This is Halloween week, when monsters scuttle about. What could be more appropriate than to pen an appreciation of Stephen King, the most successful horror writer in recent history? His books have sold more than 350 million copies. Films based on his work have grossed over $2 billion -- and that's not counting the zanily entertaining "It," released this fall, which by itself has earned over $666 million worldwide. And despite at least two announced retirements and an enforced convalescence following an accident, King, who turned 70 in September, shows no signs of slowing down.
I've been a faithful fan for most of my adult life. I'm not going to claim that I have read every book, story or essay King has ever produced, but I haven't missed many. I'm surely not the only one who has trouble keeping up. King's production is extraordinary. He has said that it takes him about three months to finish a typical 180,000-word novel. If he slacks off, "the excitement of spinning something new begins to fade." The speed with which King writes was once the topic of a "Saturday Night Live" skit.
Readers cannot get enough King. Neither can Hollywood. Some of the films have become iconic: Think "The Shining," the original "Carrie," and of course "The Shawshank Redemption," which somehow flopped in the theaters but has become, deservedly, a cult classic. Others that didn't do so well -- "Christine," for example -- deserved a better fate. So popular is King that no fewer than seven projects based on his tales have recently debuted or will be arriving shortly.
In addition to "It," this year has brought "The Dark Tower" to the big screen, and "Mr. Mercedes," "The Mist," "1922" and "Gerald's Game" to the small. Next year Hulu will debut "Castle Rock," set in the eponymous Maine town that King invented as the setting for a number of his books and short stories. He is, in the words of Vanity Fair, having a moment.
My initial encounter with King's work came during my first year of law school. Browsing the paperback spinner in a drugstore near the Yale campus, I stumbled across "'Salem's Lot," King's second novel. So unknown was he at the time (or so oblivious was I to the world) that I made no connection to Brian De Palma's film "Carrie," which a bunch of us has traipsed to the theater to see scant months earlier. Still, the story looked like fun. Vampires in a New England town? Captured my view of law school precisely. So I bought the book, took it back to my dorm room and couldn't put it down. I didn't precisely sneak nighttime peeks at the gables outside my window, to see what might be crouching there -- but now and then I probably wondered.
After that, I couldn't get enough.
In the old days when everybody lugged physical books on vacation, I was sure to be sitting at the beach with a hardcover of "Needful Things" or "Gerald's Game" or "Dreamcatcher." King spins escapist tales at their finest. You lose yourself in his world. My dentist was once kind enough to perform a root canal from an angle that allowed me to read a book the whole time. The book was "Misery," and I was so engrossed in the sufferings of Paul Sheldon that the whole procedure seemed to pass in minutes.
No recent writer of consistently popular fiction has drawn the attention of quite so many serious literary critics. Last year brought a volume of essays by philosophers discussing King's work. To be sure, there are those in the academy who can't stand his work -- I mean, really can't stand it -- but I see things differently. Yes, King might occasionally overwrite (who doesn't?), but I find his prose refreshingly brisk, full of excitement and arresting energy. For those who hate King's style, perhaps the easiest response is to quote what New York Times reviewer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt once wrote about a Robert Ludlum novel: "Still, one does keep reading."
What's made King so successful? One can't simply point to the current popularity of the horror genre, because when he published his first best-seller, the genre was moribund. (Except for "The Exorcist," which was sui generis.) It's not a large exaggeration to say that King brought it back. Tony Magistrale of the University of Vermont points to the power of the prose, which "remains deceptively simple and accessible," as well as "the ease with which one of his imaginary worlds envelops the reader."
Perhaps, but there's something more. It's no accident that the early books that built King's reputation revolved largely around children and teenagers, successfully capturing the angst and fear that come with realizing that adults can no longer protect them. He started off writing in the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam world, where the U.S. still longed to be the land of the free and the home of the brave but was already slipping toward the dreary disorder of Mid-World, the setting of King's "Dark Tower" series. The kids in King's novels "are always finding themselves in the midst of corrupt, degraded adult societies," the literary theorist Mark Edmundson writes.
King's best novels, even when they're about adults, still capture an appealing innocence, the expectation that if one does what one is supposed to, all will be well. But all isn't well, and quite suddenly the protagonist must grapple with horror in the midst of everyday life. Whether the adult is an abused wife, a grieving parent or a man unjustly convicted of murder, what swiftly unfolds is a heroic quest (in the Joseph Campbell sense) for victory over the forces that have turned everyday life into horror. King's protagonists, whatever their ages, are usually lonely and often damaged. He scares us by piling adversity upon those with whom we already sympathize. He has an eye on the national psyche.
To call King a horror writer is to miss the point. He creates suspense with a special flair because he sees so deeply into the worry and trauma that underlie the quotidian. A typewriter, a baseball card, a bathtub drain: You never know which everyday object is going to turn against his characters. Reviewing a King novel, Margaret Atwood wrote admiringly: "The rocking chair is coming to get you." More important, that chair is coming for your kids.
This isn't a formula; it's an aesthetic. It's not to everyone's taste. But for King's fans, after all these years, the aesthetic still works.