Duke of the dark arts

Horror writer Stephen King has written 49 books and sold 350m copies since his debut, Carrie, 40 years ago. Now the cult classic is being remade. King’s name is a byword for sinister, says John Daly.

HORROR writer Stephen King has been scaring us for four decades. Carrie, the novel with the infamous bucket of blood toppled over a teenage girl at the high school prom, was published in 1973, and was the breakthrough for one of the most prolific of writers.

King’s debut, the tale of a girl who unleashed her telekinetic powers upon her tormentors, was made into the Oscar-nominated 1976 film of the same name, starring the blood-splattered Sissy Spacek. Later this year, a new screen version of Carrie will be released, starring Chloe Grace Moretz, with Julianne Moore playing her religious-zealot mother, Margaret White. A new generation will be as scared as their parents were by Carrie.

Born in Maine, King has been a resident of his home state, on the Canadian border, for most of his life. Despite his parents’ separation when he was five, he had a normal childhood, and showed his first literary inclinations in his sophomore year at the University of Maine, where he wrote a weekly column for the school newspaper. Graduating in 1970 with a BA in English, he began teaching at the public school in Hampden — the same year, he married Tabitha, his college sweetheart, and a fellow writer.

King sold his first short story, ‘The Glass Floor’, in 1967, to Startling Mystery Stories, and continued writing to supplement his teaching income until his first novel, Carrie, was accepted by Doubleday in 1973 — he then left teaching to write full-time.

Using his earnings to buy his first house, on Sebago Lake, King’s next novel, Salem’s Lot, was written in a small room over the garage. Like Carrie, the book was a bestseller, and a television series.

Moving to Colorado a year later — one of his few periods away from Maine — King wrote what many consider his best work, The Shining — adapted for the screen with Jack Nicholson giving crazed vent to one of one of cinema’s legendary catchphrases: “Heeere’s Johnny!” Over the next two years, King produced his epic, post-apocalyptic opus about good versus evil, The Stand, followed soon after by The Dead Zone.

Just five years after his debut, King had become a global literary sensation.

King is estimated to be worth €300m — he has sold more than 350m copies of his 49 books. Many of the books have been made into feature films or mini-series, including The Shawshank Redemption, It, Stand by Me, The Green Mile and Misery. Similar to director Alfred Hitchcock, King appears in minor roles in some of the films: as a minister in Pet Cemetery, a pizza messenger in Rose Red, a musician in The Shining and a cemetery caretaker in Sleepwalkers. Given they grew up in a home where Mom and Dad were full-time writers, it’s little wonder the King’s three children — Naomi Rachel, Joe Hill and Owen Phillip — are following a similar career path.

In one of those bizarre events where reality matched fiction, King was hit by a truck while walking near his home in 1999. Near-to-death on arrival at the local hospital, he sustained a collapsed lung, fractured right leg, broken hip and lacerations. The damage to his leg was so serious that doctors considered amputation.

The next year, when the van that hit him came up for auction, King bought it for $1,500, and immediately had it crushed in a junkyard.

Never the most accessible interviewee, King, 65, prefers to inform, and communicate with, his millions of fans through his extensive website.

Taking time to enjoy the fruits of his literary labours becomes more important as the years pass, he says.

“I’m not a kid of 25 anymore, and I’m not a young middle-aged man of 35 anymore, I have grandchildren and a lot of things to do besides writing. But writing is still a big, important part of my life, and of everyday,” he says.

For this duke of the dark arts, 2013 is just another year — with a variety of projects that must be the envy of his peers. His new book, Joyland, due in September, is a hard-boiled whodunit set in a circus — with his trademark mix of mystery, romance and pathos.

King has also written the screenplay for the adaptation of his novel Cell, starring John Cusack, and due to start filming shortly. One of his Dark Tower stories has also been optioned for a television series, to be directed by Ron Howard.

King’s most recent epic novel, Under The Dome, will also premiere as a new TV mini-series during the summer. Made by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, trailers for it featured in one of the half-time adverts at last month’s Super Bowl.

This year also heralds something new from King, a ‘southern gothic supernatural musical’ called Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, on which the writer collaborated with musicians John Mellencamp and T Bone Burnett.

The show, set to open in theatres this summer, features original music and lyrics from artists including Elvis Costello, Rosanne Cash, Sheryl Crow, Ryan Bingham and Kris Kristofferson, along with actors Matthew McConaughey and Meg Ryan.

Based on actual events in a small town in Mississippi in 1967, where a tragedy killed two brothers and a beautiful young girl, it offered King creative scope in the unknown sphere of theatre. “I get my ideas from everywhere,” he says on his website.

“But what all of my ideas boil down to is seeing, maybe, one thing, but in a lot of cases it’s seeing two things, and having them come together in some new and interesting way, and then adding the question ‘what if?’ That ‘what if’ is always the key question.”

With a creative output the equal of Charles Dickens, King is a willing adapter of new methods of reaching an audience.

In 1996, he published The Green Mile in six instalments, each 90 pages long, and priced well below normal book value.

In 2000, his novella, The Plant, was released in e-book instalments, allowing readers pay what they felt it was worth.

While such a ploy might be unremarkable today, 13 years ago it was eons ahead of its time. Just another canny sleight of hand from this master of suspense.

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