How Stephen King scared a generation of storytellers into existence
Entertainment Weekly’s The Ultimate Guide to Stephen King, inside the mind of horror’s most prolific author, is on sale now. Buy it here.
Stephen King has warped a lot of children in his day.
He hears about that a lot: I started reading your books when I was a kid, and they scared the hell out of me. The author himself says he is more unnerved about his readers growing up. “They aren’t such easy targets!” he told EW in a 2013 interview.
Many of those young readers grew up to be storytellers themselves, with a whole generation of today’s top filmmakers and novelists inspired by King’s pet burial grounds, killer clowns, creatures in the mist, world-decimating plagues, haunted cars and hotels, and twisted dimensions beyond our own. That’s one reason we’re seeing a renaissance in high-end TV and movie adaptations of King’s books. The writers and directors shepherding these projects no longer look at the source material as penny dreadfuls – they’re beloved classics.
“Time continues to prove that his books are far more than pop-cultural phenomenons — he is increasingly and deservedly respected as one of the greatest authors this country will ever produce,” says J.J. Abrams, who executive-produced the Hulu miniseries 11.22.63 (King’s time-traveling JFK-assassination epic). Abrams is developing Castle Rock, a series that threads together tales from the eponymous town that was the setting for Cujo, The Dead Zone and others.
Other recent and upcoming adaptations include Spike TV’s new series The Mist, the Audience network’s version of the serial-killer manhunt novel Mr. Mercedes, Warner Bros.’ two-part big-screen take on Pennywise in It and a Netflix film based on the survival story Gerald’s Game. This past summer saw a feature film based on King’s mystical saga The Dark Tower. In each case the people working on these projects are avowed King acolytes.
“The first time I read King was in seventh grade,” Abrams says. “It was revelatory — the literary equivalent of watching The Twilight Zone or seeing Star Wars or Close Encounters. My jaw hit the floor at the realization that stories like The Shining or The Dead Zone or those from Night Shift could actually exist. Characters from and of our world faced with horrors and challenges from somewhere else.”
He also literally raised a generation of new writers. His sons, Joe Hill and Owen King, are both novelists, and Owen recently collaborated with his father on the novel Sleeping Beauties, which is out Sept. 26.
King’s ability to draw the otherworldly into our time and place — rather than send the reader on a trip to a gothic castle or long-ago era — makes the ordinary seem exponentially more bizarre and terrifying: brightly lit grocery stores enshrouded in fog; a summer cold that just won’t quit — and seems to be getting worse; fathers who drink too much and start throwing their fists.
The threats are variations on those in the real world, gilded with a bit of supernatural to make it interesting, and the heroes are people we know, who might triumph over evil (or maybe not) but always pay a price for that victory.
Uncle Steve never sugarcoats things. Somehow, paradoxically, that always made the stories sweeter — more dangerous. But he also isn’t afraid to show a softer, more intimate side. He taught young storytellers that love is as important an emotion as fear.
“I cared so deeply for the people in his stories and learned early on that that was why the horror landed so well,” says Mike Flanagan, a horror veteran known for the films Oculus and Hush. He’s now the writer and director of the Gerald’s Game adaptation, about a woman (Carla Gugino) who is trapped in a remote cabin, handcuffed to a bed, after her husband dies during a sex game. (See the new trailer below.)
“The horrific elements of his stories are born of the characters, and he always took the time to build a real, relatable world before the horror elements took hold,” Flanagan says. “The characters felt real, the world felt like our own, and there was no safety net — you weren’t safe in the daylight, your family could turn on you, and children weren’t safe from the monster. In fact, sometimes they were its favorite food.”
There were legitimately great films made from King’s novels in the early days. Brian De Palma’s sleek and stylish 1976 adaptation of King’s first novel, Carrie, helped boost the author’s profile; David Cronenberg blended his brand of psychological dread with King’s in 1983’s The Dead Zone; and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is arguably one of the finest horror films in history. (Arguing against that claim is King himself, who strongly dislikes the movie.)
