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GETTING OUT OF SOMEONE’S TRACK: Stephen King as a sociopsychologist

GETTING OUT OF SOMEONE'S TRACK: Stephen King as a sociopsychologist
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Art by Roberto Parada / robertoparada.com


Stephen King is an outstanding American writer, a master of the horror genre, whose works have captured the hearts of millions of readers around the world. His ability to turn daily life into scenes of unpredictable horror and mystical thriller has made him one of the most-read authors of our time. In addition to his literary work, King is actively involved in screenwriting and producing films and TV series based on his novels and short stories. His influence on popular culture is undeniable, and his works continue to inspire new generations of writers and filmmakers.

Ask your friends: who is Stephen King? Of course, the king of horror. Even your acquaintances who are literary critics will tell you so because their correct books are almost unanimous — for example, in the encyclopedic reference book «Foreign Writers» (Ternopil: Bogdan, 2005), the article about King begins like this: «Representative of the so-called horror literature». And the guru of American criticism, Harold Bloom, does not even mention King in his «The Western Canon» (K.: Fact, 2007).

And what about the king himself — is he satisfied with mowing the greenery on the lawn of «so-called literature»? Of course, we cannot expect any complaints from a man who, in ten years, turned from a provincial school teacher into a star of the entire American book market. And yet we come across a bitter phrase in King’s memoirs written at the height of his fame (2000), at the very beginning of the book of reflections on the phenomenon of writing, in the preface: «They ask Updike, Delillo, and Styron, but never popular belletrists».




This has been a pain for King from the beginning. Let’s recall that the main character of «The Shining» (King’s first novel to hit the New York Times bestseller list) is a writer trying to create a work that will have everyone asking for the author’s opinion on the world order.

The writer who cherishes a real «great novel» appears regularly in Mr. Stephen’s work. Moreover, since the late 1970s, he has published seven novels under the pen name Richard Bachman, and these are precisely what he wanted to write from the beginning: social stories.

They sold poorly, and when the hoax was revealed (1985), the books were reprinted with the inscription «Stephen King under the pen name Richard Bachman», and the circulation of each immediately increased to six figures. By the way, the famous «Misery» was initially planned «for Bachman», and the main character there is the same «social» writer.

Despite the pleasure of unplanned profits (Bachmann’s reprint), the ultimatum of fate was definitely tough: either you keep drinking champagne after each new «mystery», or the layer of butter on your sandwich will quickly melt. And King was too sensitive to such challenges because… he drank bitterly.

In his memoirs, written after he was completely clean, King courageously and honestly notes: «For six years I sat at this table drunk as a ship’s captain on a voyage to nowhere… I forgot how to be sober… I wrote «The Shining» without even realizing (at least until then) that I was writing about myself… At the end of my adventures, I drank a case of half-liter cans a night /24 pcs. /and there is one novel, «Cujo», which I don’t remember writing at all… Annie Wilkes, a psychotic nurse from «Misery», helped me make the final decision. Annie — is cocaine, Annie — is alcohol, and I decided that I no longer wanted to be her hand writer» (On Writing. Memoirs of a Craft. — Kh.: Family Leisure Club, 2017).


Обкладинка книги «Про письменство. Мемуари про ремесло» Стівена Кінга
The cover of the book «On Writing. A Memoir of the Craft» by Stephen King


But what are the stages of this alcohol marathon? At first, like many fellow classics, there was the dizziness of success. When Brian de Palma victoriously adapted «Carrie» (1976) and Stanley Kubrick «The Shining» (1980), the cocaine of Hollywood parties was added.

Then, for some time, the doping illusion formulated by Pierre de Ronsard, the top classicist playwright, worked: «My brain is only healthy when it is watered with plenty of wine». Eventually, King came to the correct conclusion that this was a pop intellectual label. In the end, the priority motivation was the painful inability to escape from the traps of genre prose.

Do you remember Vysotsky’s song «Someone’s Track»? Despite its superficial clowning, it seems to be his most tragic work. It’s about the near impossibility of getting off the track of popular success. It’s also about the guaranteed sweet food and drink, but also about the realization that this is «not riding, but fidgeting.»

