Youre chasing your paper boat as it floats down the rain-smattered rivulets running along
the curb by your house, hurrying faster and faster as the stream turns into a mini-river...
In most writers hands, you have a reasonable idea of what to expect next:
But not in the hands of Stephen King.
Now yes, sure, when you say Stephen King, your average Joe Schmo thinks Boo!
And hey, thats just fine with Uncle Stevie.
Fellow novelist John Grisham says King has described him as the current holder of ABLB,
or Americas Best-Loved Bogeyman.
And that paper boat?
Shes forever lost in the sewer, held hostage by Pennywise the Clown.
And Pennywise doesnt make balloon animals or honk his nose.
He eats children just like
Few writers have had the sheer staying power, popularity, and prolific output as Stephen
From insatiably flesh-hungry clowns and sentient cars, to telekinetic teenagers and mystical
gunslingers, if theres one author who has taken up valuable real estate in that part
of our imaginations, its Stephen King.
But its not just his monsters that have lasting powerits also the very human
and very psychological elements in his work that linger.
So come with me, Constant Reader, while I lead you through the dark and twisted world
of Uncle Stevie, the King of Horror
Stephen King has been around a while, and when I say a while, Im talking way
back to bell-bottoms and Watergate.
Even before he published his first novel Carrie in 1974, he had published dozens of short
To date, Kings books have sold more than 350 million copies.
He has published a staggering 61 novels, 11 collections of short stories and novellas,
and 5 works of nonfiction.
To say nothing of his screenplays, essays, and yes, even a musical with John Mellencamp
and T Bone Burnett called Ghost Brothers of Darkland County.
But when King is actually writing (which, when hes in the middle of a project, is
every day, including Christmas, the Fourth of July, and his own birthday), hes writing
Any avid King reader knows that when they pick up one of his books, they can generally
expect a doorstop.
His longest, the unabridged version of The Stand, clocks in at 1153 pages and was originally
so long that the publisher requested he cut four hundred pages to lower production costs.
Says King I was asked if I would like
to make the cuts [to The Stand], or if I would prefer someone in the editorial department
to do it.
I reluctantly agreed to do the surgery myself.
I think I did a fairly good job, for a writer who has been accused over and over again of
having diarrhea of the word processor.
In other words, as the verbose author uncharacteristically put it succinctly: I have a real problem
with bloatI write like fat ladies diet.
So just how does King maintain such a consistent output over the course of almost five decades?
Well, remember that aforementioned strict work ethic that glues King to his keyboard
even on his own birthday?
According to King:
I like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words.
Thats 180,000 words over a three-month span, a goodish length for a book.
. . The first draft of a bookeven a long oneshould take no more than three months,
the length of a season.
But King is the first to admit that hes been slowing down a bit.
according to him: I think it was quitting smoking that slowed me down; nicotine is a
great synapse enhancer.
And here, Dear Reader, is where his tale takes a dark paththe relentless demon of addiction
that not only plagued so much of his life, but also informed a lot of his work.
King has always been open about the dark periods in his life that have influenced his writing,
for both good and ill.
For example, Cujo, a novel about a mother and her young son stranded in a stifling car
surrounded by a rabid St. Bernard, is a novel King himself likes.
But sadly, he was so drunk that he barely remembers writing it: I was drinking a
case of sixteen-ounce tallboys a night.
. . I dont say that with pride or shame, only with a vague sense of sorrow and loss.
I like that book.
I wish I could remember enjoying the good parts as I put them down on the page.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is his alien invasion opus The Tommyknockers, which
King claims is an awful book.
When he wrote it in the spring and summer of 1986, he was often working until midnight
with my heart running at a hundred and thirty beats a minute and cotton swabs stuck up my
nose to stem the coke-induced bleeding
That [The Tommyknockers] was the last one I wrote before I cleaned up my act.
While King did a lot of hard work in the 90s getting clean, a freak car accident in 1999
while he was taking one of his nightly walks nearly ended his life, and some time after,
an addiction to painkillers entered back into the narrative.
His first book while recovering, an alien invasion called Dreamcatcher, was the freakish
offspring of severe pain and heavy doses of Oxycontin.
The novel delves deep into the invaders (nicknamed Shit Weasels) that gestate in their
hosts stomachs, only to violently and gruesomely burst from their rectums.
