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Stephen King | Biography

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Early Life

Stephen King was born on September 21, 1947, in Portland, Maine, to Donald and Nellie Ruth Pillsbury King. His father abandoned the family when King was two years old. King's mother worked hard to support herself, Stephen, and his older brother, David; after several moves they 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. Because of his upbringing, King uses Maine as a setting in many of his novels, 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 at Orono, where he met his future wife, Tabitha Spruce. The couple married in 1971 and had two of their three children while King was still quite young; he juggled a series of odd jobs, a teaching position, and parenthood with his writing aspirations. Nevertheless he completed and sold his first novel, Carrie—about a bullied misfit with telekinetic powers who takes revenge on her high-school tormenters—in 1973, and it was published the following year; the paperback rights gave him sufficient means to quit teaching and focus on writing full time. Carrie was an instant success, as was its 1976 film adaptation. Many more novels and film adaptations followed. With more than 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; it is estimated he has sold more than 350 million books worldwide.

Genre

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. King's novels feature a host of scary creatures—from rabid dogs and angry teenagers to vampires, ghosts, and sewer monsters—but they also explore the darkest depths of human nature and the destructive potential of governments, social structures, and technology. He told Rolling Stone magazine in 2014, "The stuff I was drawn to was built in as part of my equipment"—in other words, those dark and destructive topics have always been inside him. Despite—or perhaps because of—his commercial success, literary critics frequently dismissed King as a genre writer, highlighting a longstanding division in the publishing industry between "serious" literary fiction and genre fiction—such as mystery, romance, fantasy, science fiction, and horror—which is seen as pure entertainment for the masses, not a platform to consider the weighty human dilemmas believed to define great literature. When King received the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2003, some critics were unhappy. In an interview with The New York Times, Richard Snyder, a co-founder of the National Book Foundation, acknowledged King's work sells a lot of copies and then added, "But is it literature? No." King has long spoken openly against "cultural elitism" and critical traditions that give genre fiction less literary credibility, and his influence has helped reshape attitudes toward popular and genre fiction in recent decades.

In addition to monsters, King's novels and short stories feature several other recurring elements. One is American popular culture; many of his works include references to songs, television, and film. Another element 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 worked its way into early novels such as The Shining (1977) and Misery (1987). In his later work, addiction remains a destructive force and the cause of unhappiness for both major and minor characters. Childhood is another recurring element. In King's early novels, such as Carrie, Firestarter (1980), Pet Sematary (1983), Christine (1983), and It, children and teenagers are main characters, allowing King to explore various hazards and learning experiences of growing up. 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 Shining

King has recounted the biographical inspiration for The Shining in several interviews since the novel's publication. In September 1974 he and his wife, Tabitha, checked into the Stanley Hotel near Estes Park, Colorado, on the last night of the season, as most of the other hotel guests were checking out. King describes the atmosphere as "creepy" because of the hotel's isolation and the deserted premises. He decided the hotel was the "perfect—maybe the archetypal—setting for a ghost story." The couple stayed in Room 217, purported to be haunted, and King woke from a nightmare about his three-year-old son being chased through the hotel's hallways by one of the snakelike fire extinguishers. By checkout time he had the outline of The Shining in his mind.

By the mid-1970s King had developed a full-blown alcohol addiction. He later realized The Shining was the first of his novels to represent a "scream for help," although he didn't consciously recognize his alcoholism until the early 1980s. In his memoir On Writing (first published in 1999), King says, "I was, after all, the guy who wrote The Shining without even realizing ... that I was writing about myself." The novel's tragic character, Jack Torrance, is a teacher and aspiring writer, like King in his early 20s. Unlike King, who left teaching after he sold his first novel, Torrance is relieved of his teaching position after assaulting a student. In interviews and writings addressing his substance abuse problems, King emphasizes his desire to keep his addictions secret so he could continue to indulge them. Violent outbursts, especially from an author of King's fame, would have created the kind of exposure he sought to avoid. In this respect Jack represents the person King most feared becoming.

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