Stephen King's American apocalypse.

Author:Douthat, Ross
Position:Critical essay

In November 2003, Stephen King received a lifetime achievement medal from the National Book Foundation for his "distinguished contribution to American letters." The foundation's notion of "distinguished contribution" is a fairly broad one: The medal has been awarded to Oprah Winfrey as well as to Eudora Welty. Still, America's most famous horror writer made the most of it. His acceptance speech commended the judges for having the courage to honor "a man many people see as a rich hack"--and then attacked the whole world of literary prize-giving for its snobbery, its willful ignorance of popular and genre fiction, and its tendency to grant itself "social or academic brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch" with American culture.

It was a characteristic performance for King, who has always been at once hungry for literary prestige and scornful of it, self-deprecating about his writing and combative when criticized. He gives the impression of being acutely conscious of his peculiar position in American letters, where he occupies a gray zone between the pulpy authors who can match his sales figures--the Dan Browns and Danielle Steeles--and the literary writers whose company he obviously craves, the writers who stand a chance of winning, not a lifetime achievement medal, but the National Book Award itself.

The ambiguity has dogged King for decades, and it's unlikely to be resolved soon, not least because his best work as a writer is well behind him. There will doubtless be many more books to come: He's only fifty-nine; he seems fully recovered from the 2001 hit-and-run accident that nearly killed him; and, although he has murmured unconvincingly about giving up writing, the novels and short stories keep on coming. (Last fall's Lisey's Story was the second book King published in 2006 alone.) But in spite of his astonishing output and none-too-subtle campaign for literary respectability--the National Book Foundation speech, the blurbs on his books from upper-middlebrow novelists such as Michael Chabon, the publication of his ruminative quasi-memoir On Writing--most of the novels he's written since the early 1990s feel like reruns of his greatest hits, afterthoughts to the rifles that still haunt our pop culture's consciousness like the unquiet ghosts in the Overlook Hotel.

Carrie, The Shining, Salem's Lot, and The Stand in the 1970s, together with Pet Sematary and It the following decade--these books are the best of Stephen King, the heart of his dark territory, and their persistence in the popular imagination ought, at the very least, to give the lie to Harold Bloom's dyspeptic claim that King is a writer of "penny dreadfuls" whose books do "little more for humanity than keep the publishing industry afloat." A thousand potboilers have been bought, devoured, discarded, and pulped in the thirty years since Carrie was published, and only King, out of all his million-selling peers, has managed to maneuver his way out of the mass-market ghetto and into a kind of quasi-respectability. You won't find many critics eager to champion him, exactly, but there's a sense that he needs to be at least grappled with, a courtesy that's extended to few other members of the rich-hack dub.

In part, King has pulled off this unlikely feat by his steady work as a genre writer, where the relative dimness of the competition makes his talents shine brighter than they otherwise would. Indeed, there's a sense in which he invented the modern horror novel, doing for the form what Agatha Christie did for the murder mystery: taking a genre that was defined by the short story and pulling it off at novel length--not once or twice, a Dracula here and a Frankenstein there, but over and over again.

He may not at first have realized what he was doing. Just as Christie spent her early years as an author alternating between murder mysteries and mediocre international thrillers, so King has recalled telling an editor, early in the 1970s, that his "horror novelist" reputation was only temporary: "'Bill," I said, amused, 'no one can make a living writing just horror stories in America. [H.P.] Lovecraft starved in Providence. [Robert] Bloch gave it up for suspense novels and Unknown-type spoofs. The Exorcist was a one-shot. You'll see.'" Last spring, thirty-two years after making this prediction, King published Cell, a novel about a mysterious pulse that turns cell-phone users into murderous zombies. ("Stephen King lives in Maine," the author's page noted. "He does not own a cell phone.") It reached number one on the New York Times bestseller list.

This achievement alone would probably earn King a certain kind of literary immortality, the sort reserved for such genre pioneers as Arthur Conan Doyle and Jules Verne, authors whose historical significance may outstrip their creative gifts. But King has the rare distinction of being both a pioneer and a perfecter; he has both created the modern horror novel and imbued it with an unexpected literary respectability.

In this regard, he is to horror what both Louis L'Amour and Larry McMurtry are to westerns, or C.S. Forester and Patrick O'Brian are to Napoleonic-era sea novels, or James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler are to hard-boiled detective fiction--the breakthrough author who defines a form for huge popular audiences and simultaneously the elite author who pushes it up toward literature. That's not because he has the artistic gifts of McMurtry or O'Brian or Chandler, necessarily, but because, like them, he's made popular genre books seem more than just the fulfillment of their genre.

This helps explain why his readership is so vast--rivaling those of Agatha Christie and Erle Stanley Gardner at their peak--and why his cultural footprint is much more significant than you would expect even from the emperor of horror. The ghosts and vampires (and the sex and violence) may lure book buyers in, but what keeps them coming back is something else entirely: namely, King's ability to imbue his tales of the...

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