Stephen King— Modern Folklorist and Old School Storyteller

Stephen King:
Adult Tales of Modern Folklore

Folklore, at its essence, is about storytelling, the passing on of tales from legends and myth, as well as pieces of actual history and the zeitgeist of the time and place from which they come. Stephen King, with his heavy handed Maine settings and characters, is what one could call a modern folklorist and an excellent example of a writer whose work has been influenced greatly by folklore, specifically fables and fairy tales. Growing up in Maine the author found some old H.P Lovecraft stories left in the attic by his father (Russell 2), who walked out on the family, and his thirst for horror literature began— from the beginning a process of passing down stories had an effect on a young, impressionable Stephen King. Though not always evident King turns out stories which represent modernised fairy tales. Some of his work more obvious in its allusion to classic tales, some not so obvious. Whether a choice coming from King’s authorial intent, deliberately, or not so deliberate as others who dissect his work find connections the author did not purposely make, the influence of folklore is present within it, and often times it is very easy to spot.

King does not simply use fairy tales and fables for theme fodder. Folklore has helped mould King not simply through style, as in the way he weaves a story, but also in the sense it spurred him to create his own internal folklore: many of his stories take place in a fictional version of Maine with the created towns of Derry, where an old creature of local legend terrorises the hills and their residents, and Castle Rock, a setting for many battles between good and evil— the desecrated and evil Jerusalem’s Lot, later bastardised to Salem’s Lot, where an ancient vampire tries to take over, and right on down to Shawshank State Prison where they still tell the tale of the one man who escaped after being in prison for nearly thirty years. Not only does folklore influence King, his books themselves become akin to oral folktales. Instead of oral to aural transmission they are passed down from parents to their children, most when the children are old enough to handle much of the adult content in King’s writing, in hardcover and paperback. Many people dismiss King simply as a popular novelist, even some regard him as strictly a horror writer, as if to say the stories he tells have no merit because they often involve ghosts, gore, murder, and other atrocities, but as Harold Bloom indicates, “blood flows freely in the oral tradition” (Bloom’s Modern Critical Views). In short, folklore has influenced King greatly, from his style of writing to the way in which he constructs the frame of his stories, as well as the places where they are set and the people who inhabit them. All forms of folklore have affected King and his writing, from the written fairy tale and fable, all the way back to the oral and aural traditions of storytelling which helped ancient, classic stories extend their reach into the modern world.king1In his non-fiction book On Writing, King states he was born in 1947 and that “[his family] didn’t get [their] first television until 1958” (34), which would have made him eleven-years old. Compared to today’s youth it is hard to believe, but when he was young it was the day of the radio play and the paperback novel. King went to the University of Maine, writing a regular column called “Steve King’s Garbage Truck” for the student newspaper (On Writing), graduating in 1970 with a Bachelor of Arts in English, and got married to a fellow writer named Tabitha Spruce a year later. His stories began to sell to many small men’s magazines accepting short story submissions. It was 1973 when King’s novel Carrie first got accepted for publishing. The book was a hit, and several years later Brian De Palma turned it into a horror film which is now considered one of the best horrors from the 1970s.

