How Stephen King is Shaping Modern Fiction
Stephen King has become more than just an author who produces bestsellers that frequently become movies and whose books have sold over 350 million copies. King’s book On Writing describes the multitude of rejection letters that came before he succeeded in getting an international paperback publishing deal with his novel Carrie. It conjured visuals that were so striking, filmmakers just couldn’t help themselves, trying to capture the intensity of blood on prom dresses to do this novel justice.
While On Writing is intended to reveal the writer’s process and unique style, many readers find it to be more of an autobiography, detailing intense bouts of addiction that drove him to drink Listerine straight from the bottle for a fix of alcohol and take odd jobs where he washed armfuls of maggot-covered tablecloths from restaurants. He had a manic drive to pursue a writing career despite the tides that pushed against him.
After seeing Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch at the top of the New York Times bestseller list, I decided to read some reviews of the book before getting entrenched in this 755-page monstrosity about a young boy who steals a painting of a unique gold bird that reminds him of his dead mother. Conversational, but rich in detail and engaging, the review I found for The Goldfinch on the New York Times website had me hooked. Not only did I want to read this amazing book that the reviewer claimed was “a smartly written literary novel that connects with the heart as well as the mind,” I realized suddenly that this reviewer was an exquisite writer. I found myself appreciating the beauty of Tartt’s novel, wanting to feel the things this reviewer felt and, finally, desperately wanting to write the way this reviewer did. There was so much life, so much expression in this journalist’s voice that I could hear it out loud. When I reached the end of the review, I was stupefied for a moment. Printed below the review was, “Stephen King’s most recent novels are Joyland and Doctor Sleep.” I had missed something; I hit the back button on my browser to discover that Stephen King wrote this review of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. How could I not know that Stephen King writes book reviews for the New York Times?
Stephen King is an amazing modern writer whose fiction is accessible to just about anyone, but he is first of all a reader. He reads books before they have even touched the bestseller list. As a librarian who has worked mostly with young adults, I had often heard Stephen King’s opinions on popular titles. He loved J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and compliments her writing, but also decided in the same breath decided that Stephanie Meyer “can’t write a darn.” I heard a rumor once that Stephen King expressed interest in writing his own books within the Harry Potter world, but I must have imagined it because I can’t find anything on the internet confirming this. When it comes to his contemporaries, he has critically spoken about Jodi Picoult, Dean Koontz, and James Patterson, devouring these novels and giving the public his unbiased, true opinion.
It is no wonder that Stephen King’s writing has such a wide breadth. Few people know that he once wrote a novel for his own children to read. He is no stranger to the fantasy genre, either, having written the eight-book Dark Tower series, which is often described as dreamlike. It features a Western gunslinger in the midst of a true fantastical world but does not have the elements of horror one might expect from this author. During my employment at the public library, a 15-year-old student asked about the Dark Tower series. Unversed in the many facets of Stephen King at the time, I checked with his parents first to make sure they knew what he was reading. His father informed me that he had already read the series, a heroic epic that was nothing like King’s more famous It or Pet Sematary. I was astonished to see that same boy come back week after week, plunking down each volume of this massive series on the check out desk to take home and devour. All eight books amount to 4,250 pages, but he couldn’t read through those pages fast enough.
The Eyes of the Dragon was reportedly the title King wrote for his kids to read, a classic fairy tale fantasy story about an evil wizard, an old king, and the forces of good versus evil; it would have been much more age-appropriate for that particular student, although not long enough for him, I’m sure. Coming as a recommendation from another of my favorite writers, Neil Gaiman lists The Eyes of the Dragon as one of his top 11 scary books for kids to read. Those who have not cracked a book in years are still aware that Stephen King has written non-horror hits such as The Stand, The Green Mile, and The Talisman.
So why is Stephen King’s name synonymous with horror, such that he has in fact been named the Master of Horror? No, it is not because his horror books are better than his other works. This author’s words have transformed a genre. Horror was not popular with the modern masses at the time of his first publication. It was a thing for magazines or late-night movies, never acclaimed by critics; or it was cliché stories with repetitive and predictable endings. Stephen King turned the world of publishing towards horror the same way J.K. Rowling revolutionized children’s literature. It could be good, literary even, with unexpected elements and complex characters that we knew were bad but liked anyway. This is how Stephen King is shaping modern fiction, a world he is actively engaged in while he writes gorgeous reviews for the New York Times and gives public commentary about Twilight. I’ve given you no excuse now, no way out. You absolutely have to read a Stephen King book this year, whether it be the wonderfully written Dark Tower series, one of his nonfiction titles such as On Writing, or his newest book, Doctor Sleep (a sequel to his well-known thriller, The Shining).
What’s Your Favorite Stephen King Book?