[Editor’s note: This post is part of a continuing series on how writers craft words to express their ideas and to connect with readers.]
“Books are the perfect entertainment: no commercials, no batteries, hours of enjoyment for each dollar spent. What I wonder is why everybody doesn’t carry a book around for those inevitable dead spots in life.” So says best-selling author Stephen King, who’s not only noted for his numerous short stories and novels, but whose book “On Writing” is considered one of the “bibles” of the writing world.
Stephen Edward King was born in 1947 in Portland, Maine. His father, a merchant sea captain, abandoned the family when Stephen was two; his mother told him his dad had been “abducted by Martians,” which had to have produced all kinds of interesting thoughts in the young boy’s mind. Though a pianist by training, his mother had to take any low-wage job she could get to support Stephen and his adopted older brother, David. They moved constantly, finally settling in Durham, Maine. His mother never complained, but Stephen realized how difficult things were for her, and he learned quite young that life is hard and unjust. The need to work for what you get clearly influenced his approach to writing: “Talent is cheaper than table salt,” he says. “What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.” And King works hard. “I like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words. That’s 180,000 words over a three-month span, a goodish length for a book – something in which the reader can get happily lost, if the tale is done well and stays fresh.”
King’s health had always been poor, but the frequent moving further undermined it. First was measles. Then he had a strep throat that transformed into an ear infection not treatable with antibiotics, and he had to have his eardrums pierced – an excruciating experience – three times. Because of all this, he remained in the first grade for two years.
The glumness of these and other dark childhood experiences no doubt contributed to King’s worldview and tastes. On the one hand, the young King was so sensitive that even watching the forest fire scene in “Bambi” provoked nightmares. On the other hand, he loved horror and action movies such as “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” “Asylum,” “I Was a Teenage Werewolf,” “Halls of Montezuma,” and “Sands of Iwo Jima.” His favorite books included comics such as “Hulk,” “Spider-Man,” and “Superman,” as well as those about evil spirits including “Tomb of Horror” and “Tales from the Crypt.” He has said that he liked the feeling of fear and “the sense of losing control over the feelings completely.”
Writing served as a distraction from his many illnesses, and he started as young as seven to put pen to paper. His mother encouraged the work, but she suggested to him that he not just retell stories he’d read (which is what he’d been doing), but that he should create something of his own. His first efforts were four stories about a little white rabbit, and his mother paid him 25 cents for each – his first paycheck. He’s never looked back.
In 1959, Stephen and David began to publish the newsletter “Dave’s Sheet.” They copied it on an old mimeograph and sold it for five cents to their friends, neighbors, and relatives. David wrote about the local news while Stephen crafted movie reviews and his own short stories. At that time, Stephen read Howard Phillips (H.P.) Lovecraft’s books, and the author quickly became the boy’s favorite writer. While reading the ominous stories in the collection “The Lurker at the Threshold,” King says he had the feeling of coming back home.
King came to a crossroads of sorts in high school, when he had to decide if he was going to apply to a university or volunteer to go to Vietnam, where he was sure to collect interesting facts for his future writing work. Not only did his mother discourage him from volunteering, but the Army classified him as 4-F, his health issues precluding him from active duty. As he got ready to head off to college, King also began to work at a weaving mill to earn the money he needed for his studies. He spent his breaks driving away the dozens of aggressive rats that lived in the basement. As with any good writer, he put his adventures to good use – they later became the foundation for his short story “Night Shift.” In the same way, his later work in a laundry led to his short story “The Mangler,” the nickname for one of the more dangerous machines he had to use.
So what is it about King’s work that makes him so successful with readers, both loyal fans and first-timers alike? In part, it’s because King develops three-dimensional characters with whom readers can identify. For example, the protagonist in “Carrie,” his first published novel, is a high school girl who is ostracized because she is different. Almost everyone at some point during their adolescence has felt the sting of rejection by their peers or emotional upset that can feel like abuse, so readers can relate to the character. What makes her even more appealing, though, is the horrific means she takes to avenge herself – a power many of us wish we could employ. King’s success also derives, in part, from characters who are quintessentially human and who, therefore, are flawed. Look at Beverly Marsh, for example, the poor girl in IT who was abused by her father. Or Wendy Torrance, Jack’s long-suffering wife in The Shining. King’s characters are also dynamic, not just reacting to events that occur around them, but who also experience pronounced, psychological change by the end of the story – whether they survive their ordeals or not.
King also weaves conflict, foreshadowing, and suspense into his work, all necessary for the narrative experience. In addition, he draws from other writers and stories to tell new tales of his own. King’s 1977 horror novel The Shining became his first hardback bestseller, and readers can find elements in it from Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House” (a ghost story), Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” (a gothic horror story), and Robert Marasco’s “Burnt Offerings” (a haunted house story).
Writers pull their stories from life, and readers learn from the stories of writers. King, an avid reader himself, has always been a staunch advocate of the necessity of reading for all writers. “If you don’t have time to read,” he says, “you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”