Today marks the seventy-first birthday of the most prolific horror author of all time. While specific tastes may not make him the unanimous choice for Greatest Horror Author of All-Time, there’s no debating the numbers speak for themselves.
Stephen King’s bibliography hovers near 100, including 58 novels and close to 200 short stories. Bookstores world-wide have seen King titles come off the shelves over 350 million times. The list of awards he’s been nominated for and won is just as staggering, with perhaps the greatest recognition coming in 2014 when he was awarded the National Medal of Arts.
It’s not always been easy for King but it’s always been right. If King was writing, all was well- for both author and Constant Reader.
The man responsible for decades of nightmares wrote some of his earliest work in the laundry room of the double-wide trailer he shared with his wife, Tabitha, and two young children. A small desk was wedged between the washer and dryer and King would spend most evenings pounding away at Tabitha’s typewriter after his day jobs. After King was nearly killed by a reckless driver in 1999, there were whispers of retirement and even the author himself admitted he’d stop writing but you can’t keep a good dog down. King has produced twenty-four novels and countless essays, short stories and the like since his recovery from the accident. The maestro of the macabre has overcome addiction, defied the odds by going from a gas station attendant (among other jobs) to a global best-seller and has managed to keep the nightmare fuel coarsing through his veins over forty-five years after the release of his first novel, Carrie.
Make no mistake – Stephen King is much, much more than your average creepy crawly, spooky scribe. He’s churned out titles like Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption – you may know that one better as the shorter titled film beloved by just about anyone who has ever seen it. He’s also responsible for short stories that turned into films such as Stand By Me, The Green Mile and Hearts In Atlantis.
His memoir on the art of his profession, On Writing, is considered must-read material by Constant Readers and scholars alike. Danse Macabre, a non-fiction love letter to the history of horror in film, art, radio and print, is such a go-to book in my collection that I have two copies.
King’s universe also doesn’t orbit solely around literature.
A collaboration with musician John Mellencamp and legendary producer T Bone Burnett in 2012 birthed Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, a stage musical that was well-received by critics and also was released as a soundtrack.
Naturally, King as seen his work translated onto the silver- and big-screen more than any author in recent memory. He’s dabbled in directing, cameo appearances and producing, as well. If you haven’t seen him as Jordy Verrill in Creepshow, you are missing some grade-A goofball acting.
King’s fans are called Constant Readers and we wear the name like a badge of honor. We circle our calendars when new releases are announced. We take pride in knowing how every story connects to one another – because all things serve the beam! If you are looking to complete your collection of rare, mint condition first edition novels, there are some fantastic Facebook groups and sites online that will help you do just that.
For most of us, being a Constant Reader means more than just getting the first copy of the newest book at the local bookshop. It’s a deeply rooted part of our life, a still-vibrant patch on our tapestry of life that has been there since many of us were too young to cuss. Being a Constant Reader meant going along for the ride with King and his work, good or bad, without hesitation. That also meant King and his work was there for your ride, too, good or bad.
When my mother passed away in 2016, after the initial suffocating shock eased up at least a little, one of the first things I said to my wife was, “I lost my horror buddy. I won’t have anyone to get the new Stephen King books with.”
Last September, I was fortunate enough to see the Milwaukee leg of the Stephen and Owen King tour to celebrate the release of their novel, Sleeping Beauties. As I waited in line to get in, I shared a breathless Facebook Live video of me mentioning how excited I was and how badly I wished my mother was there with me. I still remember the tears welling up in my eyes as I waited entry and the goosebumps raising on my arms when Mr. King walked onstage.
You see, for some, reading is a hobby. Their favorite author may just be a familiar name they spend some time with on the daily train trip to work or the occasional lazy day by the pool. For others, reading is as important a part of our life as eating healthy or getting a good night of sleep. Our favorite author is the voice that gets us through the good times, the bad times and everything in between.
I remember my very first Stephen King book. It was a paperback copy of Cujo, purchased at Walden Books from the local shopping mall when I was nine years old. I had fallen in love with the covers of my mother’s “adult” books and had been begging her to read one for what felt like forever. She finally gave in and walked me down to the fiction section and offered me the choice of a few titles that “were OK for you to read”. Looking back, it seems she wanted to steer me clear of preteen orgies, heads getting run over my lawnmowers and lurid sex scenes but hey, Cujo messed with me.
