The Rise of Stephen King

Tony Magistrale discussed the reputation of Stephen King for a guest lecture sponsored by the Comparative Arts and Letters Department.

PROVO, Utah (Nov. 16, 2017)—How did Stephen King become America’s Storyteller? At the beginning of his career, King was scorned by academia, considered a literary hack who produced trashy horror stories for the uneducated masses, the twentieth century equivalent of a penny dreadful writer. Now, several decades into his career, it would be difficult to dismiss King as anything less than one of the most influential writers of American and world culture. “He is the father of a generation of writers and readers who learned by studying his fiction and his composition text on writing,” explained Tony Magistrale, professor of English at the University of Vermont and author of Stephen King: America’s Storyteller. King’s writing has also been hugely instrumental in the film industry with the 2017 release of It marking at least 72 movies that have been inspired by his stories. Correspondingly, academia’s changing perception of King, from grungy horror writer to literary genius, is best marked not by his novels, but by his short stories.

King commented on his love for the short story genre in the introduction to Everything’s Eventual: “For me there are few pleasures so excellent as sitting in my favorite chair on a cold night with a hot cup of tea listening to the wind outside and reading a good story which I can complete in a single sitting.” Magistrale pointed out the peculiar nineteenth-century vibe of this statement; King is “praising the old-fashioned allure of reading . . . No mention of a digital screen, no mention of a Kindle to dilute or distract from the pure magic of entertaining.” The short story transports the reader to a new location and can be finished in one evening, without disruptions from daily life. This provides a uniquely transportative experience, the “essential joy that is possible when the imagination is fully engaged with the contents of a good story.”

In his short stories, King emulates Edgar Allan Poe who was known for his suspenseful, dramatic narratives. “Poe viewed terror as a refined emotion, he hoped to psychologize and effect terror as crucial,” Magistrale said. Like Poe, King has spent his entire career creating perilous physical and psychological situations for his characters “where readers often exist in a state of near breathlessness in their concern of what’s going to happen next.” The short format creates intense, powerful narratives that produce “chilling results”.

Like Poe, King was not lauded by his contemporaries at the beginning of his career. The publication of King’s short stories has transformed over his career. When King first began writing, his work was published mostly in low brow publications like Cosmopolitan, Playboy, and Cavalier, spurring Harold Bloom to call him the “Jingle King” and implicate King as a product of the failings of American education. In contrast, by the 2010s his work was regularly appearing in The Atlantic, Harper’s Magazine, Esquire, and the coveted The New Yorker. Magistrale’s question is: what changed? Did his quality improve? “Forty years later, his short stories are generally longer, more elaborately detailed in narrative structure, thicker, if you will,” he said. “But they are still recognizable King products.”

What might have been more influential in literary magazines publishing King’s novels, Magistrale theorizes, is the presence of a new, younger generation in the publishing and academic spheres. This generation grew up with King novels in their homes and never subscribed to the previous bias that King was a literary hack. His writings were incredibly popular among the general public even if not among literary scholars. Furthermore, publications are driven by sales. Including King’s writings in a magazine is a surefire way to increase sales, creating a mutually beneficial relationship for author and publisher. “As was once the case with Edgar Allen Poe in the nineteenth century, some of his contemporaries may not recognize his importance,” Magistrale stated, “but as the old guard dies, they are replaced with people interested in studying popular culture.”

King’s writing offers the reader important insights into the darker side of existence. When he received the National Medal of the Arts, President Obama described his stories as “remarkable storytelling with a sharp analysis of human nature.” King’s stories resonate with his audience because they expose a formidable and dangerous human world, reminding readers to be wary. His writing is popular, but as Magistrale said in his presentation, “popular does not always equate with being sub-literary.”

Hannah Sandorf Davis (B.A. Art History and Curatorial Studies ’17)

Hannah covers events for the Department of Comparative Arts and Letters for the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in art history with a minor in art.