John Sutherland

  • Misery by Stephen King
    Hodder, 320 pp, £11.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 340 39070 0
  • The Tommyknockers by Stephen King
    Hodder, 563 pp, £12.95, February 1988, ISBN 0 340 39069 7
  • Touch by Elmore Leonard
    Viking, 245 pp, £10.95, February 1988, ISBN 0 670 81654 X
  • Sideswipe by Charles Willeford
    Gollancz, 293 pp, £10.95, March 1988, ISBN 0 575 04197 8
  • Ratking by Michael Dibdin
    Faber, 282 pp, £10.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 571 15147 7

Stephen King has occasionally raised a rueful protest against being typed as a horror writer – even with the consolation of being the best-selling horror writer in the history of the world. But, as he disarmingly reminds us, there is worse literary company than Lovecraft, Leiber, Bloch, Matheson and Jackson. ‘I could, for example, be an “important” writer like Joseph Heller and publish a novel every seven years or so, or a “brilliant” writer like John Gardner and write obscure books for bright academics who eat macrobiotic foods and drive old Saabs with faded but still legible GENE McCARTHY FOR PRESIDENT stickers on the rear bumpers.’ Instead of which he is the ‘King of Horror’ who had his face on Time, 6 October 1986 (the only author in that year to receive the honour), who sold over 1.2m American hardback copies of It (1986-87’s best-selling novel, and a personal best for King) and who now rates $3m advances. He cries, in other words, all the way to the bank. Or, as he puts it, ‘I don’t give a shit what they call me, so long as I can sleep at night.’

King must like writing. No one who didn’t could do such vast amounts of it. Regularly he disgorges up to two books a year. And King is not one for the slim volume. Three pounds or more is the normal hardback weight of his novels and two of them (The Talisman and It) exceed a thousand pages in paperback. If nothing else, King has liberated horror from the confinement of the short story and the Jamesian miniature.

Given his head, King would certainly swamp the market with far more brand-marked fiction than it could bear, even from him. Between 1978 and 1984 he circumvented the King-quota limit by bringing out five surplus horror tales under the pseudonym ‘Richard Bachman’. Unfortunately the Bachman books’ disguise was eventually penetrated. But, more significantly, their appeal was drastically altered when their true authorship was publicised. As King observed, Thinner sold 28,000 by Richard Bachman and 280,000 by Steve King – ‘figure that out.’ It is really not hard to figure out. As the coarse Brendan Behan complained at the end of his life, the public loved him so much that if he hung up his bollocks with his name on them they would be bought.

One of King’s most endearing features is his energetic amateurism. He has turned his hand to directing movies (Maximum Overdrive), at which he’s so-so, and to acting in adaptations of his stories (Creepshow), at which he has no future whatsoever. And, of course, subsidiary rights of his main works have been sold for film, television and talking-tape adaptation. King owns a radio station which broadcasts nothing but the hard Seventies rock which he loves (and which he usually weaves somehow into his fiction). Even the bright academics in their shabby Saabs are beginning to take notice of him. The other day a student applied to me for transfer credit for a class taken elsewhere in the fiction of Stephen King and duly showed as evidence appropriately stuffy essay assignments and reading lists. What with the wholesale decanonisation currently taking place in the United States, King might well find himself on the Stanford Humanities core-curriculum.

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