King occupies an unusual position among modern American writers. He is, first, a phenomenally successful commercial writer: His novels and short stories, in both hardcover and paperback editions, have sold many millions of copies; each new work he writes is virtually assured of best-seller status; and films, teleplays, and other spinoffs from his stories have made his name nearly an ironclad guarantee of profitability. At the same time, he can also lay claim to being a “serious” writer who treats universal themes with great originality. The vehicle he uses is often—but by no means always—the horror novel, and the question he most often addresses is that of the nature of evil. Though this theme has been central to many of the greatest works of literature, today’s secularized modern society has generally rejected traditional beliefs in absolute good and evil. King’s works do not suggest any specific moral or religious doctrines, but he does seem to assert that evil is real, absolute, and inherent in nature.
In several of his works, evil is portrayed as a supernatural force which takes over some object or human being. In the novel The Shining (1977), for example, a demoniac power has occupied the old Overlook Hotel, and it gradually possesses Jack Torrance, the hotel’s caretaker, and drives him insane. In The Stand (1978), Satan takes on the form of Randall Flagg, one of the few survivors of a biological holocaust, in an attempt to conquer what remains of the world. An automobile is evil’s habitat in Christine (1983), as the vehicle’s new teenage owner is transformed by the car into a murderer.
Though King’s heroes and heroines are frequently victims of this supernatural power, often they fall into the clutches of evil through weakness or temptation. Thus, in Pet Sematary (1983), Louis Creed allows both his curiosity and remorse at the death of his cat to draw him into a haunted Indian burial ground. A corpse buried there, it is said, will return to life. He buries his cat, and it does indeed return, but as a foul, murderous parody of its former self. Even after seeing the results, Creed again succumbs to temptation when his wife dies.
In Carrie, a young girl is obviously a victim of two kinds of evil: her mother’s religious fanaticism and the cruelty of her teenage peer group. Pushed beyond any acceptable limits of humiliation, however, she uses her telekinetic power to destroy everything and everyone around her—thus, in a sense, immersing herself in evil for revenge. Jack Torrance, the hero of The Shining, falls prey to the forces of the Overlook Hotel at least partly through guilt and weakness—he is a recovering alcoholic whose uncontrollable temper has often led him into trouble.
Occasionally, King has created terror without invoking supernatural forces. The monster of Misery (1987) is entirely human—an insane fan who holds her favorite writer captive and forces him, through torture, to write a novel especially for her. In The Running Man (1982), written by King under the pseudonym Richard Bachman, a corporate future society provides a setting of repression, deception, and brutality. The hero, Ben Richards, must himself descend to violence and murder to escape and expose the villainous rulers.
In all these situations, however, King seems to be asking the same fundamental questions that have troubled the human psyche since the days of the great Greek playwrights: Are humans the victims or the masters of their fates? Can evil possess people against their wills, or is there something deep inside each individual that connives at evil’s ultimate victory?
Yet evil does not always win. In Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, one of four novellas in Different Seasons (1982), a confessed murderer confined in Shawshank Prison is redeemed through his growing friendship with another inmate who is really innocent, and the two of them escape. All the nastiest monsters ever conceived are rolled into one in the massive It (1986), which is ultimately defeated, not once, but twice, by the same group of six people—first as children, then as adults. Most often, however, even when King allows his monsters, demons, aliens, or greedy politicians to get their comeuppance, a question is always left in the reader’s mind: Is evil truly defeated? The reader often suspects the answer is negative.
While King’s approach to the question of evil is the most profound element of his writing, his novels and short stories succeed primarily because of his craftsmanship in creating fascinating, extremely believable characters and settings. He is especially adept at portraying the unique perceptions of children. The ability of King’s youthful protagonists to believe and experience what adults usually ignore or deny renders them more open and aware of evil and, occasionally, equips them to fight it in ways their elders cannot comprehend. His adult characters generally are relatively ordinary people placed in extraordinary circumstances.
While best known for horror and as an unofficial spokesman for the state of Maine, King has also become a remarkably thoughtful voice on the demands of the writing life: its toll on one’s life, the frustrations of actually crafting a story, and the moral consequences that art brings to bear on both creator and audience. He has done this through various characters who are writers, as well as in his nonfiction autobiography and writing guide, On Writing. True to his blue-collar roots, King considers writing tough but rewarding work and believes that it should be approached as such. He has also written notable works on baseball, including the essay “Head Down” about his son’s Little League team and Faithful (2004) with Stewart O’Nan, about the Boston Red Sox’s 2004 championship season.