Stephen King has spent half a century scaring us, but his legacy is so much more than horror

King might have remained a struggling English teacher, but for two women: Tabitha King and Carrie White

Born in 1947, King grew up poor in Durham, Maine, the younger son of a single working mother whose husband, a merchant mariner, abandoned his family when King was still a toddler. A lifelong fan of speculative fiction, King began writing seriously while attending the University of Maine Orono. It was there, in 1969, that he met his wife, Tabitha.

By 1973, King was a high school English teacher drawing a meager $6,400 a year. He had married Tabitha in 1971, and the pair lived in a trailer in Hampden, Maine, and each worked additional jobs to make ends meet. King wrote numerous short stories, some of which were published by Playboy and other men’s magazines, but significant writerly success eluded him.

Tabitha, who’d been one of the first to read Stephen’s short stories in colleges, had loaned Stephen her own typewriter and refused to let him take a higher-paying job that would mean less time to write. Tabitha was also the one who discovered draft pages of what would become Carrie tossed in Stephen’s trash can. She retrieved them and ordered him to keep working on the idea. Ever since, King has continued to pay Tabitha’s encouragement forward. He frequently and effusively blurbs books from established as well as new authors, citing a clear wish to leave publishing better than he found it. Meanwhile, Tabitha is a respected author in her own right, as are both of their sons, Joe Hill and Owen King.

Carrie, which King sold for a $2,500 advance, would go on to earn $400,000 for the rights to its paperback run. The story of a troubled girl who develops powers of telekinesis, Carrie is the ultimate “high school is hell” morality tale. Carrie faces ruthless abuse from her religious mother and bullying from high school classmates, and the book introduces us to two of King’s most prominent themes: small Maine towns with dark underbellies, and main characters written with care and empathy despite being deeply flawed and morally gray — in this case Carrie, her mother, and her bully Sue. The complicated bond between protagonist and antagonist is also a recurring motif in King’s writing.

Two years after Carrie’s publication, Brian De Palma’s 1976 film adaptation grossed $33 million on a $1.8 million budget, largely on the strength of advance critical praise and word-of-mouth reviews. Buoyed by the subsequent success of Carrie’s paperback sales, King would go on to churn out six novels (Salem’s Lot, The Shining, Rage, The Stand, The Long Walk, and The Dead Zone) over the next six years, establishing a prolificacy that would continue through much of his career.

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