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’

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.

Jack becomes the winter caretaker at the Overlook, bringing with him his wife, Wendy, and their son, Danny, who is gifted with the titular telepathic power, the ability to “shine”. Jack, driven mad by the hotel, eventually turns on his wife and son, pursuing them through the hotel with a roque mallet.

What’s that you say? Yes, a roque mallet. It’s used in the American variant of croquet. No, not an axe. That was only in the film. Kubrick’s film. The one King doesn’t like.

“Yes, I’m perplexed,” King says when I ask him about the movie’s enduring popularity, “but I still find it a deeply dislikable film, partly because there’s no real arc to the Jack Torrance character and partly because it’s so misogynistic – Wendy is basically a useless scream machine. I’ve been told Kubrick and Nicholson used to laugh about her, which makes me furious.”

One of the difficulties in discussing King's third novel is that book and film have coalesced into a single mass in the popular imagination, to the extent that mention of The Shining tends to provoke a Pavlovian response of "Here's Johnny!", images of a gurning Jack Nicholson shambling apelike along garishly carpeted corridors, or visions of elevators gushing blood, none of which troubled the pages of King's novel.

In the credits of his 1986 film The Name of the Rose, the French director Jean- Jacques Annaud describes it as "a palimpsest of Umberto Eco's novel". A palimpsest – and I had to go home and look this up back in 1986 – is a manuscript page from which the text has been scratched or scraped off so it can be used again, with traces of the original text, or "underwriting", still visible beneath the new additions.

Basically, that's what Kubrick did with his film of The Shining. He scratched the novel back to its bare bones, then rebuilt it according to his own vision. It's not a film of the book, but it's a fascinating piece of work in its own right. None of this is of much consolation to King, who perhaps didn't particularly want to see a palimpsest of his novel and would happily have settled for a straight adaptation.

In 1997, he went so far as to collaborate with the director Mick Garris (who once described King as the Norman Rockwell of horror because of his impact on American culture) on a TV miniseries of The Shining in an effort to create a version closer to his original conception.

It’s not very good.

But the novel is still great.

Parting of the ways
Looking at that bibliography again, I realise that King and I had a slight parting of the ways around 1986's It. It wasn't anything that he had done, and the split wasn't final. I just wanted to see other writers. I would still read the books as soon as they came out, but I did so at one remove. Some point of connection had been lost, and I couldn't understand why.

I think that I may have an answer now.

In 1986 I had just turned 18, and my relationship with horror was changing. Horror fiction, when read in adolescence, offers a means of exploring the darkness of the adult world. It’s only superficially about vampires, or werewolves, or ghosts. What it does is enable young people to ascribe a name – zombie, ghoul, monster – to the unnameable, to give form to formless terrors and in that way come to terms with them.

King’s fictions are particularly suited to these explorations, in part because he writes so well about childhood and adolescence (which is not to say that the books themselves are childish or adolescent, not at all). But once we enter young adulthood, the need for such tools is less pressing. We begin dealing with the reality of sexuality, relationships, compromise, work, responsibility and, far in the distance, the shadow of mortality. As a consequence, horror fiction loses some of its immediacy.

But, at 45, I have new terrors to confront: the ageing of my body, concerns for my children, the reality of my own death. I was immortal when I first read King; I feel absurdly vulnerable now. With all that in mind, I find myself affected anew by King’s later works. They are, of course, the writings of a man who has suffered grievously himself. In 1999, King was struck by a minivan while walking in Lovell, Maine. He endured life-threatening injuries that left him with an addiction to pain medication, which he has since overcome, and caused him to consider giving up writing entirely.

(As for the driver of the minivan, one Bryan Edwin Smith, he died one year after the incident, on September 21st, 2000, King’s 53rd birthday, which is the kind of thing that usually only happens to people in Stephen King novels.)

King relented and remains as prolific as ever, but his recent works – Lisey's Story, Duma Key and now Doctor Sleep – are filled with images of pain and mortality. "I think of this more and more as I approach my seventies," he says. "I never expected to live so long and – like anyone – I hope the exit, when it comes, won't be too protracted or undignified."

Which brings us to Doctor Sleep itself. What is perhaps surprising about the book is that it is not particularly frightening – or, perhaps more correctly, its real terrors are not the semi-vampiric clan known as the True Knot, who are hunting a girl named Abra Stone, gifted with extraordinary telepathic powers, and protected by Danny Torrance, now a middle-aged man and an alcoholic.

No, the visceral horrors here are the indignities of old age, the slow betrayal of the body as it succumbs to injury and disease, and the inevitability of one’s own death. Yet the book remains hopeful and hugely humane. The True Knot are vile not merely because they kill but also because they thrive on the sufferings of others.

They are without empathy or compassion, and that is what Danny Torrance, a hospice orderly, offers to those under his care: a hand to hold when the end comes, a voice saying that all will be well, that you are not dying alone.

It is also a book about being an alcoholic. King, a recovered alcoholic himself following an intervention by his family in 1987, describes the novel as “a mental return to what it’s like to be an active alcoholic. You know for yourself that writing is often a kind of hypnotic regression.”

With that return to the past seems to have re-emerged something of King the young writer. The book contains echoes, conscious or otherwise, of Salem's Lot, Firestarter and Carrie, among others. Doctor Sleep has a tightness, an economy, after some of the lengthier novels of recent years, but also a lightness of touch. It reads less like a horror novel than a thriller and ends on a scene of intimate and intense human contact, a gift of consolation at the moment of death.

Coming-of-age story
So what next for King? Doctor Sleep is his second novel this year, after the excellent coming-of-age story Joyland, written for the Hard Case series of retro-jacketed crime novels. His affection for genre remains undimmed, he says, "although as a writer I haven't thought in terms of genre since I was 30 or so. I just write what it occurs to me to write (I realise I'm absurdly fortunate to be able to do that).

"I'm learning to write another kind of fiction – detective fiction. Joyland was part of my self-tutorial. Next year, Mr Mercedes is that sort of book. It forces you to hew the line, plotwise, and there are no supernatural short cuts. It doesn't entrance me the way a good horror story does, but it's interesting. So it's Mr Mercedes, and then a horror novel that references one of my idols, Arthur Machen."

Next year is also the 40th anniversary of the publication of Carrie, the novel that introduced the world to King's work. Some remain unconvinced of his merits – in 1993, the American critic Harold Bloom, in a spectacular fit of literary snobbery, greeted the decision of the National Book Foundation to give King a distinguished contribution award as "another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life" – but King has provided his critics with a big target at which to aim by being popular, prolific and successful in a genre that has long been regarded as literature's poor mad relative.

Yes, sometimes the books are a little long, and very occasionally the endings don’t quite match the build-up to them, but the latter is an inherent flaw in the genre, which has always been better suited to short fiction. Few living fiction writers – perhaps only JK Rowling excepted – will be as missed by generations of readers when they’re gone.

Long may King continue to write, and may someone be there to take his hand when the end finally comes.

Doctor Sleep is published by Hodder & Stoughton, priced £19.99

John Connolly is a bestselling Irish crime writer best known for his series of novels featuring the private detective Charlie Parker. His latest novel is The Creeps.