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

It’s taken decades for King’s work to be critically appreciated — in particular for its literary qualities

King’s work has appeared in magazines ranging from the New Yorker to Harper’s to Playboy. The author has influenced literary writers like Haruki Murakami and Sherman Alexie along with genre creators like the producers of Lost. And he’s won virtually every major horror, mystery, science fiction, and fantasy award there is. But King also spent decades being written off by both the horror writing community and the literary mainstream.

King once referred to critics perceiving him to be “a rich hack,” a perception that bears out in horror writer David Schow’s offhand 1997 description of him as “comparable to McDonald’s” — intended to characterize King as horror’s pedestrian mainstream. When a 1994 King short story, his first to be published in the New Yorker, won the prestigious O. Henry Award, Publishers Weekly declared it to be “one of the weaker stories in this year’s [O. Henry Award] collection.”

“The price he pays for being Stephen King is not being taken seriously,” one of King’s collaborators told the LA Times in 1995.

The critical disparagement of King often went hand in hand with genre shaming.  Lesley Stahl questioned King’s literary tastes, getting him to admit that he’d never read Jane Austen and had only read one Tolstoy novel. In response, King grinned that he had, instead, read every novel Dean Koontz had ever written — Dean Koontz being a notoriously lowbrow writer of thrillers. (That same year, the New York Times would compliment the breadth of King’s literary knowledge even while panning his epic best-seller The Stand.)

“Here you are, one of the best- selling authors in all of history,” Stahl continued, “and the critics cannot find much that they like in your work.”

To this, King replied, “All I can say is — and this is in response to the critics who’ve often said that my work is awkward and sometimes a little bit painful — I know it. I’m doing the best I can with what I’ve got.”

While King’s self-deprecation may have been a mark of respect for his critics, those critics were on the cusp of being proven wrong. This was in large part thanks to the sleeping giant that became The Shawshank Redemption, which drew popular attention to the fact that King could do more than “just” write horror, and helped kick-start critical reassessment of him and his work.

The film, written by longtime Stephen King adapter Frank Darabont, is based on one of King’s most literary works, a 1982 novella about an agonizingly slow prison break. Shawshank flopped when it opened in theaters in 1994, but it was nominated for seven Academy Awards — more than any other King adaptation.  it has gone on to become one of the most popular and beloved films ever made.

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