Most people today know King because of the film adaptations taken from his work, such as The Shining, The Shawshank Redemption, Misery, The Green Mile, Stand by Me, and many more. However, King has amassed a large body of work which spans fifty novels, a half dozen of books under the pseudonym Richard Bachman, several collaborations with other authors, ten collections of short fiction containing nearly two hundred stories, and over one hundred film adaptations of his various works. Yet at the heart of all his fame and the fortune it has brought, King is a storyteller, he is the discoverer of tales which he then passes on. He is the type of author who likes to adapt his novels into audiobooks, some he reads himself and some he lets others, at times well-known voices, read. When he does a public appearance such as Q and A sessions with fans there will always be a reading of a story, or at the very least an excerpt, often something brand new and unpublished, a treat for the audience who is lucky enough to attend such an event. Why does he do this? King does this because folklore, the oral tradition of telling stories and passing them on like standing around a great communal bonfire, has been a large influence on his style and the way he chooses to work within the medium.kingMany of the themes present in Stephen King’s short stories and novels mimic those of fairy tales from hundred of years ago, many of which were the inventions of the Brothers Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm (Stanlaw), and some also come in the form of fables, expressing a moral by their end which the reader is meant to take away from the story instead of just the usual feeling of shock or morbid fascination one often gets from reading his work. Certain stories have more influence on the themes King explores than others. Some small examples of fairy tales King has used to concoct themes for his stories are: “Rumpelstiltskin” (Grimm’s Fairy Tales), and classified as a Supernatural Helper tale at number 500 in the Aarne-Thompson classification (Ashliman), the story of an outsider who threatens a village and requires a child as his price for leaving, is alluded to in Storm of the Century, a television movie script written by King, involving an outside, malevolent presence who comes to a tiny island in Maine to collect one child before he will retreat— Needful Things is the story of a mysterious man named Leland Gaunt who opens a peculiar shop in Castle Rock, a fictional Maine town, and sells the very items every resident there desires, but with a Faustian price, mimicking the old German legend most famously brought to life in a play called “The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus” (Marlowe) during which a man is tempted into a deal with the Devil himself. A short story from Just After Sunset called “The Gingerbread Girl” drums up imagery from an old fairy tale by an unknown author called “The Gingerbread Man” (Morel), specifically having the lines “run, run as fast as you can, you can’t catch me I’m the gingerbread man” represent the mindset of his story’s protagonist, who is both literally and metaphorically running away from bad memories and an old life.
king2Other entries in the King bibliography, mainly from his short story collection, represent fables, superstitions, and other varieties of folklore passed on by many societies in history. One of King’s most frightening short stories called “Gramma” (Skeleton Crew) is a tale of witches, brought into the late 1950s where a young boy is left to care for his dying grandmother after his mother gets called away when his brother breaks an arm playing baseball— slowly he reveals the grandmother as a witch, perceived by the family to be mumbling nonsense fuelled by dementia when she has really been casting spells under her breath, causing deaths in and out of her family. “The Mangler” (Night Shift) is a modernised tale of witchcraft and possession: a police officer investigates suspicious deaths in an industrial laundromat where people are dying or losing entire limbs to a maniac machine. This particular story is King’s possession story. Instead of a person it is an inanimate object such as a laundry sorting machine. He uses the familiar folklore of magic spells and demonic possession except the characters resort to figuring out how ingredients such as belladonna, used in black magic rituals, could have ended up in the laundry. Instead of a story about some alchemist concocting devilish spells King writes a modern folk tale, substituting purposeful witchcraft for an accidental combination of ingredients, and bringing an antiquated style of story into the 20th century. For instance, over-the-counter heartburn tablets unknowingly have belladonna in them, and caused a chemical reaction with the blood of a virgin, added to the laundry machinery when a pure young girl is injured while working, which is in reality a possession spell. King removes the medieval feel which might have otherwise accompanied the story of a demonic possession.
“The Cat From Hell” (Just After Sunset) is a tale revolving around the superstition throughout many cultures that black cats are evil, or they bring bad luck, but given a modern feel as King writes about a hitman who is contracted to kill such a cat, who has caused terrible mischief. “Trucks” from the Night Shift collection can be seen as a modernised fable— the story of vehicles coming alive to attack and kill their previous owners is a warning to those who rely on technology’s marvels, its moral being that the things people own will end up owning them. “The Man in the Black Suit” (Everything’s Eventual), which won The O. Henry Award in 1995 for Best Short Fiction (Wiater), is the tale of a young boy who meets who he believes to be the devil while fishing on a river near his home, woven like a fable concerning the loss of childhood innocence, ending with the boy as an old man wondering what if “[the Devil] were to come again now?” (67). In fact several King stories are based around Faustian-styled plots where the devil offers some type of gain through the doing of favours. “Fair Extension” (Full Dark, No Stars) is another such tale, in which a character who has lung cancer is given a second lease on life, which comes at a heavy price: the life of another. Just as Marlowe explored the idea of good and evil through a doctor, a man who is sworn to uphold certain ideals and standards, King looks at what a deal with the devil might look like for someone normal, a desperate person in need, instead of bored like Dr. Faustus.
