clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The King Chroniclers and the Reimagining of an Icon of American Letters

As the 70-year-old Stephen King continues to churn out novels, a thriving community of scholars has formed an ever-expanding, interconnected cottage industry that’s contributed to a critical reappraisal of the prolific story-spinner

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Michael Collings remembers how he was introduced to Stephen King’s fiction: A student gave him homework. This was 1983, and Collings, an English professor at Pepperdine University, was teaching a class called “Myth, Fantasy, and Science Fiction.” A member of the class, David A. Engebretson, asked him why King wasn’t on the syllabus, and Collings confessed: He hadn’t done the reading. Engebretson told him to try The Dead Zone, King’s 1979 novel about a man who wakes up from a coma clairvoyant, so Collings picked up the paperback on his way home that night. In thrall to King’s page-turning powers, he quickly consumed it, and when the school year was over, he made himself a summer reading list: King’s back catalog.

King led to Koontz, and Koontz to McCammon. Then King kickstarted a career. When Collings had begun teaching, he’d decided that much as he appreciated the poetry of John Milton, he “didn’t want to spend the next 20 years writing scholarly, academic studies of his poetry that only one or two people would ever read.” Instead, he focused on the fun stuff: science fiction, fantasy, and horror. For Collings, Stephen King, a best-selling, contemporary novelist whose work was uncharted academic territory, provided a path to publication that didn’t preclude popular appeal. Shortly after Collings completed his King binge, he got a contract to cover King from Starmont House, a small press that specialized in science-fiction criticism and published more than 130 books between 1976 and 1993, many of them monographs or bibliographies devoted to individual authors. The assignment was simple: an overview of King’s novels to date, which at that time numbered fewer than a dozen, not counting the ones he’d written under the pseudonym Richard Bachman.

The result, The Many Facets of Stephen King, came out in 1985. As Collings recalls, the only full-length King chronicle that preceded his own was Douglas E. Winter’s 1984 book, Stephen King: The Art of Darkness, which expanded on Winter’s 1982 “Reader’s Guide” series study for Starmont, Stephen King. The Many Facets soon spawned several more Collings creations about, well, many more facets: The Shorter Works of Stephen King (cowritten with Engebretson, who’d started it all); Stephen King Is Richard Bachman; The Annotated Guide to Stephen King; The Films of Stephen King; The Stephen King Phenomenon.

Collings (who also immersed himself in the oeuvres of Orson Scott Card and other authors) had become a King commentator; when a new King book came out—which, because it was King, often happened two or three times a year—he would read it and write about it. He was the first serious, serial scholar of King. “Instead of collating the conclusions of generations of previous scholars, I was in at the beginning,” Collings says. “Instead of footnoting others, I was the one being footnoted.”

In the decades since, Collings (who has authored several novels himself) has continued to write about King, contributing most recently to a 2017 essay collection called Reading Stephen King. But Collings is no longer nearly alone. He’s one cog in an ever-expanding, interconnected King cottage industry that according to many of its members has produced at least as many pages about King as King has produced himself. As the 70-year-old King continues to churn out novels, and adaptations like the currently airing Castle Rock and Mr. Mercedes keep colonizing the screen, a thriving community of King chroniclers follows along like Langoliers, absorbing, critiquing, and cross-referencing every morsel (and, as I explore in a separate piece on The Ringer today, callback to an earlier work) that comes from his keyboard. Although they’ve benefited from being literary remoras, drawing sustenance from King’s never-ending output as the fish do from the water that flows through their gills while they hitch rides on their hosts, they also serve a symbiotic purpose. In the process of documenting King’s creations, they’ve not only aided his work from a research perspective but contributed to a critical reappraisal of the prolific story-spinner, cementing the now-noncontroversial notion that in addition to being compulsively readable, King’s complex work is as worthy of study as any American author’s.

