(This profile of Stephen King – written by yours truly – was originally published on my old Examiner.com Profile page, which is since defunct. That’s fine by me – that site had turned into a damned tabloid, and I’m lucky to have salvaged this biography intact. Minor changes have been made since the original 2009 posting.)
Where does one begin to discuss “America’s Favorite Boogeyman,” the man who is a brand-name publishing sensation unto himself? Why at the beginning, of course. But the prospect of cramming this long life and prolific career into a short biography is daunting. Nay, even scary. Then again … Stephen King would probably want it that way.
Stephen Edwin King was born in Portland, Maine on September 21st, 1947 – the only natural child of Donald King, a “door-to-door Electrolux salesman,” and Nellie Ruth Pillsbury King, a homemaker. Before Stephen’s birth, the Kings had been told that Ruth could not bear children, so they adopted a boy and named him David. A few years later, they were happily surprised when Ruth became pregnant with Steve. Well … Ruth was happy. Donald, on the other hand, went out for a pack of cigarettes when Steve was two-years-old, and was never seen or heard from again. Ruth had to scramble fast to support her sons, and hence worked a number of jobs.
After moving across the country a few times (Wisconsin, Indiana, Connecticut), the Kings returned to Durham, Maine when Steve was eleven. Steve’s maternal grandparents were becoming too elderly to care for themselves, so Ruth King took it on herself to care for them (which she did until their deaths) – after their passing, she worked in food service at Vineland a local facility for mentally-challenged residents. Always a voracious reader, Ruth King encouraged the same in her sons, and both Dave and Steve were often wont to be seen with their nose buried in a paperback (when, of course, they weren’t down at the local movie house, taking in the latest sci-fi or horror B-picture).
Stephen attended Durham Elementary School and Lisbon High School. It was at the latter where Steve, totally enthralled by the movies he was seeing, decided to write short “novelizations” of them, and sell them to family and friends for a quarter a pop. When a teacher caught him doing this at school, he was stopped immediately, and made to return his profits. Steve had copied the stories on an old manual drum-press that his brother David kept in the basement, and which he “lathered up with the world’s stinkiest, oogiest ink.” Dave cranked out (literally) his own “newspaper” on this erstwhile mimeograph, a combination “family newsletter and small-town bi-weekly” which he called Dave’s Rag. Steve would become a frequent contributor to the homemade publication, doing editorials, movie reviews and serialized short stories. Steve also wrote for the school paper, The Drum, where his unique sense of humor often caused much controversy. Two things were obvious about Steve in early adolescence: A) he was extremely tall for his age, already standing over 6 feet tall. B) Steve was obviously an imaginative writer, but he had yet to find his niche.
When Steve was 13, he visited the nearby house of an aunt and uncle – digging around in their attic, he found something that would forever alter the course of his life: a box filled with old paperbacks, mostly horror and science fiction, left (ironically) by his deadbeat father. While many of the titles were by more antiquated authors like Stoker and Lovecraft, Steve read them all enthralled. He went on to discover these writers’ more contemporary counterparts like Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson, who taught Steve that the “things that go bump in the night” were much scarier in contemporary American settings. Steeped in the pulp fiction of the 50s and 60s, everything from TV, movies and EC Comics, Steve had, indeed, found his niche … even though it would be years before his work was printed on anything other than an old mimeograph, and priced higher than a quarter. This moribund interest was also viewed with some disdain, as Steve would later comment, “As a kid growing up in rural Maine, my interest in horror and the fantastic wasn’t looked upon with any approval whatsoever – there went young Steve King, his nose either in a lurid issue of ‘Tales From the Vault’ or an even more lurid paper of some sort or other …” Throughout the rest of his high school years, Steve became increasingly isolated, spending more and more time alone, reading and writing. He felt like an outsider at school – a theme which would show up later in many of his books.
After graduating high school in 1966, Steve attended the University of Maine at Orono. Just like high school, Steve was again utilized for the campus newspaper, where he wrote a column called Steve King’s Garbage Truck. Steve was active in student politics, supported the anti-war movement and, to support his schooling, worked in an industrial laundry (which he would later write about in a short story called The Mangler). While at college, Steve sold a short story, The Glass Floor, to Startling Mystery Stories – it was his first professional sale (not counting I Was a Teenage Grave Robber which appeared in the fanzine Comics Review a few months earlier). Steve graduated in 1970 with a B.A. in English and a certificate to teach high school. However, the most important thing Steve took away from college was Tabitha Spruce, a fellow writer whom he met while working in the campus library. They married in January 1971.
