What Scares Stephen King?
An unauthorized new biography fails to explain what makes the master of horror tick.
- By: Elizabeth Hand
In the Great Midnight Roll Call of modern supernatural fiction, three New England writers will find themselves at the front of the line: H.P. Lovecraft, whose tombstone reads “I am Providence”; Shirley Jackson, born in California but best-known for works like The Lottery and The Summer People, inspired by her long sojourn in rural Vermont; and, of course, Stephen King, who put Maine on the map for something other than lobster and balsam fir. Lovecraft [1890-1937] has only belatedly received critical attention, in part due to the unstinting efforts of scholar S. T. Joshi, and more recently enhanced by the 2005 Library of America volume of Lovecraft’s short fiction (edited by Peter Straub, another master of the literary uncanny — he hails from Milwaukee). And Jackson [1916-1965], arguably one of the great American modernists, still has only one serious biography to her credit, and only one major critical study.
That leaves King, who — still writing brilliantly, at the top of his form — has yet to receive the attention he deserves. This despite a good-sized shelf of boilerplate bios produced for the library market, as well as more consumer-oriented (to put it kindly) books with titles like Stephen King: King of Thrillers and Horror; Stephen King: America’s Best-loved Boogeyman; and now Lisa Rogak’s unauthorized biography, Haunted Heart: The Life and Times of Stephen King (Thomas Dunne Books, New York, New York; hardcover; 310 pages, $25.95). Rogak claims authorship of more than forty books, including an unauthorized biography of Dan Brown; the cut-and-paste Barack Obama In His Own Words and Michelle Obama In Her Own Words; The Quotable Cat; and 100 Best Businesses to Start When You Don’t Want to Work Hard Anymore.
I suspect her next work might be 100 Best Books to Publish When You Don’t Want to Work Hard Anymore. Only a handful of people who know King appeared to have spoken to Rogak, so Haunted Heart consists almost exclusively of material culled from other easily obtainable sources — newspapers and magazines, online sources, TV and radio interviews, and previously published works about King, as well as his own non-fiction books, in particular Danse Macabre and On Writing. Haunted Heart is the biographical equivalent of SparkNotes: Rogak hasn’t exhausted herself in generating deep thoughts about her subject, or original insight or, god forbid, any heavy lifting in the research department. Case in point: Rogak cites the same issue of Weekly Reader Writing Magazine eight times.
Still, if you’re looking for just-the-facts-ma’am info, a lot of that is here. Rogak collates well-worn material about King’s early life and career— his hardscabble, peripatetic childhood; the now-famous anecdote about how the two-year-old’s father went out for a pack of cigarettes and never came back, leaving Stephen and his older brother to be raised by their mother. Rogak puts her own banal gloss on this — “After her husband walked out, Ruth packed up her two kids, swallowed her pride, and depended on her relatives” — and suggests that all of King’s writing is fueled by a profound sense of abandonment.
An equal argument might be made for the importance of Ruth’s encouragement in her son’s career. When he was in first grade and bedridden for weeks, King’s mother paid him a quarter for every story he wrote, beginning with Mr. Rabbit Trick. Later, she confronted him about his nightmare-inducing collection of wonderfully gruesome E. C. Comics. Her son’s retort: “Someday, I’m going to write this junk.”
What Stephen King did, of course, was raise that junk to the status of literature, without sacrificing the visceral pleasures tendered by the classic ghost stories he devoured as a kid. Rogak provides a good nuts-and-bolts description of King’s time at the University of Maine at Orono, his long apprenticeship as a freelance writer contributing short fiction to men’s magazines like Cavalier and Gallery and Swank; his marriage to fellow UMO student Tabitha Spruce, and the tough times that preceded the 1973 hardcover sale of Carrie and that novel’s subsequent paperback sale to New American Library for four hundred thousand dollars, then a record-breaking figure. Mass success followed the novel’s actual release a year later, quickly bolstered by the 1975 publication of Salem’s Lot and by Brian De Palma’s 1976 film version of Carrie.
From here on in, Haunted Heart pretty much just ticks off titles and dates. There are side trips detailing King’s early battles with alcoholism; the 1999 car accident that left him critically injured; the continuing stresses of a literary career lived under nearly constant public scrutiny; King’s long-overdue embrace by the mainstream literary establishment, acknowledged by his being awarded the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American letters in 2003.
And, commendably, Rogak gives numerous examples of the King couple’s legendary commitment to charitable causes through the Haven Foundation and the Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation, which promotes the author’s adage: “Give away a dime for every dollar you make, because if you don’t give it, the government’s just going to take it.” Stephen King is a generous, wonderful writer who deserves a wonderful biography. Until he gets one, we’ll have to make do with fluff-filled jobs like Haunted Heart, and — better still — continue to focus on the unforgettable voice captured in his own work.
- By: Elizabeth Hand