In the early 1980s, Collings recalls, “King was not considered appropriate for scholarly studies or even, for that matter, for reading by serious students of literature.” When Collings’s younger son was a junior in high school, his teacher distributed potential topics for an end-of-year term paper on American literature. When another student asked (as Engebretson had asked Collings) why King wasn’t included, the teacher explained that the students couldn’t tackle King because no one else had tackled King, and thus there was nothing to cite.

To Collings, such snobbery was unacceptable. “Part of the reason I wanted to work with King was to break down the assumed differences between ‘literature’ and ‘popular literature,’” he says. His studies in medieval and renaissance writing had suggested to him that for most of the history of the written English word, readers and scholars had drawn no such distinction. The belief that a commercially successful author must also be artistically suspect was a fairly recent construct. “In one of my early articles, I commented that ‘Shakespeare was the Stephen King of his day,’” he says, “and any number of academic necks snapped as their heads whipped back in disbelief.”

Collings made a conscious effort to get King into classrooms by pruning the thick verbal bramble that sometimes spouts up around scholarly text and making his Starmont series more accessible. When his younger son told his teacher that Collings was working on a 500-page bibliography of publications by and about King, the teacher’s resistance to King crumbled. Shortly thereafter, Collings says, he was invited to address all of the juniors in the school library in a series of discussions about King. The next year, when the teacher handed out potential term-paper topics, King was on the list. Granted, that was one class and one teacher, and in classes that didn’t include a King chronicler’s child, progress was slow: According to Collings, one of his students in a college class where Collings had assigned King was “severely reprimanded” by another faculty member for showing up at a meeting carrying a King book, which the other faculty member insisted had “absolutely no place on a college campus.” But as King became an institution with his own scholarly scaffolding, the critical tide turned. “Now, of course, one can earn advanced college degrees in speculative fiction, often centering on King,” Collings says. “This pleases me immensely.”

Releases like Tony Magistrale’s influential Landscape of Fear, a 1988 book that was among the first to link and compare King’s work to that of earlier literary masters, helped catapult King into the highbrow cultural conversation. Outlets such as Cemetery Dance (a specialty publisher with a long history of critical, literary writing about King) and, more recently, Pennywise Dreadful (a peer-reviewed online journal of King exegeses), have held up Magistrale’s legacy. For many King chroniclers, hundreds of millions of King copies sold haven’t weakened the impulse to prove that his books have more meat on the bone than believed. Lizzie Stewart-Shaw, a researcher at the University of Nottingham who did her dissertation on intertextuality in King’s most sprawling work, The Dark Tower, and adapted it for Pennywise Dreadful, is still vicariously smarting from the times her high school teachers told her that King wasn’t “canonical.” “Using literary linguistic and cognitive linguistic theories, I wanted to prove that King’s work has a level of linguistic complexity that he doesn’t often get credit for,” she says.

Naturally, though, there was more to King’s critical renaissance than the chroniclers’ advocacy alone. For one thing, King—whose official list of “written works” lists 422 items, and who has authored 59 (mostly lengthy) novels, more than 200 short stories, and several nonfiction books—kept writing, outlasting a lot of the cultural gatekeepers who were biased against him (or as he put it in 2015, “a lot of the critics who dissed me back in those days are dead”). For another, he branched out beyond horror (and, at times, beyond traditional publishing formats), which made him harder to typecast as a genre writer, a fate he bridled at but also joked about in his self-deprecating afterword to the 1982 novella collection Different Seasons. “Most of [my novels] have been plain fiction for plain folks, the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and a large fries from McDonald’s,” King wrote. “I am able to recognize elegant prose and to respond to it, but I have found it difficult or impossible to write it myself.”

George Beahm, a King chronicler who discovered King via ’Salem’s Lot and published The Stephen King Companion in 1989, revised it in 1995, and revised it again—this time at almost twice the length of the previous version—in 2015, says that those comments reflected King’s Collingsesque frustration about being dismissed by the literary establishment, a phenomenon King first encountered in the English department at his alma mater, the University of Maine. “King takes his work very seriously, but sometimes he doesn’t take himself seriously, and so when he ma[de] comments like that … critics jumped on that and said, ‘See? I told you so. The guy’s a clown,’” says Beahm, who notes that King’s image as “kind of a goofy guy” who would appear as himself in a punny ad for American Express, dressed in a smoking jacket inside a haunted house, did him no favors with the stuffy establishment.

