Stephen King: Horror’s Dark Superhero

When Stephen King opened his first rejection slip from Alfred Hitchcock’s Murder Magazine, he pounded a nail into his bedroom wall and poked the letter onto it. It was the early '60s. Stephen was still a kid. He lived in hope.

“By the time I was 14 (and shaving twice a week whether I needed to or not) the nail in my wall would no longer support the rejection slips impaled upon it,” King wrote in his memoir. “I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.”

It was an inauspicious beginning for the master of horror but Stephen King was still learning his chops. The cinema was his tutor: “Horror movies, science fiction movies, movies about teenage gangs on the prowl, movies about losers on motorcycles - this was the stuff that turned my dials up to ten.”

More than 60 novels later, Stephen King’s spell-binding career has introduced a generation to a quirky new horror genre inhabited by bullied high school student Carrie, psychopathic Jack ‘Here’s Johnny!’ Torrance from The Shining, and evil clown Pennywise from It. Along the way, he’s also donated millions to support his hometown charities and is turning the family home into a non-profit writers’ retreat.

Stephen King True Superhero

The young superhero writer

Stephen Edwin King describes his childhood as ‘herky-jerky’. He was born in Maine in 1947 and raised by a single mom who moved around constantly to find work. His father, Donald King, left his family when Stephen was three and he bounced back and forth between his father's home in Indiana and his main home with his mother in Maine.

Stephen King: Horror’s Dark Superhero

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When Stephen King opened his first rejection slip from Alfred Hitchcock’s Murder Magazine, he pounded a nail into his bedroom wall and poked the letter onto it. It was the early '60s. Stephen was still a kid. He lived in hope.

“By the time I was 14 (and shaving twice a week whether I needed to or not) the nail in my wall would no longer support the rejection slips impaled upon it,” King wrote in his memoir. “I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.”

It was an inauspicious beginning for the master of horror but Stephen King was still learning his chops. The cinema was his tutor: “Horror movies, science fiction movies, movies about teenage gangs on the prowl, movies about losers on motorcycles - this was the stuff that turned my dials up to ten.”

More than 60 novels later, Stephen King’s spell-binding career has introduced a generation to a quirky new horror genre inhabited by bullied high school student Carrie, psychopathic Jack ‘Here’s Johnny!’ Torrance from The Shining, and evil clown Pennywise from It. Along the way, he’s also donated millions to support his hometown charities and is turning the family home into a non-profit writers’ retreat.

Stephen King True Superhero

The young superhero writer

Stephen Edwin King describes his childhood as ‘herky-jerky’. He was born in Maine in 1947 and raised by a single mom who moved around constantly to find work. His father, Donald King, left his family when Stephen was three and he bounced back and forth between his father's home in Indiana and his main home with his mother in Maine.

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She held down several jobs while Stephen and his older brother, David, conjured up money-making schemes. One of them, a gossip newspaper called Dave’s Rag, was churned out on a makeshift printing press in the basement and sold to the neighbors in their small town of Durham, Maine: Population 900. 

“My writing saved my life several times,” Stephen later told an interviewer. It was cathartic. Stephen was angry at his place in a lower-class town living in relative poverty. Writing helped him to channel his emotion into something productive.

Stephen King True Superhero
Stephen King, a determined young bestseller

The burgeoning author

By the age of 13, Stephen was pitching stories to magazines. He self-published his first ‘bestseller’, The Pit and the Pendulum - inspired by Edgar Allen Poe - and sold it to eighth-graders at 25 cents a pop. Stephen’s teacher, Miss Hisler, shamed him into giving the money back, however, and labeled his efforts ‘junk’.

Undeterred, Stephen published his next novel that summer when there were no teachers lurking about. The Invasion of the Star-Creatures was a hit. 

“I won in the end, at least, in a financial sense. But in my heart, I stayed ashamed. I kept hearing Miss Hisler asking why I wanted to waste my talent,” King explained in his memoir On Writing. “I think I was 40 before I realized that almost every writer of fiction and poetry who has ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his or her God-given talent.” 

King blames his Jekyll & Hyde character - a kind of wildness and a deep conservatism bound together like hair in a braid - and his entrepreneurial high school years. Stephen’s Dr. Jekyll skewered his teachers with a four-sheet ‘newspaper’ called The Village Vomit. But Stephen’s Mr. Hyde worried about how his mother would look at him if she found out he’d been suspended for sneaking The Vomit into the classrooms.