Unable to find work as a teacher, Steve continued to work at the laundry. He also wrote (and was unable to sell) several short novels, including Getting It On (aka Rage), The Long Walk, The Running Man, and the first part of a proposed seven-part epic called The Dark Tower (kind of The Lord of the Rings meets The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly). The rejection slips piled up, and Steve later said of this period: “I began to have long talks with myself at night about whether or not I was chasing a fool’s dream.” Occasionally he sold a short story to men’s magazines like Cavalier, Swank or Dude. By the end of 1971, Steve was hired to teach high school English at Hampden Academy in Hampden Maine – he earned $6,400 per year. The Kings lived in a trailer at this point, and had two kids, a daughter, Naomi, and a son, Joe. Money was tight, to put it mildly, and when the occasional three digit check from the “girlie books” came, it was usually just in time to buy medicine or diapers for the kids.
Discouraged, Steve began work on an unusual story born from two different ideas: adolescent cruelty and telekinesis – the main character, Carrie White, a picked-on girl with no friends and a religious whack-job of a mother, was also possessed of burgeoning extrasensory powers. After only a few pages, Steve, convinced he was writing way out of his element, crumpled it up and threw it away. Later, while Tabitha was cleaning, she discovered the pages, read them, and encouraged Steve to continue. Steve did, and ended up with a 25,000 word novella, too long to sell as a short story, and and too short to be considered a novel. Steve considered the unpublishable book to be “the world’s all- time loser.”
In January of 1973, Steve submitted Carrie to Doubleday Publishing. Within a few months, after rewriting the novel per the suggestions of editor William Thompson, it sold for an advance of $2,500. The Kings did not have a phone, so Thompson had to send a telegram. While wondering what to do next, Steve and Tabitha moved to Bangor. While that publishing advance helped, it was a pittance compared to what happened next. By May of that same year, New American Library purchased the paperback rights to Carrie for $400,000 (half of which went to the original publisher). Of this, Steve later said, “To say that Tabby and I were flabbergasted by this news would be to understate the case – there may be no word in English capable of stating our reactions exactly.”
While waiting for Carrie to be published, Steve sent his editor two other novels in progress: Blaze and Second Coming. Both agreed the latter was the better of the two, and Steve promptly finished it with a new title: ‘Salem’s Lot. During this time, Steve’s mother, who had been diagnosed with cancer the previous year, died on December 18th, 1973. Ruth King never got to see her son’s massive success, but she was able to hold a “galley” copy of Carrie and have it read to her.
After this, the Kings up and moved to Boulder, Colorado, where, after visiting the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Steve was inspired to write The Shining (click the link for much more about this). They stayed there less than a year, before returning to Maine, and Steve finished two more books, The Stand and The Dead Zone. After moving yet again, this time to England, the Kings returned stateside after only three months, where they bought homes in Center Lovell and Orrington (near Bangor), and Steve began a brief tenure teaching creative writing at his alma mater. Their third child, Owen, was born in 1977.
Book sales for Carrie were not stellar, although the reviews were good. It wasn’t until the film rights were sold, and director Brian De Palma turned Carrie into a hit movie in 1976 that Steve got the publishing boost he needed … indeed into the stratosphere. Over the next few years, Steve would redefine what it meant to be a best-selling author. His prolific output during these early years included Carrie (1974), ‘Salem’s Lot (1975), The Shining (1977), The Stand (1978), Night Shift (1978 – short stories), The Dead Zone (1979), Firestarter (1980), Cujo (1981), Danse Macabre (1981 – nonfiction), The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger (1982), Different Seasons (1982 – four novellas, including Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption), Christine (1983), Pet Sematary (1983), The Talisman (1984 – cowritten with Peter Straub), Thinner (1984 – as Richard Bachman), Skeleton Crew (1985 – more short stories), The Bachman Books (1985 – four early novels published under the Bachman pseudonym), IT (1986), The Eyes of the Dragon (1987), Misery (1987), The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three (1987), and The Tommyknockers (1988).
After 14 years as a brand name writer, after having film directors as respected as Stanley Kubrick, David Cronenberg, and Rob Reiner turn his books into cinematic masterpieces, and after becoming the richest writer in the world, Stephen King had the world by the tail. He had also, in this time, developed a bad case of alcoholism and drug addiction. According to Steve’s memoir On Writing (2000), his family and friends staged an intervention and, after seeking help, Steve cleaned up. He has remained clean and sober ever since.
