The Importance of Stephen King

A dive into the works of a horror master.

When I first picked up a copy of The Shining for my third-year Literature course at university I was left unimpressed. The ghosts of the Overlook Hotel failed to give me the sweats and sleepless nights that I had expected from reading a King novel. There was nothing particularly original to give me a good scare and the book fell into obscurity in line with the other recommended reading for the course.

This all changed when, by chance, I picked up a copy of Cujo from my local bookstore after taking a look at the blurb and hearing it mentioned in circles of King lovers. Willing to give the “Master of horror” another shot, I took it and started reading.

It did not disappoint.

Always an animal lover and proud owner of a Staffordshire Bullterrier, I read in horror as the titular, loveable Saint Bernard Cujo transformed into a raging monster, hell-bent on mauling whoever was unfortunate enough to come across his path. The characters and setting, being eminently believable, made me look twice at every dog I passed in the street for weeks after reading and in this fact, I found the beauty of King’s story. Not only was it terrifying, it felt real. Suddenly any dog could catch rabies and suffer the same fate as Cujo did, and so any dog could become a killing machine as Cujo did. I read Cujo at age 20, and I am not ashamed to admit that I had nightmares for weeks afterwards.

After closing the cover on Cujo for the final time, horrified, but more importantly, satisfied, I knew that I had found a new cursed treasure trove of gothic horror to indulge in. Carrie shortly followed, then a rereading of The Shining came soon after, this tidal wave of King-mania only grew until 2018, when I decided that I love the New England author’s work so much that I was going to write a thesis about him.

It is fair to say then that King has had an important impact on my own life as a reader and a writer, but he does so much more through his stories that distinguish them from the deluge of other novels published year on year.

So what makes King great? This is difficult to answer when the author himself compares his works to cheap, low-quality fast food. Not only are many of his critics willing to throw him under the bus, but King is just as happy to do the same.

Yet, to find evidence of his great one only has to look at any of his more famous novels, or even less famous (yes he’s that good).

Take then, Pet Sematary for instance. While not his most contemporary work, it is the one that King himself has admitted disturbs him the most. While on the surface it appears to be a run-of-the-mill zombie story, with loved ones coming back from the grave with monstrous intent and the novel’s denouement resulting in blood, death and abject terror, there is so much more to find throughout the story.

At its core, Pet Sematary depicts the American Dream slowly disintegrating until the final chapters of the book where it becomes a nightmare and we are finally put out of our misery and no longer have to witness this once prosperous, middle-class family devolve any more into degradation and insanity. Doctor Louis Creed faces the cruel reality that even his skill and knowledge as a doctor cannot save those he loves from the spectre of death. In addition, we are reminded of the frailty of the human condition, with body, mind, soul and spirit all challenged and, in some cases, destroyed throughout the novel. King proves too he that he will not hold back; in targeting the most vulnerable and innocent among us he pushes his characters (and readers) to the limits of their endurance only to watch them break, that is where the true horror lies.

References to the perennial Frankenstein abound throughout Pet Sematary too, while similar themes of temptation and death are used not only as homages to Shelley’s classic but also to build upon it. Herein is another beauty of King, he does not merely copy others, including ghosts, vampires, werewolves and the like because he is beret of originality, he does so to push the boundaries of what we, the reader, accept these monsters to be.

Furthermore, the genius of King is his ability to create hybridity within his fiction. Pet Sematary, like so many of his other works, is a mixture of gothic horror, American Modernism and contains undercurrents of colonialism that serve only to prove King’s ability as a writer of intricate and thought-provoking stories.

Crucially, Pet Sematary is only one example amongst many and King has continued to prove his prowess, writing well into the twenty-first century and the seventh decade of his writing career, impressing with Under the Dome, Cell, and many, many more since the year 2000.

King then is not only important as a literary icon and inspiration to authors and readers alike, but he is also a constant reminder that the horror genre is one to be taken seriously and underestimated at our peril. Did I, after reading Pet Sematary, believe that I could bury my relatives and have them come back to life in a murderous rage? Of course not. But I did realise how the sacred institution of family, inexorable and impenetrable in my naïve eyes, was just as vulnerable and prone to destruction as anything else in the world.

And that is the scariest thought of all.

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