All literature, but especially literature of the weird and the fantastic, is a cave where both readers and writers hide from life. (Which is exactly why so many parents and teachers, spotting a teenager with a collection of stories by Lovecraft, Bloch or Clark Ashton Smith, are apt to cry, ‘Why are you reading that useless junk?’)
Stephen King, in his introduction to Michel Houellebecq’s study of H.P. Lovecraft, may have intended this as a defence of ‘useless junk’ — a charge often levelled at his own work, usually by those who have not read much of it. But it also describes an authorial motive that Orwell (whose categories were ‘sheer egotism’; ‘aesthetic enthusiasm’; ‘historical impulse’ and ‘political purpose’) seems to have missed.
King has published 63 books since 1974, which suggests a positively Paleolithic, or perhaps Platonic, enthusiasm for the cave. And his best-known subjects — haunted hotels and cars, telekinesis, adolescent cruelty, torture, things from beyond the grave and worse — make you wonder what kind of life he’s hiding from.
The main facts, competently enough recounted in this book, are that King’s father walked out when Steve (as Lisa Rogak tells us he prefers to be known) was two. He grew up, mostly in Maine, poor and devoted to horror films, comics, rock and roll and, above all, John D. MacDonald, Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, Theodore Dreiser, and similar pulp writers, whom he continued to champion over ‘respectable literature’ while taking his degree in English.
He became moderately radical, took drugs, was declared unfit for service in Vietnam, and read and wrote constantly. He had several menial jobs, got married and became a high school teacher. In 1973 his wife fished the manuscript of Carrie out of the bin. The following year it was published and the film rights sold for $400,000. Of the dozens of books which followed, more than half have been number one bestsellers and many have been filmed, with mixed results.
Heavy drinking did nothing to reduce King’s output (Rogak’s amazement at this suggests she has never worked on a newspaper), but when he took up cocaine as well, his wife made him quit both. He did that in 1989. A decade later, he was seriously injured when a truck hit him while he was walking along the road (reading the while). He recovered. He’s still writing and, if no longer the world’s best-selling writer, rich as Croesus.
The trouble for Lisa Rogak is that little of this is news. King may dislike celebrity, but he has given a lot of interviews. In addition, much of the material in this book is very obviously based upon King’s own accounts of his life and writing methods in forewords, afterwords and, most noticeably, his non-fiction On Writing.
Rogak admits as much at the beginning of this biography, conceding that, though she spoke to a few of King’s friends and visited Bangor, his home town in Maine (where the man and his work are a major industry) to take a tour of sites associated with him, the rest of the material is drawn from published sources.
Nor is there much on the two novels which best illustrate King’s brilliance as a writer in the literate pulp-fiction style of his childhood heroes and his genius for examining adolescence and popular culture. Both books also have as dominant themes absent or abusive fathers, and no explicit supernatural element at all.
They are, oddly enough, the only two of his books ever to have been out of print. Both were published in the late 1970s under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. The Long Walk was very briefly available, before King was outed as Bachman. Rage, the story of hostage-taking and shooting by a high school student, was withdrawn by King after several real-life incidents which uncomfortably resembled the book.
So much has been written by or about King that to say this is a cuttings job is not to denigrate the spadework involved. There is an entertaining list of what frightens King (almost everything). But anyone who is interested has almost certainly known this for a long time, and the evidence suggests that no one else wants to. A shame, that.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated August 29, 2009