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Author Stephen King, shown in 2018 in New York, when he was awarded the PEN America Literary Service Award. Evan Agostini/Invision/Associated Press, file

Stephen King paperbacks were always on hand in Jennifer Irish’s childhood home in Brunswick. So when she decided at age 10 to read a more grown-up book, she bypassed Dickens and Steinbeck and chose “The Eyes of the Dragon,” by King.

Irish is now an English professor at Arizona State University and helped design a course called “The Art of Popular Literature: Stephen King.” She credits King’s books with inspiring her to read and showing her that well-written literature could also be incredibly engaging. She says that during her years in academia, she’s met several other people from working-class backgrounds – her father was a hand-stitcher at L.L. Bean and her mother a hospital receptionist – who credit King’s work with launching them as writers and teachers.

“I know colleagues who are from households where there were not a lot of books, but there were always Stephen King books,” said Irish, 40. “For a lot of people from those backgrounds, he was the first author who made them excited about reading and writing.”

King’s unparalleled impact on writers, publishing, films, TV and pop culture began 50 years ago this month. His first published novel, “Carrie,” was released on April 5, 1974.

Born in Portland and raised largely in Durham, King graduated with a degree in English from the University of Maine in 1970. He had been teaching at Hampden Academy before “Carrie” was published. The book allowed him to leave teaching and write full time.

Since then, King, 76, has published more than 65 novels or novellas, sold more than 350 million books, and had about 80 films or TV productions adapted from his work, far more than any other living author. Colleges around the country have held courses dedicated to his work.



King’s impact is perhaps felt most deeply on the generation of writers and professors who were not only engaged by King’s stories, but who also saw the skill and craftsmanship in his work, which they say make him as worthy of being taught in schools and universities as Dickens, Hemingway and Fitzgerald.

“For a long time in this profession, the custodians of culture thought you could only teach the traditional canon, mostly dead white men,” said Anthony Magistrale, 71, an English professor at the University of Vermont who has taught King’s work in his classes for about 30 years. “But those professors have all retired. Now comes the people who grew up with Steve, who take his work seriously, who want the canon expanded.”

Novelist Michael Koryta, who lives half of the year in Camden, says not only did King’s books engage him, but one King book in particular also helped him learn to write: “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft,” which came out in 2000.

“I know it sounds clichéd, but it did change my life. I knew I wanted to write in high school but really had no real instruction beyond reading the basics, the classics,” said Koryta, 41, who grew up in Bloomington, Indiana. “But then I read (‘On Writing’), and it was as if someone was pulling back the curtain and saying, ‘If you want to be a serious writer, here’s how to go about it.’ It was immensely reassuring to see that he didn’t write just by the sheer force of his imagination. He showed that it’s also about craftsmanship.”

Koryta has gone on to write more than 20 of his own novels and became friends with King after meeting him through fellow author Michael Connelly. His latest book, “Lost Man’s Lane,” written under the name Scott Carson, came out in late March. On the cover is the short yet powerful endorsement: “ ‘A master’ – Stephen King.”


Koryta said another thing he learned from “On Writing” was that many authors need all the help they can get to be successful. In the book, King mentions that he gave up on “Carrie” at one point and threw away the manuscript. His wife, Tabitha, whom he met at UMaine, took it out of the trash and pushed him to keep working on it.

Author Michael Koryta, who lives half the year in Camden, said King’s “On Writing” changed his life. Photo by Jonathan Mehring

“When you reach that point as a writer where you are ready to part with something and then someone has the heart to tell you to keep going, that’s amazing,” Koryta said. “So I guess maybe Tabitha King is the most important author of ‘Carrie.’ But he was always going to publish at a high level. That voice was not going to be silenced.”

King’s voice has certainly not been silenced, or even slowed. After “Carrie,” he released a bestseller just about every year – sometimes two – including in the first few years, “ ’Salem’s Lot” (1975), “The Shining” (1977), “Rage” (1977), “The Stand” (1978), “The Dead Zone” (1979), “The Long Walk” (1979), “Firestarter” (1980) and “Cujo” (1981).

