Once and future King

Stephen King's work has inspired dozens of horror movies, but now The S hawshank Redemption has delivered the biggest shock of them all. Nick Hasted re ports

"Plain fiction for plain folks," Stephen King says of his work in the afterword of Different Seasons, his 1982 collection of novellas. "The literary equivalent of a Big Mac and a large fries." He's right: King's books are seen as junk-food literature. Time magazine crowned him "The Master of Post-Literate Prose" in 1982 and the slur stuck, like his other tag, the King of Horror. The smallest story he publishes is filmed, but almost all of them have been horror flicks of minimal merit. Until, that is, The Shawshank Redemption. That King should be responsible for this literate and quietly profound prison drama about the friendship between two very different men (played by Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman) was a shock even to the film's producer, Niki Marvin, who has admitted she was "really surprised by the delicacy of the piece". And the story of how this writer has managed to survive and reinvent himself, like the cowed heroes of his latest film, is as strange as his fiction. If the rumours of Oscar nominations for The Shawshank Redemption prove true, it may even end happily.

In 1972, Stephen King was a dirt-poor laundry worker, dreaming of a life in the lineage of American Realists from Dreiser to Robert Bloch. By night, in the furnace room, he banged out a serious novel: Carrie, the story of a persecuted high-school girl with psychic powers. It was bought for a near record sum in 1973 and filmed, by Brian De Palma, in 1976. Electrifyingly manipulative, garish and daring, its success sent a jolt through King's life.

That same year, he wrote The Shining, which in 1980 was gutted by Stanley Kubrick and Jack Nicholson for another film. By 1983, 40 million of his books were in print.

The acceleration was shattering. And King's dreams of literary acceptance were gone, dashed by papers like The Village Voice, which caricatured him as a dollar-typing weasel. Showered with riches and insults, he wrote. He hammered out novellas, novels, comic books, short stories, literary dissertations, haunted cars, biting clowns, mouldering children: 25 books by 1990. And in his rush, the even quality of his early work cracked. Before, he had just been a writer. But that was no longer true.

King was now read by people who read no one else, people astonished to find writing they could grasp. "I know the words in this book!" was a typical reaction. His original constituency, horror fans, observed him uncertainly, but others grabbed his books regardless, from supermarket bins and other low places. Film producers, too, snapped at the rights, although the consistent failure of these King adaptations was part of the reason that Hollywood turned away from horror until this year.

Still King's words were filmed, because what was being leeched was not money, but his name. By the mid-1980s, "STEPHEN KING" was no longer just a man who wrote books, but a phenomenon: a brand-name as comfortable as Levi's and (like that of his only cultural equivalent, Steven Spielberg) slapped on the front of films with which he had the vaguest connection. He could, he noted, now publish his own laundry list. In fact, he could do anything he wanted. What could he do?

He became someone else. In 1985, King revealed that, since the late 1970s, he had been releasing early novels under a pseudonym, Richard Bachman. "Bachman" was a misanthropic, violent ex-marine and, at King's insistence, his novels were released as "justplain books" - the unpretentious paperback originals to which, for all the speed and effort of his output, King had never been able to return, even in spirit. He had written more than the market could bear, he explained, and he wanted to test out his status: was he a bestseller from talent, or luck? In fact he had just finished a novel which he had hoped would give "Bachman" a shot at the big time before the secret came out.

In 1987, King published this novel under his real name. It was Misery, about a "serious" novelist, Paul Sheldon, who has fallen into writing bestsellers. Sheldon has just gleefully killed off the bodice-ripping heroine whom he resents for giving him fame, only to be snared and hobbled by the heroine's Number One Fan, who makes him write a new romance. As he types away at a narrative which should be absurd but which soon has him in its grip, Sheldon not only sustains himself, he also gives new life to the weary King.

King had fashioned Misery into a rivetingly post-modern horror story about the writing of a popular novel. He snatched his talent from the insane success that had seemed about to swallow it by making that very success his subject. And through Sheldon's return to popular fiction, he also fiercely embraced his own talent's mass appeal. In the teeth of derision, Misery was King's case for his defence.

He slammed the point home in The Dark Half. Begun, like Misery, as a Bachman book, The Dark Half was finished under King's name. In it, the "serious" writer Thad Beaumont disowns his bestselling pseudonym, George Stark, only for Stark to come to life andstart his own savage book. King had fictionalised his own predicament and turned it into art.

Even films now worked in his favour. Rob Reiner's movie version of Misery (1990) had the sense to strip the novel of its creative discursions in favour of its physical tension, boring in on Sheldon's helplessness. An enormous hit and Oscar-winner (for Kathy Bates as the Number One Fan), it eased millions into the book's strange spell. George Romero's The Dark Half (1992) was by comparison a failure, but its very existence served to cement mass acceptance of King's provocative new turn. In 1992 he sued for the removal of his name from The Lawnmower Man, at last finding a "Stephen King" film too dreadful even for him.

Dolores Claiborne followed, in 1992. For the first time since Different Seasons, a decade before, King abandoned horror and the resulting book was one of his very best. The confession of an abused wife, told in the voice of "plain folks", its shockingly stark tale of revenge was a revelation. Reviews showed surprised respect, discovering in the book's remorseless monologue the skills of a born novelist. King's vindication was upon him at last.

Given this background, The Shawshank Redemption shouldn't surprise anyone. In its seriousness and respect for its source novel, it merely adds to the march of slow acceptance that Misery began. Its wistfully brutal tone and even its words are his, in a way that only Rob Reiner's Stand by Me had come close to before. When a convict sighs of "time that draws out like a blade", and when Tim Robbins whispers, "Do you trust your wife?", it's King that you're hearing. Best of all, it brings King's narrative spell to the cinema, stripped of all encumbrance, spinning a tale that grips. "Plain fiction" it may be. Hamburgers it isn't.

n `Shawshank' opens on 17 Feb

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