I’ve been reading Stephen King my entire life. From mass-market paperbacks purchased at the grocery store when I was twelve to now writing about his latest novel Fairy Tale at thirty-seven, King has been my sporadic companion. Although he’s written pretty much every kind of story one can tell—horror tales, detective fiction, romances, dramas, sci-fi, fantasy, period pieces, and fables—what interests me most about King’s fiction is not how inventive or creative or just plain berserk it often is, but rather how nakedly personal, how psychologically autobiographical it can be.
What I’m talking about are the messier ways King’s personal struggles are incorporated into his high-concept storytelling. Take the infamous example of his 1987 novel Misery, about a novelist who, after recently killing off the recurring heroine of his romance novels so that he can focus on more serious works, gets into a bad car wreck and winds up in a small Colorado town, where he’s tended to by Annie Wilkes, a former nurse and his “number-one fan.” Wilkes holds the novelist hostage, and when she discovers that he’s axed her favorite character, she demands that he write a new book to bring her back to life. Meanwhile, she feeds him painkillers until he becomes addicted and comes to depend on her for them. Oh, and she cuts off his foot and his thumb.
In On Writing, King minces no words describing what Misery is really about: “Annie was coke, Annie was booze, and I decided I was tired of being Annie’s pet writer.” King suffered from severe alcoholism and a cocaine addiction in the first decade and a half of his career before finally getting sober in the late ‘80s. As a metaphor for addiction, Misery is much more interesting than a straightforward thriller about a psychotic fan. The snowy setting isn’t merely an isolating factor of the novelist’s helplessness; it’s also a visual representation of the mountains of coke King snorted as he wrote. There’s other stuff going on in Misery, of course—it isn’t only a metaphor—but the deeply personal component of it is utterly compelling.
When King was struck by a van while on a walk in 1999 and nearly died, his next novel, Dreamcatcher, featured a character who gets hit by a car. So did his short-lived ABC series Kingdom Hospital, while Lisey’s Story imagines what would happen to the wife of a famous novelist if he suddenly died. The protagonist of Duma Key has a crane fall on him, and his lengthy recovery leads his wife to leave him. Soon after, the final three novels in the Dark Tower series, which King had been putting off for years, were suddenly completed and published in succession (part five, Wolves of the Calla in 2003; six and seven, Song of Susannah and The Dark Tower, both in 2004).
The motivation for these stories seems obvious: King was almost killed, which triggered both a new appreciation for life and a shift in the subject of his writing. Much of his work since the accident dwells on the past, both for King personally (besides the concluding Dark Tower entries, he also wrote sequels to The Shining and The Talisman) and for his characters—in 11/22/63, Jake Epping literally time-travels to prevent the JFK assassination, whereas the Pennsylvania State troopers in From a Buick 8 and the newspapermen in The Colorado Kid visit bygone days by telling stories. In both of these cases, the mysteries they attempt to unearth with their tales yield few results. Some things have no explanation.
I know the above paragraph violates sacrosanct rules about authorial intention, biographical interpretation, and psychoanalyzing texts, but it’s hard for me not to think this way about King, given that his fame makes his private life more public. Moreover, King himself is pretty open and honest about his past, and he’s more than willing to expound upon the inspirations for his fiction. He often does so in brief Afterwords in the novels themselves, addressed, as always, to his “Constant Readers.” In this way, more than any other mega-bestselling author, King’s work—despite its ostensibly genre-focused, plot-based origins—can easily be viewed as an entryway into the author’s battle with his personal demons.
But perhaps the most fascinating insights we can glean about King from his fiction come from what I would argue are his most personal works, the ones that speak not to his behavior but his essential nature: his fantasy novels.
King hasn’t published as much fantasy as he has supernatural/horror. But his fantasy worlds are the ones that matter the most to him. Consider, as evidence, the inside pages of The Dark Tower, the seventh and final book in the series, in which there appears a list of other books by Stephen King. It’s a lengthy list, even back in 2004. What makes this list noteworthy are the titles that appear in bold. In addition to the other books of the Dark Tower, they are: ‘Salem’s Lot, The Stand, The Talisman, IT, Eyes of the Dragon, Insomnia, Rose Madder, Desperation, Bag of Bones, Black House, From a Buick 8, The Regulators, Skeleton Crew, Everything’s Eventual, and Hearts in Atlantis. A note at the bottom of the page informs us that these bolded novels are “Dark Tower-related.” Since then, King published another Dark Tower novel (The Wind Through the Keyhole) and others (Cell, 11/22/63) that at least contain references to the series.
Fantasy is a labyrinth of possibility, creativity, and the thrill of discovery.
This means that King found a way to incorporate elements, characters, or settings from more than a dozen of his novels and several short stories into The Dark Tower, which itself consists of eight books. His epic tale of Roland Deschain and his ka-tet of misfits journeying through Mid-World toward the Dark Tower unites, informs, and retroactively revises a large chunk of his oeuvre. He’s clearly deeply invested in the fantasy worlds he has created, in a different manner than his horror concoctions. Horror is where King navigates the dark corridors of his adult psyche, whereas fantasy is a labyrinth of possibility, creativity, and the thrill of discovery.
These worlds—and the stories accompanying them—share a number of similarities. King doesn’t operate in the Tolkien fashion of setting his yarns in a wholly independent realm distinct from this reality. Rather, he follows the tradition of Lewis Carroll and C.S. Lewis: creating new worlds that are adjacent to or even concomitant with our own. They are hidden from most people, but can be visited in the right circumstances. King’s protagonists—usually young boys with one parent dead and the other ailing—enter these universes through various entry points, which are provided for them by wise and enigmatic old men they’ve recently met.