Dreamcatcher is also a book King is not a fan of: I dont like Dreamcatcher very
I was pretty stoned when I wrote it, because of the Oxy, and thats another book that
shows the drugs at work.
Addiction is a pervasive theme in many King texts.
The Shining, about a troubled father who gives into his demons, both of the ghostly and bottled
variety, is a (447-page) metaphor for alcoholism.
And King admits that there was a part of him that knew he was an alcoholic while he was
writing it, even though he couldnt admit it at the time.
I thought that was about a crazy fan so obsessed with an author and his work that shes willing
to kill him to squeeze one final book out of him?
Nope: Misery is a book about cocaine.
Annie Wilkes is cocaine.
She was my number-one fan.
And this is what makes Stephen King so successfulhe uses surface-level fears to examine the things
that truly horrify us.
Its not that there are literal monsters and demons that stalk us day to day, its
that King finds metaphorical ways to personify them.
As fellow novelist Walter Mosley puts it:
Kings phenomenal popularity is due to his almost instinctual understanding of the fears
that form the psyche of Americas working class.
He knows fear.
And not the fear of demonic forces alone, but also of loneliness and poverty, of hunger
and the unknown we have to breach in order to survive.
This is why Stephen King has had such immense staying power; Because the true monster lurking
beneath all his spooky stuff is trauma.
Trauma is always there, an omnipresent part of the human experience: the trauma of helplessness
and loss of agency (Misery, Geralds Game, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption);
the trauma of abuse and fear of your own loved ones (The Shining, Carrie, Rose Madder); and
the biggest one of all: childhood trauma (The Body, Apt Pupil, Hearts in Atlantis, Dreamcatcher,
The Shining again, Carrie again, Cujo, The Institute, Firestarter, The Talisman, The
Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, and the granddaddy of them all: It).
Hes done that one a few times.
I mean, the creature from It literally takes the form of whatever will be most traumatizing
to each kid, ensuring that each and every one of them will have one hell of a time growing
This is all a long-winded way of saying, as Mr. Diarrhea of the Word Processor put it:
You dont get scared of monsters; you get scared for people.
This ability to grapple with the deeper, more profound horrors that pervade the human condition
has allowed King to branch out into just about every genre, making him a slippery writer
to pin down, genre-wise.
But to reductively label King as just a Horror Writer is like saying Tolkien is just a
guy who writes about jewelry.
For every child-killing clown King has given us, hes also given us a tender love story
about loss like (Liseys Story, Kings personal favorite).
And for every rabid St. Bernard, we get an inspirational story of redemption from a maximum
security prison, as in The Green Mile.
Literary critic Michael R. Collings calls this generic indecisiveness, which English
lecturer John Sears observes is a hallmark of Kings works, as they demonstrate an
unwillingness or inability to be confined to singular generic categories.
They tend instead to fray at their generic edges, sprawl over boundaries, allowing different
genres to seep into each other.
This refusal to be confined to one genre is no more abundantly clear than in Kings
sprawling Dark Tower series, eight volumes spanning thirty years of his career, and whose
characters, ideas, and world make cameos in many of Kings other non-Dark Tower works.
If youve read The Dark Tower, try describing it.
And no, youre not allowed to cheat and give me that Matthew McConaughy movie.
Its only fitting to end our examination of a master storyteller with a story, this
one paraphrased from King himself...
Way back after Carrie debuted, King and his editor were waiting at a crosswalk trying
to decide which book King would publish next: Roadwork or Salems Lot.
There were pros and cons to each, but his editors main concern was that if they went
with Salems Lot, King would most assuredly be typed as a horror writer.
King said, I dont care what they call me as long as the checks dont bounce.
They went with Salems Lot, the modern American vampire bestseller and the checks
certainly didnt bounce.
And the result?
I was indeed typed as a horror writer, a tag I have never confirmed or denied, simply
because I think its irrelevant to what I do.
It does, however, give bookstores a handy place to shelve my books.
Kings work is so expansive, so sprawling, and so exhaustively wide and deep, that we
could spend a whole YouTube channel expanding on it.
But at the end of the day, we need some place to put his books.
Just make sure the shelves are a safe distance from your bed, or else get too close, or Uncle
Stevie will make his nightmares your own.
And theres nothing like sharing a nightmare with Stephen King.
Goodnight... and sweet dreams, Constant Reader...