King’s work: “You used to always get slotted in the Horror genre,” interviewer Anthony Mason commented to King. “And I think it was sort of a way of some people, I think, not treating you all that seriously as a writer.”

“I don't know if I want to be treated seriously per se, because in the end posterity decides whether it's good work or whether it's lasting work,” King replied, secure in his position as one of the best-loved authors of the 20th century.

But evolving cultural views on genre fiction aside, King’s writing has always displayed significant literary qualities, particularly ongoing literary themes that have shaped how we understand horror as well as ourselves.

The horror of Stephen King doesn’t lie with the external but with the internal

Kathy Bates in Misery.

In his award-winning 1981 collection of essays on horror, Danse Macabre, King names three emotions that belong to the realm of the horror genre: terror, horror, and revulsion. He argues that while all three emotions are of equal value to the creation of horror, the “finest” and most worthy is terror because it rests on the creator’s ability to command audiences’ imaginations. Drawing on numerous writers before him, he posits that never fully revealing the source of the horror is the best way to effect terror upon the mind.

King argues that the art of making us terrified about what lies around the corner is all about getting us to identify with the characters who are experiencing the terror. If we don’t care about the characters, then it won’t matter how many jump scares you fling at the audience — we have to be at least a little invested in their fate.

As such, King spends a great deal of time on characters’ interior lives, often jumping between different point-of-view characters throughout his novels. (For example, Salem’s Lot, It, and The Stand are all stories with large ensemble casts and multiple shifting points of view.) But every characterization, even a minor one, is rich with detail; even if you just met a new character, you can bet that by the time he or she meets a grisly ending a few pages later, you’ll have a deep understanding of who that character is.

King’s novels often contain deeply flawed yet sympathetic central characters surrounded by large ensemble casts full of equally flawed people, each struggling to interact and grapple with larger forces. By framing his stories within an interwoven web of narrative perspectives and juxtaposed character experiences, King is able to generate a feeling of interconnectivity, as well as explore the various literary themes that stretch throughout his multidimensional universe, including but not limited to:

1) Nerdboys to men

King credits his absentee father for bequeathing him a love of horror via a stash of pulp novels King discovered as a boy. But another lasting legacy of this truncated relationship was King’s ongoing preoccupation with relationships between men and boys, the process of attaining manhood, and the bridge between boyhood and adulthood.

We see these bonds take a variety of shapes and meaning throughout his work, ranging from comforting (Salem’s Lot) to destructive (Apt Pupil) to ambiguous (The Shining). King explores male intimacy through these relationships, frequently challenging typical masculine forms of expression. He can do this because his boys and men tend to be nerds and outcasts who already exist outside traditional masculine norms. The bookish nerdy kid was relatively uncommon in mainstream adult fiction before King came along; now we recognize such characters as hallmarks of genre literature.

To King, the social markers that make kids outcasts in school — from being nerdy to being overweight to enduring acne — also make them uniquely outfitted to be conduits for readers’ social anxieties and fears. Because deep down, we’re all reliving the social terrors of school every day of our lives.

2) Creative struggles and struggles with addiction

King frequently writes about the process of creation, often by exploring an artist who’s been prevented from creating in some way. The main characters of Salem’s Lot, The Shining, Misery, The Dark Half, Bag of Bones, 1408, and numerous short stories are all writers who’ve been in some way prevented from writing or thwarted in their creative efforts. Many of these and other artistic characters mirror King’s own real-life experiences; for example, the artist at the center of 2008’s Duma Key reflects his physical struggle to write following a highly publicized 1999 injury that made writing difficult for several years.

King has also been open throughout his career about his struggles with addictions ranging from alcohol to drug abuse to painkillers, and many of his main characters likewise struggle with addiction — either directly, in books like The Shining and Revival, or indirectly: The villain of Misery, Annie Wilkes, is a metaphor for cocaine itself.

3) World building through geography and repeated characters

Most people associate Stephen King with Maine and Maine with Stephen King. This is because King almost exclusively writes and sets his stories there. The town of Derry, for example, where It lives, is based on Bangor, Maine. Numerous fictional King towns, like Derry, Haven (the location of a 2010 TV series based on King’s mystery novel The Colorado Kid), and Castle Rock, exist in his works alongside real towns.

King uses these locations to increase the verisimilitude of his stories, painting them as all part of the same fictional universe. In stories like It, he borrows liberally from real places and landmarks, highways and scenery, even real street corners. And while Derry is the most famous of King’s fictional towns, Castle Rock is his most frequent destination, showing up over and over in his works.

King doesn’t only reuse places in his stories, however — he also reuses people. One popular villain, a recurring supernatural figure who may or may not be the devil, appears throughout the Stephen King universe in various guises. In The Dark Tower he’s “the Man in Black”; to the lost souls in The Stand, he’s a leader named Randall Flagg. In other stories, he’s a nebulous cast of characters with the initials “R.F.”

Frequently throughout his books, King will signal that his worlds are all connected by having characters meet characters from other books in passing. King characters also are frequently able to travel between narrative landscapes, with or without their awareness (The Shining, Gerald’s Game, Bag of Bones, Lisey’s Story). This interconnectivity becomes the central conceit of the Dark Tower, which explicitly links most of King’s stories together in one vast multiverse and explains that there are metaphysical doors between the worlds that allow all this to happen.

King’s work endures not because of its inherent darkness but because of its inherent hope

Part of the reason it may have taken critics so long to reassess King’s work is that “horror” implies the lower rungs of emotion King speaks of in Danse Macabre — the gross-outs and the physical gags that play into our understanding of the genre. But the key to his popularity as a horror novelist, and as a novelist in general, resides not in the darkest moments of his writing, but in his basic belief in humanity’s innate goodness.

He spells out his essentially hopeful, fundamentally romantic worldview in a 1989 interview:

There must be a huge store of good will in the human race. ... If there weren’t this huge store of good will we would have blown ourselves to hell ten years after World War II was over.

... It’s such a common thing, those feelings of love toward your fellow man, that we hardly ever talk about it; we concentrate on the other things. It’s just there; it’s all around us, so I guess we take it for granted ...

I believe all those sappy, romantic things: Children are good, good wins out over evil, it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. I see a lot of the so-called “romantic ideal” at work in the world around us.

It’s this core optimism, more than his ability to scare us, that makes King so beloved by readers. Even in his bleakest works, he retains his ability to empathize deeply with his characters, and to see even his monsters as fundamentally human.