By the turn of the century, King had survived alcoholism, drug addiction, and a near-fatal 1999 accident in which he was hit by a van while walking alongside Maine’s State Route 5. In 2000, an older and soberer version of the man who’d once compared his books to Big Macs published On Writing, a well-received memoir, confessional, and guide to his craft. It was difficult for even the staunchest King critic to insist that King didn’t care about writing once he’d written a book about it, particularly since it offered such sage advice. It was also impossible to pretend that King wasn’t capable of contributing in more than one genre. King received the 2014 National Medal of the Arts from President Obama, which went well with his 2003 National Book Award (a rarity for a “popular” writer), his 1996 O. Henry Award, and a long list of other literary laurels. “King has achieved what I call the trilogy of success as a writer in America,” says longtime King chronicler Stephen J. Spignesi, who likens King’s career to John Steinbeck’s. “He is successful in the academic field, in the popular field, and in the collector field.”

Stanley Wiater, another King chronicler, recalls that there once was a time when a movie like Stand by Me, which was based on King’s non-horror (titular corpse notwithstanding) novella The Body, would try to avoid being associated with its well-known originator, despite his massive sales. “Much as Stephen King was a best-selling author at the time, they made a point of burying his name as much as possible in the promotions of the film because they didn’t want anybody to think, ‘Oh my God, this is written by a horror writer and that will take away from the popularity,’” Wiater says. “Now, Stephen King, of course, is just the brand Stephen King.” And that brand is no longer limited to certain types of stories—or, in light of how many media properties it’s now attached to, “limited” in any way at all.

In the aftermath of his accident, King said he doubted that he’d ever publish again. Early the next year, a still-recovering King announced that he’d returned to his task but cautioned that “my endurance is much less than it was and my output has been cut in half.” For the moment, it may have been, but the relative dry spell didn’t last. On the contrary: King’s next novel, Elevation, which will be out in October, will be the 24th he’s released in the 19 years since his comeback. “When he got struck with a van, that changed everything,” Beahm says. “He said, ‘Wait a minute, I’m as mortal as the next guy.’”

Few fans of a solo act in any medium have been as consistently sated as King’s “Constant Readers,” his affectionate term for his long-term devotees. Following a favorite artist often involves some degree of deprivation: One savors each film, album, or book because the next one may be a ways away. Not so with King: No sooner have fans finished his latest release than they can circle the date—often on the same calendar—when the next one will arrive. And while they wait for the next book to come out, they can douse themselves in an unceasing (and strengthening) stream of King adaptations: not just Castle Rock and Mr. Mercedes, but also next year’s movies Pet Sematary and the anticipated It: Chapter Two, with The Shining sequel Doctor Sleep soon to follow.

Not every latter-day (or, for that matter, early/mid-career) King book is a classic, but for most regular readers, they’re compelling tales told in a voice that’s characteristically King’s. Much as dedicated King chroniclers welcome more material, the word “deluge” poses problems for anyone who hopes to keep pace. Inevitably, any new “complete” King reference work is almost immediately missing something. “The bibliography I published a decade or so ago was over 500 pages long, with 3,000 entries for works by and about King,” Collings says. “And he has not slowed down since.” The upside of King’s continued sprint to wherever his literary finish line lies is that there’s always a market for new books about him (or at least revised and updated editions).The downside is that King’s collected library has ballooned to such an extraordinary size that summarizing it all in one work is an almost impossible task.

