The Dark Tower (Series) | Study Guide

Stephen King

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Stephen King | Biography


Early Life

Stephen King was born September 21, 1947, in Portland, Maine, to Donald and Nellie Ruth Pillsbury King. Donald King abandoned his wife, King's older brother, and King when the author was two years old. As King's mother worked hard to support herself and the two children, the family moved from Fort Wayne, Indiana, to Stratford, Connecticut. The family finally settled in Durham, Maine, when King was 11. The family was very close, and King was devastated when his mother died of cancer in 1980. Resulting from these early influences, the bulk of King's novels are at least partially set in Maine, and much of his work features strong female characters.

In 1970 King earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the University of Maine, where he met his wife, Tabitha Spruce. The couple married in 1971 and had the first two of their three children right away, which left King to juggle a series of odd jobs, a teaching position, and parenthood with his writing aspirations. Nevertheless, he completed and sold his first novel, Carrie, in 1973, and the paperback rights gave him sufficient means to quit teaching and focus on writing full time. Upon publication in 1974, Carrie was an instant success, as was its film adaptation in 1976. Many best-selling novels followed, including books that were adapted for film or television such as The Shining (1977), The Stand (1978), The Dead Zone (1979), Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption (1982), Pet Sematary (1983), The Green Mile (1999), and The Dark Tower (1982–2012). With over 50 titles in his catalog, King is one of the most prolific writers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. He is also one of the most commercially successful, selling over 350 million books worldwide between 1974 and 2014.


King is best known as a horror writer, although he has branched into other genres over the years, including fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, and mystery. While King's novels feature a host of scary creatures—from rabid dogs and angry teenagers to vampires, ghosts, and sewer monsters—his novels also explore the darkest depths of human nature and the destructive potential of governments, social structures, and technology. He told Rolling Stone in 2014, "The stuff I was drawn to was built in as part of my equipment," meaning he has felt instinctively drawn to the material his work addresses.

Despite his commercial success, literary critics have often dismissed King as a genre writer. This dismissal highlights a long-standing division in the publishing industry between literary fiction, which critics consider more serious work, and genre fiction. Historically, critics have considered genre fiction, such as mystery, romance, fantasy, science fiction, and horror, as pure entertainment for the masses, not a platform to consider the weighty human dilemmas that they believe define great literature. When King received the National Book Foundation's "Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters Award" in 2003, the choice drew criticism from literary critics. Richard Snyder, a cofounder of the National Book Foundation, told The New York Times that King's work sells a lot of copies, "But is it literature? No." King speaks openly against "cultural elit`ism" and the critical tradition that tends to give genre fiction (and its writers) less literary credibility. His influence has helped reshape attitudes toward popular and genre fiction in recent decades.

King's novels and short stories feature three other common elements in addition to monsters. American popular culture is one of these elements, as many of his novels include references to songs, television, and film. Another is the danger of substance abuse. King has been open about his struggle with alcohol and drug addiction during the first two decades of his career (he has been sober since the late 1980s). This struggle with addiction worked its way into the content of his early novels such as The Shining and Misery. In his postrecovery work, addiction remains a destructive force and the cause of unhappiness for both major and minor characters. King's later work bears the influence of another life-threatening experience, a 1999 accident in which he was hit by a minivan while walking near his home in Maine.

The Dark Tower

Each of these three elements is clearly visible in King's The Dark Tower series. Conceived when King was 19 years old and written in fits and starts over the next four decades, the series represents King's attempt to meld medieval and fantasy quest literature with the American conventions of the Old West. Set in multiple dimensions that overlap one another, American popular culture—such as pop songs and advertising logos—features prominently to underscore the connections between worlds and the connections between The Dark Tower and King's other works. The main character, Roland, is so addicted to his quest that it destroys much of what he loves, and the bad guys in the narrative are often substance dependent. In the final volume of The Dark Tower, King turns his 1999 accident into a major plot point, and the characters save King from the oncoming van.

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