It wasn’t going to stop him from doing it, of course. 

Stephen King True Superhero

Stephen King’s big break

He met his wife, Tabitha, at the University of Maine. Their professor, Burton Norval Hatlen, was a mentor to both budding writers. In a postscript in Stephen King’s novel, Lisey's Story, King called Burton 'the greatest English teacher I ever had'.

Stephen also idolized Harlan Ellison, the writer who revived science fiction in the US.

Stephen King True Superhero


The Kings and their children initially lived in a trailer and Stephen used what spare hours he had to write. Tabitha constantly encouraged him: “One of the few good things I could take as a given,” he said.

In the 70s, Stephen came up with the idea for Carrie, a high school horror story, but threw it in the garbage. Tabitha smoothed out the pages and laid them back on his desk, however. “You’ve got something here,” she told him. It was the manuscript that would kick start his career. The Dead Zone (1979), Christine (1983), and a string of bestsellers soon followed.


Life-altering events

In 1999, Stephen King was hit by a van while walking on the side of the road in Bangor, Maine. He suffered a punctured lung, broke his hip, leg, and ribs, and barely escaped with his life. He spent three weeks in the hospital and underwent five operations, one of the longest stretches he’d even been away from his desk.

A few years later, the author was diagnosed with double pneumonia and spent another two weeks in the hospital but found the turn of events inspiring.



King's wife decided to redesign his office as a ‘welcome home’ gesture, so Stephen returned to find his books in boxes, looking morbidly like what he imagined his writing studio would resemble after his death. It was the seed of an idea he developed into Lisey's Story, involving a woman who was married to a wildly successful novelist but finds herself sorting through her late husband's belongings.

Stephen King, True Superhero
Stephen and Tabitha King celebrated their 50th anniversary in 2021

Marriage & Misery

Stephen and Tabitha have been married for more than 50 years, although it wasn’t always easy: “I spent the first 12 or so years of my married life assuring myself that I just liked to drink.”

He also had a cocaine habit. Eventually, the cracks showed in his writing. “Misery is a book about cocaine [and] The Tommyknockers is an awful book. That was the last one I wrote before I cleaned up my act,” he said. It wasn’t until 1986, however, that he quit both drinking and drugs.

Stephen King, True Superhero

On giving back

Steven King is among the wealthiest authors in the world now, estimated to be worth $400m-$450m, a sum that allows him to give back to the community. 

“My wife and I give away roughly $4m a year to libraries, local fire departments that need updated lifesaving equipment (Jaws of Life tools are always a popular request), schools, and a scattering of organizations that underwrite the arts,” he wrote in the Daily Beast.

They offer grants large and small. When the Bangor Public Library needed $9m to improve its facilities in 2013, King and his wife offered $3m to kickstart fundraising efforts. The couple had previously donated $2.5m for a new library wing and contributed toward repairs for the stone stairs at the main entrance. When the local fire brigade needed a boat in 2021, the Kings granted $20,000 through their foundation, established in 1986, and also gave $6,500 to two authors writing pandemic-inspired novels.


Stephen King, True Superhero

Stephen King's writers' retreat

In 2019, the couple rezoned their Victorian mansion as a non-profit for use as a writers’ retreat. The home will allow up to five writers to live and work, and the mansion will also be used to house the Kings’ personal archives. "From John Steinbeck's house in California to Emily Dickinson's home in Massachusetts, homes of culturally impactful authors and artists can enrich communities,” Sarah Nichols, Bangor City Council chairwoman, said in thanking the Kings.

Stephen King has noted that his donations and those of other successful Americans probably don’t go far enough. As a result, he’s lobbied for the US government to raise taxes on the wealthy to fix the world’s greater problems: “Charity from the rich can’t fix global warming or lower the price of gasoline by one single red penny.”

King believes he can fix his own neighborhood and state with donations, however. Meanwhile, he’s still writing. Fairy Tale landed on the shelves in September 2022. It is a science fiction and fantasy tale following Charlie, 17, after he obtains the keys to an alternate reality.

It seems Stephen King is still proving his eighth-grade teacher, Miss Hisler, wrong yet again.

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