Stephen Edwin King (born September 21, 1947) is an American author, screenwriter, musician, columnist, actor, film producer and director. Having sold over 350 million copies of his books, King is best known for his work in horror fiction, in which he demonstrates a thorough knowledge of the genre's history. He has also written science fiction, fantasy, short-fiction, non-fiction, screenplays, teleplays and stageplays. Many of his stories have been adapted for other media, including movies, television series and comic books. King has written a number of books using the pen name Richard Bachman and one short story where he was credited as John Swithen. In 2003 he received The National Book Foundation's Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
As a child, King apparently witnessed one of his friends being struck and killed by a train, though he has no memory of the event. His family told him that after leaving home to play with the boy, King returned, speechless and seemingly in shock. Only later did the family learn of the friend's death. Some commentators have suggested that this event may have psychologically inspired King's dark, disturbing creations, but King himself has dismissed the idea.
King's primary inspiration for writing horror fiction was related in detail in his 1981 non-fiction Danse Macabre in a chapter titled "An Annoying Autobiographical Pause". King makes a comparison of his grandfather successfully dowsing for water using the bough of an apple branch with the sudden realization of what he wanted to do for a living. While browsing through an attic with his elder brother, King uncovered a paperback version of an H.P. Lovecraft collection of short stories that had belonged to his father. The cover art—an illustration of a monster hiding within the recesses of a hell-like cavern beneath a tombstone—was, he writes,
“the moment of my life when the dowsing rod suddenly went down hard . . . as far as I was concerned, I was on my way.”
From 1966 King studied English at the University of Maine, where he graduated in 1970 with a Bachelor of Arts in English. He wrote a weekly column for the student newspaper, the Maine Campus, titled "King's Garbage Truck", took part in a writing workshop organized by Burton Hatlen, and took odd jobs to pay for his studies, including one at an industrial laundry. He sold his first professional short story, "The Glass Floor", to Startling Mystery Stories in 1967 while attending the University of Maine. The Fogler Library at UMaine now holds King's papers.
After leaving the university King gained a certificate to teach high school but, being unable to find a teaching post immediately, initially supplemented his laboring wage by selling short stories to men's magazines such as Playboy. In 1971, King married Tabitha Spruce, a fellow student at the University of Maine, whom he had met at the Fogler Library. That fall King was hired as a teacher at Hampden Academy in Hampden, Maine. He continued to contribute short stories to magazines and worked on ideas for novels. It was during this time that King developed a drinking problem, which stayed with him for more than a decade.
After his mother's death, King and his family moved to Boulder, Colorado, where King wrote The Shining (published 1977). The family returned to Western Maine in 1975, where King completed his fourth novel, The Stand (published 1978). In 1977 the family traveled briefly to England, returning to Maine that fall where King began teaching creative writing at the University of Maine. King has kept his primary residence in Maine ever since.
In the late 1970s-early 1980s, King published a handful of short novels—Rage (1977), The Long Walk (1979), Road Work (1981), The Running Man (1982) and Thinner (1984)—under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. The idea behind this was largely an experiment to measure for himself whether or not he could replicate his own success again, and allay at least part of the notion inside his own head that popularity might all be just an accident of fate. An alternate (or additional) explanation was because of publishing standards back then allowing only a single book a year.
The Bachman novels contained hints to the author's actual identity that were picked up on by fans, leading to King's admission of authorship in 1985. King dedicated his 1989 book The Dark Half about a pseudonym turning on a writer to "the deceased Richard Bachman", and in 1996, when the Stephen King novel Desperation was released, the companion novel The Regulators carried the Bachman byline.
In 2006, during a London UK press conference, King declared that he had discovered another Bachman novel, titled Blaze. It was published on June 12, 2007 in the UK and US. In fact, the manuscript had been held at King's alma mater, the University of Maine in Orono for many years and had been covered by numerous King experts. King completely rewrote the 1973 manuscript for its publication.
On June 19, at about 4:30 p.m., he was walking on the shoulder of Route 5 in Center Lovell, Maine. Driver Bryan Smith, distracted by an unrestrained dog moving in the back of his minivan, struck King, who landed in a depression in the ground about 14 feet from the pavement of Route 5. According to Oxford County Sheriff deputy Matt Baker, King was struck from behind and some witnesses said the driver was not speeding or reckless. King's website, however, says King was walking facing traffic.
