Why Stephen King keeps coming back

Like a horror-movie bad guy who simply will not pass away, Stephen King haunts us. We’re in the middle of a King revival in motion pictures and television. The gold rush for valuable copyright has actually made Hollywood go back to the tremendously popular author’s work in an incredible method. While King’s books have actually constantly had a fairly consistent on-screen existence throughout the years, the King surge over the last 4 years has actually been impressive. We’re getting newbie adjustments of works old and brand-new, like Gerald’s Video game, Medical Professional Sleep, In the Tall Yard, and The Outsider, along with remakes of formerly adjusted works like Family Pet Sematary and IT. And after that there are the odd experiments like Hulu’s temporary Castle Rock, which attempted to remix aspects of King’s most popular scary infiltrates one meta television program, or Chapelwaite, the current Epix series broadening on his narrative Jerusalem’s Lot.

The success of these tasks corresponds with King’s performance history on movie and television adjustments as a whole: They’re amazingly irregular. The important batting average, nevertheless, is much greater than it remained in previous years, and it’s reductive to minimize the existing wealth of King material to rank opportunism. King has, for much better or even worse, left an enduring mark on the culture, and continues to — even as it appears the culture has actually left him behind, or that he’s strolled even further from the scary category he’s nearly unilaterally commemorated for.

Although I’ve been considering him and reading him for many years, it wasn’t up until a couple weeks earlier, checking out the 2003 foreword to The Illustration of the 3, the 2nd book in his Dark Tower dream legendary, that I believe I lastly got Stephen King.

There, King blogs about what led him to develop the series, which at that point was 5 books in, and would quickly conclude with 2 more a year later on. He’s attempting to find out why he wished to compose these books. He chalks it as much as the American in him: the desire to “build the tallest, dig the deepest, write the longest.” This, I believe, is King’s enduring impact, and why generation after generation returns to him. It’s his Americanness — not the lived truth of America, which lots of have actually declared is what continually draws individuals to his work, however its fiction, made flesh. The hollow American dream, repackaged and offered to lots of, made flesh in this high pale male from Maine.

The legend of Stephen King

Randall Flagg (Alexander Skarsgard) in The Stand 2020


Whenever concerns around Stephen King’s durability and prominence as an author show up, 2 essential elements to his legend tend to be pointed out. The very first is maybe the best: He is amongst the most popular and prominent figures in scary fiction, a master with a deep understanding of what frightens all of us. Then there’s the reality of his success, which is generally connected to whis work principles: King is abundant, a respected author who releases numerous books a year, and is a constant bestseller.

Like a lot of legends, this one has some truth to it, but a healthy amount can also be undermined by facts. Some of them are trivial — like the reality that King has often been reluctant to even call himself a horror writer, and has amassed a huge body of work outside that genre. (His most recent fixation is crime fiction — his latest novel, 2021’s Billy Summers, is a classic pulp crime story about a hitman on one last job.) Others are a little more substantial, like the fact that his influence and critical acclaim is still largely limited to his heyday, the dazzling period from his debut with 1974’s Carrie until the 1980s.

The exact point where that heyday ends is extremely debatable, but I’d personally end it with 1987’s Misery. During that period, he produced the majority of his most widely adapted and most-referenced works — to such overwhelming success that afterward, King became an institution and a fixture, one who could withstand the middling reception of his later output, because his early work never failed to create new converts.

Of those two fundamental parts of King’s legend, the latter one is arguably most important. No one writer can lay a universally unique claim to an understanding of the human psyche, even if their work is in fact singular. The realities of publishing — an upsettingly inequitable field — makes it hard to ignore that what gets published isn’t representative of what could be available.

Danny Torrance in Doctor Sleep

Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

That’s not to diminish King’s skill as a character writer. Both at his best and his worst, he’s capable of consistently producing nearly frictionless prose that envelops the brain and makes plowing through doorstop novels uniquely pleasurable. It does not take long for a budding Stephen King fan to be dazzled by his bibliography. King himself will often note that he’s been outdone many times over by other more prolific writers. But it’s his consistent and unprecedented success that makes his output so remarkable, and because of that success, stories of his work principles become alluring in a unique way.

In his memoir On Writing, King speaks self-effacingly about his work ethic — tossing off asides about absurd it is that interviewers always want to know the secret of his success, — and likewise delving into it in vital detail. King’s creed is consistency, an unromantic view of the craft that sees him cranking out 10 pages a day, without exception. Most writers, he believes, should adopt a similar commitment to routine, to whatever degree fits their life: a regular time and place for words, every day, without fail.

It’s here, in the gap between King the craftsman and King the legend, that his fundamental Americanness is most pronounced. It’s the dream of good old-fashioned bootstraps capitalism, that this guy who worked in laundry rooms, taught high-school English, and struggled through working-class jobs could sit down, write 10 pages a day, rack up rejections, and then become one of the world’s most consistent bestsellers. Only in America, right? He could do it. So could you.

Deadly momentum

As the beneficiary of good fortune and great privilege, Stephen King is one of a few fiction writers who, if he desired, could have his every idle thought published, and garner a healthy profit from it. Oftentimes, according to some devout King fans, it seems like he does. In spite of the wide variety in his work — the human drama of stories like The Body and Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption making just as much of an impression as his horror — there is a restlessness to King’s stories that is nigh-universal.

HBO adaptation of The Outsider


From horror to coming-of-age to pulp thrillers, King’s stories are the American expanse rendered in pages upon pages. His characters’ momentum is matched by his prose, even if they often are headed to places of no consequence, except maybe their own doom, or to a frustration regularly shared by King’s readers.

There’s a searching element to his work, the resolute belief that if we keep moving — from place to place, or from character to character — we’ll figure it out, by our own bootstraps. When we do not, there is horror. This is the key, the Dark Tower I’ve built to explain this man: Stephen King is the American expanse, a gaping maw that has actually only grown over the decades, and it’s big enough to swallow us whole many times over, in myriad ways.

Throughout his time publishing sprawling books, he’s made that anxiety plain to us many times over, connecting us with countless other people, then horrifying us with that connection. Consider the things that have changed around us over the course of his career, the anxiety-inducing unknowns he’s shepherded readers through: Cable television and cellular phones, the internet and the infinite scroll, all thrusting us into a better version of the world with the promise of more, all getting worse the longer we move forward into it. Manifest destiny, any way you like it.

Again, another excerpt from that 2003 foreword to The Drawing of the Three:

“That head-scratching puzzlement when the question of motivation comes up? Seems to me that that is also part of being an American. In the end we are reduced to saying It seemed like a good idea at the time.

It’s pretty extensively known that Stephen King is terrible at endings, a habit widely attributed to his self-professed refusal to outline, and his insistence on discovering the story as he writes. Perhaps this is the most American thing about him: He’s an unrepeatable, unprecedented success in his field, fueling other people’s dreams, even though he never ever fully knows where he’s taking us. This is, I think, the trick of Stephen King, and the most American illusion: that a people can be sustained on dreams and momentum, and that disaster can be averted, if we simply don’t believe excessive about how all of it may end.

Jobber Wiki author Frank Long contributed to this report.