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King of the World: Thoughts on Stephen King and Popular Culture

How does Stephen King do it? He manages to churn out an astonishingly prolific back catalogue, but maintains a reasonably high quality. As with all authors, he soars above and he dips below, but – taken on average – he is a very strong writer than manages to churn out up to four books a year. How does the man do it?

It's good to be the King...

It's good to be the King...

We’re a film blog, so our focus lies more with the film adaptations of his work, but in any discussion on the maestro I’d be remiss if I didn’t point anyone with a casual interest in the man or Americana or even the horror genre in pop culture to Danse Macabre. In it, he basically tracks through the whole history of genre in an extremely readable style, considering how horror works across mediums and styles. While I may disagree with some assertions (that horror can’t be done well on television, for example – though I sense King may have mellowed of this, having written for The X-Files), I really appreciated the quality of the read.

We’ll admit that sometimes adaptations of his work fall firmly into the schlock category, either by poor adaptation (Thinner, The Stand) or budgetary constraints (It). There’s also a ‘big middle’ – adaptations of King’s works that fall into the ‘meh’ category (like 1408). On the other hand, there are truly exception horror films that have emerged from his work (Misery, The Shining). The theme that seems to separate the good from the average and the bad seem to be the themes. King works very well on horror that flows from people – the evils that men do. The Shining isn’t scary because the hotel is haunted (though those scenes are creepy), it’s scary because the very man who is supposed to protect his family is the one hunting them. That’s far scarier than any gruesome exploitation horror, and represents the genre at it’s very best. King is right to break horror down to three levels (in descending order of quality: terror, horror and gross-out). In a world of artists that seem to thrive on gross-out, it’s nice to have an author who can terrify.

There’s a lot of snobbishness when it comes to King’s work. Many critics will insist he’s a low brow peddler in petty nightmares – as gauged by the offended reaction by some in the literary community to King being awarded the Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2003. I don’t think it’s appropriate to classify King as low brow. The man knows damn well what he’s doing, and to classify him as the author of penny dreadfuls ignores both the complexities present in those works and his contribution to literature outside that narrow field. My more fundamental objection to these objections is the assertion that being low brow is necessarily a bad thing. I would agree that it may be so in the majority of cases, but one should be particularly careful when making the assertion in the context of American literature. WB Yeats famously savaged The Raven as being nothing more than verbal trickery, and the bulk of Edgar Allen Poe’s works were dismissed as similarly low brow entertainment in their time. I do not seek to compare Poe and King – there are far more qualified individuals to do so (and, I believe, time will have the final word on that) – merely point out that low brow is not always a bad thing, as even auteurs quite enjoy ‘slumming it’ (Quentin Tarantino has made a career of it).

Okay, be honest, did anyone going in to see The Shining actually think that Jack Nicholson wasn't going to try to kill his family?

Okay, be honest, did anyone going in to see The Shining actually think that Jack Nicholson wasn't going to try to kill his family?

This is the most popular and well-known Stephen King, at least to film goers. The one whose very name can force my mother to put down a potentially interesting movie out of fear. There is another, less widely known, facet to the man and his works in film. He wrote the short stories inspiring audience favourites The Shawshank Redemption and Stand by Me. He also wrote the mystical dramas The Green Mile and Hearts in Atlantis. These are films that frequently appear as favourites of individuals who wouldn’t dare pick up a Stephen King book. Then there’s his on-going fantasy saga The Dark Tower, an adventuring spanning seven books and spilling out into the wider world created in his works. Apparently we can look forward to film adaption in the next few years from nerd god JJ Abrams once Lost has concluded itself. KIng himself has given the project his blessing.

We aren’t literary scholars here at the m0vie blog. We aren’t even film scholars. We do think that King and his role in American pop culture are criminally underrated. The man is incredibly talented and has produced any number of bone-chilling, spine-tingling and thought-provoking works. While he may not always hit the mark (and the same goes for adaptations of his work), we still think the man is an American national treasure and fairly solid fixture on the pop culture landscape.

3 Responses

  1. You could not discuss 70’s horror movies without mention sooner or later of “Carrie”, the one that started it all. You are right in that the man has a knack..

    • Yep, apologies, missed that one! That’s the problem with an author who has written that much, it’s so easy to brush over the important works or even to forget about them.

  2. […] is my main problem with the people who object to Stephen King. He’s not my favourite author by a mile (I’ve only read a handful of his books), but […]

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