King once referred to his work as the “literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries”. I gobbled it up, man. His writing was a comfort food for the brain to me and I instantly gravitated to his buffet from that moment on. I was immediately a fan. It didn’t take long before I was pulling books off of the top shelf of the bookcase in our living room and reading more and more about the trials and tribulations going on in the King universe.
I read ‘Salem’s Lot shortly after my parents divorced when I was sixteen years old and remember shouting out loud “No!” when Jimmy Cody suffered one of the most gruesome deaths I had ever read (it still ranks as probably my favorite) and I remember my heart dropping when Father Callahan decided to leave Jerusalem’s Lot.
Shortly after graduating high school, I was one of the cool kids who didn’t own a vehicle. My means of transportation were largely of the public variety and there was always a King paperback jammed in my book bag. I fondly remember finishing The Drawing of the Three during an apocalyptic snow storm while the bus careened down the highway.
Most recently, I teared up when an adult Danny Torrance saw a supernatural image of his father, Jack, towards the end of Doctor Sleep. I was sitting in my grandmother’s kitchen, unable to put the book down, when that particularly emotional scene was read.
The point is, not only does King’s work affect me on a deeper level than any other author, but he’s firmly entrenched himself in my personal life. I turned to his novels when I needed a reassuring constant in my life as a teen and he’s been such a key part in my creative life that I find myself unable to put a book of his down until I’ve seen it through to the end. He’s the single most influential entertainer I’ve ever known. I can vividly remember where I was when I finished just about every one of his novels and to this day, like millions of others, I wait with bated breath for a new release announcement with every passing year.
What does Stephen King mean to me?
He means a safe place and a comforting voice. The rows of books in my office that have his name on the spine are my prized possessions and my Youtube search is full of “Stephen King interview” results. His name is synonymous with horror, for millions of reasons, and to me, he’s as familiar as family.
Like any good family member, King also inspires me and teaches me lessons every time I listen to him.
As a writer, he’s taught me that “talent is cheaper than table salt” and “what separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work”. There’s not much more that could push me harder creatively than knowing that the best of all time is still putting his nose to the grindstone and putting in the work some forty-five years after his professional career started. My copy of On Writing is covered with highlighter markings and chicken scratch notes, the spine little more than soft rubber at this point.
His rise from unpublished writer to being honored by the President of the United States can be seen as a blueprint for any creative mind who wants to make it in their career field of choice. It’s all about hard work and staying true to yourself. It wasn’t easy, but it was never supposed to be. If it was, I can’t imagine the end result would be as satisfying as I’m sure it is for Mr. King.
As a husband, I find myself taking notes on the anecdotes he offers from his own marriage to Tabitha, quite possibly the most fiercely supportive spouse in Horror Writers History. The two have been married for forty-seven years and still share the youthful spark they ignited upon first meeting in college all those years ago. He has always credited her with saving him in more ways than one – whether she was rummaging through the trash can to save the first few pages from an unfinished manuscript titled Carrie or sticking by him during his recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. Rarely does the spouse of a celebrity get the credit they deserve but King makes sure to heap the well-deserved praise on his beloved Tabitha any chance he gets.
Stephen King turns seventy-one today and he’s still kicking ass and taking names like no other. He’s got another novel due out later this year (Elevation, due out October 30th from Scribner) and he’s enjoying one hell of a renaissance in movie theaters and on the small screen, with the Amazon series Castle Rock recently wrapping up season one and season two of Mr. Mercedes currently underway on the Audience Channel. It: Chapter 2 might be the most highly anticipated horror film in recent memory and is set to hit theaters next September.
While watching him during the Sleeping Beauties tour from about thirty feet away, I couldn’t help but notice the man didn’t look a day over sixty. He was all smiles and playful anecdotes, lean and still sporting a great head of hair. If his writing production wasn’t enough of a sign, his physical appearance confirmed it – The King of Horror still has plenty left in the tank and for that, his Constant Readers are wildly grateful.