Spignesi, who discovered King via his third novel, The Shining, is the author of, among many other King-related works, The Complete Stephen King Encyclopedia: The Definitive Guide to the Works of America’s Master of Horror. The book runs about 800 pages—and came out in 1991. Its title looks laughable now; the encyclopedia is “complete” only through the 1990 novella collection Four Past Midnight, which now sits closer to the beginning of King’s bibliography than the end. Even so, it took Spignesi five years to produce in the less-research-friendly pre-internet era, working with one research assistant—his mother, who’d been a big King fan even before Spignesi asked for her help with the book. The bottom two drawers of the filing cabinet in Spignesi’s office are still filled with legal pads on which his mother made notes about King’s people, places, and things.

Wiater undertook a similar task in the late 1990s, when he teamed up with two other writers to assemble The Stephen King Universe, which was published in 2001 and updated in 2006. Wiater’s book was one of the first to catalog the interconnectedness of King’s extensive fictional universe. It took the three writers three years to finish the first edition, divvying up every written or adapted item in the King catalog and painstakingly linking the ones with commonalities. “It gets pretty complex,” Wiater says. “The introduction where we explained our process runs several pages.”

Most of the time, this is the way King chronicling works: King creates, and the chroniclers collate. But in some cases, King becomes part of the process (just as he does in The Dark Tower’s fictional narrative), and the scholars become part of his, creatively and sometimes socially.

King or his office sometimes assists with archival efforts. Spignesi recalls that when he was working on his encyclopedia, the office sent him copies of the short story “Slade,” a 1970 Western parody that King published in eight installments in the University of Maine student paper, The Maine Campus. With help from King and other King chroniclers, Spignesi performed a public service for King fans by publishing The Lost Work of Stephen King, a collection of deep cuts that included a review of an ice ax that King, who called the accessory “my little serrated security blanket,” contributed to the magazine Outside. “Of course, King put his own spin on it and began musing about halfway through the piece as to what an incredible murder weapon it would make and how many notches into the head would it go if a killer went crazy with it,” Spignesi says.

King has created some scholars from scratch. In 2000, not long after On Writing arrived, King asked one of his former professors at the University of Maine to send him a grad student who could work as a temporary research assistant and go through the manuscripts he’d received in response to a writing competition he’d announced in the book. The professor recommended Robin Furth, whose work he was supervising. As Furth worked, she was mostly in contact with King’s assistant: She’d show up at the office, pick up a new box of manuscripts, and go home to sort through them. When the six-week job was done, she needed to return to the office one more time to drop off a box and pick up her paycheck, but a snowstorm, dangerous roads, and a lack of power that had prevented her from bathing for about a week made her consider postponing the visit. “I guess I was smelly,” she says. “Dirty hair.” Bedraggled as she was, she went in, not expecting to see anyone except the assistant.

As luck (or ka) would have it, King was in the office when his unwashed research assistant arrived, and he had another task in mind. “Steve said, ‘I’m gonna be going back to The Dark Tower series and I need someone to make lists of characters and places in the book, and page references, so I can just check myself for continuity,’” Furth recalls. “‘Have you ever read the books?’” Apprehensive, she admitted that she hadn’t. Undeterred, King took her into a personal library of all his published works—“It’s a pretty big room,” Furth says—and handed her the volumes that existed at that time. Her work wasn’t finished yet.

Furth soon felt the Tower’s pull and steeped herself in the series’ lore. King had asked only for a list of characters and places, but in her absorption, she went above and beyond. “I made this book,” she says. “I bound it in black and I drew him a door, so he could get into his world. I have a little sigil that said ‘The Writer.’ And I taped a found key to the cover, and I thought, ‘Either he’s gonna think I’m crazy, or he’s gonna like it.’” He liked it.

Furth’s role as a research assistant lasted for roughly three years. As King wrote toward The Dark Tower’s ending, he would hand her the clean, polished pages of a practiced writer, and she would set to work making connections. Sometimes he would ask her specific Dark Tower continuity questions, and sometimes she would assist him on detours to other books like Black House and Cell. Eventually, Furth published an expanded version of her work as a separate book—Stephen King’s The Dark Tower: A Concordance—worked closely with Marvel on its comic adaptations of the series, and embarked on her own independent projects while still freelancing for King.

