Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
King, Stephen

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(1947-    ) US writer, primarily of Horror – which is almost always Dark Fantasy and sometimes Technofantasy – as well as of some straightforward fantasy; he is married to the novelist Tabitha King (1949-    ). He started with ambitions to be an sf writer (rumours that he early published five pseudonymous pornographic novels have been revealed as a hoax) and his first published work, "The Glass Floor" (1967 Startling Mystery Stories), is in this genre. Most of his early sf stories are contained in Night Shift (coll 1978), and it is clear from them that the sf is merely the vehicle used to convey what are really horror stories. Some of his novels deploy sf motifs, they are so shrouded in fantasy and the supernatural that they can hardly be described as Science Fiction.

Much of his fiction concerns people with Talents, and this is the case with his first published novel, Carrie (1974), about a bitterly unhappy girl approaching Menarche whose uncontrolled psychic abilities make her a focus for spectacular Poltergeist activity. It was filmed as Carrie (1976), the first of a plethora of movies to be based – sometimes very loosely – on SK's work. Already in this novel SK's strengths and weaknesses are on display: an undoubted narrational power drives the tale through sections of sloppy writing and a tendency to default, when in doubt, to splatter. It is the narrational power that has carried SK's career ever since, for he is rarely a thematic innovator, instead generally concentrating on the reworking of old riffs. This is manifest in his second novel, 'Salem's Lot (1975) – filmed as 'salem's Lot (1979 tv miniseries; 1979 tvm) – which tells of the arrival of a Vampire in a small New England town, and of efforts to stave off a virtual holocaust of vampirism there. SK's ability, through the overlayering of seemingly irrelevant mundane details, to generate a sense of Wrongness found its first full flowering in this novel. The telling is all, as in The Shining (1977) – filmed as The Shining (1980) – a long and complicated tale of a Haunting.

The Stand (1978 cut; restored vt The Stand: The Complete & Uncut Edition 1990) is a more original work. Its early parts are derived fairly directly from the post-Holocaust subgenre of sf, as a manmade plague virus, accidentally released from a military establishment, destroys civilization; the survivors must regroup and start anew. Then, however, it mutates into fantasy proper, as it becomes clear that the post-holocaust scenario is to be merely the setting for a tale about the Last Battle between Good and Evil (>>> Armageddon). The book is overlong (a frequent failing of SK's), and the restored version is, as it were, overlonger, but it cannot be denied that the overall effect is impressive. The Stand was made into a successful tv miniseries (1994).

The Dead Zone (1979) marked a return to more conventional territory, mixing a political thriller with a straightforward tale of Precognition; it was filmed as The Dead Zone (1983). This was the first of SK's novels to be set in Castle Rock, a new England small town indistinguishable from his other small-town settings except by name. Even so, it is clearly an important piece of territory so far as SK is concerned. Firestarter (1980) reprises the central notion of Carrie: a little girl has the power of pyrokinesis, and is sought by a faceless, clandestine US Government organization, which wishes to put this talent to military or espionage use. There are anecdotal reports that SK wrote this book because he felt the theme had been badly tackled in The Fury (1978), based on John Farris's novel The Fury (1976). Whatever the truth of this, SK's variation was itself filmed as Firestarter (1984). Cujo (1981) tells of a rabid dog threatening Castle Rock; it was filmed as Cujo (1983).

The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger (1982) was the first of the picaresque Dark Tower series – continued in The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three (1987) and The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands (1991) – a transposition of elements of Robert Browning's "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" into a bleakly fantasticated, underpopulated landscape of the future (although it is an imprecise, fantasist's future rather than an sf one), where strange events occur among the decaying detritus of a lost technological age. Although these are clearly SK novels – his voice in them is unmistakable – they represent something of a detour from the mainstream of his writing. He had published four earlier such diversions under the pseudonym Richard Bachman: Rage (1977), The Long Walk (1979), Roadwork (1981) and The Running Man (1982) – filmed as The Running Man (1985). When "Bachman's" identity was revealed at the time of publication of Thinner (1984), the four earlier books were reissued as The Bachman Books: Four Early Novels by Stephen King (omni 1985; vt The Bachman Books: Four Novels by Stephen King UK). These first four are more like long novellas than novels. Only the fifth, Thinner, is a novel proper, and only it is fantasy: a man behaves appallingly to an old gypsy, who puts on him a Curse such that he gradually, and irreversibly, loses weight.

Although SK was still publishing fairly prolifically, there is a sense of hiatus about his output during the first years of the 1980s, as if he had lost direction. This came to an end when he returned to what one might call Stephen King Territory with Pet Sematary (1983) and Christine (1983) – filmed as Pet Sematary (1989) and Christine (1983) respectively. The first is an intriguing Dark Fantasy: the dead, when interred in an ancient Indian burial ground, come back to life, but "soured". Christine is a Technofantasy about a car that is possessed (> Possession) and in turn possesses its owners. The Talisman (1984), with Peter Straub, is a modern Quest tale through Alternate Realities; highly ambitious, it is not very successful, Straub's more literary style clashing with King's less formal narration, to the detriment of both.

Again there came something of a hiatus, this time ended by It (1986), a vast and slightly chaotic novel in which a group of children become aware of and eventually defeat the malignant spirit that dwells in the tunnels and sewers under their small New England town. It was made into a tv miniseries, It (1990). Misery (1987) was a complete contrast: a taut, controlled, comparatively short Psychological Thriller in which a psychopath insists violently that a novelist not kill off, as planned, his series character. Although not fantasy, it reads like a nightmare, and is often rated as SK's best novel. It was filmed as Misery (1990) and adapted as a stage play. The Tommyknockers (1987) was another long, rambling novel; a Technofantasy about the discovery of a long-ago crashed UFO and the evil that emanates from it, it seems to owe much to Nigel Kneale's Quatermass and the Pit (1958-1959 tv serial UK). The Tommyknockers (1994) was the miniseries.

