Stephen King is perhaps the most widely known American writer of his generation, yet his distinctions include publishing as two authors at once: Beginning in 1966, he wrote novels that were published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. When twelve, he began submitting stories for sale. At first ignored and then scorned by mainstream critics, by the late 1980’s his novels were reviewed regularly in The New York Times Book Review, with increasing favor. Beginning in 1987, most of his novels were main selections of the Book-of-the-Month Club, which in 1989 created the Stephen King Library, committed to keeping King’s novels “in print in hardcover.” King published more than one hundred short stories (including the collections Night Shift, 1978, Skeleton Crew, 1985, and Nightmares and Dreamscapes, 1993) and the eight novellas contained in Different Seasons (1982) and Four Past Midnight (1990). King has published numerous articles and a critical book, Danse Macabre (1981). King’s detractors attribute his success to the sensational appeal of his genre, whose main purpose, as King readily confesses, is to scare people. Like Edgar Allan Poe, King turned a degenerated genre — a matter of comic-book monsters and drive-in films—into a medium embodying the primary anxieties of his age. He is graphic, sentimental, and predictable. His humor is usually crude and campy. His dark fantasies, like all good popular fiction, allow readers to express within conventional frames of reference feelings and concepts they might not otherwise consider. his vision articulates universal fears and desires in terms peculiar to contemporary culture. King is “Master of Postliterate Prose,” as Paul Gray stated in 1982—writing that takes readers mentally to the films rather than making them imagine or think. On the other hand, King’s work provides the most genuine example of the storyteller’s art since Charles Dickens. He has returned to the novel some of the popular appeal it had in the nineteenth century and turned out a generation of readers who vastly prefer some books to their film adaptations. He encountered two lasting influences, the naturalist writers and contemporary American mythology. Stephen King may be known as a horror writer, but he calls himself a “brand name,” describing his style as “the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and a large fries from McDonald’s.” His fast-food version of the “plain style” may smell of commercialism, but that may make him the contemporary American storyteller without peer. From the beginning, his dark parables spoke to the anxieties of the late twentieth century.
King’s fictions begin with premises accepted by middle Americans of the television generation, opening in suburban or small-town America—Derry, Maine, or Libertyville, Pennsylvania—and have the familiarity of the house next door and the 7-Eleven store. The characters have the trusted two-dimensional reality of kitsch: they originate in clichés such as the high school “nerd” or the wise child. From such premises, they move cinematically through an atmosphere resonant with a popular mythology. King applies naturalistic methods to an environment created by popular culture. This reality, already mediated, is translated easily into preternatural terms, taking on a nightmarish quality. King’s imagination is above all archetypal: His “pop” familiarity and his campy humor draw on the collective unconscious. As with his fiction, his sources are the classic horror films of the 1930’s, inherited by the 1950’s pulp and film industries. He hints at their derivations from the gothic novel, classical myth, Brothers Grimm folktales, and the oral tradition in general. In an anxious era both skeptical of and hungry for myth, horror is fundamentally reassuring and cathartic; the tale-teller combines roles of physician and priest into the witch doctor as “sin eater,” who assumes the guilt and fear of his culture.
Christine • In Christine, the setting is Libertyville,...
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