It was in the summer of 2017 when I found myself curled up in my dad’s leathered armchair and migrating back through the world of famed author Stephen King by re-reading his 1,100-page horror-epic, IT. It’s not my favorite of King’s work, often becoming muddied down when the path diverges from childhood towards adulthood. Still, there’s something inherently distinct about his 1986 classic that keeps me coming back, similar to how his better works like The Shining, Carrie, The Stand, and a vast collection of remarkable short stories keep me coming back time and time again.
It’s nearly impossible to overstate the significance of King’s work as well, as few writers can compare to the dominance over genre writing that King’s enjoyed over the past four decades. To date, he’s the only author in history with more than 30 books becoming №1 best-sellers. He’s published more than 70 books, many of which have become engrained inside the pop-culture lexicon, and his achievements as a gaunt-looking author from Bangor, Maine, extend from beyond any single-genre at this point — making it impossible to limit his abilities to one framework or another. That said, horror remains King’s calling card.
And King might have remained a struggling, no good English teacher if it weren’t for the women in his life. Well, one of them dwelled inside of his brain, actually. Her name is Carrie White, the star of King’s breakout novel Carrie, a single defining novel about high school’s horrors. Tabitha, King’s wife, was there to push him towards bringing her to life.
Born in 1947, King grew up poor in Durham, Maine. The younger of a single working mother whose husband had up and abandoned his small family when King was still a toddler. A fan of speculative fiction from a young age, King began writing while attending the University of Maine Orono, where he met Tabitha. Later, he’d become an English teacher with a meager salary of $6,400 a year. In his free-time, King still dabbled with short stories, some making their ways to Playboy and other men’s magazines of the time.
With little success and no fame, any writer would consider throwing in the towel and settling for a simpler life of reliability and predictability. Tabitha refused the notion, forcing King to keep a carved out frame of time for writing, even discovering a bundle of draft pages in the trash bin that would eventually become Carrie. She encouraged him to keep working on them, and King has continued to pay back Tabitha with his time and encouragement as she became an author in her own right, as well as both of their sons, Joe Hill and Owen King.
Carrie’s rights sold for $400,000, and two years after its publication, Brian De Palma’s 1976 adaptation would gross $33 million on a $1.8 million budget. King would go on to churn out six more novels (Salem’s Lot, The Shining, Rage, The Stand, The Long Walk, and The Dead Zone) over the next six years, establishing himself as one of literature’s more prolific writers, something that would stick with him till this very day.
Perhaps no work, however, has been more instrumental to me and more encapsulating of him than his 2000 memoir, On Writing. In it, he traces the steps of his career, before divulging into the “toolbox” he believes works best for him. Written after King was involved in a terrible accident in which a van struck him during one of his routine afternoons walks through North Lovell, Maine in 1999, the book operates as both an invitation to learning more about the man behind the craft, but also as an introspection into the mechanics and engineering of King’s craft.
The more delightful parts are the steps King takes in tracing back his time in college, writing poetry, and overcoming his fears of sharing his writings with others. The more engaging segments can be found in King looking back on his career’s earliest parts and his regrets in taking writing for granted.
He writes about the first experience he remembers being drunk; it was in 1966 on a senior class trip to Washington. Then he discusses the loss of his mother and insinuating how that might’ve led to his alcoholism. But King never admitted it to himself, writing,
“alcoholics build defenses like the Dutch build dikes. I spent the first twelve years or so of my married life assuring myself that I ‘just liked to drink.’ I also employed the world-famous Hemingway Defense.”
It wasn’t until the early eighties when Maine’s state legislature enacted a returnable-bottle-and-can law that forced King to start throwing his Miller Lite in a plastic bin that King noticed he had a problem. He writes,
“One Thursday night I went out there to toss in a few dead soldiers and saw that this container, which had been empty on Monday night, was now almost full. And I was the only one in the house who drank Miller Lite — holy shit, I’m an alcoholic, I thought.”
By 1985, he had added a drug addiction to his alcohol problem, yet he continued to function — or so he claims. To be fair to him, a now famous-story of his novel, Cujo, has a unique origin story in which King remembers driving up to a cabin for the weekend. He sat down on a Friday night in front of his typewriter with a bag of cocaine accompanying him and waking up Monday morning to a trash bin compiled of bloody tissues and a manuscript title Cujo on his desk. To this day, he has no recollection of writing that book, a token of regret and shame, not pride, or some misguided sense of indulgence.
“I like that book. I wish I could remember enjoying the good parts as I put them down on the page.”
With time, King came to rely on the craft to bring him back from the depths of dependency, in which it did. It saved him again after he was chained to a hospital bed for three weeks. The first writing session of which lasted an hour and a half, and strained King beyond preparedness. He was dripping in sweat and his hip was wrenching with pain, but the first five hundred words of his memoir were on the page now.
On Writing, is an invaluable piece of work for both young writers looking to borrow from someone’s toolbox while also serving as an earnest and philosophical glimpse into the reasons behind King’s madness, why he writes, and why he continues to write.
He’s a talented author, not one of those in which I find myself fawning over as King’s writing can be hit-or-miss for my subjective tastes. He’s an auteur of tone rather than an ingenuitive plot mechanic whose text reads with texture, not that he doesn’t have a writing style unique to him — as all great authors do. But King’s best work arrives with characters and genre, stories that live-on because of his innate ability to stretch themes throughout his multidimensional universe. They’re honest stories, each of them invoking layers of him as a writer, involving characters that evoke the same addictive and creative struggles he underwent to become the man he is today.
He’s endured a tortured relationship with the word, but amongst that, torture arrives a library of beautiful, haunting stories that involve the creatures that dwell beneath the bed and clowns who feast on fear. I continue to delve back into his world time-and-time again, an author who lives in the spaces of our minds that we’re often afraid to go to because he’s been to hell and back, saved by the craft time and time again and writing like the mad man that resembles such a caricature.
Now 73 years old, with a career any novelist would dream of having, and his popularity continues to rise. There are several recent adaptations of his work, with even more to come in the coming years, I’m sure. A career of blending realism with social commentary and horror maintains an aroma that keeps enticing audiences to stumble into his kitchen of horrors time and time again.
I, however, will be curled up in my bed this December, when it’s cold enough to yearn for the warmest cup of hot chocolate and stumble back through the massive text of his 1978 best-seller, The Stand. Before then, I’ll be spending my October mornings with a cup of tea in one hand and Stephen King novels in the other. He’s an author I can’t quit, even when I feel as if he’s led me astray. He’s lived on for decades, and he’ll live on for decades to come. He’s a mad man, there’s no question, only madmen write as if their lives depend on it, but for King, it’s rusticated him more than once. Like Hamilton before him, he wrote his way out.