If you ask people to think of horror writers, chances are one of the first writers to come to mind is Stephen King. A prolifically popular writer by any measure, he’s helped to bring horror and the supernatural from the fringes to international ubiquity. Furthermore, from Carrie to It to The Shining, film adaptations of his work have given us some of horror’s most iconic pop culture touchstones.
King often touches on widely held fears in unique ways that give his work an enduring kind of power. Decades after its initial publication, Carrie feels as relevant now as it was when it was released. High school is still hell and teenage girls can still be catty bitches. Carrie undergoes some uncomfortable changes, both literal puberty and the development of her powers. Realizing that your body is changing and that you have no power over it, feeling like a freak, I think those are feelings just about everyone who has ever gone through puberty can relate to.
Touching on common fears and vulnerabilities happens in The Shining too. I think most of us have a fear of isolation, a fear of help being beyond reach when you need it. There’s also the very realistic fear of a recovering alcoholic relapsing, of them turning into a human monster with the power to terrorize and harm those closest to them. In fact, it is a recurring theme in King’s work that the human monsters can sometimes be more terrifying than the supernatural ones.
While it may seem that these story ideas are the result of some Faustian deal on King’s part, he explains his writing process in his memoir and book on craft, On Writing. King professes that he is skeptical of plotting. In his words: “Story is honorable and trustworthy; plot is shifty, and best kept under house arrest.” Instead, he claims that his stories arise from situations. These are the what-if questions that form the basis of many of his books. For example, “What if vampires invaded a small New England village?” That’s the germ of the plot for ‘Salem’s Lot. It also cuts to the quick about what the story actually is. These what-if situations succinctly explain, at the most basic level, what the story is about.
I would argue that some writers create a story and then struggle to try to condense it down enough to explain it, to make an elevator pitch for it. King does the exact opposite. The elevator pitch, the punchy, short explanation of the story comes first. Perhaps part of the reason his fiction is so compelling is that he is clear about what kind of story he is writing from the get-go. Though he is more of a pantser than a plotter, he knows the core of the story he is trying to tell.
Of course, having a strong basis for each story isn’t the only trick up King’s sleeve. No, beyond coming up with scary and strange situations to build his stories around, King builds great characters. The characters that inhabit the world of his stories are multifaceted and real. Even the characters we root against, the Jim Rennies and Randall Flaggs that are cunning and cruel, are also entirely believable. They come alive on the page. It is a facet of all King’s writing, but his large ensemble stories especially. Novels like Under the Dome and The Stand have a wide cast of characters, some we love and some we love to hate. Still, they remind us of the people in our own home towns, our friends and neighbors as well as the scoundrels and crooks we’d rather avoid. By making his characters feel so real, it grounds the craziness of each story’s what-if situation.
Strong characters and compelling situations will surely help to create the strong basis for a good story. But, I also don’t believe that the essence of a writer’s work can be distilled down to a few points or techniques that can be replicated or learned. To all of King’s stories, there is a clear sense of how to make things as bad as possible, how to start a downward slide that leaves the reader flicking pages as quickly as they can manage as dread builds in their stomachs. There are so many different things people can be afraid of. Not everyone may fear spiders, or dogs, or tight spaces, but we all know what it is to feel fear. When a character’s fears are tapped, then they start to feel terror, we feel it too. Among horror writers, it is King more than any other writer whose stories have managed to worm their way into my consciousness, resulting in many nights of jumpy unease and insomnia. When it comes to all things terrifying, unsettling, or unusual, King reigns supreme.