It’s been almost 50 years since Stephen King published “Carrie” and turned mainstream publishing upside down. Never before has a “horror writer” achieved the kind of gigantic sales that King has enjoyed, nor achieved the widespread popularity that the prolific author enjoys.
Just after King’s 75th birthday, Bev Vincent, King’s longtime scholar, friend and collaborator, took the opportunity to update his “Stephen King Companion” with “Stephen King: A Complete Exploration of His Work, Life, and Influences”. The subtitle promises a lot, and King’s loyal “constant readers” will be delighted with the results.
Similar books have been published before, but this one strikes a happy balance between the heaviness of an encyclopedia and the narrowness of some semi-professional undertaking.
Vincent is the author of “The Dark Tower Companion”, “The Road to the Dark Tower”, the Bram Stoker Award nominated companion to Stephen King’s Dark Tower series and “The Stephen King Illustrated Companion”, which was nominated for a 2010 Edgar Award and a 2009 Bram Stoker Award. In 2018, Vincent and King co-edited the “Flight or Fright” anthology.
When it comes to exhibiting King’s work, Vincent knows his stuff, inside out. Whether he’s writing about King’s radio station or his time with the Rock-Bottom Remainders, Vincent is curious in his approach and thorough in his results.
Many King fans will have read tales of how his wife Tabitha King saved “Carrie” from the trash when her husband gave up on the idea of writing convincingly about young teenage women. Some readers are under the impression that she saved her career that night, but the reality is more nuanced.
As Vincent recounts, King began writing — and submitting for publication — stories at an early age. His first professional sale, “The Glass Floor”, was published by Startling Mystery Stories for $30.
By the time he graduated from the University of Maine at Orono, King was working on the novel “Getting It On,” which would become “Rage,” and on “The Long Walk,” which intrigued the editor. from Doubleday, Bill Thompson, just shy. from the point of actually buying the book.
There is a chapter on “The Poetry of Stephen King”, including “The Dark Man”, one of the earliest references to the mutable villain from “The Stand” and the “Dark Tower” sequence. King probably won’t be celebrated for his verse, but his early influences are worth noting.
“Stephen King” features a generous helping of illustrations, from family snapshots to correspondence with Thompson of Doubleday, who essentially “discovered” King, to a photo of him accepting a medal from President Obama.
Fans of the “Dark Tower” sequence will be delighted to find information that connects hundreds of characters, settings, and concepts. Vincent writes, “A dominant theme in King’s fiction is that reality is thin and that there are countless, possibly infinite, parallel universes adjacent to each other with only thin curtains separating the parallel realities.”
Vincent’s clear and lively writing style suits the Compagnon. He is learned without being pedantic and unearths intriguing anecdotes.
Interested in visiting King’s version of his original state? There’s a generous section on the geographical and historical attractions of Derry, referred to in “IT” as an alternate version of Bangor, listing dozens of mysterious deaths. Other examples of prime real estate in Stephen King’s universe include Castle Rock, home of Cujo and the boys from “The Body,” and Haven, a coastal community with its share of strange happenings.
According to Vincent, tour operators are offering a king-themed excursion to Bangor, taking care not to disturb the locals who these days rarely reside in the mansion behind a wrought-iron fence infested with giant spiders. The house is to be converted into a scholarly library and writers retreat accessible only by invitation.
The book includes a particularly interesting section on King’s many collaborators. It makes sense that the author would want to work with his pseudonymous son Joe Hill on a tribute to legendary fantasy Richard Matheson. But who had the idea to pair John Mellencamp with King for a musical project such as “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County”?
Vincent offers details about King’s only non-fiction partner, Stewart O’Nan. The two followed the Boston Red Sox during the team’s unlikely championship season in 2004, resulting in “Faithful.” This relationship inspired another baseball-related project with O’Nan, the short story “A Face in the Crowd”.
“Stephen King” is as up-to-date as it gets, with short entries on last year’s “Billy Summers,” this spring’s “Gwendy’s Final Task,” and the recent (and particularly well-received) “Fairy Tale.” Fans of the Bill Hodges trilogy will be happy to know that King is working on another book starring idiosyncratic detective Holly Gibney.
Readers will find plenty of details about the car accident that nearly killed King in 1999. Knocked down during his daily walk, King was told he might never walk again and endured months of therapy excruciating and addictive to painkillers. After all that agony, King insisted on attending the National Medal of Arts presentation, which resulted in a two-month bout of pneumonia that nearly killed him.
Vincent includes a useful set of appendices, which include lists of short stories, novels, and adaptations.
It’s been a long time since anyone compared King’s literary output to a Big Mac. Vincent’s “Stephen King” convincingly shows how experimental King was, willing to tackle a serialized novel like “The Green Mile” or write from the perspective of a middle-aged woman. He wrote an e-book, “Ur”, exclusively for the Amazon Kindle and still allows fans to get the rights to some of his stories and film them as “Dollar Babies”.
King is experiencing a resurgence in popularity, but what could his literary legacy be? Vincent quotes him as saying, “I have never been wrong that I am going to have a lot of popularity beyond my lifetime. . . . There may be one or two books that people will read later. “The Stand” and “The Shining” are likely contenders.
King has repeatedly threatened to retire, and despite hiatuses, near-tragedies and fallow periods, he maintains an impressive output for someone who has been around for three-quarters of a century.
As Vincent demonstrates, King still occupies the throne of horror. May he reign long!
Berkeley writer Michael Berry is from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and many other publications. He can be contacted at: [email protected]