The Dark Half (1989 UK) is a first-rate fantasy and its theme one of the most original to appear in a Horror novel. A respected but commercially unsuccessful novelist has written under a pseudonym a series of nasty but bestselling thrillers. Now he wants to lay the pseudonym – and the series' psychopathic Villain – to rest (> Shadows). However, the villain refuses to die, reifying himself and brutally murdering several of the novelist's acquaintances in an attempt to force him either to resume writing the series or to pass along the baton of writing to the villain himself. The movie was The Dark Half (1992).

SK's next book was a collection of four novels, Four Past Midnight (coll 1990). "The Langoliers" is a rather silly sf fantasy involving Time Travel into the past – which is depopulated because humans and other animals exist only in the "now". "Secret Window, Secret Garden" tackles once more the themes of Misery and The Dark Half. "The Library Policeman" is one of King's best and most imaginative horror novels, an uncanny fantasy mixing childhood terrors with a fairly sombre take on such topics as child sexual abuse and alcoholism. In "The Sun Dog" a Polaroid camera takes photographs that show a terrifying canine spirit progressively invading our Reality.

In his preface to "The Sun Dog" SK explains that it is intended as the second of a trilogy that stands as his farewell to Castle Rock: the first was The Dark Half and the third was Needful Things (1991). Clearly SK expected much of this novel – about how a shopkeeper, probably the Devil, sets various members of Castle Rock's population against each other in an escalation of violence – but the end-product was an overlong, episodic and eventually tiresome piece. It was filmed as Needful Things (1993). Gerald's Game (1992 UK) and Dolores Claiborne (1993), the latter filmed in 1995, are nonfantastic.

It was time for SK to reassert himself. Although it may have disappointed many of his regular readers in that it contains little horror, Insomnia (1994) is an excellent – and huge – fantasy novel. Its thesis is that there are four forces that drive the Universe – Life, Death, the Purpose and the Random – and that agents of the Purpose are responsible for ending people's lives at the "correct time" while leaving room for the corresponding agent of the Random, who may snatch them away at any moment. But now the Random has imbalanced the relationship between itself and the Purpose, and the Purpose agents draw in an elderly human couple to help sort things out. Central to the plot is the topic of abortion: SK conscientiously presents both sides of the argument with some fairness, although his "pro-lifers" eventually prove psychopathic. Insomnia was followed by Rose Madder (1995) which mixes a standard Serial-Killer tale (a woman married to a psychopath flees after years of physical abuse, and is pursued by him) with a complex piece of fantastication: the fugitive enters a picture to discover her alter ego (which is also her courage) and later induces her husband into the picture where he is murdered by, in effect, himself.

As noted, SK's work has been much filmed. Movies not mentioned above include Creepshow (1982), Cat's Eye (1985), Children of the Corn (1984), Silver Bullet (1985), Maximum Overdrive (1986) – dir by SK himself – Stand by Me (1986), Creepshow II (1987), Graveyard Shift (1990), The Lawnmower Man (1992) – although here the relationship was so tenuous that SK dissociated himself from the movie – Sometimes They Come Back (1991 tvm), Stephen King's Golden Years (1991 tvm), Sleepwalkers (1992), The Shawshank Redemption (1994) – not fantasy at all, but one of the best – and The Langoliers (1995 tvm). Sequels based on his situations and/or characters have been Return to 'Salem's Lot (1987), Creepshow II (1987), Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice (1992) and Pet Sematary II (1992). Many of the movies/tvms listed here have vts/ots differentiated solely by the words "Stephen King's".

SK is probably the most successful English-language writer of this century, and his total sales in all languages are likely incalculable. Although he cannot be said to have contributed much new to the world of fantasy, as a synthesist and reworker of existing ideas he has played an important part in bringing such ideas to a vaster audience than might otherwise have encountered them: the underlying notion of, say, The Dark Half might have appeared in a dozen other fantasies before, but none of those had any noticeable impact on the public consciousness. He has had numerous imitators in the Horror field – indeed, it could be maintained that he is responsible for the resurgence of horror as a commercial genre since the late 1970s – but no obvious disciples within fantasy proper. [JG]

other works: "The Mist" (1980 in Dark Forces [anth 1980] ed Kirby McCauley), short horror novel; The Monkey (1980 chap); Danse Macabre (coll 1981), essays on horror fiction; The Raft (1982 chap); The Plant, Part 1 (1982 chap), Part 2 (1983 chap) and Part 3 (1985 chap); Creepshow (graph coll 1982); Different Seasons (coll 1982), the last story of which was also published separately as The Breathing Method (1984 chap); Cycle of the Werewolf (1983; vt as coll with movie screenplay Silver Bullet 1985); Skeleton Crew (coll 1985; exp by 1 story 1985); The Eyes of the Dragon (1985 limited edn; rev 1987 trade edn); My Pretty Pony (1989 chap), nonfiction; text for Nightmares in the Sky (coll graph art 1988) by F-stop Fitzgerald; Dolan's Cadillac (1989 chap); Nightmares and Dreamscapes (coll 1993).

further reading: The Stephen King Companion (anth 1989) ed George W Beahm; The Shape Under the Sheet: The Complete Stephen King Encyclopedia (1991; vt The Complete Stephen King Encyclopedia 1992) by Stephen J Spignesi; The Films of Stephen King (1994) by Ann Lloyd; The Work of Stephen King: An Annotated Bibliography and Guide (1996) by Michael R Collings; very many others.

The Monkey and The Raft may be ghost titles as separate publications, although both short stories appear elsewhere.

Stephen King


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.