Stephen King: Master of Almost All the Genres Except “Literary”
From Horror to Fantasy to Feel-Good, He's Everywhere
Imagine you’re in an airport boarding lounge, or the waiting room at virtually any train station or bus terminal in the Western world. Maybe you commute to work or school by subway. It doesn’t matter. Look around. Somewhere in there, among hundreds of fellow travelers, lurks the shade of a tall, lanky man in a Red Sox gimme cap. Maybe they brought him with them, or bought him at a newsstand after swiping through the turnstile. Maybe they downloaded him, seemingly out of thin air, and he’s hiding on an iPad or a Kobo. He may even be lying open in someone’s lap, real words on a real page. However he appears, though, chances are he’s there. Somewhere.
For more than four decades, in more than sixty novels, ten collections of short stories, and half a dozen nonfiction works, King has been one of popular culture’s most constant and consistent literary companions. His books have sold hundreds of millions of copies and been translated into dozens of languages. Drawn in by his storyworlds, millions of fans avidly await each release, entranced in ways they might not even understand, yet eager to see what the acknowledged master of modern horror has to offer. Whenever a new Stephen King novel hit the shelves, the mother of a friend of mine always bought two copies: a first-edition hardcover “for keeping,” the spine never cracked, the dust jacket kept in mint condition, and a softcover reading copy, carried everywhere and read to tatters. Today, a signed first edition of any of King’s early works easily commands thousands of dollars on the used book market. A matched, signed, and uncut set of The Dark Tower novels can be yours on eBay for a little more than $30,000—about what many people pay for their first new car.
Countless more people are familiar with King’s work as it’s been adapted for film and television, whether that means for the big screen by A-list directors (Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining or Brian De Palma’s Carrie) or serialized for broadcast on B-list networks (TNT’s Nightmares and Dreamscapes). Many of King’s novels and short stories have been filmed for the straight-to-DVD market, while others have seen worldwide release and won entertainment culture’s highest awards. Maybe you’ve seen The Green Mile or Misery or Under the Dome. Maybe you’ve read a few of his novels or a collection or two of his short fiction. Maybe you think you know Stephen King.
One afternoon, as King tells us in the author’s notes to The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, his wife, novelist Tabitha King, sent him to the store for “batteries and a non-stick frypan.” Seems a simple enough task, but one that apparently also required “a few other absolute necessities (cinnamon buns and potato chips).” While weighing the merits of low-sodium ridged over kettle-cooked, King was approached by an elderly woman. “She was a Florida snowbird archetype,” he writes, “about 80, permed to perfection, and as darkly tanned as a cordovan shoe.”
“Not only can few writers lay claim to such productive consistency, fewer still can do so while working in as many different subtypes of genre fiction.”
“‘I know you,’ she said. ‘You’re Stephen King. You write those scary stories. That’s all right, some people like them, but not me. I like uplifting stories, like that Shawshank Redemption.’” Looking down from his towering height, King told her, “I wrote that too.” We can only imagine the woman’s eyes narrowing ever so slightly as she replied, “No, you didn’t,” and then continued down the aisle, primly ensconced in her motorized cart.
The elderly woman’s disbelief notwithstanding, the sheer range of King’s writing is almost without precedent. To get a sense of his work, go to any large bookstore and see how many different titles he has on the shelves. Browse the publication dates and you’ll realize that he has averaged more than a book a year, sometimes several in one year, since his breakout novel, Carrie, first appeared in 1974. Not only can few writers lay claim to such productive consistency, fewer still can do so while working in as many different subtypes of genre fiction. While he may be best known for his “scary stories,” The Eyes of the Dragon and The Dark Tower series, which King himself regards as his magnum opus, are solidly in the realm of epic fantasy. Joyland is a hard-boiled noir crime tale, while the Bill Hodges novels—Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, and End of Watch—are more at home as murder mysteries.
In terms of critical attention, however, King’s prodigious output has often worked against him. Tony magazines and newspapers often take a certain delight in damning King with faint praise, scorning his work as boarding lounge fiction and deriding it as escapism paddling about at the shallow end of the literary pool. “I don’t really think of King as a bad writer,” begins the Guardian’s Alastair Harper. “As my girlfriend is always reminding me, his portrayals of small-town America are sometimes brilliant.”
In 2003, when King received the National Book Foundation’s Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, an outraged Harold Bloom condemned the decision in no uncertain terms. Writing in the Boston Globe, the so-called dean of American literary critics declared it “extraordinary, another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life.” Describing King as “an immensely inadequate writer,” though Bloom thought even that was “perhaps too kind,” he concluded that the only reason that explained the foundation’s decision was “the commercial value” of King’s books. Bloom admits that King’s novels and short story collections sell “in the millions,” but complains that they “do little more for humanity than keep the publishing world afloat.” Four years later, when Bloom edited an anthology of essays on King’s work, he concluded that rather than as a writer “King will be remembered as a sociological phenomenon.” Which is to say, he will be known for the fact that millions of people loved his books and found something meaningful in them.
As much as anything, these debates disclose the often petty and manufactured distinctions between genre fiction and “serious literature,” suggesting almost nonsensically that readers who embrace one cannot enjoy the other. By ignoring or rejecting writers such as Stephen King, critics reinforce these arbitrary notions of taste, of distinction, as the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu put it, of highbrow versus lowbrow art.
For his part, King accepts the reality of “being dismissed by the more intellectual critics as a hack,” though he points out that “the intellectual’s definition of a hack seems to be ‘an artist whose work is appreciated by too many people.’” Indeed, few such reviewers pause to ask why we find King haunting airports, train stations, and bus terminals around the world. Fewer still seem to realize that many of King’s readers seek their escape in his sinister storyworlds precisely because of the plain, unremarkable, yet profoundly disturbing “us” he presents. Reflected there in his dark mirror, we see shades of ourselves.
From America’s Dark Theologian: The Religious Imagination of Stephen King. Used with permission of NYU Press. Copyright © 2018 by Douglas E. Cowan.