It’s quite amazing to become synonymous with a holiday. Forevermore, Frank Capra is thought of as Mr. Christmas because of his heartwarming “It’s A Wonderful Life” film. Bing Crosby has the honor of being Mr. White Christmas because of his perennially popular song of the same name. When it comes to Halloween, there’s one name that screeches and claws its way to the top: Stephen King. Sure, there are other artists who specialize in macabre prose and gruesome fantasies. But year for year, and pound for pound (his books are heavy), no one wears the horror crown like King.
Born in 1947 — the very definition of a Baby Boomer — Stephen King grew up in Portland, Maine. When his mother found it too difficult to earn a living in Portland, she packed up and moved the family across the country. Having no father in the house, young Stephen often felt different from other boys in his social circle. He and his older brother, David, frequently felt the pinch of financial restraints and community judgment. These attitudes would always stay with him. Most important, they would underscore his plots and his protagonists.
After living in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Connecticut, Stephen’s family returned to Maine when he was nearly 12 years old. He and his brother were both horror enthusiasts and they eagerly read every gruesome comic book they could find. In fact, his older brother, David, was his first mentor and champion. He had started a mimeographed newspaper called “Dave’s Rag,” and hired Stephen as one of his writers/contributors.
While a freshman in college at the University of Maine, Stephen King sold his first story to someone other than his brother. At the age of 20, he could boast that he was a published author. Since that first sale, he has never looked back. King is a constant presence on the bestseller lists, and his books have been re-imagined into movies, TV series, and even stage musicals. Both the Broadway and off-Broadway productions of “Carrie” as a full-fledged musical are the stuff that cults are built upon. (Lucky me, I got to see the off-Broadway remounting of it. It was everything I could have imagined … and more! “Campy” doesn’t do it justice.)
There is a relatability to the characters that inhabit King’s fictional Maine landscapes. His imaginary town of Castle Rock mirrors the neighborhoods that he grew up surrounded by and living within. The topography of his worlds appears solid and true. This allows all of the sorcery and demonic shenanigans to occur without ever seeming unbelievable. Stephen King has attained a great deal of success because people want to believe in his characters. They are often tormented and then broken, frightened but then redeemed. His characters are driven to acts of madness, murder, and mayhem, but we may root for them. Case in point: Gentle as a lamb, Carrie who becomes a fierce killing machine. She embodies every teenager who was ever mocked for being different and “less than.” Carrie White gets her telekinetic revenge in more ways than anyone could have predicted.
Filmmakers have gravitated to Stephen King novels because the plots are over-the-top while still down-to-earth. He takes a plausible setting (a hotel in wintertime) and makes it a backdrop for marital discord and mental collapse. “The Shining,” a huge hit as both a novel and movie, is being revisited this year in a film sequel. Even though “The Shining” debuted in 1980 as a movie, its follow-up will be in theaters on November 8. (Why it isn’t coming out on Halloween is beyond me!) King wrote the book “Doctor Sleep” in 2013, and it’s now heading to cineplexes across the United States 39 years after its prequel.
What’s astounding is that even though it’s almost 40 years after the Stanley Kubrick masterpiece, “Doctor Sleep” is eagerly anticipated. “The Shining” has created so many enduring images, characters, quotes, and thrilling chills that it has never grown old. (Much like those meme-producing twins who never aged at the Overlook Hotel.)
“The Shining” is filled with moments that have remained intense and terrifying after all of these decades. Jack Nicholson battering his way through a locked door and announcing, “Here’s Johnny!” has never lost its power. Likewise, REDRUM still causes goose bumps to rise, and so do those spooky, haunted twins. The Grady Twins have been made into a pair of talking dolls by the Living Dead Dolls division of Mezco Toyz.
Dressed in their little-girl party dresses, complete with ruffles and Mary-Jane shoes, the LDD dolls are poisonously precious! They are 10 inches tall and feature five points of articulation. Naturally, when their buttons are pushed, they utter their trademark phrases. The twins say: “Come play with us, Danny” and “For ever, and ever, and ever …”
Popular culture has enshrined the Grady Twins as creepy, spooky villains. Even though they are childlike, they are beckoning young Danny into a corridor of hell. Childhood is a time when kids’ imaginations are wide open and receptive to suggestibility. That is one of the reasons why children in peril and children as dangerous entities factor so frequently in King’s books. Stephen King understands that children like to be scared and seek out Ouija boards, tarot cards, and impromptu séances. Children are receptive to stories of ghosts, goblins, and the Grim Reaper. Whether it’s a campfire tale or story whispered in confidence, scary stories resonate with children. King fashioned a way to take that children’s connection and build frightening universes upon it.
Here’s a funny quote from King — funny in a twisted and dark-gallows kind of way. When a journalist asked him how he has remained so prolific and active, King quipped, “I have the heart of a 9-year-old boy. I keep it in a jar on my desk.” Yes, deadpan humor is everything with King. That’s one of the reasons why his “It” franchise never seems to die. There was a time before King crafted Pennywise that clowns were synonymous with laughter and birthday parties. They would make appearances at family outings and school carnivals. After his sewer-dwelling, child-abducting clown hit the airwaves — a miniseries in 1990, starring Tim Curry — clowns became menacing. They morphed into the equivalent of Dracula meets Frankenstein. The phrase “penny wise, but pound foolish” took on an awful, pound-of-flesh connotation in the book and the movie versions.
“It” was remade in 2017 as a big-screen fright-fest, and its sequel, “Chapter Two,” is packing in crowds this week. Of course, the “It” clown has his very own line of collectibles. Folks adore being scared, and owning a slice of that horror is very empowering. (“I’m not terrified of you and your demon balloon animals, Pennywise. See, I own you AND your damn red balloon!”)
Stephen King, himself, is a collector. He collects manual typewriters, first-edition books, and radio stations. (Yep, you read that correctly. When he couldn’t find a radio station that played the kind of music he fancied, he bought his local station. Since that first purchase, his radio empire has grown. It’s good to be King!)
This Halloween, Stephen King’s creations will continue to hold court in cinemas, on TV, on DVDs, and in bookstores. His characters have a shelf life that far extends the time they live on screen or on the page. They are enduring.
Whether it is Carrie White, who is bathed in blood and then emerges as a woman scorned, or Danny Torrance, a young boy whose dad goes insane, Stephen King’s fictional beings never grow old. They just continue to whirl around, and twirl around, and capture us in their Big Wheel of nightmares.