Rereading Stephen King: A Research Report

I’m borrowing the title of this post from a series James Smythe wrote a few years ago for The Guardian, in which he reread every King book ever published. Quite a feat, for King is one of the more prolific writers of our day and age, and because so many of his novels have been made into successful films, it can often feel as if we know all his stories already. Is there anything left to say about them?

As I’m working on an article for a special issue of Horror Studies dedicated to King and his oeuvre, at least some people would probably argue that yes, there is more to be said about both. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of King’s status within popular culture will know that despite his commercial success, he is often treated rather snobbishly by literary critics and scholars. One only needs to read Harold Bloom’s introduction to an edited volume about King’s work to see just how King brings out the most unpleasant side in some people.

So when I came across a call for papers that did not so much focus on defending King as a subject worthy of academic attention – a debate that could, in theory, carry on until the Apocalypse – but on studying King as an important author in his own right. In my opinion, King’s central position in contemporary cultural imagination alone merits a proper look at his work. Sure, other authors have written novels that are more aesthetically pleasing, literarily challenging, or thematically groundbreaking. But the fact that his books just keep selling and selling suggest that King is on to something.

Other than that, I’m simply a massive King fan and will jump at any reason to revisit some of his books.

Which is exactly what I was doing before I briefly stopped to write this blog post. I’m exploring the issue of authorship within King’s oeuvre, so I’m rereading several novels that feature authors as prominent characters and plot drivers. All of these novels I had read before, and I thought I knew them inside out, especially as I introduced the film adaptation of one of them in my local cinema only a few months ago.

But rereading, even if the story under scrutiny is familiar to the point of turning into a cliché, brings out undercurrents in King’s fiction I had previously overlooked. King has been very open about his struggles with addiction and has detailed how this has had a profound impact on his writing – see his memoir On Writing for more. In his fiction addiction and writing are even more strongly intertwined. Not only are his fictional authors often addicted to alcohol or drugs – just like King was himself for many years – they are also addicted to the act of writing itself. A character like Misery’s Annie Wilkes, whom King has described as a metaphor for his addiction, but who also forces main character Paul Sheldon to write a new novel, thus takes on an uncanny double meaning.

And consider George Stark in The Dark Half, a pseudonym come to life. I’m still in the middle of reading and jotting down ideas in a battered notebook, so I haven’t yet developed a coherent argument, but the intersections with common horror tropes are so apparent. Stark is a zombie, a vampire, a ghost, a creature that comes to life not just despite, but because he is killed off by his creator. What exactly that says about the nature of authorship I haven’t figured out yet, but I’m getting there step by step.

What I like most about this project so far, regardless of what the editor and peer reviewers will make of it – and I know the process will be tough, as it should be – is that non-academics understand what I’m on about. One of the reasons I chose to become an independent scholar was my discomfort with the ivory tower metaphor, and while many academics deride this tired old trope, I’ve always felt that academia is still very much isolated from the rest of society. Working on this project, at least, I can talk with and learn from people without PhDs. Anti-elitist as I am, I’m loving this. Literature and intellectualism should be for everyone, not just for the select few.

Image Pelly Benassi via Unsplash

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