Essay about Modern Horror Autor: Stephen King


IT, Carrie, Cujo, and The Shining- all of these movies have something in common- they are all based on Stephen King novels. At least 40 movies are inspired by his style and works, making him a beacon of modern horror. In the present, new adaptations of his novels are being made into films. Even if not directly adapted from his novels, authors and directors are taking inspiration from his style and weaving it in their own works. As an icon, Stephen King and his works are part of horror conventions and museum exhibits. His focus on the underdeveloped horror genre intensely built upon it as a whole. Also, by not limiting his novels strictly to the page, King changed the film industry by introducing new styles and techniques to make movies. This expansion of his stories solidified him as a pop culture legend as well. Through his numerous contributions to horror literature, Stephen King changed the course of American pop culture and the film industry.

Stephen King was born in Portland, Maine in 1947 to Donald and Nellie Ruth Pillsbury King. This was during a period of major socio-political disarray; the Red Scare and anti-communist actions took place during King’s formative years. He grew up in a time of global hostility, but since he was so young, they do not play a major role in his works. These events serve as background for character building rather than being the setting of his novels. At an early age, King’s parents separated, leaving him and his brother to be raised by their mother, who liked horror. While this traumatic experience is not the cause of his focus on horror, it was a major event in his childhood. King’s introduction to horror started with him listening to radio programs of the genre such as “Dimension X” at night, even when he was not supposed to.  Culturally, the time of King’s youth is called the golden age of television; the amount of family televisions and programs skyrocketed in this period, with sci-fi on the rise. The fame of the classic Universal monsters of Dr. Frankenstein, the Invisible Man, and Dracula surrounded King. In result, horror was all around him in the media. The increasing popularity of the television program The Twilight Zone also influenced King because of its unique style that incorporates suspense and storytelling. This show in specific is cited by King as something that formed his interest in writing (Hansen). From a young age, King had a vivid imagination, many fears, and became interested in writing short stories about them.

This hobby of short story writing evolved into writing speculative fiction during his college years at the University of Maine at Orono (Mohammed). There, King wrote columns for the newspaper and participated in student politics. He served in the student senate, and supported the anti Vietnam war movement. While his works are not focused on this war, they involve internal struggles that represent his anti-war sentiments. King wrote more short stories in this time of his life, making it a stepping stone for his literary career. He also wrote for male magazines, but they were not very notable, keeping much of his work in the dark. After college, he took a job as a high school english teacher, but due to low pay and little time for personal writing, King felt that his career would never start. This led him to trash many drafts. His major success would come after he met his wife Tabitha in college. It was her faith in King that pushed him to publish his first major novel Carrie in 1974. If not for her, King would have kept his draft in the trash, and may not have the cultural influence that he has today (King). This novel made him very popular, giving him the confidence boost to dedicate his life to being a successful author with a new take on the horror genre (Flood). 

Stephen King is part of the postmodern era of literature. It is a movement that began in the mid 20th century and continues to today that embraces diversity, accepts anxiety, and progresses with the times and current events. King’s style incorporates realistic horror, expositional immersion, and extended metaphors. His upbringing in smaller towns across the country, specifically in New England influenced the setting of many of his novels. Derry, Maine is the setting for IT, and his description of this town showcases his realistic take on world-building. In this novel, King portrays Derry as a quaint city with little meaning on the outside, but with many gory layers underneath. Christopher Haupt of the New York Times wrote recently after the novel came out that the setting was “a museum filled with the popular culture of the 1950s: brand names, rock 'n' roll songs and stars, the jokes and routines of childhood in that era” (Haupt). The townspeople show the hidden hypocrisy and internal divisions, a theme King focuses on a lot (Barnes). This hidden aspect is part of many King novels, showing his concealed messages that reach as deep as the setting. Another major element of King’s style is his character building. He creates relatable characters with realistic experiences, and some that are darker to begin with than others. For example, Carrie White from Carrie is bullied and faces rejection. These experiences are typical of teenagers and familiar to many of his adult readers. This relatability puts emphasis on King’s use of immersion in his expositions. By transporting readers to these small towns with identifiable characters, he immerses them in a whole universe for a novel. Readers comment that “he fully immerses you in this alternate reality of New England with remarkable speed” (Garrett). Other than King’s direct style of world and character development, he uses indirect extended metaphors and plays with the idea of evil hiding in plain sight. The murderers and psychopaths- villians- in many of King’s novels are walking right next to the sane characters. This shows the recurring theme of the hidden darkness of man. He uses symbols such as alcoholism in The Shining and domestic abuse in Carrie to show this. Abused by her mother and bullied by classmates, Carrie eventually snaps, but the buildup of her mental torture is what expresses King’s theme that bad people drive good people insane. The actions against Carrie and the rapid alcohol consumption by Jack Torrance in The Shining are symbols of personal struggles with inner demons that are held within and taken out on others. In both of these novels, Carrie and Jack respectively walk amongst their peers and family without showing their psychopathic intentions and wicked minds. King also uses extended metaphors to show hidden fears. Pennywise is expressed as the culmination of childhood fears and how people let them dominante their lives. These two recurring themes that portray hidden darknesses are a hallmark of King’s style. 

Another key aspect is his use of suspense. While typical in horror literature, King uses suspense as the pinnacle of characters’ strength and relationships. His dynamism in characters created in the exposition makes readers more invested, leading to increased immersion in their conflicts. Even failure in conflicts shows strength in his characters. For example, Jack Torrance tries to revert back to his true self, and even in failure, tells his son that he loves him. In toying with parts of the soul, King “manages to make us feel sorry for them in a weirdly satisfying way” (The Writing Style of Stephen King). Through mastering horror realism, hidden themes, extended metaphors, and suspense Stephen King created an innovative style of horror, making him a legend in the genre.

King’s works were not well liked by many at first, but are now celebrated as literary works of art. At first, many of his novels were heavily criticized and made into controversies by the press. For example, in the same year,  Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes questioned King’s literary tastes, while in contrast, the New York Times  “would compliment the breadth of King’s literary knowledge even while panning his epic best-seller The Stand” (Romano). King’s style and works went on to inspire many directors in their works. One of the most popular directing duos, the Duffer brothers, cites IT as “the big one..probably the biggest, I think” (Hansen). Also on the list of King inspired directors is JJ Abrams, long time fan, and producer of the television series Lost, which contains elements of The Langoliers in it (Hansen).  This shows that King’s works are not just popular, but inspire others to build from them. It shows the power of his impact on not only the horror genre, but on science fiction. Throughout his career, King has been nominated for and won many prestigious awards, most notably including 7 academy awards for The Shawshank Redemption and the National Medal of The Arts by former president Barack Obama (Flood). King’s massive and diverse fan base ranges from directors to consumers alike, leading to his prevalence at horror and comic conventions, museum exhibits like Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture, and on televisions and big-screens worldwide. Stephen King’s introspective and striking take on the horror genre built a legacy that extends to most forms of entertainment, an extensive following, and a place in the history of horror.

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