Over the next ten years, Steve continued to churn out books like a man possessed. Titles include The Dark Half (1989), The Stand: the Complete & Uncut Edition (1990), Four Past Midnight (1990 – four novellas), Needful Things (1991), The Dark Tower III: The Wastelands (1991), Gerald’s Game (1992), Dolores Claiborne (1993), Nightmares & Dreamscapes (1993 – short stories), Insomnia (1994), Rose Madder (1995), The Green Mile (1996 – originally published as a six-part serial), Desperation (1996), The Dark Tower IV: Wizard and Glass (1997), Bag of Bones (1998), Storm of the Century (1999 – a teleplay), The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (1999), and Hearts in Atlantis (1999).
Then, on June 19th, 1999, it almost all came to an end. Steve was walking the shoulder of Route 5 in Center Lovell, Maine, when a van driven by Bryan Smith, struck him and knocked him into a ditch about 14 feet away. When help arrived, and Steve was taken to the hospital, his injuries were listed as a collapsed right lung, multiple fractures of his right leg, scalp laceration and a broken hip. Five operations over ten days, and intense physical therapy helped Steve return home – but his hip was still shattered and he couldn’t sit at his computer without experiencing intense pain. Later, after his healing had progressed a bit, Steve purchased Smith’s van for $1,500 (to prevent it from appearing on eBay), and had it crushed at a junkyard after he had beat the crap out of it with a baseball bat. When Steve did return to writing, he began by polishing up a memoir he had almost completed before the accident, entitled On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000), and Dreamcatcher (2000), the latter of which he worked on longhand, with pen and pad.
Following this, Steve published Black House (2001 – sequel to The Talisman, co-written with Peter Straub), From a Buick 8 (2002), Everything’s Eventual (2002 – short stories), The Dark Tower V: Wolves of the Calla (2003), The Dark Tower VI: Song of Susannah (2004), and The Dark Tower VII: The Dark Tower (2004). In 2003, after finally wrapping up his 30-year Dark Tower saga, Steve announced to the world that he was retiring, and would not publish any more books. Said retirement didn’t last long, however, and the ensuing years brought Cell (2006), Lisey’s Story (2006), Blaze (2007 – another early “Bachman” novel), Duma Key (2008), and Just After Sunset (2008 – short stories).
In 1996, Stephen King won an O. Henry Award for his short story The Man in the Black Suit. In 2003, he received The National Book Foundation Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, where his work was described thusly: Stephen King’s writing is securely rooted in the great American tradition that glorifies spirit-of-place and the abiding power of narrative. He crafts stylish, mind-bending page-turners that contain profound moral truths – some beautiful, some harrowing – about our inner lives. This Award commemorates Mr. King’s well-earned place of distinction in the wide world of readers and book lovers of all ages. Though a few of the elite balked, other authors (such as Orson Scott Card) quickly came to his defense. In his acceptance speech, Steve said, “I salute the National Book Foundation Board, who took a huge risk in giving this award to a man many people see as a rich hack.”
In August of 2007, while Steve was visiting a bookstore in Alice Springs, Australia, he was mistaken for a vandal. Unceremoniously signing his own books, a customer reported that a vandal was scribbling in paperbacks in the fiction section.
Recent works by the author include Full Dark, No Stars (2010), Joyland (2013), Doctor Sleep (2013), Mr. Mercedes (2014), Revival (2014), Finders Keepers (2015), The Bazaar of Bad Dreams (2015), and End of Watch (2016).
Stephen and Tabitha King now divide their time between Maine and Florida – they provide scholarships for local high school students and contribute to many other local and national charities. Of their three children, daughter Naomi Rachel is a minister, and sons Joe Hill and Owen Phillip are both writers. Between them, they have given Steve and Tabby three grandchildren.
With over 70 books published over four decades, an estimated 350 million copies sold, Stephen King holds the record as the best-selling author of the 20th century.
Stephen King quotes:
“I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud.”
“I am the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries.”
“People want to know why I do this, why I write such gross stuff. I like to tell them I have the heart of a small boy … and I keep it in a jar on my desk.”
“If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.”
“The author who influenced me the most as a writer was Richard Matheson.”
“I know writers who claim not to read their notices, or not to be hurt by the bad ones if they do, and I actually believe two of these individuals. I’m one of the other kind – I obsess over the possibility of bad reviews and brood over them when they come. But they don’t get me down for long; I just kill a few children and old ladies, and then I’m right as a trivet again.”
“If you wrote something for which someone sent you a check, if you cashed the check and it didn’t bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented.”
“Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.”
Recommended books about Stephen King:
The Stephen King Companion by George Beahm
Stephen King: America’s Best-Loved Boogeyman by George Beahm
Feast of Fear: Conversations with Stephen King Tim Underwood and Chuck Miller, editors