Stephen King's Scariest Monster: Addiction

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Stephen King's Scariest Monster: Addiction

By Paul Fuhr 09/19/17

King's greatest fear was not being able to write without being under the influence.

Image: 
Scene from "It"
Since drinking had been in the background during his earliest successes, King assumed it was the magic ingredient. [Credit: New Line Cinema]

As IT’s Pennywise continues to terrify the children of Derry, Maine, and filmgoers alike, it’s worth remembering that the most terrifying monster of author Stephen King’s past might be himself. No matter what creatures, phantasms, demonic dogs, possessed cars, crimson kings, haunted hotels and homicidal super-fans King has thrown at readers over the decades, King’s previous struggles with alcoholism and drug addiction are far more disturbing—mainly because they’re real.

At one point on King's trajectory, things were so bad that there are entire 600-page novels he doesn’t remember writing (the critically panned The Tommyknockers, for one). The fact that he escaped addiction at all is a happy ending that King’s own characters rarely ever enjoy, though it’s key to the fact that the bestselling novelist has turned around nearly 100 books since 1973’s Carrie. And at age 70, he shows no signs of slowing down, as he releases books at a clip of two per year—a rate that all but shames George R.R. Martin, who can’t seem to finish the fifth book of A Song of Ice and Fire.


King’s alcoholism had an almost quaint, humorous beginning: the story of a 22-year-old who was arrested for stealing traffic cones: “After a hard night of drinking Long Island Iced Tea at the University Motor Inn, I had struck one of these traffic cones while driving home. It bounced up under the car and tore off the muffler of my ancient Ford station wagon. With a drunk’s logic, I decided to cruise around town—slowly, safely, sanely—and pick up all the cones. Every single one. The following day, I would present them, along with my dead muffler, at the Town Office in a display of righteous anger.”

Later, he found himself struggling with parenthood, frustrated and wrestling with his own violent impulses. In Lisa Rogak’s King biography, Haunted Heart, he admitted to wanting to grab and hit his children while he was drinking—a feeling that manifested itself in his novel The Shining, a novel that he wrote “blazingly fast.” The alcoholic Jack Torrance did all the things that author King never did—an alter ego every bit as violent and unhinged as any monster he’s let loose on his characters.

As King’s successes mounted, so too did his problems. Addiction began to inform his writing process in all the same ways that the big block letters of “Stephen King” virtually guaranteed a bestselling book. Ironically, for an author whose bread and butter came from tapping into other people’s fears, his own greatest fear was not being able to write without being under the influence. Since drinking had been in the background during his earliest successes, King assumed it was the magic ingredient. And then Hollywood parties introduced him to cocaine, which kicked his problems to the next level—he directed the 1987 machines-come-alive film Maximum Overdrive while completely strung out: “The problem with that film is that I was coked out of my mind all through its production, and I didn’t know what I was doing,” he said. (Though it also explains so many bizarre scenes.)

“I didn’t just have a problem with beer and cocaine. I was an addictive personality, period,” the biography quoted King. “I was smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, I loved Listerine, I loved NyQuil, you name it. If it would change your consciousness, I was all for it.” Luckily, his wife (author Tabitha King) not only understood that her husband was naturally gifted, but she could see that his writing was suffering as much as his health was. As the story goes, King’s wife collected all of his drug paraphernalia and dumped it on the living room floor, in front of King and some friends and family.

The intervention worked in more ways than one. As he adjusted to sobriety (“the calm was so loud it buzzed,” King’s biography said), he also began to write some of his most insightful, beautifully ornate work to date. Gone were the meandering, empty, thick-as-bricks novels—they were all replaced with lean, sharp (if not delicate) works that explored complex themes about mortality and morality. Hell, his stories even began appearing in The New Yorker. A crisp, undeniable clear-headedness had emerged in his writing.

King soon released the award-nominated The Green Mile, the offbeat The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, and even managed to finish the last three books in his Dark Tower series in quick succession—the latter a feat that he never actually expected to accomplish. (It’s worth noting that King even added extra books and stories to this series after the fact, too.) King’s oeuvre after getting sober is fascinating to explore: it’s a rich band of writing that defies expectations and in many ways reads like the biography of a completely different writer: a hard-boiled mystery novel straight out of the 1950s (The Colorado Kid); a time-travel thriller hinged on the JFK assassination (11/22/63); a sci-fi epic about a town sealed under a giant forcefield (Under the Dome).


In sobriety, one thing King has consistently proven is that he remains a creative force to be reckoned with—a writer no longer needlessly spinning his wheels. In many ways, the greatest threat to King’s writing has become his greatest strength, as he continues to draw upon his own struggles with addiction in almost every novel since getting sober, whether it’s to brushstroke characters here or there, or to build an entire novel around addiction recovery (the sequel to The Shining follows Danny Torrance, an alcoholic haunted—literally—by the memory of his abusive father). Through sobriety, Stephen King continues to shock his readers in ways he no doubt continues to shock himself with what he’s capable of as a writer.

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