How Stephen King’s Earliest Novels Shaped His Career

Juvenilia is a term used to define the works of a writer or artist that are produced while they are still young and before their skills have been wholly fine-tuned. For most writers, this work is rather embarrassing. It is all too easy to see the flawed characters, the hackneyed dialogue, the wandering plot of a seventeen-year-old’s work. Many writers burn their earliest work.

Others, lucky enough to be so popular that people will buy anything they write, have it published.

Now let’s get it out upfront: juvenilia isn’t necessarily bad work. In fact, the early novels of a great writer are often better fare than the mature novels of lesser scribes. The singular difference regarding juvenilia is that the author is not fully in control of their talent and skills. Not yet.

Stephen King is one of those writers lucky enough to have published his earliest works and found fans eager to read them. He is also one of the few writers whose early novels are actually quite strong. Michael Crichton’s earliest novels (published under the name John Lange) by comparison, are rather thin fluff–a fact Crichton himself acknowledged.

King began writing very early, crafting stories from childhood onward. You can even read one of King’s earliest tales, from when he was twelve-years-old, in the book: First Words: Earliest Writing from Favorite Contemporary Authors.

bachman-rageHis earliest full novels consist mostly of the “Bachman” titles: Rage, The Long Walk, The Running Man, Blaze  and Roadwork.  Add to this mix the first official King novel, Carrie, as well as the early stories later collected in Night Shift. Round it out with the tales that eventually composed The Gunslinger, as these were also a product of King’s earliest writing.

The line in the sand, then, is Salem’s Lot. Why there, King’s second published novel? Simply because no amateur could have written Salem’s Lot.  It is a large, complex work with multiple layers, characters that ring true, and a deep thematic resonance. It is a mature novel, one that is, on all levels, light years beyond the work that came before it (perhaps what is most stunning is that King’s next novel, The Shining,  is itself a quantum leap forward from Salem’s Lot,  a staggering sign of how fast King was developing as a writer).

If King hadn’t yet mastered all of the skills he would later bring to bear on fifty-plus works over the decades, why read his early stories at all? Why not just skip ahead to the “good stuff”?

Two reasons. First, King’s early work is quite good, and for fans definitely worth the time. And second, because it is in these early works that you can see the writer King would eventually become. The tremendous range of genres, styles and approaches to storytelling found in King’s juvenilia speak of a writer with grander ambition than King is often given credit for. Anyone paying attention to these works ought to have understood that King was never going to be merely a horror writer, or even merely a popular writer.

From the start, King was aiming for more.

More Than Just a Horror Writer

the_gunslingerAt the beginning, King was labeled a horror writer, and with good reason. Carrie  has its horrific moments, and Salem’s Lot  and The Shining–one novel about vampires and another about a haunted hotel–are both squarely in the horror genre.

On the other hand, King’s output has always been more diverse. And looking at his pre-Lot  output makes this abundantly clear.

  • Rage:  mainstream quasi-thriller
  • The Long Walk:  dystopian science fiction
  • The Running Man:  dystopian science fiction thriller
  • Blaze:  crime story crossed with ghost story
  • Roadwork:  mainstream
  • Carrie:  science fiction, horror
  • The Dark Tower:  epic fantasy, western
  • Night Shift:  sci-fi, horror, suspense, mainstream

Pre-Lot, the most straightforward horror writing King produced were short stories sold to men’s magazines like Cavalier. Classic King tales like Children of the Corn, Sometimes They Come Back,  and One for the Road  (an epilogue of sorts to Salem’s Lot) are all clearly horror. But the stories in Night Shift  are just as diverse as King’s novels from this period, full of out-and-out suspense stories (Quitters Inc.), science fiction (I Am the Doorway, Night Surf), and mainstream fiction (The Last Rung on the Ladder).

night-shiftIn fact, had King published all of his early work under his own name, and in the order in which the books were composed, it is easy to imagine him labeled as a science fiction writer. One wonders if his career would have taken off in the same fashion. Few writers climb to the top of the bestseller lists (and stay there) without being pigeonholed–Grisham and his lawyers, Connelly and his cops, Dick Francis and his horses, etc.

Imagine for a moment a career that goes like this:

  • 1970: First Dark Tower  story published, heralding a new voice in fantasy fiction
  • 1971: The Long Walk  is published, establishing King as a sci-fi, spec-fic writer
  • 1972:  Rage  is published, confounding fans and critics (no fantasy or sci-fi)
  • 1973:  Blaze  hits the shelves, a mash-up crime and ghost story
  • 1973:  The Running Man  appears, King’s return to dystopian sci-fi
  • 1974:  Carrie  is published to mixed reviews, fans no longer no what to expect
  • 1974:  Roadwork  released, another mainstream novel with lukewarm reviews
  • 1975:  Salem’s Lot  hits the stands, King is now a horror writer

There’s a lot of production going on in these early years, another early pattern that would hold throughout King’s career. But it’s harder to see how King would have established a consistent audience given the nature of the reading public. Would it have happened? Sure. But likely it would have been a far longer journey.

Early Themes Have Long Shadows

While there is great diversity amongst King’s early work, there are also definite themes, concerns and character types that would resonate throughout his career.

Duality: Good and Evil

There’s a Mr. Hyde for every happy Jekyll face, a dark face on the other side of the mirror.  —  Rage

For nearly fifty years King has explored the duality of good and evil, and the ways in which both exist inside the same people. We see this in the early works quite clearly: Carrie is both innocent and capable of terrible destruction, Bart Dawes is a good man capable of murderous violence, etc.

And we see it time and again in the work that comes later: in the characters of Jack Torrence, Roland of Gilead, Harold Lauder, and the community members of Little Tall Island, to name but a few.

King has always excelled at identifying the nature of good and evil and describing the push and pull that exists within each of us. It is a fascination for him that began early on.

Coming of Age

They had become a fixed star in the shifting firmament of the high school’s relationships, the acknowledged Romeo and Juliet. And she knew with sudden hatefulness that there was one couple like them in every white suburban high school in America. —  Carrie

One of the major threads throughout King’s work is the exploration of childhood and coming of age. It is a core component of most of his classic novels, from Salem’s Lot  to The Shining  to Different Seasons  to  IT. 

bachman-long-walkThe concerns of growing up are present in the juvenilia quite clearly. Rage  takes place almost exclusively in a high school classroom with a cast of characters that are nearly all teenagers. Carrie,  though broader in settings and characters, is a high-school melodrama. There are no classrooms in The Long Walk, but all of the main characters are teenagers.

Few writers have crafted work as insightful about adolescence or portrayed young people as accurately as King. It is a hallmark of his fiction, and one that was on display even in the period when he himself was only a few years removed from those days.

Distrust of Authority

Any game looks straight if everyone is being cheated at once.  —  The Long Walk

There is a distinct strain of anti-authoritarianism in King’s tales, a skepticism that encompasses government agencies big and small, organized religion, and big business. King’s work embraces collective efforts, but almost always in small, tight-knit groups (think of The Losers Club in IT or the four protagonists of The Body). Individualism is a far more powerful force for good in King’s novels than bureaucracy.

carrieThis distrust of authority is evident in Carrie’s burgeoning unease with her mother’s controlling religion, with the unchecked government powers in the dystopias of The Long Walk  and The Running Man, and with Bart Dawes’ virulent hate of the paper-pushing bureaucrats stealing his home in Roadwork. 

Human organizations can be forces for good, but in King’s fiction they rarely are. Instead, they are often tools of oppression or incompetent destruction. Consider the cruel and immoral Shop in Firestarter, or the government agency which unleashes Captain Trips on the world in The Stand, or the ethically-bankrupt city council of Under the Dome.

Standing in the Shadows of Others

King is often dismissed by critics as nothing more than a horror hack, a mega-bestselling writer indistinguishable from dozens of other throwaway thriller writers such as James Patterson, Robert Ludlum, or John Saul. Say what you want about King’s writing, but it is a testament to the man’s greatness that he is still thriving nearly fifty years later, his works still relevant, his impact on the culture considerable.

bachman-running-manPart of this is simply King’s genius, but part of it too is that King never set out to be a mere pop thriller writer. Reading his early work makes it exceptionally clear that from the very start King was aiming higher. The early novels show a remarkable diversity of themes, taking aim at education (Rage, Carrie), Vietnam (The Long Walk), television and entertainment (The Running Man), and the lives of everyday people ground down by economic circumstances and inequality (Roadwork, Blaze).

This is not that surprising when one considers the three writers King has said had the biggest influence on his development as an author: John D. MacDonald, Richard Matheson, and Don Robertson.

MacDonald was one of the most literate crime thriller stylists in America, a storyteller who raged against white collar crime, American greed, and the destruction of the ecosystem.

Matheson is the writer most directly responsible for shifting horror from its Gothic settings directly into the suburbs. His novels incisively explored the horror living right next door and, often, right in your own home.

Robertson was a mainstream literary writer whose novels explored American history and the small-town lives of everyday people. A forgotten master, Robertson was one of the great writers of the 20th century.

Add to this poets like William Carlos Williams and George Seferis (whose works had tremendous impact on King as a young man), and novels like The Hair of Harold Roux  by Thomas Williams (which King cites as his favorite novel), and it’s easy to see that King was never your average thriller junkie. His novels and stories have always been about more than cheap scares and creepy ghouls.

You can see that from the start.

More Stephen King…

The King of Television: Stephen King on the Small Screen

The Collected Stories of Stephen King: A Speculative Table of Contents

Underrated Masterpiece: Stephen King’s From a Buick 8

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