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October 23, 2011

The Mike's True Heroes of Horror (7/10) - Stephen King

In the mainstream pop culture scene of the past thirty years, there probably isn't a bigger horror star than this guy.  With 49 novels, numerous short stories and over 130 film or TV productions based on his work, He's pretty much an institution at this point in his career.  I almost thought it was too easy to put him on this list, like I would just be stating the obvious to people who already recognize his effects on the genre.  Usually, the easiest answer is the right one. Which brings us to...
Stephen King
Who is Stephen King?
A favorite son of the state of Maine, whose real and fictional villages host most of his twisted tales, Stephen King was born in Portland and was educated in the state all the way through his graduation from The University of Maine in 1970.  At that point, King had already sold his first short story and had written for the campus newspaper, but it was his inability to quickly earn a teaching job that led him to keep selling stories to magazines.  He began working on his first novel in the early part of the '70s, which was published in 1973 and adapted for the screen three years later.

Around the same time is when King developed a drinking problem that affected him for much of the next two decades, which - along with his teenage love of H.P. Lovecraft and EC Comics - also contributed to the dark vision that inhabits his works.  Despite personal issues - including an auto accident that severely injured him in the late '90s - King has kept writing for over 40 years, and continues to stay in the spotlight with new works and a column for Entertainment Weekly on pop culture.  He remains married to his first wife, Tabitha, and has three children who have all become writers themselves.
King is most known for....
In horror circles, Kings early novels define his impact on the genre quite well.  After debuting with Carrie, King created 'Salem's Lot, The Shining, The Stand, and The Dead Zone by the end of the 1970s.  Each of these have been adapted for film or TV as well - all but The Stand have more than one adaptation as I write this, and that one's remake is allegedly coming - and each show a common theme that's become a known fact these days: it's really hard to adapt a Stephen King story to the screen and maintain all the detail of his intricate prose.
Other Horror Hits....
I might run out of hosting space on Blogger if I try to list everything King's done that has mattered to horror fans around the world. (I did recently try to sum up my favorite films based on the dude's stuff, however.)  Aside from the small sample of novels I listed above, King has produced plenty of horror classics.  Names like Pet Sematary, Cujo, Christine and Children of the Corn will be very familiar to fans of horror on the silver screen during the 1980s - which is probably when King's horror popularity peaked, though it hasn't really dropped off much in the ensuing decades.  King also got involved with writing and directing for the screen during that decade, though the results are varied from the epic Creepshow to the comically mishandled Maximum Overdrive.
In print, King has remained one of the best selling authors of ever throughout his career, and most of his horror tales dramatically tower over the film versions that are more popular to many.  I'm going to talk about my favorite King story and how it affected me shortly, but I would certainly be leaving this article incomplete if I didn't mention one of his most beloved creations, the Dark Tower series of novels that is now seven (going on 8 in 2012) books long.  I, out of what must only be ignorance or stupidity, have not yet read these works, but a large consensus of folks around the world will reference King's tales of Roland the Gunslinger as an epic tale that rivals The Lord of the Rings for pure fantasy bliss.
So why's Stephen King here?
I think - no, I hope - that my recounting of the man's career thus far has left little doubt that he has been one of the most iconic folks in horror throughout his career.  But the question remains: Why does he matter to me? I'm not here to just repeat popular opinion, after all.  If Stephen King's gonna be one of my top ten heroes in horror, I need to make darn sure that I really feel as strongly as most do about King's work.

Growing up in the '80s, I'm not sure I can pinpoint my first interaction with something related to Stephen King.  Around the time, he was just someone you knew about by living in the '80s, like Ronald Reagan or Sylvester Stallone or Madonna.  If I had to guess, I'd think that the first thing I officially experienced that had King's name on it was Stanley Kubrick's version of The Shining, which was one of the first horror movies my parents made readily available to my sister and I.  Of course, King has nearly disowned this film, and when I later read his book, I could tell why.  Though Kubrick's film remains one of my very favorite horror films, I will often argue with myself that King's book is in fact a better, deeper, and more meaningful horror story.
I'm pretty certain I can pinpoint my first King reading experience, which I think was his 1994 novel Insomnia.  It isn't necessarily regarded as one of King's best works, and it's definitely been surpassed by most of the things I've read by him since, but it certainly painted a new vision of what horror movies could be in my teenage mind.  After being transplanted from the small town home of my first 10 years into the family farm in the nearby countryside, reading King's books - which were generally set in small Maine towns that were similar in size to my home town - was a mental escape back into the small town setting that I missed at the time.  It wasn't easy to relate to the novel's AARP lead characters, but the dark side of their life and the small town they lived in certainly awakened my active imagination about how evil could lurk everywhere, even in a quiet small town.  It would be later that I would really start to understand how King's world works and how many connections to his other works were hidden inside that 800 page book.  (The book was set in one of King's favorite fictional towns, Derry, which previously hosted King's revered novel It and later Dreamcatcher.)