In 1999, he was hit by a van while walking near his home in the western Maine town of Lovell and was seriously injured, suffering broken bones and a punctured lung. King, who now splits his time between Florida and Maine, declined to be interviewed by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram for stories on the 50th anniversary of “Carrie” because of medical issues.

But he’s continued to write at a ferocious pace. In the last few years, his novels have included “Later” (2021), “Billy Summers” (2021), “Gwendy’s Final Task” (2022), “Fairy Tale” (2022) and “Holly” (2023). A story collection called “You Like It Darker” is due out in May.

And he’s been writing for longer than even he thought he might. When national media did copious stories about the 25th anniversary of “Carrie” in 1999, King was 51. At the time, he told People magazine that he wasn’t sure he wanted to be publishing novels into his senior years.


“I don’t want to be the grand ol’ man,” King told People. “I don’t want to be led up to accept my grand master awards on somebody’s arms. I certainly don’t want to descend into self-parody.”


King’s impact on writers has been personal, too. He’s visited schools and libraries over the years to talk to very young writers. In 2019, he and Tabitha began planning the creation of a writers retreat in a guest house they own next door to their longtime Bangor home – a spooky-looking Victorian. The Kings’ Bangor property will also become the location of King’s archives, accessible by appointment only.

Stephen King in 2002, visiting with students at Freeport Middle School. Photo by Herb Swanson

King’s work is not only taught in colleges, but there are also whole courses and academic books with his name on them. Irish said she got the idea for “The Art of Popular Literature: Stephen King” about six years ago when the university was trying to come up with more online courses. She surveyed online students to see what they were interested in, and King’s name came up – a lot.

“King was by far and away the author they were interested in. It’s a reading-for-writers class, intended for students to carefully read and engage with and examine the text, to see why he does certain things in his writing,” Irish said.

Michael Arnzen, a horror writer and English professor at Seton Hill University in Pennsylvania, has taught King’s works in his classes over the years and was also a contributor to “The Films of Stephen King,” an anthology of academic film criticism published in 2008.


As the literary canon has expanded, horror as a genre has gained respectability. And King is the biggest reason why.

“There’s not a horror writer alive who doesn’t read his work and think about how he structures things, how he tells his stories,” said Arnzen, 56. “When I was young, I read his books because I wasn’t allowed to see the movies based on his books. ‘Carrie’ was actually the first book I read, and it was just so good.”

Though the movies made from King’s works are shaped largely by the director and actors, it’s still his stories that are at the core of those movies.

The film of “Carrie” was so powerful – and helped the novel sell a lot more copies – because it was one of the first times a horror film was rooted so firmly in everyday life, said Aviva Briefel, a professor of English and cinema studies at Bowdoin College in Brunswick. It was set in a high school, with a bullied teenage girl as the focus.

“It’s very graphic. It shows the kids as victims and doesn’t cover up the suffering. Good guys get killed; no one is spared,” Briefel said.

King’s books have been the basis for a string of influential and massively popular films, including “Carrie” (1976), “The Shining” (1980), “Misery” (1990), “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994), “The Green Mile” (1999) and “It” (2017). The last was one of the highest-grossing horror films ever.


Book Review - Holly

“Holly,” one of King’s more recent novels, released last year. Photo courtesy of Scribner via AP

A new movie version of “ ’Salem’s Lot,” which was filmed for television in 1979 and 2004, is scheduled to stream on Max later this year, according to Variety.

Magistrale says he’s been teaching King’s novels and films in his English classes at UVM for more than 30 years, starting at a time when many academics thought King was merely a pop phenomenon. He’s also written extensively on King and did some work for King researching “the haunted house tradition” in literature and film.

Magistrale remembers asking King to come speak to his students in the late ’90s. To his surprise, King did.

“I think the reason he did that was because I was taking him seriously, and he wanted to talk about the gift he has and about the work of writing fiction,” Magistrale said. “He was delightful.”

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