Vladimir Semenovych did not manage to get out of the track. Only after his death, when his poetry books were published, we realized that we had missed perhaps the most influential poet of the late XX century.

Stephen King made a more desperate attempt to get out of the deep and slippery rut of mystical horror. This «someone’s track» was paved in the first third of the XX century by Howard Lovecraft, who told the reader that «there is something in our world that most people would rather not know about» and, at the same time, could not restrain himself from «hinting to people devoid of imagination at a horror that goes beyond all human imagination».

That Lovecraftian perversion was masterfully modernized and ennobled by the «classic» King. He earned millions on this and, at the same time, tried to go beyond the metaphorical curse: that every writer writes one book all his life.

Or maybe a writer has several lives? The King of the stunningly successful, although alcoholic period, is noticeably different from the current one. Perhaps the timer for reincarnation started on June 19, 1999, when the already very sober writer was suddenly hit by a bus on a quiet street and confined to a hospital bed for a long time.

King has always been sensitive to signs, so he soon even announced that he would stop writing. He said he would finish the fantasy series «The Dark Tower», and that was it.

The completion stretched over several years. Finally, after the penultimate «Dark Tower VII», the novel «Cell» was published and translated into Ukrainian in the same year (Kh.: Family Leisure Club, 2006). This work is a bifurcation point, a transition of the King’s coordinate system to a higher level.

Previously, he «explored» the phenomena of individual psychology (or simply frightened the reader with all sorts of unknown and unpredictable things). Now he focuses on the fantastic arithmetic when the sum of bright individuals can equal a gloomy pack: «Them. The ever-popular paranoid them».




Therefore, King began to engage in futuristic sociology, modeling situations that are not yet possible today but tomorrow, with the development of technology, will be unavoidable. In other words, he started to predict the reactions of collective psychology, cultural and primitive. The best way to do this was through such an action subgenre as the «revolt of the machines» (in this case, the «revolt» of the mobile phone network).

The surroundings and plot developments were also transparently recognizable, as usual for King, and this time they reminded us of Jules Verne’s «Dick Sand, A Captain at Fifteen». And the creepy atmosphere of the plot remained «like a fog hidden in a pocket», and the main character of «Cell», like all his predecessors, sometimes «felt a panic rat stirring in his head». All those stylistic moles habitually hypnotized the reader, so very few people noticed that the master had turned off the horror avenue.

It seems that it was not American but Ukrainian critics who first noticed this sharp turn because it was at that time that the star of Maryna and Serhiy Dyachenko, with their model realism, was rising to the zenith. They did the same thing as the «new» King: they served a serious dish, a sociopsychological prognosis, under a light-hearted genre sauce.

Some things directly correlated with the «Cell», such as Dyachenko’s novel «Armageddon House» (1999): «Each of us is an intelligent person. But when we get together, we are not people. We are a single creature, stupid and completely shameless. The crowd». Or in the story «Underground Wind» (2002): «People were pulling him back, sucking him in. People were growing around him like new buildings on the outskirts of town».


Обкладинка книги «Історія Лізі» Стівена Кінга
Cover of the book «Lisey’s Story» by Stephen King


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By the way, the Dyachenkos never managed to get out of someone else’s track — they, the No. 1 psychologists in modern Ukrainian literature (in my opinion), are still kept in the «fantasy» reservation.

The same year as «Cell». King published «Lisey’s Story», which he later called his best novel. Despite the fact that everything here is thrillerized to the extreme and mysticism reappears as a deus ex machina, the text fits the concept of «sociopsychology». A novelistic study of the influence of literature on the mass consciousness.

A warning about the extreme danger of dilettante interference in the magic of words. And if you do continue to talk mindlessly, «without having any real idea of the edge of the abyss you have approached (beware, you may slip) in your thoughts», remember this: «Some events simply have to happen because they have no other way out». Because the reaction of self-splitting words has already begun.

King’s next novel, «Duma Key» (2008), localizes the previous «research»: if art is magic, then it is the artist who is responsible for the materialization of nightmares. The novel is about the consequences of painting chimeras and giving them a voice — a novel about the essence of Dostoevsky if you will, and those who read him uncritically.

«A damaged brain doesn’t just look like a dictator, it is a real dictator», King notes. However, it is difficult to recognize all these deep meanings because the reader is blinded by the masterful horror of the genre track.




