The King of Fright

Gertrude Stein once said of her hometown of Oakland that “there’s no there there.” The same can also be said about a man who religiously spends at least three hours a day behind a word processor, except for Christmas and his birthday.

Consider a few more facts about Stephen King. He has been happily married for a long time and has fathered three children. He promotes few public causes, guards his privacy jealously against the onslaught of attention from his fans and regards publicity as a device for selling books, not a salve for his ego. There are no public feuds and the only signs of an overblown ego may be the increasing size of some of his novels. If he was a literary character, Stephen King would be one-dimensional, and I suspect that he likes it that way.

This has not stopped a handful of biographers and literary groupies from creating a cottage industry by writing about the man who redefined and expanded the horror genre.

The best of the lot [as of 1991, when this review was published] is Douglas Winter’s “Stephen King: The Art of Darkness,” which was written with King’s cooperation. There’s also “Bare Bones,” a collection of interviews with King, and his own “Danse Macabre” contains extensive biographical notes as well. [His “On Writing” contains much more information about his drug addiction and attitudes toward writing.] Reading any of these works will give you a good idea of how and why King creates the shudders many of us compulsively enjoy.

Which brings us to George Beahm’s “The Stephen King Story,” which is to biography what “Abbott and Costell Meet the Mummy” is to horror.

This self-proclaimed “literary profile” consists of 171 pages rehashing King’s publishing successes, a chapter of speculation on his craft, a few anecdotes from friends, and lists of everything King has written, published, filmed or even contemplated.

There is a lot that is wrong with this book. The level of criticism never rises above the level of a backslap unless absolutely impossible to avoid, such as the King-written/directed crapfest “Maximum Overdrive.” Most of the time, Beahm’s judgments are banal: “‘Salem’s Lot’ is a long, satisfying read, the perfect summer book.” Jacket and promotional copy are recited as if Holy Writ, along with snatches of praise from Library Journal and Publishers Weekly.

Some sections are worth reading. The account of King’s childhood and colleges years portrays him as a hard worker who displayed talent early on. A novel he wrote in college was passed around among the professors and was considered publishable. His first novel, “Carrie” was actually his fifth. The book also describes his ownership and sale seven years later of radio station WZON in Bangor, as well as his small-publishing ventures.

Beahm’s few conclusions are a mix of the puerile and illogical. He writes that “The Dead Zone” hardcover printing of 80,000 “would be the first indication that King could potentially reach larger audiences.” He forgets that, 12 pages before, the paperback of “Salem’s Lot” had sold 2.25 million three years before.

Aside from the moderate expansion in King’s biography, a fan would get more pleasure avoiding this tripe and reading “The Art of Darkness,” “Bare Bones,” or “Danse Macabre” instead. If this is the best the competition can offer, you may want to join in the fun. Read as much Stephen King as you want and draw your own conclusions. It can’t be any worse than this.