King was conscious enough to give the deputy phone numbers to contact his family but was in considerable pain. The author was first transported to Northern Cumberland Hospital in Bridgton and then flown by helicopter to Central Maine Hospital in Lewiston. His injuries—a collapsed right lung, multiple fractures of the right leg, scalp laceration and a broken hip—kept him in Central Maine Medical Center until July 9, almost three weeks.
Earlier that year, King had finished most of From a Buick 8, a novel in which a character dies after getting struck by a car. Of the similarities, King says that he tries "not to make too much of it."
After five operations in ten days and physical therapy, King resumed work on On Writing in July, though his hip was still shattered and he could only sit for about forty minutes before the pain became intolerable.
King's lawyer and two others purchased Smith's van for $1,500, reportedly to avoid it appearing on eBay. The van was later crushed at a junkyard after King had severely beaten it with a baseball bat. King later mentioned during an interview with Fresh Air's Terry Gross that he wanted to completely destroy the vehicle himself with a sledgehammer.
A fictionalized account of the accident was written into the last novel of the Dark Tower series. Parts of the conversation between Smith and King, as he awaited medical attention, were used in the book, as well as an accurate description of the injuries sustained.
Two years later, King suffered severe pneumonia as a direct result of his lung being punctured in the accident. During this time Tabitha King was inspired to redesign his studio. Stephen visited the space while his books and belongings were packed away. What he saw was an image of what his studio would look like if he died, providing a seed for his novel Lisey's Story.
In 2002, King announced he would stop writing, apparently motivated in part by frustration with his injuries, which had made sitting uncomfortable and reduced his stamina. He has since resumed writing, but states on his website that:
"I'm writing but I'm writing at a much slower pace than previously and I think that if I come up with something really, really good, I would be perfectly willing to publish it because that still feels like the final act of the creative process, publishing it so people can read it and you can get feedback and people can talk about it with each other and with you, the writer, but the force of my invention has slowed down a lot over the years and that's as it should be.
King owns two houses, one in Bangor and one in Center, Lovell, Maine, while he and his wife regularly spend winter in their waterfront mansion located off the Gulf of Mexico in Sarasota, Florida. He and Tabitha have three children and three grandchildren. Tabitha King has published nine of her own novels. Both King's sons are published authors: Owen King published his first collection of stories, We're All in This Together: A Novella and Stories in 2005; Joseph Hillstrom published an award-winning collection of short stories, 20th Century Ghosts, in 2005 and his first novel, Heart-Shaped Box will be adapted by Irish director Neil Jordan for a 2008 Warner Bros. release. King's daughter Naomi spent two years as a minister in the Unitarian Universalist Church in Utica, New York, where she lived with her partner Rev Dr Thandeka. They now minister for the Unitarian Universalist Church of River of Grass in Plantation, South Florida.
The Kings' early nineties donation to the University of Maine Swim Team saved the program from elimination from the school's athletics department. Donations to local YMCA and YWCA programs have allowed renovations and improvements that would otherwise have been impossible. Additionally, King annually sponsors a number of scholarships for high school and college students.
The Kings do not desire recognition for their funding of Bangor-area facilities: they named the Shawn T. Mansfield Stadium for a prominent local little league coach's son who had cerebral palsy, while the Beth Pancoe Aquatic Park memorializes an accomplished area swimmer who died of cancer.
He is known for his great eye for detail, for continuity and for inside references; many stories that may seem unrelated are often linked by secondary characters, fictional towns, or off-hand references to events in previous books. Many of the settings for King's books are in Maine, though often fictional locations, especially the town of Castle Rock. (Castle Rock was the setting for The Body; when the novella was adapted for the screen by Rob Reiner, Reiner formed a production company, Castle Rock Entertainment, which has since gone on to produce other King adaptations including Dolores Claiborne, Hearts in Atlantis, The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile.)
King's books are filled with references to American history and American culture, particularly the darker, more fearful side of these. These references are generally spun into the stories of characters, often explaining their fears. Recurrent references include crime, war (especially the Vietnam War), violence, the supernatural and racism.
King is also known for his folksy, informal narration, often referring to his fans as "Constant Readers" or "friends and neighbors." This familiar style contrasts with the horrific content of many of his stories.
King has a very simple formula for learning to write well: "Read and write four to six hours a day. If you cannot find the time for that, you can't expect to become a good writer." He sets out each day with a quota of 2000 words and will not stop writing until it is met. He also has a simple definition for talent in writing: "If you wrote something for which someone sent you a check, if you cashed the check and it didn't bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented.