Although Furth’s degree of contact with King surpassed that of most scholars, other community members report their own King encounters. Compared to Collings and Spignesi, Bev Vincent was a King-chronicler-come-lately. In the early-to-mid-’90s, he made a name for himself on a Usenet discussion group devoted to King by authoritatively answering questions about obscure corners of King’s creations. While he had loved King’s stories ever since ’Salem’s Lot hooked him, though, he didn’t have quite the command of the literature that he appeared to online. Unbeknownst to his audience, he sometimes consulted Spignesi’s encyclopedia when something stumped him. “People thought I knew a lot more than I did,” he says. “It made me seem smart.”

Gradually, Vincent’s standing on the forum brought him to the attention of King’s assistant and publisher, who would sometimes slip him news that he could announce on the board. Later, he wrote a column for Cemetery Dance called “News from the Dead Zone.” When Vincent learned that King was working on the final three books in the seven-volume Dark Tower saga, he contacted King’s office and asked for King’s cooperation with a book about the origins and significance of the saga. “I said, ‘In my wildest dreams, the FedEx truck would pull up in front of my house and it would have the manuscripts for the last three books so I could start working on this now,’ which was two years before the books were scheduled to be published,” he recalls. “That way my book could be finished concurrently with the release of the seventh [Dark Tower] book.”

Vincent didn’t dare hope that King would give his assent, but the next day, he heard back: King had OK’d the idea. Soon Vincent received a precious shipment of manuscripts of the three remaining Dark Tower books, totaling 2,500 pages, with no confidentiality agreement required. All it took, Vincent says, was “The biggest sort of NDA of all: a little reminder from his office that he knows where I live. But beyond that, nothing. It was like an act of trust.” Vincent, who went on to author The Road to the Dark Tower (2004) and, later, The Dark Tower Companion (2013), repaid that trust—which he says must have made King’s editor nervous—by refusing to tell anyone anything about the books except the number of pages.

Vincent is about to release Flight or Fright, an anthology of airplane stories that he coedited with King. He’s also working on Stephen King Revisited, a Cemetery Dance book about bingeing King anew. Spignesi’s Stephen King, American Master is due out in October. Once King has his hooks in a scholar, he rarely lets go—not that most of his adherents have any desire to shed their King connection. “The few of us who have been in the trenches, for whatever reason we remain in the trenches,” Wiater says, noting that the stacks of existing scholarship make it more difficult for new names to stand out. “If you wanna just sit there and say, ‘I wanna start from scratch and write a book about Stephen King,’ I go, ‘Good luck Charlie.’” Some King chroniclers have corresponded for years without physically meeting, but one way or another, Vincent says, “We all know each other,” and Furth confirms that “there’s a comradery.” In King-speak, the chroniclers are ka-tet, bound by common purpose.

Beahm is the exception, even though he keeps close enough tabs on King to casually mention what kind of cars the King family drives. “I made a promise to myself that I would stop writing about King at the point where I felt that I had said everything I had really wanted to say,” he says, adding that he reached that point a few years ago and has since turned down offers to continue his King studies. “I feel like it’s time for new writers to bring new perspectives to King, which I think rejuvenates the field.”

King does his part to keep the field fresh by adding big books on a roughly biannual basis. And even though Beahm has kicked his King habit, he doesn’t believe that King will ever stop writing. “The money doesn’t matter,” Beahm says. “The fame doesn’t matter. These endless, countless, good-to-bad adaptations of movies and short stories and novels into movies and TV miniseries don’t really matter. What matters, and what has always mattered to Stephen King, is the writing itself.” The most constant of King’s readers can all say the same.

The Bakari Sellers Podcast

Tamron Hall and the Playbook of Longevity

Plain English

How to Have the Hardest Conversations—in Marriage, Politics, and Life

Higher Learning

More Mass Shootings. Plus, Martin, Malcolm, and Coretta With Dr. Peniel Joseph.

View all stories in Books