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Why Stephen King is still the master of horror

At 70, The Black Tower author’s reign at the top of his craft is far from over, says Andrew Collins

Published: Friday, 18th August 2017 at 10:00 am

I have only felt faint in a cinema once in my life. It was in 1984, midway through a showing at the Northampton ABC of John Carpenter’s adaptation of the Stephen King novel Christine.


Disappointingly for posterity, my sudden urge to throw up was caused by something I ate, and not the film’s depiction of the bone-crunching deaths of anyone who fell foul of the possessed 1958 Plymouth Fury automobile of the title.

I went back to the ABC a few days later to see the part of the film I’d missed while using the facilities. Why? Because at the age of 19, I was Stephen King’s number one fan. It tells us something about the surge in stock of the Maine-based horror novelist in the late 70s and early 80s that the film of Christine had been turned around for a Christmas release in the same year as its source novel was published.

By 1984, the King juggernaut was running on its own renewable hybrid of rabid fandom and critical snobbery. I have my school pal Paul to thank for turning me on to his paperbacks, their black or red covers adorned with ghoulish illustrations including a prom queen dripping with pig’s blood and the drooling maw of a rabid St Bernard dog.

We fans casually referred to our master as “Steve”, which suited the aw-shucks downhome style of his books (always addressed to “Constant Reader” in homage to Dorothy Parker). However, his self-deprecating style has sometimes gone too far, like when he described himself as “the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries”. While it’s true his novels have usually slipped through the hands of literary editors on “respectable” newspapers, they have nevertheless been bought by the truckload.

They are appreciated not only for the scares, but also their narrative complexity. Part of their appeal is in the wry nods to the rock ’n’ roll of the author’s youth; as a baby-boomer born in 1947, he came of age at the same time as the concept of the teenager.

To get a fix on the exponential growth of King in the 80s, Christine enjoyed a whopping initial hardback run of 250,000. Three years later, demand for his killer-clown story, It, necessitated a run of one million.

King’s work is ubiquitous on small and silver screens alike. On Friday 18 August, we finally get to see the long-awaited movie distillation of his eight fantasy-based Dark Tower books in cinemas, with Idris Elba in the role of the Gunslinger. And despite it already being made as a TV mini-series, a new movie adaptation of It also arrives next month.

Those credits are only two of the mind-boggling 240 listed on the Internet Movie Database that bear his name. Though such bulk lowers the quality threshold, a consensus honours Brian de Palma’s memorably lurid 1976 adaptation of Carrie and Stanley Kubrick’s terrifying take on The Shining from 1980. (Ironically, King hated the latter and remade it as a more faithful mini-series, which I hated.)

Praise has also greeted director Frank Darabont’s prison movie The Shawshank Redemption and Rob Reiner’s two films, the paean to childhood Stand by Me and his two-hander about a writer and his psychotic number one fan, Misery.

None of this trio bears a trace of the supernatural, which may explain King’s broader appeal. He above all writes warmly about people, families and communities. If horror does rear its head, it’s the shattering of domestic equilibrium that gives the story freight.

King is a pro-gun-control, anti-Trump Democrat and a recovering addict who hasn’t touched drink or drugs since the late 80s. He’s the 22nd best-selling fiction author of all time with an estimated 350 million books sold. His tally is creeping up on Tolstoy and Jackie Collins, and he’s still writing a novel a year. A road accident in 1999 that could have killed him only seems to have made him stronger.

To coincide with King’s 70th birthday in September, London’s BFI Southbank is hosting a month-long retrospective of his screen works, during which time he releases his latest novel, Sleeping Beauties, a collaboration with his son Owen. It should be some celebration. Serious fans like me and my friend Paul came of age devouring his novels and movies. We may have grown out of Big Macs and fries, but we’re still reading the books.

By Andrew Collins


The Dark Tower is in cinemas Friday


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