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40 Years of Stephen King: Explaining His Immense Popularity

60 novels over 40 years – many writers would have burnt out way before now and retired. The fact is, Stephen King did retire once – in 2002 – but came back. Another retirement announcement came in 2013 which may yet prove permanent for the 70-year-old.

To call Stephen King a “horror writer” is descriptive, but it’s only one small part of his talent. It doesn’t go far in explaining his immense popularity when the horror genre has changed so much since King first wrote Carrie. King is now one of the world’s most famous and most popular novelists of all time.

stephen kingStephen King is Not Just a Horror Writer

He is best known for horror such as his first novel Carrie, which was followed by Pet Sematary and Christine; to name but a few of his earlier works. The Stand – many people’s favourite, is about a killer plague and the survivors battling it out between the forces of good and evil. The Green Mile is about a black man in the 1930s Deep South convicted and sentenced to the electric chair for killing two girls; but turns out has healing powers. 11.22.63 is a time travel novel, Under the Dome is about a small American town trapped under a giant transparent dome and Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption has no fantastical elements.

The list goes on. Stephen King has never been “just a horror writer” and in recent years, his work has broadened further.

Personal Experiences

Fans of his work explain his enduring popularity by pointing to the timelessness of the themes in his work. What King does it take a common everyday problem that many Americans (and others in the western world) live every day and impose on them a fantastical setting. Many of his stories centre on mental illness, loneliness, loss of innocence, abuse, and alcoholism – some of which he experienced in life.

King’s appeal is in speaking to people’s real experiences and not some sanitised version of family dysfunction where everything has a thin veneer designed to shield the reader from the worst of it. In King’s work, good always triumphs over evil no matter how desperately horrific the events get, but they do start or become horrific.

His strength is in examining real-world problems. This is no more obvious than in the recent film release version of IT about a creature disguised as a clown that awakens every 27 years to kill children. IT is not a horror novel written for shocks so much as it is a tale of growing up, of finding enduring friendship when we feel different and alone. Similarly:

• Pet Sematary – About the inability to let go of grief, how destructive it can be to long for the past, particularly when it comes to losing pets.
• The Body – On which the film Stand by Me was based, is about friendship, working together, and the sacrifices we make for those we care about.
• Needful Things – Covetousness and greed for material goods and dispensation of compassion in the pursuit of it.
• The Mist – About a group of people trapped in a supermarket discusses the cult of personality and the danger of “the enemy within”.
• The Shining – About isolation and mental illness, particularly alcoholism.

Stephen King writes largely for a working-class American audience, not those aspiring to the middle classes – blue collar workers just getting by in rusting industrial heartlands. Although his political affiliation is largely left wing, this only sometimes comes through in his writing. He is far more concerned with portraying a message of the real problems that Americans face in the modern age. This everyman focus has been a core element of his enduring popularity.