Stephen King Essay, Research Paper
Stephen King is one of the most successful authors of the twentieth-century. He brings nightmares to life in a way that no other writer has succeeded to do, and is now among the most prestigious horror writers of the time. King is indeed a genius at work; however, to fully understand the legacy of Stephen King, one must understand the background from which he came and the manner in which he handled it. Due to the desertion of his father and his lack of self-esteem, Stephen decided early in his childhood that he would not be consumed by the terrors of his fears. He created a world of fantasy in which he controlled the terror.
By definition, a fantasy is “the power or process of creating unrealistic or improbable images in response to a psychological need” (Webster Dictionary). Stephen King has proven to be a master of this process, as he continues to baffle the minds of horror reader’s around the world. Unlike past authors of horror and science fiction, King writes about topics that his audience may easily identify with and relate to their everyday lives, instead of focusing on literature that completely exempts the reader from relating the book to their fears. Novels such as Pet Cemetery, Cujo, and Christine were successful examples of this: Pet Cemetery, being a novel about the eeriness of pet graveyards; Cujo, describing the consequences of neglecting your pets; and Christine, being a novel about a beautiful car, with a mind of its own. These three novels by King, all extracted fear from a very common scenario, in affect, placing the fear closer to the reader’s phobias.
There were two factors that played crucial roles in the development of King’s literary fantasies: the lack of a father figure; and rejection by his peers. Throughout his childhood, King’s self-esteem was battered by his father’s disbandment and rejection by his peers. At age two, Donald King, Stephen’s father, abandoned him and left his mother to raise him and his brother alone (Commire 63). Times were hard for Nellie, King’s mother. There was very poor sanitation. His home was often corroded and things such as soap and water were hard to come by. Overall, he lived in an impoverished household. King once stated that:
Home was always rented. Our outhouse was painted blue and that’s where we contemplated the sins of life. Our well was always going dry. I’d have to lug water from a spring in another field, and even now I’m nervous about our wells. There were no bathing facilities, so a hot bath meant a half a mile trek to Aunt Ethelyn’s house, an especially difficult task during the icy Maine winter (Commire 63).
Being very overweight and uncoordinated, he fell prey to conflicting emotions, as he tried to suppress his anxiety to fit in. Also, being the outcast of his peers, he was often the victim of demoralization. Though he did have friends, he always felt estranged from others his age. As for being a kid, King recalls:
My nightmares…were always inadequacy dreams. Dreams of standing up to salute the flag and having my pants fall down. Trying to get to a class and not being prepared. When I played baseball, I was always the kid who got picked last. `Ha, ha, you got King’ the others would say. (Commire 63)
As King was left drained of his self-confidence, he attempted to escape these periods of isolation through creative innovation and horror. Withdrawn, and without a father, King ended up spending many of his Saturdays in and out of movie theaters. He went to every horror and science-fiction movie he could cram into a Saturday and soon he developed a fascination with horror and the powers of the imagination (Commire 64). These movies provided the foundation for his fantasy life. It would later be discovered that King’s infatuation with the macabre may have been inherited from his father, who had at one time submitted his own science-fiction/horror tales to major men’s magazines. None of his father’s works were ever published however (Commire 64).
As a result of Donald King’s disbandment, King created an alter ego. The presence of an alter ego allowed King to identify with his manhood. “Cannonball Cannon”, King’s alter ego, was a daredevil character that he made up. Just as children pretend to be the “Incredible Hulk” or “He-Man”, he chose to be “Cannonball Cannon”. As King recalls: “Without a father I needed my own power trips. My alter ego as a child was Cannonball Cannon, a daredevil. Sometimes I went out West if I was unhappy, but most of the time I stayed home and did good deeds” (Commire 64). These power trips made King feel empowered and in control, which supplemented for his feelings of insecurity. Though Cannonball Cannon did give King an outlet from the world, King still suffered from rejection and suppressed anger.
Convinced that he would never see twenty, King fantasized dark deserted streets; strange figures leaping at him from behind bushes. His fascination and intrigue with the subject culminated in a scrapbook of Fifties mass murderer Charlie Starkweather who with his girlfriend, cut a bloody trail through the Midwest slaughtering people. King pasted these news clippings into a book in hope of unraveling the inner horror behind Starkweather’s face (Commire 64). This infatuation with a serial killer was a hobby to King. The effects of involving himself with the enigma of a mass murderer may have provoked King to write Rage, a novel about a psychopath who shoots a school teacher and holds a classroom hostage (Gale 1996).
All throughout his adolescent stage, King experienced moments of temporary insanity, as he remembers moments of walking down the street one minute, and totally losing control the next (Commire 64). King’s identity crisis along with his spurts of violence caused him to channel negative, but creative, energy. Though it took the acts of his father to provoke this creative energy, it took the acts of his mother to shape it into a positive structure.
Stephen King’s mother was the driving force behind his writing success. Determined to make sure her two boys lived the “good life”, she prepared them for college, and encouraged King to submit his writings. As a result, he began to apply his analytical abilities and imagination to his everyday surroundings.