Kubrick was dismissive of King in return, telling an interviewer shortly after the movie debuted that he found the novel’s ending “a bit hackneyed,” although earlier in the same conversation he had called the book “one of the most ingenious and exciting stories of the genre.”
This seemed to be the attitude of most sophisticated filmmakers toward King’s early works. There was a stiff-armed approach, an acknowledgment that something meaningful was there, but a crippling condescension toward the horror or supernatural elements, as if the directors were slumming it with material undeserving of serious thought, unless, perhaps, they could elevate it.
King’s work literally scared many good directors away. Those who fully embraced his horror tales, like the makers of TV movies and some of the schlockier pictures, often responded to King’s visceral properties but missed the cerebral.
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But many contemporary storytellers reared on King from their earliest years approached the material with more open-mindedness, allowing them to see the deeper meaning beyond the gore and ghoulishness.
“I do believe that people who grew up reading him approach his adaptations differently than some of the filmmakers who adapted his early work,” Flanagan says. “The themes are sharper, the characters more familiar, and I think there’s more of an instinct to protect his intentions than would be there otherwise. When you grow up reading King, you want to protect the experience you had with his work. To fail the material is to dishonor that experience, and for a lot of us that isn’t an option.”
King is still connecting with young readers. Any Goodreads page for his books has scores of teenagers discovering his stories for the first time. His 1999 memoir On Writing is almost as sacred a text among aspiring scribes as Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.
“I love to hear authors rave about On Writing,” says Caroline Kepnes, author of the stalker-thriller novels You and Hidden Bodies, one of countless novelists inspired by King (and as you can see below, endorsed by him, too.) “I think that book has helped so many of us stick to our guns and keep at it. That’s a book that was so empowering. He was so eloquent and incisive in that book. Here he is, larger-than-life Stephen King, and yet there he is across from you, telling you to chill out and work.”
Twenty years from now his influence on new novelists and filmmakers will still be profound, but right now he has hit a sweet spot of respect that is also fueled by nostalgia. Even some films and TV shows that aren’t direct adaptations of his work owe a heavy debt to him.
Consider the Duffer brothers, Matt and Ross, whose Stranger Things on Netflix feels like Stephen King by way of Steven Spielberg (with a dash of John Carpenter). It was a colossal influence on them — and they’ve said they came up with their show after being denied a chance at remaking It.
Although steeped in Americana, King’s books travel well. Both the creator of The Mist TV series, Christian Torpe, and the director of The Dark Tower, Nikolaj Arcel, are from Denmark, and they agree that even if he doesn’t speak Danish, King still speaks their language. “The Danes are notorious dark people,” Torpe says. “We have to be to survive those winters.”
Arcel said that without King he wouldn’t have become a writer and director. “What he created shaped us,” he said. With The Dark Tower he got the rights to use many little Easter eggs, dropping in references to other novels and characters throughout. It was payback of sorts. “I’m a huge Stephen King fan since I was a kid, so this is my chance to bring all these worlds from several of his books and all these through lines together in one film.”
But there really is no unifying Stephen King theory. Being a Constant Reader of his means embracing paradox: His stories contain both B-movie excitement and art-house erudition. He has received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation and, from President Obama, the National Medal of Arts … but deep down, he’s still sinister Uncle Steve, making book and movie recommendations on Twitter and picking fights with Donald Trump. His bibliography is more distinguished now, but he’s still punk rock.
“I’ve always had trouble with the notion of ‘respectable’ work. I understand the human need to categorize, but I love the reality that he’s in his own stratosphere,” Kepnes says. She praises both the low and the high, marveling that the same mind typing out the gruesome Cujo is the one behind the sublime The Body. “That’s part of the genius.”
Best of all, his crazy train is not finished. “The magical thing about Stephen King is he just keeps writing,” Kepnes says. “We are lucky.”
From Entertainment Weekly’s The Ultimate Guide to Stephen King. Buy it here.
Gerald's Game (Book)