Most of these instances throughout King’s work are fleeting references to established tales, others bearing only some resemblance to certain genres within the framework of folklore as a whole. Some stories King writes have more connected allusions to the fairy tales and fables they evoke. Stories not only using their themes but directly paralleling their events, so as to give them a sense of history, or at the very least a sense of familiarity on which to stand a foundation for the story he is building through his own voice.king3The clearest idea of how folklore has influenced King is in the common situations and themes of his novels which connect to fairy tales. For instance, the story Carrie is of a young girl who discovers her womanhood and psychic ability all at once, the moment she menstruates for the first time. This story parallels that of the “Cinderella” tale (Grimm’s Fairy Tales): a wicked mother, cruel siblings King substitutes for high school peers, a prince named Tommy Ross here and a godmother in Sue Snell, as well as the original ball is transformed into the high school prom. Carrie follows the Grimm’s tale by essentially allowing a “persecuted victim [to recover] her female power” (Bloom).
Furthermore, Carrie also reflects aspects of “Rapunzel”, who was the “most beautiful child under the sun” (Grimm’s Fairy Tales) and classified under Supernatural Opponents as identification number 310 in the Aarne-Thompson classification system (Ashliman)— Rapunzel was shut up in a tower when she reached the age of twelve, locked away for fear of her femininity, her feminine power. Just like Carrie White, the titular character of King’s novel Carrie, Rapunzel is locked away by a stronger woman. For Carrie, it is her fanatically religious mother who is afraid of her burgeoning female shape attracting the wrong influence from men, and for Rapunzel is an enchantress who she was given to in exchange for leniency over an unwanted trespass by her father years ago. Although this particular novel by King bears more than a passing resemblance to fairy tales passed on by the Grimm Brothers, other works of his represent a strikingly obvious allusion to familiar stories from a time long before even he was a young boy in the 1950s.
carriePerhaps one of the most well-known novels by King, in part due to the 1980 Stanley Kubrick film adaptation, though it must be said the filmmaker took vast liberties with the original story, is The Shining: a terrifying tale of a haunted hotel, the caretaker who spends a winter season snowed in there with his wife and young son, and the tragedy which befalls them all during their stay. The novel is a haunted house story, and also an exploration of a family tragedy, involving everything from alcoholism to guilt to writer’s block. What brings this particular novel into the realm of folklore’s influence over how King writes is the inclusion of the story “Bluebeard” (The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault), which is surprisingly classified by the Aarne-Thompson system to be a Supernatural Opponents tale, filed as ‘The Bluebeard’ at number 312 (Ashliman). Danny, the young son of Jack Torrance, remarks on page 248 of The Shining how his father “had read [Bluebeard] to him once when he was drunk”, and goes on to recount the essentials of Perrault’s fairy tale. King introduces the Bluebeard element at this time because Danny becomes curious about a room in the hotel he was warned not to visit, Room 217— Danny’s mind automatically jumps back to the fairy tale his father had once told him, the gruesome tale of Bluebeard who chops off his wife’s head, keeps them in a locked room with a large key, and tempts his next wife with the keys to all the rooms in his castle while forbidding her to enter the one locked room with the heads.
Of course the Perrault tale and King’s come together in sync with Danny: he is told never to go into Room 217, but his father is the caretaker, he can easily take the key from the hotel office and open the door, peak inside to see what is so scary about the room. Just like Bluebeard’s wives Danny is tempted with entering the forbidden room, where just like in Perrault’s original there only exists horror, things not meant to be seen. Essentially King turns The Shining into a modern version of “Bluebeard” with a father being substituted for a husband, and the wife for his son. Although Jack’s wife is still present, she is not a part of the Bluebeard element, which Danny represents.
