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Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Text and Criticism

Joyce Carol Oates on Stephen King

On April 16, 1997, Joyce Carol Oates introduced Stephen King on the occasion of his first reading at Princeton University

It's my pleasure, and an honor, to be introducing Stephen King on his first visit to Princeton.

It's commonly said that certain individuals, notably the famous, need no introductions. On the contrary, I think, it's precisely those whom we imagine we know, in broad stereotypical terms, who require introductions.

There are: Stephen King the individual, Stephen King the literary/cultural phenomenon, and Stephen King the writer.

Stephen was born in 1947 in Portland, Maine, was raised in Maine and has lived most of his life there. His fiction is famously saturated with the atmosphere of Maine; much of his mostly vividly imagined work—Salem's Lot, Dolores Claiborne, the elegantly composed story "The Reach", for instance—is a poetic evocation of that landscape, its history and its inhabitants. Clearly, this is "setting" as a spiritual value. Stephen graduated from the University of Maine at Orono in 1970, where, among other subjects, he studied creative writing. He met his wife, Tabitha, as an undergraduate; they married in 1971, and have raised three children now in their twenties. Always an energetic and hopeful young writer, Stephen had written more than 60 stories and several novels before his first work was accepted for publication—Carrie, in 1973. At the time he was working in a laundry (See "The Mangler") for $1.60 an hour. ...Since then, Stephen's hourly wages have risen considerably.

In his richly informative study of the horror genre in America, Danse Macabre (1980), Stephen King isolates an hour in 1957 when, as he sat in an audience of excited young people in a movie house showing "Earth vs. The Flying Saucers," the film was interrupted and the house manager made an announcement that the Russians had put a space satellite in orbit around the earth, called Sputnik. "We sat there," King says, "in absolute tomblike silence." This sudden terrifying intrusion of a world of adult political drama and potential doom, in the midst of science-fiction fantasy, made a powerful impression upon the 10-year-old Stephen King.

To speak of Stephen King the literary/cultural phenomenon is to evoke remarkable statistics. King is, for instance, the best-selling writer on earth. (As for Jupiter, Saturn, distant constellations—who knows?) As of 1996, he has sold more than 200 million books in the US and an additional 50 million abroad (with more to come: his 44th book, The Dark Tower IV: Wizard and Glass is forthcoming this year). Uncommon as it is for most writers to have bestsellers, it isn't uncommon for Stephen King to have two books on bestseller lists simultaneously—hardcover and paperback; last season, Stephen outdid even himself with three books on bestseller lists simultaneously. He has published more than 30 novels including such famous titles as Carrie (a Gothic tale of familial and societal revenge), The Shining (a tale of demonic possession, to be a TV mini-series soon with a screenplay by Stephen King), Christine (a distinctly American-adolescent tale of a demonic female—a 1958 Plymouth called "Christine"); Pet Cemetary; Misery; The Dark Half (a mordant exploration of the intimate relationship between a literary writer and his bestselling "horror" pseudonym); the epic The Stand; the story "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption" from which the memorable film was adapted; the tour de force of first-person narration, Dolores Claiborne; Rose Madder and many more. Last fall, Stephen King published the highly successful 6-part serial The Green Mile, as well as twinned novels by himself and his pseudonym Richard Bachman, Desperation and The Regulators, which share characters and reflect each other thematically. In addition, Stephen has published five collections of short stories including the massive Nightmares & Dreamscapes as well as screenplays and assorted prose.

Stephen King's fiction has been reproduced widely, in such volumes as The Years's Best Fantasy and Horror and American Gothic Tales, and he has been several times a recipient of the Bram Stoker Award for fiction, the most distinguished award in the Gothic/horror field. His story "The Man in the Black Suit" was first-prize winner in the O. Henry Awards anthology in 1995.

Like all great writers of Gothic horror, Stephen King is both a storyteller and an inventor of startling images and metaphors, which linger long in the memory and would seem to spring from a collective, unconscious and thorough domestic-American soil. His fellow writers admire him for his commitment to the craft of fiction and the generosity of his involvement in the literary community. And he has written with insight and eloquence and a rare sort of humility about his craft. To conclude with these quotes:

(An interviewer asks): Why do you choose to write about such gruesome subjects?

SK: Why do you assume I have a choice?

from The Dark Half: "...he was a writer, an imaginer. He had never met one, including himself—who had more than the vaguest idea why he or she did anything..."

from Danse Macabre: "Monsters in horror films have given teenagers a chance to see someone even uglier than themselves."

from various introductions:

"The arts are obsessional, and obsession is dangerous. It's like a knife in the mind." "All fear tends toward a comprehension of the final ending... Our fears add up to one great fear. The appeal of horror fiction through the ages is that it's a rehearsal for our own deaths." "I have a marketable obsession. ...I don't write for money but I have never returned a check uncashed. I may be obsessional, but I'm not crazy."

Please join me in welcoming Stephen King to Princeton this afternoon.