How Stephen King Made Pop Culture Weird
The prolific author, who just turned 69, is responsible for making your movies and TV shows eerie and your books bizarre.
Illustration by Taylor Lewis
If you haven't heard, "weird" is back in style. From hit TV shows like Stranger Things and True Detective (season one only, please) to best-selling novels like Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach Trilogy and George R.R. Martin's weirder-than-the-show A Song of Ice and Fire, pop culture is getting increasingly strange. Odd beasts, dark tunnels, and writhing tentacles are cool again. And, in the wake of his 69th birthday, it seems time to celebrate the person who is the most responsible for weirding up pop culture: Stephen King.
Stephen King is fucking weird. I mean really, truly evil-riddling-choo-choo-trains and intergalactic-spider-vampire-clowns weird. Stephen King gets credit for a lot of things. He's known as one of the best-selling authors of the past 50 years, he's famous for his nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic that lets him pump out about a book a year, and he's celebrated for being one of the most adaptable writers ever. King's writing was adapted into The Shining, The Shawshank Redemption, Stand by Me, and so many other films. His status has been lengthily debated, with different sides calling him a genre hack, a secret genius, and a literary author in pulp clothing. In truth, King, whose work is wildly uneven, is each of those things at different times. But to me, one of the most interesting facts about King is how weird his writing is for mainstream fiction. Singularly weird, even.
There's nothing weird about James Patterson, Danielle Steel, or John Grisham. The only thing strange about Dan Brown is that he's popular at all. Most best-selling fiction is formulaic and repetitive, with an author figuring out one or two things that work and repeating them over and over in one or two genres. Most blockbuster films are drained of any oddness by studio execs before release. But Stephen King has maintained a popularity equal to any airport novelist while doing, well, everything. His career span as a whole is even more shocking, encompassing acclaimed stories, novellas, essays, novels, and memoir in realism, fantasy, science fiction, horror, western, and crime modes.
Genre-bending is all the rage today with both popular culture and literary critics openly embracing the mixing of different styles and genres. It's sometimes presented as the hip new trend, but Stephen King has being doing it for decades. It is a coming-of-age fantasy horror tale, 11/22/63 is a time-travel historical-fiction romance, and The Dark Tower combines just about every genre in existence from westerns and science fiction to high fantasy and mystery. In fact, one of the great appeals of Stephen King's novels is that they have many layers that can be peeled back, exposing more mysteries underneath. While a lesser writer could build an entire career writing about abusive fathers struggling with alcoholism or psychic children or haunted houses, King tosses all that into The Shining and moves on. (Though, to be sure, over his 70-plus book career, many elements are recycled over and over).
It's hard to think of anyone who has injected so much strangeness into the pop culture consciousness, and no one else has done it this long.
But, again, he is damn weird. Think of—spoiler alerts!—It, with its haunting murderous clown who is actually a gigantic space spider/ball of evil light, who is defeated by a teenage orgy. Think of The Stand, with its killer plague creating a post-apocalyptic wasteland where some kind of demonic entity can only be stopped by a literal glowing Hand of God. Plenty of authors write books that are equally dark, weird, and genre-bending, but few have King's impact on pop culture. In the realm of popular horror writers, there is Anne Rice, but—although she also writes erotica and Christian books—her cultural influence is limited to a series of vampire novels that aren't terribly strange for their genre. George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire novels have some creepy Lovecraftian and bizarre elements in them, to be sure. The closest comparison for truly bizarre and popular fiction is Clive Barker, he of Hellraiser and Candyman fame. On the lighter side, Haruki Murakami's novels can be quite strange and enjoy great popularity. Still, it's hard to think of anyone who has injected so much strangeness into the pop culture consciousness, and no one else has done it this long.
King's strangeness is, of course, not his own invention. King has long been open about his uncanny inspirations including Ray Bradbury, H.P. Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson, and old EC horror comics. But while horror has a long tradition of the weird, it is a genre that has gotten increasingly normalized in the last few decades. In film and TV, the mainstream manifestations of the genre seems to have split into either the boring gore fests of the Saw films or the corny camp of American Horror Story. It is rare to find a popular horror work that is truly eerie, that lurks in the shadows and tries to drive you to madness instead of morals... well, rare, at least, unless you're watching an adaptation of Stephen King.
Stephen King is a lone strange light in the best-seller section over the years. At least until recently. We live in increasingly bizarre times. Our daily lives become more like science fiction while our politics grow more unhinged. It is not a surprise then that our literature has gotten increasingly strange. Genre-bending writers like Kelly Link, Karen Russell, and Victor LaValle are getting increasing (and deserved) attention. It is no coincidence that all three of those authors—as well as most writers my age who enjoy the dark, the strange, and the unknown—cite Stephen King as an influence. And it is no coincidence that this year's hottest show, Stranger Things, was essentially a mashup of different Stephen King adaptations (with a gloss of Spielberg to make it friendly).
After all, King has been weirding it up for decades. Here's hoping he continues for many more.
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