01 November 2020

From Pauper to King

Stephen King
Stephen King,
serious disguise
’Tis the day after Halloween, and I wanted to share a nugget I learned about our favorite modern horror-meister, Stephen King. As a reader, I never considered much about authors except their alphabetic location on my library’s shelf. I didn’t know about that bleeding vein, I thought writers magically appeared fully formed like Botticelli’s proverbial Venus.

Certainly I encountered bad books and terrible tales, but libraries and the book market filter and curate. Same with museums, that’s why we don’t see early sketches of Botticelli’s Birth of Karen.

Not to compare myself to either Botticelli or Stephen King, I had grave doubts about my first story. Who wants to read about alligators and mosquitoes? Only after it was nominated for an award and I found myself sitting in traffic, I finally internalized it, saying to myself in awe, “They liked it! They really liked it.”

Carrie poster
Thus I was surprised to learn about the Master of Misery’s angst about his first novel, Carrie.

The Story Behind the Story

Raised by a single mother, King understood hardship. He earned and then unwillingly returned money in school by selling stories to other students, but eventually a short story, ‘I was a Teenage Grave Robber’, was professionally sold.

Stephen King
Hippie disguise
King matriculated at the University of Maine. To finance his studies, he took on odd jobs including laundry worker and school janitor. That turned out a blessing in disguise.

He witnessed a girl relentlessly bullied, an impoverished girl in a holey, worn-out dress. King speculated what it might be like if the girl had abilities, supernatural superpowers to fight back. On his bride’s typewriter, he tapped out a few pages of a bildungsroman featuring a poor girl, Carrie White. Her first menses terrified her. She thought she was bleeding to death while other girls laughed. Annoyed with his own work, he tossed it in the trash.

His wife discovered it in the wastebasket, read those few pages, and wondered what happened next. King didn’t like his own writing, but he was out of sorts and out of ideas. Tabitha urged her husband to take up the story again and, with her help and encouragement, little Carrie became King’s first novel, twice made into movies.

Stephen King
Clark Kent disguise
Tabitha and Stephen were living in a trailer, their phone cut off, so the King’s were surprised by an acceptance telegram and $2500, which they used to purchase a true horror, a Ford Pinto. Weeks later, paperback rights earned him another $200,000.

King still had doubts about his novel, but that sad schoolgirl and Stephen’s spouse made them a very rich couple, not merely monetarily.

Possibly not quite believing their fortune, King continued teaching. You can’t say Boo to that.


  1. Some needed inspiration. Good column.

  2. I enjoyed this, Leigh. King and his career are fascinating.

    I think he's one of the few writers whose short stories and novels have gotten even better, over the years. (Though one of my favorites is still The Stand, from long ago.)

  3. I didn't know the genesis of Carrie, but I remember in his book about writing that King drew mucho inspiration from the laundry job he had and the restaurant linens that came complete with maggots.

  4. I've always admired King, although I've read very little of his work (I just don't do horror). I have read his "On Writing" and loved it.

  5. O'Neil, it's all too easy for stories and writing careers to fall apart. Out of the darkness, he's forged a bright career indeed.

    John, it's tough when a writer peaks with his first novel. Some take a bit longer, but Van Dine said no writer had more than six good novels in him… and he went on to prove it.

    I was introduced to Carrie as 'chick horror', but I liked that one as well as The Stand. I largely liked The Body, although I keep confusing the title as Stand by Me. I would have preferred a 'real world' cause.

    Janice, I know. His is a Horatio Alger, putting in the hard work on the path toward reward. He was fortunate to have a wonderful helpmate and partner. Many writers's spouses encourage and help, and I believe Tabitha is very much a key element in their parthership.

    Eve, I read horror as a kid (as did Stephen King), but real-world terror makes fiction pale. Further, I have absolutely no use for gratuitous gore and slasher flicks.


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