That small town evil was expanded upon in one of the next King novels I read, and one that might still be my favorite King story in print.  Needful Things was that book, and at the time I thought it was the most awe-inspiring horror tale I'd ever read.  Set in King's other infamous fictional town, Castle Rock, the tale of the devilish Leland Gaunt setting up a shop that offers something specific to everyone, as long as they play a prank on another person in town.  The long tale focuses on how evil humanity can be when prodded in the right way, and really struck a chord with me.  I could picture the events playing out in my old neighborhood, even using real houses in town as the setting for the scenes in my mind, and it really blew my mind.  And when I later read The Dead Zone and Cujo - which I also loved - and found out they tied in to the landscape of Castle Rock is when I was kind of in love with King's crazy mind.
As if reading those four novels as a teen wasn't enough to blow my mind, a couple of collections of King's shorter works helped shape my universe as a horror fan too.  Different Seasons was most memorable for its less horror-tinged stories - particularly the ones that became The Shawshank Redemption, Apt Pupil, and Stand By Me - and Skeleton Crew introduced me to another horror tale that infected my mind for good: The Mist.  Remember the first time you read something and immediately started filming the movie in your brain with your favorite actors?  For me that was The Mist.  (Yes, I did mentally cast Kurt Russell. No, I was not disappointed by the eventual movie, though I did hate the ending.)

I lost track of reading King somewhere along the way - probably in the middle of the segmented release of The Green Mile in six boring parts - but my occasional revisits to his work have reminded me often that this is certainly someone who knew how to create horror.  He's been dismissed at times for writing popular fiction and churning out a few duds along the way, but I don't see any way I could leave King off a list of horror heroes based on his mainstream status.  King represents horror to an entire generation, and even some of his less famous works could inspire a young horror fan, just like Insomnia inspired me.
With his interlocking universe full of connections between several of his iconic stories, Stephen King's works did a lot to make me think about the horror genre and how deep a horror story could be, taking me out of the "monsters and slashers" mindset that I had previously known of in horror.  I worry that I sometimes get caught up in the film side of his work - which varies in quality - but a reminder of what his best books and stories could do is proof that Stephen King truly is among the best horror has to offer anyone who loves the macabre.


Will Errickson said...

Great post; I totally identify! "The Mist" was for me, too, one of those stories I saw in my head as a movie (I hated the adaptation's ending too). Although the last King novel I read was THE DARK HALF in 1989, I still have a fondness for his earlier novels and stories, as well as his '81 nonfiction book on horror, DANSE MACABRE, truly a must-read for the literate horror fan!

Will Errickson said...

Also, if you liked NEEDFUL THINGS - which I haven't read - you may appreciate the 1975 novel THE AUCTIONEER, by Joan Samson. King has spoken appreciatively of it, noting how much of an inspiration it was for THINGS. I thought it was fantastically quietly creepy and unsettling. Last year I posted a review:

Marvin the Macabre said...

Aside from The Lost Boys, I've got to give Stevie the King props for starting my love of horror. Misery was the first adult novel I ever read. I remember being terrorized by my older sister telling the plots to Pet Sematary and The Shining, and basically thinking Stephen King was the Devil incarnate. But my sister assured me Misery wasn't that scary. Eight to Ten King novels later, I branched out to Clive Barker who remains my favorite horror writer. But while I may skip a King novel or three, I'm never really done with him, and he has probably been the singular biggest influence on my own writing. I heartily agree with his placement on the list.

P.S. - The ending is totally the best part of The Mist.

Kev D. said...

I LOVED Creepshow. Solid movie... plus he plays a hilarious dim farmboy in it.

R.D. Penning said...

A solid article nod to the man that inspires me creatively on a daily basis. Great job!