It is not easy to dispel the shamanic magic of genre prose. Almost impossible. Therefore, Rostyslav Semkiv, a literary critic from Mohylianka, tried to approach the issue from a different angle — to ennoble these genres themselves. In the course of his exciting reflections on the metamorphosis of horror, fantasy, and science fiction, he comes to an unexpected but well-reasoned conclusion: «This is what the religious literature of the agnostic era looks like» (How to Read the Classics. — K.: Pabulum, 2018).

And in his next book, «Lessons from the King of Horror: How to Write Horror?» (ibid., 2020), he applies this theory to King: «In terms of the seriousness of the problems this author addresses in his texts, he is far ahead of most of our current ‘serious’ prose, which tries to be sociopsychological… An intellectual writer? Yes, an intellectual. Educated and quite deep…


Обкладинка книги «Уроки короля жахів: як писати горор?» Стівена Кінга
Cover of the book «Lessons from the King of Horror: How to Write Horror?» by Rostyslav Semkiv


Maybe horror is not the right genre? But Hoffmann, Poe, and Gogol have been among the classics for a long time! The detective stories after Agatha Christie, fantasy after Tolkien, sci-fi after Bradbury and Gibson are no longer just entertainment genres… A cultured person of our time is not only ashamed not to have read «1984,» but also no less embarrassed to be left without «The Shining».

I completely agree, although King’s novel «Under the Dome» (2009) is more suitable for comparison with Orwell. A thousand pages of shock at how quickly — in four days! — a respectable democracy turns into a criminal dictatorship. And thousands of law-abiding citizens — «they are all accomplices now, aren’t they? Under the Dome, it is no longer an issue of collaboration in something that depends on one’s own choice».

The West read the novel as another dystopia. The author’s remark: «Here, under the Dome, everything looked different. External observers cannot understand this», was perceived as almost authorial snobbery.

Ukrainians, who at that time had lived under totalitarianism longer than under democracy, were not so sympathetic; «Under the Dome» resonated with them more as a reality than a fantasy. But it was only when books by refugee writers from Donetsk (Chupa, Rafeenko, Aseyev, Stiazhkina, Chernov) began to be published that we understood the rest: King’s novel was a memoir of the future, which here and now is called the LPR/DPR.

And some time later, the ominously effective mechanics of destroying the civilizational matrix were explained by world historians and political scientists, first by Timothy Snyder (The Road to Unfreedom, 2018) and now by Anne Applebaum (Twilight of Democracy, 2023). They have put on the shelves what Stephen King cried out about in his novel ten years before.

It would seem that «Under the Dome» is more massively influential than the works of Snyder or Applebaum. This is the paradox: genre literature, intended to entertain, blocks intellectual perception; the genre mutes the meaning. Although millions have read the novel, only a few have thought about it. Indeed, who can take an animator seriously? This is what tortured King from the beginning of his «second life».


Обкладинка книги «Під куполом» Стівена Кінга
Cover of the book «Under the Dome» by Stephen King


«Do you know how I feel now? It’s like I made a deal with the devil, and he took it», he complains in the «Cell». And in «Lisey’s Story», it’s the same: «Scott’s third novel, the only one she and the critics couldn’t bear, the only one that made them rich». And in «Duma Key», there is a direct attack on the genre: «This fairy tale got into the wrong place and grew TEETH.» As it later happened with the unheard warnings of the novel «Under the Dome».

The point is not that someone can forbid a master to write whatever he wants. However, the wrapper in which you are sold is crucial. The track. H.G. Wells had a problem with this almost to the end of his life (and we still consider him a «science fiction writer»).

In his novel «The War in the Air» (1908), he predicted the massive use of military aircraft when the main threat from the sky was considered to be only airships. This work was reprinted during the Battle of Britain, when the Germans bombarded London first with bombs and then with the then-current cruise missile, the V-2.

Suddenly, it was discovered that that old novel actually predicted the tragic mistakes made by all pre-war British governments, along with the voters who elected them. Of course, who had listened to the voice coming from the «science fiction» track before?

Instead of a preface to the reprint, Wells wrote a short, strong, and scary one: «I warned you about this. You bloody fools».


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