King's writing style throughout his novels alternates from future to past, character development (including character illumination, dynamics and revelation), and setting in each chapter—leaving a cliffhanger at the end. He then continues this process until the novel is finished.
When asked why he writes, King responds: "The answer to that is fairly simple–there was nothing else I was made to do. I was made to write stories and I love to write stories. That's why I do it. I really can't imagine doing anything else and I can't imagine not doing what I do.
King often uses authors as characters, or includes mention of fictional books in his stories, novellas and novels, such as Paul Sheldon who is the main character in Misery and Jack Torrance in The Shining. See also List of fictional books in the works of Stephen King for a complete list.
King is a fan of H. P. Lovecraft and refers to him several times in Danse Macabre. Lovecraft's influence shows in King's invention of bizarre, ancient deities, subtle connections among all of his tales and the integration of fabricated newspaper clippings, trial transcripts and documents as narrative devices. King's invented trio of afflicted New England towns—Jerusalem's Lot, Castle Rock and Derry—are reminiscent of Lovecraft's Arkham, Dunwich and Innsmouth. King's short story "Crouch End" is an explicit homage to, and part of, Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos story cycle. "Gramma," a short story made into a film in the 1980s anthology horror show The New Twilight Zone, mentions Lovecraft's notorious fictional creation Necronomicon, also borrowing the names of a number of the fictional monsters mentioned therein. "I Know What You Need" from the 1976 collection Night Shift, and 'Salem's Lot also mention the tome. Another tribute to Lovecraft is in King's short story "Jerusalem's Lot," which opens Night Shift. King differs markedly from Lovecraft in his focus on extensive characterization and naturalistic dialogue, both notably absent in Lovecraft's writing. In On Writing, King is critical of Lovecraft's dialogue-writing skills, using passages from The Colour Out of Space as particularly poor examples. There are also several examples of King referring to Lovecraftian characters in his work, such as Nyarlathotep and Yog-Sothoth.
Edgar Allan Poe exerts a noticeable influence over King's writing as well. In The Shining, the phrase "And the red death held sway over all" hearkens back to Poe's "And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all" from "The Masque of the Red Death." The novella "Dolan's Cadillac" has a theme almost identical to Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado," including a paraphrase of Fortunato's famous plea, "For the love of God, Montresor!" In The Shining, King refers to Poe as "The Great American Hack".
King acknowledges the influence of Bram Stoker, particularly on his novel 'Salem's Lot, which he envisioned as a retelling of Dracula. Its related short story "Jerusalem's Lot", is reminiscent of Stoker's The Lair of the White Worm.
King has also openly declared his admiration for another, less prolific author: Shirley Jackson. 'Salem's Lot opens with a quotation from Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House. Tony, an imaginary playmate from The Shining, bears a striking resemblance to another imaginary playmate with the same name from Jackson's Hangsaman. A pivotal scene in Storm of the Century is based on Jackson's The Lottery. A character in Wolves of the Calla references the Jackson book We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
King is a big fan of John D. MacDonald and dedicated the novella "Sun Dog" to MacDonald, saying "I miss you, old friend." For his part, MacDonald wrote an admiring preface to Night Shift, and even had his famous character, Travis McGee, reading Cujo in one of the last McGee novels.
In 1987 King's Philtrum Press published Don Robertson's novel, The Ideal, Genuine Man. In his forenote to the novel, King wrote, "Don Robertson was and is one of the three writers who influenced me as a young man who was trying to 'become' a novelist (the other two being Richard Matheson and John D. MacDonald).
King has written two novels with acclaimed horror novelist Peter Straub: The Talisman and a sequel, Black House. King has indicated that he and Straub will likely write the third and concluding book in this series, the tale of Jack Sawyer, but has set no time line for its completion.
"Throttle", a novella written in collaboration with his son Joe Hill, will be included in the anthology He Is Legend: Celebrating Richard Matheson, forthcoming from Gauntlet Press in February 2009.
The Diary of Ellen Rimbauer: My Life at Rose Red, was a paperback tie-in for the King-penned miniseries Rose Red. The book was published under anonymous authorship, and written by Ridley Pearson. This spin-off is a rare occasion of another author being granted permission to write commercial work using characters and story elements invented by King.
Speculation that King wrote the novel Bad Twin, a tie-in to the series Lost, under the pseudonym Gary Troup has been discredited. This theory was fueled by King being an avid and self-declared Lost fan, having mentioned it and praised it several times in his Entertainment Weekly articles.