King wrote and published a small satiric newspaper called “The Village Vomit” during his sophomore year in high school. This was a little newspaper that cruelly lampooned a number of teachers at Libson (Maine) High School, where King attended (Commire 64). Just as a political cartoon does, “The Village Vomit” used satire to make a mockery of individuals for the purpose of humor. Unfortunately for King, a copy of this newspaper found it’s way into the hands of a faculty member, and as King describes it: “…the sophisticated satirist had by that time reverted to what he really was: a fourteen year old kid who was shaking in his boots…”(King)
Also, in 1964, King’s first short story “I Was a Teenage Grave Robber”, was published in the Comics Review magazine (AOL Netfind). These two experiences served as the stepping stones for Stephen King, as his adolescent years opened his eyes to his initiative to write.
The years following King’s high school graduation would be the years of many trials and tribulations, as he tried to funnel his writing skills into dollars. Straight out of college, King married Tabitha Jane Spruce in 1971, and landed a job pumping gas. By 1972, he had written countless short stories and had completed his fourth novel, The Running Man, but success continued to elude him (Commire 65-66). With bills to pay and family finances at a low, King found prosperity the following year in 1973, when his first novel was accepted to be published. Stephen King’s first published novel, Carrie, reflects his interest in the demonic and paranormal complexities of this world (Gale 1996). Carrie reveals his inquiries into the abnormal and psychological aspects of life, being a novel about the acquiring of unnatural powers and massive death. Being a novel about the hardships of teenage life, “Carrie”, the main character, was a teenage girl who was the outcast of her school, much as King had been. She was a loner and a passivist, subjected to ridicule and everyday harassment by her peers until one day, a foul prank drives her mad . She then utilizes her telekinetic powers to avenge her peers (Schweitzer 3). King took a very common scenario, and turned it into a suspenseful thriller. This novel won critical acclaims, and served as the spark that launched Stephen King’s career. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Stephen King’s Carrie was a “Shivering, shuddery, macabre evil!” Since a child, King has had a preoccupation with death and misery and this can be noticed throughout many of his novels. In the case of Carrie, King used real life experiences to inspire him. According to King:
Carrie was based on a number of real people…one I went to school with was a very peculiar girl who came from a peculiar family. Her mother wasn’t a religious nut like the mother in Carrie; she was a game nut, a sweepstakes nut who subscribed to magazines for people who entered contests…This girl had one change of clothes for the entire school year, and all the other kids made fun of her. I have a very clear memory of the day she came to school with a new outfit she’d bought. Everybody made worse fun of her because nobody wanted to see her change. Later she married a man who was a weather forecaster on top of Mt. Washington — a very strange man, as peculiar as she was. She had three kids and then hung herself one summer (Commire 66).
Stephen King has written a countless number of novels and short stories, all of which intices the reader, just by taking the fears of Stephen King, and conveying them precisely on paper. The intrigue that he writes his novels with has compelled him to win several various awards: In 1974, Carrie was included on School Library Journal’s Book List; In 1978, he received the Hugo award nomination from the World Science Fiction Convention, for The Shining; Salem’s Lot was selected as one of American Library Association’s Best Books for Young Adults, in 1978, and Firestarter, 1981; Best Fiction Writer of the Year from Us Magazine, 1982; and the Golden Pen Award from the Young Adult Advisory Committee of Spokane Public Library, 1986, for “the author who has given the committee members the most reading pleasure” (Commire 61). Though Stephen can elegantly escape being consumed by the terrors of his fears through writing his literature, he still cannot completely escape being scared. Even as a man, Stephen stated that he sometimes gets nervous about writing certain scenes in his books, and admits to having a long list of fears:
I don’t like elevators, or closed in places. I don’t like the dark, or sewers, or funerals, or the idea of being buried alive. Cancer, heart attacks, the possibility of being squished under a car lift… At night when I go to bed, I still am at pains to be sure that my legs are under the blankets after the lights go out. I’m not a child anymore but… I don’t like to sleeping with one leg sticking out…(Commire 68).
Stephen King today, is a writer with the mind of a boy, in the body of a man. Throughout his lifetime, he has struggled with his stabilizing his identity, which was evident in “Cannonball Cannon” the young boy, but now is evident in “Richard Bachman”, King’s new pseudonym, to which he has already written five novels under: Rage, The Long Walk, The Running Man, Roadwork, and Thinner (Gale 1996). The persistence of an alter ego has stuck with King throughout his lifetime, continuing to maintain the balance of this apparent “dual personality”, that he needs in order to supplement for his father’s disbandment. Because he, to a some extent, overcame his feelings of insecurity as a child, Stephen King is now a legacy in horror fiction. When once asked by a interviewer: “How do you continue write about such grotesque things?”, King replied, “I have the heart of a young boy,…and I keep it in a jar on my desk.” (King’s Web Page)