By Byron Thomas
Stephen King, for many years, has been referred to by his fans, media critics, and publishers alike as being the master of the horror genre. It is interesting to note, however, that King has published works of science fiction, fantasy, non-fiction and screenplays. He is also the owner of three radio stations in the central Maine area, an actor, and a contributor to a weekly entertainment column. His numerous titles have sold more than 350 million copies world-wide and have been adapted into several big-budget movies, many television mini-series’ and comic books. King has also assumed two pseudonyms: Richard Bachman and John Swithen.
“We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.” (Stephen King)
It has been argued by some, that King is living a life of luxury and riches based on the sales of a few bestsellers that might have promoted the purchase of lesser quality publications. His fans, no doubt, would argue that his work has contributed greatly to the design of American pop culture. It comes as no surprise that for decades now, he has been an American literary icon. No matter how much money and fame King accumulates, he does not participate in the typical Hollywood celebrity lifestyle; he stays away from the pressures of star-power by residing in the small town-like setting of Bangor, Maine.
King, who was born in Portland, Maine in 1947, has mounted many hills of success and has toiled through various personal valleys to get to where he is today. At the age of two, his father, Donald Edwin, left home to fetch a package of cigarettes and never returned. King was left in the care of his mother, Nellie Ruth Pillsbury King, with his old brother, David. Through several family relocations and financial strain, a childhood King stumbled upon an old paperback version of H.P. Lovecraft’s collection of short stories. King describes that pivotal moment as the beginning to his passion for the craft of telling stories. Throughout his elementary school years, King wrote and published stories in his brother’s newspaper, Dave’s Rag, and later, sold the stories to his friends for a mere thirty cents. In 1965, one year before his high school graduation, King published his first professional piece in the magazine Comics Review. The story was titled, “I Was a Teenage Grave Robber.”
In 1966, King enrolled in the English program at the University of Maine and graduated, in 1970, with a Bachelor of Science in English. His studies were funded by working odd jobs, including one at an industrial Laundromat. After school King obtained a certificate which would allow him to teach high school, but he could not find employment. He began submitting short stories to magazines to supplement his income from jobs involving physical labour as well as pumping gasoline for $1.25 an hour.
King married Tabitha Spruce in 1971. In the fall of that same year, King found a teaching job that paid him $6,400 a year. He continued to work on his stories and, unfortunately, developed an addiction to alcohol which would last more than a decade. Tabitha would turn out to be the driving force behind King’s success. Carrie, King’s first novel, was published in 1973 in part due to his wife’s persistence. At one point, Tabitha had fished the manuscript from the household garbage and insisted that King submit it to a publisher. Doubleday was that publisher and the Stephen King we know today had been born. The publication and distribution of Carrie earned King $202,500; enough so that he could quit his teaching job and concentrate fulltime on his writing.
King continued to write while relocating to take care of his ailing mother who died of lung cancer in 1974. She lived to see her son become a published author and to read his manuscript. She did not, however, live long enough to see the book in actual print. Throughout his mother’s ordeal with the disease and even while delivering the eulogy at her funeral, King wrestled with his addictions.
In 1976, the film version of Carrie was released. In same year, King’s second book, Salem’s Lot, was also released. The media attention and wide-spread success of King’s work skyrocketed him into the realms of celebrity and stardom. His reputation as a successful contributor to, and writer of, the horror genre had been solidified. King was here to stay.
It wasn’t until 1987 that King was forced to face his personal demons. An intervention, planned and carried out by family and friends, found King accepting that he was at an ultimate low in his life. Not only a slave to alcoholism and cigarette addiction, but also the use of cocaine, Xanax, Valium and marijuana, King decided to make a change. As a result, he has been clean and sober since the late 1980’s.
Tragedy once again hit the King family in 1999 when King was struck by a minivan while on a leisurely walk. King endured five surgeries to mend his wounds which included: a collapsed lung, leg fractures, a broken hip, and scalp lacerations. Two years later, King suffered from a diagnosis of severe pneumonia as a result of his punctured lung during the accident.
Perseverance, commitment, and a passion for the arts have kept King’s spirit and motivation alive. His 50+ published books more than prove his loyalty to his genre and literary art as a whole. Many honours have been bestowed upon King for his work. He has received six Bram Stoker Awards, six Horror Guild Awards, five Locus Awards, three World Fantasy Awards, and two Lifetime Achievement Awards. In 2007, King was awarded for his lifetime achievement by the Canadian Literary Guild. He is the single non-Canadian to be presented with this award.
King and his wife own two houses – one in Bangor, Maine and the other, a winter home, in Sarasota, Florida. He has three children: Owen, Joseph, and Naomi, and three grandchildren. His wife has published nine books of her own and his two sons are also published authors. King’s daughter ministers a church in Florida.
On November 11, 2008, King released his fifth collection of thirteen short stories, his latest masterpiece, entitled Just After Sunset. After many years and many hours of entertainment, King shows no signs of slowing down. His website, however, states that he is “writing at a much slower pace” than usual and if he feels he has written something that is “really good,” he will publish it. He says that, “the force of [his] invention has slowed down a lot over the years and that’s as it should be.”
Let’s hope, for his millions of fans, that this is not the case!
By Byron Thomas
Of interest to fans:
- www.skemers.com (meet other fans, discuss books and movies, plan events, participate in chat forums)
- www.stephenking.com (the official Stephen King webpage)
- www.bettsbooks.com (a local bookstore in Bangor, Maine with a massive collection of Stephen King merchandise that may be ordered online – the ultimate collector’s source)