Although King uses fairy tales as the basis for other stories in his repertoire, this novel in particular is the most obvious and forthright with its allusions and influence, while the others are mostly slight and subtle references and possibly not even intentional— it is hard, however, to deny the authorial intent behind paralleling Perrault with his own modern horror story. Folklore, in particular the fairy tale genre, has not just provided King with many instances in which he is able to use allusion as a powerful tool to tell his stories, it has influenced the very way in which he writes, the process he has honed into a craft and a skill, and how he has built a folklore all of his own within the context of the stories he tells. Just as a writer like Lord Dunsany used the Greek pantheon of gods as influence and a starting point to create his own (Amory), King has used folklore as his own, incorporating a self-made collection of legends and myths into his books, some of which run through many titles and connect one book to another even if their main plots have nothing to do with each other.
theshiningInitially published in five separate short stories, The Dark Tower series began with The Gunslinger in 1982. The entire series is what King would consider his magnum opus: “the tale of Roland Deschain and his search for the Dark Tower” (King xx), a sprawling epic about good versus evil inspired mainly by J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Although King may have also found inspiration, albeit in a small way compared to that of Tolkien, from “Childe Rowland”, an English folk tale (Jacobs) which inspired a poem by Robert Browning he references in the Dark Tower books— mostly it seems the influence is from Browning, though it is still worth noting the reference. What is most interesting is how the themes of good and evil, a battle often depicted through various forms in many fables and fairy tales alike, are centre stage. King evokes folklore on a grand scale throughout The Dark Tower.
The good is represented by Roland Deschain, a gunslinger from the Old West, and “something out of a fairy tale or a myth, a fabulous, dangerous creature” (The Gunslinger p. 41)— the evil comes in the form of the Crimson King, who “[sits] on his throne, which is made of skulls” (The Dark Tower VII). On Roland’s quest towards the Dark Tower, objects come to life, animals and creatures dwell throughout the land of Mid-World, magic is present, and many other elements, all of which combined create a sense of the vast influence folklore has had on King, this series of novels definitely being an indicator, as his most extensive and meaningful work amongst the bibliography he has amassed over nearly half a century of writing. The epic battle of good and evil in The Dark Tower also connects to other novels by King such as Insomnia, where the Crimson King sends his agents of ill-will into the little Maine town of Derry to spread his evil influence— the novella “Low Men in Yellow Coats” (Hearts in Atlantis) in which the Crimson King reappears sending his minions to stalk a powerful psychic named Ted Brautigan. Characters from the series such as Randall Flagg span several works including The Stand and The Eyes of the Dragon, Father Callahan who appears in ‘Salem’s Lot, as well as smaller characters who are credited in the series with manipulating events from other stories by King, almost like footnotes to existing tales. What’s accomplished by this crossing over from the epic Dark Tower series can be seen as King’s own folklore— The Crimson King becomes a legend, a myth in the fictional Maine created throughout the work of the author, and Mid-World is almost like the Valhalla or Garden of Eden to the residents of his literary world.
darktowerNot only do themes of good and evil prevail throughout Stephen King’s body of work, the influence of legends and myths from collected folklore across the world come into play. For example, King is fixated on vampires, which are creatures who pop up in folklore all over the world from Scandinavia to Turkey (Day), and almost anywhere else you can imagine. A number of his stories, both novels and short stories from various collections, focus on vampires as the main evil— this is reminiscent of cultures across the globe who pass on folklore concerning the undead beings who suck blood and only come out at night known too well nowadays to modern popular culture. However, King stays typical to ancient folklore concerning vampires, and only strays from it in the stories themselves, not his portrayal of the supernatural infliction. He keeps the basics the same, and only attempts to put the creatures from folklore into modern situations. Instead of reinventing the wheel King simply modernises it for new eyes.
For instance, in stories such as “The Night Flier” and “Popsy”, vampires aren’t seen as sickly Nosferatu-types, but normal human beings who are able to go on disguised, unannounced to all the truly normal humans around them— in folklore, vampires are often “healthy looking” and “flush” with colour “from the blood they have drank” (Vampires, Burial, and Death). Furthermore, King explores the folklore behind vampires with his precursor to the novel Salem’s Lot, the short story “Jerusalem’s Lot” (Night Shift), which is an epistolary tale told through the journal entries of a gentleman and his loyal man servant who attempt to discover the root of a curse which is afflicting his family, in connection with a mysterious legend surrounding the town where he lives in an ancestral home. Within the story there is a fictional town named Jerusalem’s Lot— the small town passes around tales concerning vampires, emphasising their significance as creatures of lore and the hold they exert over the town. Here King plays on reality, a fear of the supernatural, and this is something which never dies in the telling of folk tales. He is just another author, another storyteller, passing on the legend of vampires.