King played guitar for the rock band Rock Bottom Remainders, several of whose members are authors. Other members include Dave Barry, Ridley Pearson, Scott Turow, Amy Tan, James McBride, Mitch Albom, Roy Blount Jr., Matt Groening, Kathi Kamen Goldmark and Greg Iles. None of them claim to have any musical talent. King is a fan of the rock band AC/DC, who did the soundtrack for his 1986 film, Maximum Overdrive. He is also a fan of The Ramones, who wrote the title song for Pet Sematary and appeared in the music video. They are referred to several times in various novels and stories. In addition he wrote the liner notes for their tribute album We're a Happy Family. They, in return, name checked him on the song "It's Not My Place (In the 9 to 5 World)", which is on 1981's Pleasant Dreams. In 1988, the band Blue Öyster Cult recorded an updated version of their 1974 song "Astronomy". The single released for radio play featured a narrative intro spoken by King.
King's first film appearance was in George Romero's "Knightriders" as a buffoonish audience member. His first featured role was in Creepshow, playing Jordy Verrill, a backwoods redneck who, after touching a fallen meteor in hopes of selling it, grows moss all over his body. He has since made cameos in several adaptations of his works. He appeared in Pet Sematary as a minister at a funeral, in Rose Red as a pizza deliveryman, in The Stand as "Teddy Wieszack," in the Shining miniseries as band member Gage Creed and in The Langoliers as Tom Holby. He has also appeared in The Golden Years, in Chappelle's Show and, along with fellow author Amy Tan, on The Simpsons as himself. In addition to acting, King tried his hand at directing with Maximum Overdrive, in which he also made a cameo appearance as a man using an ATM that is on the fritz.
King produced and acted in a miniseries, Kingdom Hospital, which is based on the Danish miniseries Riget by Lars von Trier. He also co-wrote The X-Files season 5 episode "Chinga" with the creator of the series Chris Carter.
King is friends with film director George Romero, to whom he partly dedicated his book Cell, and wrote a tribute about the filmmaker in Entertainment Weekly for his pop culture column, as well as an essay for the Elite DVD version of Night of the Living Dead.
King has also made an appearance as a contestant on Celebrity Jeopardy! in 1995.
In his analysis of post-World War II horror fiction, The Modern Weird Tale (2001), critic S. T. Joshi devotes a chapter to King's work. Joshi argues that King's best-known works (his supernatural novels), are his worst, describing them as mostly bloated, illogical, maudlin and prone to deus ex machina endings. Despite these criticisms, Joshi argues that since Gerald's Game (1993), King has been tempering the worst of his writing faults, producing books that are leaner, more believable and generally better written. Joshi also stresses that, despite his flaws, King almost unfailingly writes insightfully about the pains and joys of adolescence, and has produced a few outstanding books and stories. Joshi cites two early non-supernatural novels -– Rage (1977) and The Running Man (1982) -– as King's best, suggesting both are riveting and well-constructed suspense thrillers, with believable characters.
In 2003, King was honored by the National Book Awards with a lifetime achievement award, the Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, with his work being described thus:
Stephen King’s writing is securely rooted in the great American tradition that glorifies spirit-of-place and the abiding power of narrative. He crafts stylish, mind-bending page-turners that contain profound moral truths–some beautiful, some harrowing–about our inner lives. This Award commemorates Mr. King’s well-earned place of distinction in the wide world of readers and book lovers of all ages.
Some in the literary community expressed disapproval of the award: Richard Snyder, the former CEO of Simon & Schuster, described King's work as "non-literature", and critic Harold Bloom denounced the choice:
The decision to give the National Book Foundation's annual award for "distinguished contribution" to Stephen King is extraordinary, another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life. I've described King in the past as a writer of penny dreadfuls, but perhaps even that is too kind. He shares nothing with Edgar Allan Poe. What he is is an immensely inadequate writer on a sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph, book-by-book basis.
However, others came to King's defense, such as writer Orson Scott Card, who responded:
Let me assure you that King's work most definitely is literature, because it was written to be published and is read with admiration. What Snyder really means is that it is not the literature preferred by the academic-literary elite.
In Roger Ebert's review of the 2004 movie Secret Window, he states "A lot of people were outraged that [King] was honored at the National Book Awards, as if a popular writer could not be taken seriously. But after finding that his book On Writing had more useful and observant things to say about the craft than any book since Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, I have gotten over my own snobbery.
See also Books about Stephen King