PICKING THE BONES
Hearts in Atlantis film review
The Dynasty of King's
by David Carroll
First Appeared in SKIN#1.10Go to timeline entry
If you've read Night Shift and Skeleton Crew you already know that Stephen King writes very good short stories -- he had to, as we'll see. But if you've read those you've also heard the stories about the Bataan Death March and Spanking Lesbians and might wonder why he had to sell his fiction to Adam, Gallery and, later, Playboy at all. The characterless and fawning fantasies of men have little to do with horror fiction -- even Steve's early androcentric (male-orientated) variety. The answer is that horror fiction was in serious trouble at the time, and had been for almost eighty years. To try and get some sort of grip on what that trouble was, and how Stephen King was an instrumental player in the genre's resurgence, we have to look at some history.
1897, no less, and Bram Stoker's Dracula was the last, triumphant, shout of the British horror industry for some decades. The British had dominated the market since the first flourishings of Gothic but their fall was sudden -- to cement the transition Henry James published The Turn of the Screw the following year. Into the new century, horror was American.
The trouble with that, though, is that while the Americans had no lack of talent and enthusiasm (buoyed by the memory of Poe) for the task, their struggle was up-hill. Nobody really wanted a horror industry in the bright new country. Not in print, anyway. Film were taking off and, though the Germans did it first, Universal Studios eventually showed that by borrowing from the previous century's myths they could rake in the money (and the previous century hadn't exactly been the pinnacle of originality either). But it was a rare talent like Val Lewton who could make contemporary, scary movies, and he was undermined by his own studio. Horror films were a distraction, like the adventure pulps of the Depression and the delightfully perverted sensibilities of EC's comics.
It was in an offshoot of these pulps that horror really started to establish itself again, and the magazine Weird Tales became the home of the movement for thirty years. This was the time of Howard Phillips Lovecraft and unspeakable entities. The writers were keen, the audience fiercely loyal -- just not very big. Weird Tales never made a profit in its years of business.
And as a by-product of all of this, the horror novel had all but died.
Lovecraft is known for his short stories. As are Bierce, Blackwood and Bloch. Of course Bloch also wrote novels -- like Psycho, which became a famous movie. And there were other novels, like Jack Finney's The Body Snatchers, which also became a famous movie. Perhaps if they'd have made a movie or two out of Shirley Jackson's work somebody other than the readers of Danse Macabre would have heard of her.
Really, only Ray Bradbury rose above the crowd into fiction popular for its own sake. And Richard Matheson -- whose career was based around less-famous movies but whose novel I am Legend marked a change in style that would take twenty years to catch on.
So when Stephen was living in his apartment and trying to earn enough to keep the telephone working, short stories was all there was. It was what he wrote, and he was very good at it, as I have already said.
But times were changing. For a start, Weird Tales was long gone, Hammer had reclaimed the genre for the British and America was having mixed feelings about a new-found liberalism and the start of the Vietnam War. And so it was up to the girlie magazines -- themselves a product of the 'liberalism' -- that kept the industry alive Stateside, because there wasn't anybody else, and they shared with horror a subject seen as 'adult' or taboo by society. Indeed this carrying of the load can actually be seen as a paying of debts for depictions of sexuality in the previous centuries' Gothic, if you're in a particularly poetic mood.
But the other change was in the fiction itself, as the war progressed and horror started becoming an all-to-familiar emotion again. It started with Rosemary's Baby and continued with The Exorcist, and suddenly the genre wasn't just an elitist sport and a distraction to the masses. In a very real way the success of those movies highlighted the strengths of the novels on which they were based, and whilst the celluloid 'adaptions' came thick and fast, the time was suddenly ripe for somebody to demonstrate the full power of the written word to disturb. And Stephen King wasn't the only one to take the opportunity, but his was the success story. He said that horror was more than a metaphor for politics, and that the here and now is the scariest place to hide, and in doing so he proved that novels could and would sell by the truckload.
And along the way the short story hitched a ride on the truck, and never quite looks like dying out. Which means that there's still a lot of authors struggling with the bills, but at least they have a much better choice of market.
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