Stephen King: the master of horror, still shining after all these years

I’ve read Stephen King since primary school, 50 books at the last count, drifted away a bit but now, as an ageing 45-year-old, am back on the same page as I read his sequel to ‘The Shining’

Sat, Sep 21, 2013, 00:00

In a bookstore in South Portland, Maine, a writer stands before what is clearly an adoring public. After all, he’s one of their own, born and brought up in the state, and is already being acclaimed as one of the most talented horror writers of his generation.

He is bearded, wears glasses and has just published his third novel. In its scope and ambition the book is a considerable advance on his earlier fiction, although one of those previous novels has just been filmed, and who knows what kind of boost that might give his career?

Joe Hill clears his throat, welcomes the audience and starts to read from his new novel, NOS4A2. Over to his left stands his father, the writer Stephen King, for Joe Hill was born Joe Hilliard King, and changed his name to avoid accusations of coat-tail riding. Although King is probably the most famous Mainer alive, and one of the most popular novelists in the world, this is the son’s day, so the father is left largely undisturbed.

But perhaps, as he listens, it strikes King that his son’s current status bears an uncanny resemblance to his own three and a half decades earlier. In 1977, King, like Hill, was the author of two novels and a number of short stories. Brian de Palma’s film of his debut novel, Carrie, had been released only months before. (Alejandre Aja’s film of Hill’s novel Horns had its world premiere at this month’s Toronto Film Festival.) But, more to the point, King had also just published his third novel, a book that would overcome some early tepid reviews – the New York Times described it as slapdash and unfocused – to be regarded as one of the great horror fictions of the last 50 years.

That book was The Shining.

Propensity for doodling
Later, while his son signs books, King will sit in the back room of the bookstore, nibbling cookies and complaining (reasonably) good-naturedly about his son’s propensity for doodling in every volume that is presented to him.

To pass the time, he talks about the books that he has bought (the latest John Sandford thriller for his wife, the novelist Tabitha King, and a first edition of Horace McCoy’s 1935 noir classic They Shoot Horses, Don’t They for himself); the TV adaptation of his 2009 novel Under the Dome (which will become the hit of the summer schedule in the US, and is currently being broadcast on RTÉ Two); the recent publication of his younger son Owen’s first novel, Double Feature; and whatever else happens to strike him as interesting, including various jokes that can be filed under “Rock Drummers, Stupidity of”.

What he doesn’t talk about is the imminent publication of Doctor Sleep, his return to the world of The Shining. In fact, one gets the feeling that King the writer can think of few things he would less like to discuss than his own work. He is kind enough to respond to questions for this article, but some of his answers are brief to the point of gnomic. (When asked if he had any sense, while writing it as a twentysomething novelist, that The Shining was a horror classic in the making, he replied: “I knew I was getting good stuff, and that’s always good enough for me.” That’s it. Okay, so the question wasn’t great, but still.)

Here’s the thing: when I look at King’s bibliography and calculate how many of his books I’ve read, I come up with 50. Fifty. Some of those are pretty long – Under the Dome alone clocks in at more than 1,000 pages – and I haven’t even read all of his work. I’ve missed some ebooks, I’ve never been able to get to grips with The Dark Tower, his extended fantasy series, and Faithful, his nonfiction book about baseball and his beloved Red Sox, written with Stewart O’Nan, remains untouched on my shelf because it’s a nonfiction book about baseball.

So I’ve been reading King ever since primary school. That was where I first encountered The Shining. A friend loaned me his copy. He said it was the scariest book ever written. It wasn’t – for me, that was Salem’s Lot, King’s second book, and nothing was ever going to convince me otherwise – but The Shining was stranger and more adult.

I was unsettled by its exploration of evil in a way that I wasn’t by the more physical vampiric threat in Salem’s Lot. The evil in The Shining is ingrained in the wood and stone of the Overlook Hotel, but it’s also a little worm in the booze-soaked soul of the frustrated writer Jack Torrance.

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