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Stephen King's legacy of horror

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

What's the scariest situation you can imagine? A creepy clown peering up at you from a sewer gutter, beckoning you closer?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IT")

BILL SKARSGARD: (As Pennywise) Hi, Georgie. What a nice boat. Do you want it back?

DETROW: Being trapped in a blizzard with a murderous spouse?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SHINING")

JACK NICHOLSON: (As Jack Torrance) I said I'm not going to hurt you. I'm just gonna bash your brains.

DETROW: Or maybe it's your high school prom suddenly turning into a fiery bloodbath.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CARRIE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Somebody open this door.

DETROW: That last scene is from the movie "Carrie." And if you know "Carrie," if you love horror, then you know the work of Stephen King. "Carrie" was King's first book, and it came out 50 years ago this spring. It was turned into the Oscar-nominated film starring Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie as a daughter and mother in a very unhealthy relationship.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CARRIE")

SISSY SPACEK: (As Carrie) Stop hurting yourself, Mama.

PIPER LAURIE: (As Margaret White) He's going to laugh at you. They're all going to laugh at you.

STEPHEN KING: Vampires, rabid dogs, possessed kids, plagues - if it's terrifying, Stephen King has written about it. And Hollywood has continued to mine King's extensive body of work - over 70 novels, over 200 short stories - giving us some of the most memorable moments on screen.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SHINING")

NICHOLSON: (As Jack Torrance) Here's Johnny.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MISERY")

KATHY BATES: (As Annie Wilkes) I'm your No. 1 fan.

DETROW: Over the past 50 years, the cult of King has exploded. His books, his movies, the man himself have amassed millions of fans and have become iconic fixtures in pop culture.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE KINGCAST")

ERIC VESPE: There's a universality to King's writing that I think makes him very accessible.

DETROW: Eric Vespe and Scott Wampler host "The Kingcast," a podcast devoted to all things Stephen King.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE KINGCAST")

SCOTT WAMPLER: It's not until you start trying to read other people and realizing how, you know, just far ahead of the pack King is in terms of being able to craft a story and character that you just really want to follow.

DETROW: But not everyone thinks that King is ahead of the pack. For critics like the late Harold Bloom, he wasn't even in the race. Bloom once called King an immensely inadequate writer on a sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph, book-by-book basis. Ouch. King addressed his critics in a 1993 interview with Charlie Rose.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CHARLIE ROSE")

KING: There is a feeling among the real critical intelligentsia that anybody who's being read by a lot of people can't be very good because the middle range is fairly low, and that's total bull.

DETROW: It is hard to argue that when it comes to horror, King is anything but, well, the king. But is his work great literature? Some of his most iconic books have been supplanted in the popular imagination by their screen adaptations. But NPR culture critic Linda Holmes says this should not be a mark against King's talent. Instead, she sees King's appeal to Hollywood pretty simply.

LINDA HOLMES, BYLINE: He just has interesting, cool ideas for stories, and I think those stories appeal to people who want to make films.

DETROW: She says that even 50 years on, a story like "Carrie" is no exception.

HOLMES: In the case of "Carrie," it's that idea of, what if this girl had this power and used it to get revenge on all the people that hurt her in high school?

DETROW: But she says it's also King's empathy for a young girl that makes him stand out among his male peers.

HOLMES: The interesting thing about "Carrie" is that it is so much about the power of this girl and her discovery of this power that comes out as rage. When he wrote "Carrie," I think he was more interested than a lot of novelists, male novelists were at that time in thinking about the interior lives of girls of that age.

TONY MAGISTRALE: But the key, I think, to understanding "Carrie" in the context of the rest of the canon is that we're dealing with the first outsider. This is going to be a theme that will come back over and over again in King's fiction - the loser and how the loser has to somehow find a way to survive.

DETROW: Tony Magistrale is a professor of English at the University of Vermont, and he writes about the horror genre and literature. He's been writing serious scholarly books about Stephen King for years. He teaches a popular class on the author. But he says it took a while for his fellow faculty members to recognize that Stephen King was worth studying.

MAGISTRALE: My colleagues all were scratching their heads. What are you doing? You know, talk about self-destructive impulses. You know, stop. Stop with this Stephen King stuff. He's a hack. And I kept trying to tell people, pay attention. There's a lot going on here by way of subtext and things that are under the surface. This guy has also got his - he's got a real pulse of what's going on in American society.

DETROW: What was the first of his books that really drew you in?

MAGISTRALE: I'd probably have to start with "Carrie," as early as that was. A friend of mine threw a copy of "Carrie" in my lap and said, read this, and I did. And I said, wow, I'm hooked. This is really interesting.

DETROW: You mentioned "Carrie." That's the anniversary we're looking at. It turns 50 later this year. It was his first book. Of course, it leads to that first movie moment. What do you think it was about "Carrie" that stood out from other horror novels at that time, or do you think it was more the movie it became that made it stand out?

MAGISTRALE: Yeah. I think I would go the other way. I would say that it connected to "The Exorcist." "The Exorcist" was a year before. And, of course, everyone was caught up with the frenzy of teenage girls being subjected to the devil. And, of course, when "Carrie" came out, it, you know, it wasn't a bestseller by any means. And it only became a bestseller when it went into paperback, where it sold 200,000 copies. But that was largely attributed to De Palma's film. And as King once commented, I made "Carrie," and "Carrie" made me.

DETROW: Do you think the movies - there have been so many movies, and so many of the movies are iconic pop culture, you know, marking points that have lasting power.

MAGISTRALE: Absolutely.

DETROW: "The Shining," even though Stephen King, I think, had a lot of issues with "The Shining," but "The Shining."

MAGISTRALE: He did.

DETROW: "The Shawshank "Redemption." There are so many of these movies. Do the movies enhance King's legacy or do they supplant it in a way?

MAGISTRALE: Well, I think that, in the end - and when I'm talking about the end, I'm talking about 20, 40 years from now - I think it's going to be the movies that are going to bring people back to reading King. This is after Steve's, of course, gone. And I think that the films are so good that people are going to be attracted to wanting to come back to the source for where this film came from.

DETROW: Going back to how he's viewed critically, you know, I think you can look throughout history in a lot of new mediums or new people on the scene, especially if they're successful, are kind of dismissed by academics at first. Do you think that's entirely what was going on? Do you think the fact that he sold books held him back, or do you think it was something else, that you were kind of in the minority view for a while when it came to, you know, people who decide what is or isn't fine literature?

MAGISTRALE: If we go back to the '70s, when Stephen King was publishing, began publishing, you see a very, very different environment going on in English departments across the country. See, this is important because this is a prescient moment. What you're seeing here is the beginning of the erosion of what used to be viewed as the custodians of culture. Now, that notion, you know, it always had something to do with tradition. It always had something to do with history. And the accepted writers and all of that started to fall apart, I think, around the '70s.

DETROW: How do you think he ranks among American writers, if you could guess that 30, 40 years down the line point of view?

MAGISTRALE: I think that when people want to talk about what was happening at the end of the 20th century and the early part of the 21st century in America, and the issues that were being raised - political, social, psychological, the gestalt of the time - that Stephen King would be a logical place to go to find out those issues, to find a take on those issues. I think he's that important.

MAGISTRALE: Tony Magistrale, an English professor at the University of Vermont. Thanks so much for talking to us.

DETROW: Hey. My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.