Referring to Stephen King as a horror writer is a slight, but genuine, misnomer. While genre designations can be quite loose, and even subjective, from the beginning King has alternated from horror to fantasy to science fiction to a particular brand of realism. But somehow, science fiction novels like Firestarter and fantasies like The Stand and The Talisman (co-written with Peter Straub) have commonly been lumped in with his horror classics: The Shining, ’Salem’s Lot, and so on. King himself has never seemed particularly put out by this sort of thing (and books like The Dead Zone and 11/22/63 do blur the lines on occasion); nevertheless, it does give those who are largely unfamiliar with his work a skewed idea of his career. This could be, and probably is, simply the result of his career and reputation beginning with a series of best-selling horror novels, but it could also be that King is at the height of his talents when his writing is at its darkest.
Even when writing genuine horror, King will often pull back before the blackness overwhelms his characters. This is not uncommon in the genre, especially among its most popular writers (or filmmakers, for that matter). The Shining, for instance offers some pretty bright moments of hope in its final pages, which Kubrick’s film, you may have noticed, does not. This is likely one of the causes for King’s resentment of the movie, though not the most obvious and oft-discussed. And—not to say that violence and death are the only arrows in darkness’s quiver—considering the scope of the evil in King’s monumental, classic horror epic It, the body count among the novel’s central heroes is surprisingly low. It sometimes feels as though, after a certain point in his story’s progression, King can’t quite bring himself to inflict more harm on his characters. The morally upright ones, anyway.
King’s black streak can most regularly be found in his short fiction. This is not unusual among horror writers who prolifically write both novels and short stories. I believe this is because short fiction, not being what you’d call a money-making enterprise, offers writers the opportunity to experiment and push certain dark ideas (again, this is by no means limited to violence) as far as they’ll go; additionally, as many, including myself, have argued, the short story is the best way to present horror in literature because of its inherent ability to distill the genre into its purest form. Many of the most influential horror writers worked in that mode almost exclusively: Poe, Lovecraft, Machen, James, Blackwood, Ligotti, and so on. So, in King’s first two short fiction collections—Night Shift (1978) and Skeleton Crew (1985)—you’ll find what many consider one of his greatest stories: “The Jaunt,” with its haunting and hopeless final image, and “I Am the Doorway,” which documents the mental collapse of a former astronaut who encountered, and was infected by, something up there. There’s also the ingeniously grotesque “Survivor Type,” a very EC Comics kind of tale, and the truly weird “Morning Deliveries (Milkman #1),” which describes a psychopathic milkman leaving poisoned dairy products on the porches of his customers (this story, by the way, was lifted out of an aborted novel, and this is a novel I dearly wish the prolific King had finished). More recently, his non-genre (whatever that means) story “Herman Wouk is Still Alive” is one of the single greatest things King has ever written, and it completely stomps on the reader. See also his fiction revolving around mass shooters: his story “Cain Rose Up,” the novella Apt Pupil, and his early novel Rage. When Rage was found among the possessions of a school shooter, King pulled it, and refuses to allow it to be reprinted (though it remains relatively easily obtained on the used market).
Yet interestingly, it’s in his novels that King really lets loose and allows the true traumatic corners of his imagination to be explored on the page. Or a few of them, anyway. For example, if you’ve only seen the film Cujo, based on King’s 1981 novel about a poor Saint Bernard who goes on a rampage after being bitten by a rabid bat, and think you know how it ends, well, you don’t. Briefly (and spoiler coming), the novel is centered on a mother, Donna, who is trapped in a car with her young son, Tad, by the titular massive rabid dog. For various reasons, this goes on for a long time, and certain physical needs must be dealt with—food, water, and so on. Due to this, Tad becomes dangerously dehydrated. A panicked and desperate Donna leaves the car and fights back at Cujo with a baseball bat, eventually killing the dog. After a while, her somewhat estranged husband Vic arrives at the scene, asks the collapsed Donna where their son is, finds him, and says—and I read Cujo probably thirty-five years ago and never again since but I have never forgotten this—“How long has he been dead, Donna?”
