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Books

Bestselling author Stephen King turns 70

He is known as the grandmaster of horror: Stephen King has been tapping into our fears like no other for more than 40 years. But the bestselling author also has a sensitive side.

His stories have long permeated popular culture. His name is synonymous with fear. Stephen King is the single most successful writer of horror stories in history, selling more than 400 million books worldwide. The many celebrated film adaptations of his work are also often major box office successes. If gore was a brand it would be called "Stephen King."

King's modest beginnings, however, are in stark contrast to the success that he's enjoyed over the past four decades.

Childhood nightmares

Following parents' divorce, Stephen King and his brother David grew up largely in poverty. After being passed between their parents, the two ended up in their mother's care in Maine, New England – where many of King's later books take place. The remote nature of New England and his difficult family situation left a mark on King.  


Stephen King, It, 2017 (picture-alliance/Everett Collection/Warner Bros.)

Stephen King's work is timeless: in 2017, his bestseller "It" was turned into a movie

Despite his tough childhood, King was a good school student and went on to study English Literature at the University of Maine in the late 1960s. There he joined activists protesting the Vietnam War, many of whom were facing the draft – though King himself avoided conscription into the army due to bad eyesight and high blood pressure.


Difficult beginnings

After graduating from college in 1970 and upon the birth of his first daughter that same year, King married his wife Tabitha in 1971. But King continued to face financial woes and found himself working at a laundry facility while moonlighting as a writer for men's magazines. Out of despair, he became an alcoholic.

Stephen King, Friedhof der Kuscheltiere Pet Sematary (Imago)

Cameo-part for the horror author: King played the role of a priest in "Pet Sematery"

His magazine work started to pick up, however, and he started to make a name as a powerful narrator of scary stories. When Doubleday publishers took note of the young writer and offered him a publishing deal, King quit his day job and produced his first novel, "Carrie," published in 1974.

The story follows a young high school student's inner torment as she gets bullied in school and chastized by her religious mother. Amid her struggles, Carrie realizes that she has telekinetic powers but only limited control over them. The book culminates in a blood-soaked Carrie taking revenge on everyone on prom night.

On the road to success

Following the moderate success of "Carrie," King followed up with "The Shining," which became his first major success. In the novel, King gave his imagination free reign to explore the depths and depravities an alcoholic might reach as the protagonist, Jack Torrance, turns against his wife and son. It was his way of distancing himself from his addiction.

Stephen King, Film still, Secret Window (picture-alliance/Everett Collection)

King's movies have attracted major Hollywood actors such as Johnny Depp, seen here in the 2004 adaptation of "Secret Window"


Both "Carrie" and "The Shining" became cinema blockbusters within a few years and heralded a new era of horror on the silver screen. Iconic performances by Sissy Spacek and Jack Nicholson in "Carrie" and "The Shining" remain defining moments in cinema history.

Despite the success of "The Shining," King later said that he wasn't too happy with the adaptation; he felt that it made light of his personal story dealing with alcoholism. Nevertheless, who could ever forget Nicholson's performance as Torrance? "Here's Johnny..."

Pen names and controversies

Not wanting to be pigeonholed as a horror writer, King started to experiment in other genres in the 1980s, including the fantasy saga "The Dark Tower," for which he would go one to produce nine installments but which was only adapted for the cinema in 2017.

As he went on exploring other styles, King also adopted the pen name Richard Bachmann as he was worried that he wouldn't be taken seriously if he published more than one book a year. One of the novels published under this pseudonym is 1982's "The Running Man," which focuses on the candidate of a twisted reality TV show who literally has to fight for his own survival as government agents chase him all over the world.

Autor - Stephen King (Getty Images)

Stephen King considers writing primarily a craft: each day, he writes at least 2,000 words

The book was later adapted into a movie featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger. It also recently resurfaced when another book and movie franchise was accused of having somewhat plagiarized King's original story: Suzanne Collins' "The Hunger Games."

Stephen King also remained faithful to the horror genre throughout the years, writing many bestselling books such as "Pet Sematery" and "Misery" – both also had successful film adaptations. One of King's best works, "It," was only turned into a Hollywood movie in 2017, 20 years after the novel was first published. The film is breaking all box office records in the horror genre, proving once more the timeless nature of Stephen King's writing.

More than just horror stories

Despite a long list of box office successes, the most popular and successful Stephen King film adaptations remain non-horror movies. Many critics have hailed "The Shawshank Redemption," directed by Frank Darabont and starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, as one the best movies of all time. 

Stephen King, IT, 2017 (picture-alliance/Everett Collection/Warner Bros.)

The 2017 adaptation of "It" asks the question: "Is friendship stronger than evil?"

Darabont also directed "The Green Mile" (1999) based on the King novel of the same name. Also set in a penitentiary, "The Green Mile" goes one step further and questions the validity of the death penalty. Both "The Green Mile" and "The Shawshank Redemption" were nominated for Academy Awards.

A master of his craft

In 1999, Stephen King was seriously injured when he was struck by a minivan while walking in his hometown of Lovell, Maine. But it did not stop him from writing – even as one of his legs nearly had to be amputated.

King continued his work on his book "On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft," in which he passes on advice to aspiring writers. The book is full of quirky anecdotes and blunt advice like "Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work."

Sticking to that philosophy, Stephen King has published more than 50 books to date  he also finds time to Tweet some of his political views.

And King is nowhere near giving up. As time progresses, he continues to invent and present new monsters: "Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win."

 

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