kingpaperbackWith his stories from Nightmares and Dreamscapes, “The Night Flier” and “Popsy”, King brings the Old World vampire folklore into modern culture and the modern world. “Popsy” in particular is worth being categorised as a folk tale for the modern age, as folklore often echoes what the zeitgeist of the time may be, and shows how King is of a similar frame of mind. The story itself is about a man who falls into heavy debt with the mafia, in turn they give him a choice to either face consequences of non-payment on his debt, or do them favours to repay it. He opts for the latter, and finds himself in deep, abducting children for a sinister man only called Mr. Wizard. Eventually the man takes a child who talks about his ‘popsy’, who he says can fly, and has the ability to find him no matter where he may be taken. The man, of course, does not believe the child, thinking he is crazy. That is until the kid nearly rips the hinges from the man’s van, and also bites him with an incredible force leaving a vicious mark. Suddenly the reader is aware the young boy and his ‘popsy’ may not exactly be who they appear, and the vampire folklore creeps in. Soon enough ‘popsy’ comes to rescue the boy, ripping the man from his driver seat and draining his blood— ‘popsy’ is in fact a large bat-like creature with massive wings. Through bringing vampires into a modern horror setting, King is able to transform an old figure from legends and myths around the world into a new, yet still recognisable, villainous creature which resonates with modern audiences. No longer is the vampire so strictly associated with Count Dracula, here it is a multi-faceted character who not only is a living, vampiric bat creature, but is also a father who comes running, or better yet flying, to the rescue of his young son being taken to, who the reader is led to assume is, a paedophile. Folklore does not only play a part in giving King an already built cast of creatures to play with, it also provides him with opportunities to update the tales of vampire folklore, to make them relevant for a New World. Of course vampires would not be the same for a 20th and 21st century audience as they were for European societies three and four hundred years ago, and King recognises this evolution. Folklore continues on as it always did but it does not have to stay the same, it can evolve and grow into something modern, which not only ensures its popularity with the younger audiences, it guarantees longevity as a way of storytelling and passing down legends worth such endurance.
popsyKing often describes his first encounter with horror, being not even five years old at the time, as listening to a radio adaptation of a Ray Bradbury story, “Mars is Heaven”, through a door because his mother thought him too young to be listening (Russell 2). Inevitably he was left sleepless, and combined with his introduction to H.P Lovecraft at a later, but still young, stage the bug of telling stories stuck with him. This encounter with the Bradbury story at an early stage of his life shows an influential moment with folklore, in a sense, for King: his first experience with horror, a style he so often returns to even in stories where his main concern isn’t gruesome, was an aural and oral one, the experience of hearing a story and listening to it be told to him. This undoubtedly left an impression on the man as an author. He is most certainly a storyteller by nature, reflected through characters such as Bill Denbrough from It, as well as Gordie Lachance in “The Body” (Different Seasons) among many other characters, who “discover their identities as writers first through telling stories to friends” (Bloom), and serve as a personal statement from King that he understands storytellers because he is one.
Many times in his novels King will speak to the reader in phonetic terms through which “printed words must be sounded out and heard by the bodily ear, their oral-aural dimension retrieved (Bloom). King’s massive novel It employs this technique liberally, and quite often, but for good measure: one of the main protagonists, Bill Denbrough, has a stutter. For instance, on page 230 of It, Bill is looking to play with Eddie suggesting a “game of guns”— he is only able to stutter “you g-g-got any guh-guh-guns?” to his friend. By sounding out the words, multiplying syllables being created from a single letter of a word, King’s storytelling rings true, and also paints a vivid picture, one with clear sound, of a young boy with a bad stutter. It is easy to imagine the story being read out loud by the author.