His latest novel, Fairy Tale, features a teenage boy named Charlie who finds himself on a trek across a fantasy land called Empris. Charlie’s mother died when he was young and his father fell into a deep bout of alcoholism as a result, though he’s now in recovery. Charlie discovers Empris via a mysterious stranger: an aging recluse named Mr. Bowditch who lives in a creepy house and scares all the neighborhood children.
The Talisman, which King co-wrote with Peter Straub, features a twelve-year-old boy named Jack who finds himself on a trek across a parallel America called the Territories. Jack’s father is dead and his mother is dying from cancer. Jack discovers the Territories via a mysterious stranger: an aging carnival worker named Speedy Parker. Even The Dark Tower has Jake Chambers, a young boy who gets pulled into Mid-World by Roland the Gunslinger. And although though it’s not a fantasy in the same way as these titles, From a Buick 8 stars Ned, the son of a recently killed state trooper who wants to learn all about his father, who is then guided through the strange tale of the Buick Roadmaster stored in the troop’s barracks by Sandy, a wise older man. The Buick, it turns out, is another one of those entryways between realms. Near the end of the novel, Sandy finally gets a glimpse inside: “The inside of the Buick was gone, cored out by purple light. Some unspeakable, unknowable conduit had opened. I was looking down an infected gullet and into another world.”
Another world. In The Gunslinger, Roland’s first encounter with Jake ends tragically: the Man in Black forces Roland to choose between the boy and his quest. Roland, who has dedicated his life to seeking the Dark Tower, sacrifices Jake, whose final words to Roland are, “Go then, there are other worlds than these.” This has since become an iconic line to Dark Tower aficionados (it was even used as the tagline for the ill-fated movie adaptation by Ron Howard). The Gunslinger came out in 1982, forty years ago. Now, in Fairy Tale, a character says to the child hero, “There are other worlds than these, Charlie.”
What is it about “other worlds” that so fascinates King that he would return to them over and over in his fiction? Let’s look at some of the ways these worlds change the characters who enter them. For Rosie in Rose Madder, the entryway is a painting, which offers her protection from—and also a place to set a trap for—her abusive ex-husband. Boo’ya Moon in Lisey’s Story, the fantasy realm that Lisey’s late writer husband visited for literary inspiration, provides Lisey with numerous rewards, including helping her sister, confronting a man who had been threatening her, and grieving for her lost love. Jack Sawyer travels through the Territories to save his dying mother, while Charlie enters Empris to help his aging dog Radar. These parallel universes grant King’s characters protection, creativity, solace, and some things that our world simply cannot.
King is just like the boys in his fantasies, who discover a magical and terrifying world.
When King was a boy growing up in Durham, Maine, he writes in Danse Macabre, he routed through the attic at his aunt’s house, a quasi-forbidden area “because the floorboards had only been laid, not nailed, and some were missing.” This attic was stuffed pretty full of family items, but “there was just room for a small boy to twist and turn his way along narrow aisles, ducking under the arm of a standing lamp or stepping over a crate of old wallpaper samples.” Once inside this forgotten labyrinth, twelve-year-old King stumbled upon his absent father’s “treasure trove of old Avon paperbacks,” a publisher “committed to fantasy and weird fiction.” This box of books was his “first encounter with serious fantasy-horror fiction,” and one book in particular, Lovecraft’s The Lurking Fear and Other Stories, “was [his] first taste of a world that went deeper than the B-pictures which played at the movies on Saturday afternoon or the boys’ fiction of Carl Carmer and Roy Rockwell.” King grew up without a father and with a mother who struggled financially while raising two children on her own. King is just like the boys in his fantasies, who discover a magical and terrifying world hidden in plain sight.
This treasure discovered at the end of a creepy labyrinth set King on the course to become a teller of otherworldly stories—and also served as the template for those stories. The other worlds of King’s fiction represent stories themselves: the transportive and transformative splendor of the great novels and tales that inspired King as a child and continued to inspire him as an adult. Written by mysterious figures like Lovecraft and Poe, these eerie works guided King to his fate. Stories are where King goes for inspiration, for solace, for escape, and for those wish-fulfilling qualities so integral to fantasy. These worlds also stand for the realms King himself invents, an endless vista of nightmares and dreamscapes. In the universe of his fiction, King can confront his demons, rewrite the past, and imagine what might happen in the future. “The part of me that writes the stories,” King notes in On Writing, knew that he was an alcoholic in 1975 when he wrote The Shining, way before King was consciously aware of it. He credits Annie Wilkes with helping him kick booze and drugs. His writing has saved his life many times.
Fairy Tale strikes me as King’s most direct ode to his love of stories and the powerful possibilities they possess. It’s a mostly guileless adventure rife with monsters, curses, and a battle between good and evil. Near the end, someone tells Charlie a story that they’d heard when they were a kid, and Charlie notes that “as you probably know for yourself, dear reader, it’s the stories of childhood that make the deepest impression and last the longest.” If Fairy Tale is anything to go by, the impression those Avon paperbacks had on young King persist more than sixty years on. Charlie vows that if he has children, he “will read them the old stories, the ones that start once upon a time.” As both of King’s sons are novelists now, we know that King did exactly this: he showed them the worlds of fiction he knew and sent them on their way to discover the ones he didn’t, as if telling them, “Go then, there are other worlds than these.”
Jonathan Russell Clark’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, the LA Times, the Boston Globe, and the San Francisco Chronicle.
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