A bit later, King describes the posthumous fate of the formerly sweet and entirely blameless dog:
The vet cut off the Saint Bernard’s head and put it in a large white plastic garbage bag. Later that day it was forwarded to the State Commissioner of Animals, where the brain would be tested for rabies.
So Cujo was gone, too.
When King writes like that, his incredible commercial success is entirely justified.
Stephen King’s most notorious book is Pet Sematary (1983). Famously, King wrote the novel, quite disturbed by the story he was telling. When he finished he gave it, as he’d done with every one of his novels, to his wife Tabitha to read and give her thoughts on. She was so horrified that she told him to not publish it. (Tabitha King’s instincts in this regard are often good: She also talked him out of calling his extremely wonky horror/science fiction hybrid Dreamcatcher, which in part is about alien creatures tearing through the lower intestinal tracts of their victims, Cancer.) Apparently agreeing, he shelved it until he needed to close out a contract with his publisher Doubleday. And it’s one of his best novels (arguably his best, to be honest): dealing again with the death of a child, it’s a merciless exploration of how uncontrollable grief can destroy people. That’s the metaphor of the thing: grief can kill you. A happy family suffers an unimaginable loss when their young son is run over by a giant semi-truck. After learning from a friendly neighbor, Jud, about the magical resurrection powers of a cemetery in the deep woods of their Maine town, Louis Creed, the father, buries his son, Gage. For reasons explored earlier in the novel, he knows this is a bad idea, but he can’t stop himself. This is his son, and by doing this, Gage will come back. King writes:
When the eleven o’clock news came on, he turned the television set off and went out to do what he had to do perhaps at the very moment he had seen Gage’s baseball cap lying in the road, full of blood. The coldness was on him again, stronger than ever, but there was something beneath it—an ember of eagerness, or passion, or perhaps lust. No matter. It warmed him against the cold and kept him together in the wind. As he started the Honda’s engine, he thought that Jud was right about the growing power of that place, for surely he felt it around him now, leading (or pushing) him on, and he wondered:
Could I stop? Could I stop even if I wanted to?
And he does it, and Gage comes back, and both directly and indirectly, Gage kills everybody.
I won’t pretend that I’ve read everything King has written, especially in recent years. But one novel I caught up with after being tipped off to the darkness at its core is Revival (2014). It’s a complicated story, about faith healing and, once again, bottomless grief. It deals with the life of Jamie Morton, and his decades-long relationship with a traumatized minister named Charles Jacobs. Over the course of the novel, Jacobs seems to have developed the ability to heal or cure certain ailments hitherto thought incurable. Morton eventually goes to work for Jacobs, and King does an expert job of describing the unfolding years, leaving out the genre elements whenever they don’t pertain to the story, or don’t even interest him (he’s an extremely nostalgic writer, especially when it comes to music, which factors heavily into Revival). Of course, there’s a downside to the power Jacobs wields. And it’s not just that the reader knows it, or that Jamie knows it—Jacobs knows it too. Having lost his wife and child early in the story, he’s been driven into a nightmarish life by his healing “gift,” but he can’t escape it. The upshot is the most unforgiving novel King has written since Pet Sematary. There’s a story by Edgar Allan Poe, one of his masterpieces, called “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” which, if you know it, you’ve now had Revival partially spoiled for you. But in short, this is the idea: what if there is an afterlife, but only one, and it’s Hell?
Nevertheless, Stephen King is a populist. Not only was he the bestselling American writer through the 1980s and 1990s, he’s recently been enjoying a resurgence of popularity thanks to a series of popular and profitable adaptations. Which is entirely fair, because, while he is by no means a perfect writer—who is?—he is often a very good one. He’s popular because he’s accessible and he writes stories people want to read, and they’re exciting and fun, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. I like those books and stories too. For this reason, Stephen King is often compared to Steven Spielberg. The great English writer Martin Amis once said of Spielberg, “As an artist, Spielberg is a mirror, not a lamp. His line to the common heart is so direct that he unmans you with the frailty of your own defences, and the transparency of your most intimate fears and hopes.” This applies to King as well, but the meaning shades, and becomes more complicated, when that artist directs Munich, or that artist writes Revival.