In addition, King also publishes just about every single title he releases, including short stories, as an audiobook. Only the most obscure of his work has not been recorded for audio, most likely the majority of work he wrote under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman is unavailable in the format. For a time the King children even earned their allowances by recording audio for their father’s books (Bloom), and so storytelling is a family tradition for them— not unlike those old folk tales passed down for hundreds of years up until now.
With audio King’s style of storytelling becomes even more clear. He often repeats phrases, which promotes an emphasis, but also serves as an aural trick. The repeated words become like a refrain, a chorus almost worthy of being chanted in some cases. An example being in a story from King’s collection Skeleton Crew called “The Reach”: an old woman is constantly reminded of the words “do you love?”, which repeats itself in parentheses throughout the story, sometimes fragmented, and at others in full. King even uses this question, printed as the only three words, on one page before the collection’s introduction, written by the author. This is the same way an oral tale being told is often represented with key words or phrases being repeated. One similar, widely-known occurrence in folklore is found in the Charles Perrault fairy tale of “Little Red Riding-Hood”, number 333 and another Supernatural Opponents themed fairy tale classified via the Aarne-Thompson system (Ashliman), in which a menacing wolf poses as the titular character’s grandmother and repeats lines containing the words “all the better to” (Perrault) followed by responses concerning the suspicious ears and eyes and nose, famously ending with a terrifying response to Little Red Riding-Hood’s inquiry about her supposed grandmother’s teeth.
King follows a similar formula in the way he repeats lines for emphasis, to add suspense, but also to reproduce the art of oral telling possessed by storytellers who came before the popular written novel and the audiobook, making the process of reading his story feel more familiar and personal. Something about the way Bill Denbrough stammers out to his younger brother as “Juh-Georgie” (It p.7) creates a sense of knowing the characters, and aids King in creating characters, as well as relationships and situations they encounter, which resonate with an audience and connects with their emotions. Orally telling somebody a story is easily one of the most efficient ways to grab the intended audience, and King knows this, so he employs techniques to recreate a sense of the storytelling he admires. King even once tried to write and produce a radio play through the radio station he and his wife Tabitha own together (King xiii) because oral storytelling is a part of his literary heritage, as sure as his DNA, and a writer like him understands the importance of such a tradition.
themistThe influence of folklore, specifically the oral nature of their beginnings and also fairly tales throughout history, have influenced Stephen King in a major way. Even the author himself says he “believe[s] large numbers of people have at least some talent as writers and storytellers” (On Writing p. 18). Not only did King incorporate the situations and themes of folklore into his work throughout the years, it developed how he would structure his storytelling: a larger framework becomes visible when fleshing out his bibliography, noticing all the stories in which his own folklore comes out, from the tiny coastal town of Castle Rock and similarly small Derry, both located in a fictional version of Maine— to the overarching legend of the Crimson King and the Dark Tower in Mid-World, and all the stories of desecrated churches and cursed lands being roamed by vampires near Jerusalem’s Lot. Everything from his extensive to his smaller short stories reference back to events from the canon in which King has created over his expansive body of work. For instance, in 11/22/63, a near science fiction novel by King, young characters from It appear when the main character travels back in time, as well having him travel back right when the latter’s plot is in the midst of playing out, and even Shawshank State Prison from “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” (Different Seasons) is mentioned. Consequently what folklore has done for Stephen King is to help him create his own. He’s created a world in which the legend of an evil entity posing as a clown terrorised the town of Derry every few years for centuries until a group of children grew up and came home to kill it, and a world where vampires, as well as other horrific creatures, are talked about in hushed tones and in bars along the Interstate like in the ‘Salem’s Lot-connected tale “One for the Road” from the Night Shift collection where stories are swapped from patron to patron.
The familiar elements and themes of certain folklore genres are present in his work, but it is the effect they have had upon King as an author which is truly evident, and the most interesting. If it were not for folklore, most specifically fairy tales like those the Grimm Brothers wrote, the large body of work from Stephen King may have taken a different shape. Perhaps many of the modern fairy tales he has given the literary world would not exist today. In his own right King himself has influenced, and continues to influence, entire generations of writers from novelists to screenwriters, his work passed on to many from friend to friend, from parents to children, and his paperbacks will long carry on the tradition of oral folklore being transferred from one era to the next.

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