Why Stephen King’s Stories Only Get Scarier with the Passage of Time

Pop Culture

Why Stephen King’s Stories Only Get Scarier with the Passage of Time

Illustration: Hitesh Sonar

My childhood was shaped by stories of espionage and little kids finding secrets behind closed doors, underneath a lighthouse, or beneath the floorboard. I was following Jason Bourne on international adventures before I could solve quadratic equations. In that tender age, the only true fear for the protagonists I was reading was getting caught — either by authorities, politicians, spies, or by parents. I certainly wasn’t ready for a man named Stephen King to haunt the living daylights out of me by way of a cat and dead baby coming to life.

I read Pet Sematary when I was 14 and it taught me true fear. The book, devoid of any hope whatsoever, found a little cranny in my heart and made its home there. That home has since grown into a mansion, and Stephen King is its architect. Pet Sematary is inexplicably macabre, horrifying, and doesn’t rely on jump scares. It’s about a couple who has just moved into a small town in Maine. Suffice to say things soon take a sinister turn. The sinister turns into gut-wrenching terror and the book, by the end, becomes a shattering portrayal of grief. 

Grief is an everyday horror. At 14, I didn’t know its shape. At 30, after having been an intimate companion with grief, I find the very thought of going back to the book chilling. The horror hidden in Pet Sematary’s pages has not faded, but only grown more potent as the years have passed — a trend that comes up time and again when reviewing King’s stories. 

A lot has been written about art that becomes dated. Works we read in adolescence don’t hold the same charm when we go back to them in adulthood. Hell, I don’t like to go back to the Jeffrey Archers and the Sidney Sheldons and the Robert Ludlums of the world. But with Stephen King’s stories and novels, however, it’s the opposite. They reveal their depths slowly. 

King’s sentences have the dust and grime of small-town America, his worlds feel lived in, and his characters talk like people do.

Soon after Pet Sematary, I devoured King’s earlier works like Desperation and It. The everyday horror in Desperation was religion, while It was entirely about childhood scars coming back to haunt in adulthood; the clown is just a device. 

But in The Shining, King bared his soul. The book has become one with which any modern horror novel is ultimately compared. On the surface, The Shining may just look like a story of a family stuck in the haunted Overlook Hotel. More specifically, it’s about the descent into hell of an abusive and alcoholic man, on the brink of unemployment, so desperate to carve out a masterpiece, that he doesn’t mind spending a summer in a haunted hotel. Again, the hotel is just a device. The horror is the man. The looming specter of joblessness, rabid alcoholism, and abusive behaviour are running themes in the book. “We make up horrors to help us cope with real ones,” goes one of his quotes. I’ll be damned if anyone in the present climate says they’re scared of shadows and moonless nights more than an empty bank account.

In Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing, he details out the path to publication of his first novel Carrie, the death of his mother, and his subsequent descent into drugs and alcoholism. King has grappled with joblessness, homelessness, paralysing injury, and substance abuse. His characters are often extensions of himself, and more often than not, they have something to do with the creative arts. All of those experiences found a place in his later works. And all of those are deeply human experiences.

I have held the belief that great horror comes from a fight between hope and hopelessness, empathy and the lack of it, and all of King’s stories straddle that fine line. He is often considered to be a “pop” writer, and literary snobs often sneer at his leviathan body of work. I would argue that books like Bag of Bones, Revival, and Lisey’s Story have as much literary experimentation and depth as any award-winning book of past years. King’s sentences have the dust and grime of small-town America, his worlds feel lived in, and his characters talk like people do. If that’s not literature, then maybe nothing is.

As someone dabbling in writing himself, much of King’s catalogue, especially his short stories, has influenced my work. Increasingly, I find myself drawn to traumas and shaping stories out of them. I have held close to my heart one of his sayings: “Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes they win.” King has taught me to accept that the monsters inside us are the scariest of all, but above all, they can also be defeated.