50 years of Stephen King: A horrific half-century

BY Brendan Sainsbury

15th Apr 2024 Books

4 min read

50 years of Stephen King: A horrific half-century
Fifty years on from the publication of Stephen King's debut horror novel Carrie, we take a look back at his terrifyingly impressive career
One of my favourite Stephen King lines is from his non-fiction book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, in which he refers to the early part of his career as “a disjoined growth process in which ambition, desire, luck, and a little talent all played a part”. It’s an encouraging remark in a book not short on astute advice. If the multi-million-selling author of The Shining and The Stand can build a career based on aspiration and chance as much as talent, there’s hope for struggling writers everywhere.
Plain-speaking and candid, On Writing was the book that first got me interested in Stephen King. A latecomer to his literary universe, I had previously steered clear of his work due to the “horror” moniker. Along with self-help and romance, horror was a section of the bookshop I rarely visited. But this book was different; a lean and no-nonsense account of the subtleties of his profession, it proved that there was far more to King than just vampires and haunted hotels. Twenty-two books later, I’m still working enthusiastically through his oeuvre.
It’s 50 years since the novel Carrie launched the career of Stephen King, one of the most prodigious and popular writers alive today. As a storyteller and creator of memorable characters, he ranks alongside Charles Dickens and Roald Dahl. As a constructor of elaborate plots and tense “what if?” situations, he’s fit to rub shoulders with Agatha Christie.
Even if you’ve never read one of King’s books, you’ll recognise many of his haunting motifs. Pennywise the clown from the novel It, the cursed Overlook hotel in The Shining, the eerie and uncanny small town settings that have been much copied in TV shows like Twin Peaks and Stranger Things
From 1974’s Carrie to 2023’s Holly, King’s bibliography of over 75 books includes a seven-part fantasy series (The Dark Tower), a dozen short-story collections and numerous books written under the pseudonym, Richard Bachman. Many of his novels have been made into critically acclaimed films. At least one tome, The Standabout a world flailing in the wake of a plague that has killed 99 per cent of humanity—can be considered a masterpiece. 
"Like all great authors King has created his own literary milieu"
Like all great authors King has created his own literary milieu, a vivid and often unsettling depiction of small town America littered with an eclectic cast of characters, most of them with secrets to hide. Rarely straying far from his home state of Maine, he places ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, evoking a world of tension and melodrama that’s often flecked with elements of the supernatural.
Part of his genius is the way in which he injects safe all-American settings with macabre plot twists, pushing the envelope of shock, horror, and grisliness way further than most authors would dare. That many readers recognise the humdrum every-towns of his fiction makes his books infinitely more terrifying.

What makes a Stephen King book?

King’s first two novels Carrie and Salem’s Lot fall firmly into the horror camp but, while he’s revisited dark and scary subjects regularly in the years since, it’s by no means his only theme.
Suspense and science-fiction also feature prominently in his work along with numerous other genres. The Green Mile, about a prisoner on death row, has magic realist undertones; 11/22/63, depicting a time traveller going back to avert the Kennedy assassination, is a mystery thriller with a philosophical bent; Mr Mercedes is part of a trilogy of crime novels.
"King’s first two novels fall firmly into the horror camp but it’s by no means his only theme"
Once cast in the lowbrow fiction bracket, King’s reputation among critics ascended rapidly in the 1990s after the success of the film version of The Shawshank Redemption proved that he was far more than just a cheap-thrills horror writer.
Never one for flowery language (he famously hates adverbs), King is, nonetheless, a vociferous user of words. Three of his novels run to over 1,000 pages and, since 1974, he has averaged a book-and-a-half a year only breaking stride—briefly—when a road accident nearly killed him in 1999.
Character-wise, he’s particularly adept at depicting precocious but bullied children. He set the tone with Carrie White, the abused, friendless schoolgirl of his first novel, and continuing the theme with five-year-old Danny, the boy with psychic powers in The Shining.
Danny Lloyd as Danny Torrance in the 1980 film adaptation of The Shining. Image: Warner Bros
In 1986’s It, the nerdy Losers Club is comprised of a talented but tormented septet of pre-teens, while King pushes child horror to its limits in Pet Semataryarguably his most disturbing book—when he brings evilly possessed Gage Creed back from the dead to murder his mother.  
King also has a penchant for supernatural cars, killer dogs, and writer-protagonists battling with troubling addictions and deranged fans. Some characters reappear in his books multiple times, most notably Randall Flagg, the quintessentially evil figure who first stars in The Stand and pops up sporadically throughout The Dark Tower series.
Places also feature repeatedly. The fictional Maine towns of Derry and Castle Rock appear in eight and 16 of his stories respectively. Fantasy worlds aside, none of King’s main novels take place outside the US.
"King is always clever, easy-to-read, and ready to shock"
While his geographical settings might not be adventurous, his plots are famously byzantine. King is a master of building intricate storylines out of a simple starting premise. He often adds premonitions to his narrative, hinting at what’s going to happen before revealing exactly how it transpires. His vast library of work mixes dramatic endings with the odd jolting anti-climax but, even when he’s wide of the mark, King is always clever, easy-to-read, and ready to shock with ageless themes that explore the effects of fear, the scope for resilience, and the struggle between good and evil.
If you’re new to Stephen King, On Writing is a perfect glimpse into the author’s mind and craft. For a fright-free gateway into his fiction, try the history-bending 11/22/63, or multi-flavoured Different Seasons, a collection of four novellas, including The Body (filmed as Stand by Me) and Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. If you’re still intrigued, break open his 1152-page opus, The Stand and delve deeper into his fascinating and—yes—sometimes horrific world.
Cover image: Portrait of Stephen King by James Leonard, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter