The Reading Room
Childhood Myth-Making and Horror in the works of Stephen King
It might seem weird to be including renowned horror novelist Stephen King in this essay series on classic pulp fiction. For one thing, he’s still alive, and for another thing, he’s not exactly known for pulp magazine short stories. Yet even at his earliest stages of writing, King was well influenced by, and well-read in, R.E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, and Ray Bradbury.
In college King wrote a horror short story “Jerusalem’s Lot” which he later published in his short-story collection Night Shift. Later established as a sort of “prequel” to his brilliant second novel ‘Salem’s Lot, this first look into King’s own fictional New England countryside featured not vampires but Lovecraftian horrors. Everything from an ancient occult book filled with terrible rituals to the climactic horror--Yogsoggoth, one of the famed Ancient Ones of Lovecraft’s pantheon--reeks of Lovecraft, so much so that the story was later included in Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, published by Arkham House itself. Furthermore, in serving as a prequel to one of King’s earliest books, this story proves how much Lovecraft’s worldbuilding underlies King’s own novel-spanning universe. Like Lovecraft’s fictional towns in the heart of Massachusetts, the setting for many stories within his Mythos, King has his own fictional towns in Maine, constantly plagued by their own set of incomprehensible horrors and mysteries, “faceless powers exist[ing] beyond the rim of the Universe; powers which may exist beyond the very fabric of Time” (Stephen King, “Jerusalem’s Lot” in Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, 492). Many of King’s stories exist in an interconnected universe, populated by several different worlds, as particularly featured in his world-spanning Dark Tower series. Yet there are horrors which exist beyond worlds, which make their presence known across time and space. Or, rather, across novels. These creatures, like "It" from his novel of the same name, are Lovecraftian, generating madness in their victims, feeding off their fear, warping them into carnival copies of themselves.
Beyond such direct influence in his own writing, however, King acknowledges his forefathers in the pulp fiction tradition in the form of his Danse Macabre, a semi-autobiographical review of the history of pulp fiction. It is here that King makes clear the importance and influence of those who came before him. Lovecraft “the twentieth-century horror story’s dark and baroque prince” (King, Danse Macabre, 30) appears again and again throughout the book, his shadow of influence long over writers of his generation and the next, while R.E. Howard is credited with writing “one of the finest horror stories of our century” in his “Pigeons from Hell”, and otherwise described as writing so energetically his best stories “nearly give off sparks”, so powerfully that “at his best, Howard was the Thomas Wolfe of fantasy, and most of his Conan tales seem to almost fall over themselves in their need to get out” (Ibid, 240, 368). It is Ray Bradbury, however, who receives King’s foremost attention.
"My first experience with real horror came at the hands of Ray Bradbury,” King writes, while listening as a child to a radio adaptation of The Martian Chronicles’ story, “Mars is Heaven,” where it turns out that Mars is really quite the opposite (Ibid, 124-5). King refers to Bradbury frequently throughout the book, ascribing to him great power and influence over the fantasy and sci-fi genre, yet an unmatched poetic quality as well. “Bradbury lives and works alone in his own country, and his remarkable, iconoclastic style has never been successfully imitated. Vulgarly put, when God made Ray Bradbury He broke the mold” (Ibid, 330). Yet more even than The Martian Chronicles, it is his Something Wicked This Way Comes that draws King to Bradbury, that seems to relate the purest essence of what made up Bradbury’s imagination. Devoting a sizable section of Danse Macabre to analyzing this novel, King writes “the essence of evil, Bradbury suggests, is its need to compromise and corrupt that delicate passage from innocence to experience that all children must make” (Ibid, 351). This is true of Bradbury's fiction, who delighted in writing of twelve year-old boys coming of age. A great many of King’s own stories share this same fascination with the beauty of childhood and the shaping of childhood imagination by the horrors and wonders confronted therein. "For in that age, we looked at the world through a mythic lens and thought mythic thoughts; we were small adventurers in a strange land full of giants' (Ibid, 354).
In looking back on that age, in fiction or memory, we mythologize ourselves, true, but what could be more fitting? Summer childhood precedes Autumn thoughts, and it is the mixture thereof which begets that thrilling concoction of wonder and horror that is the Tale of the Weird, whatever its published form.