Enter the Wayback Machine and go back to 1984. I was still shrugging off the science fiction habit I had all my life and becoming a full-fledged horror fan. I read authors like Grant, Straub, Wilson, Etchison, Campbell. And of course Stephen King. When I finally got around to reading him, my reading life changed forever. Pet Sematary had just been released in paperback. Ahead were wonders like The Talisman, Thinner, Skeleton Crew, and It.
Horror was in a state of flux. In the movies, the slasher era was cycling down. In ’84 we had The Mutilator, Splatter University, The Initiation, and Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter. A Nightmare on Elm Street was ushering in a new breed of horror. Stephen King adaptations were in a bit of a lull, as disappointing productions like Children of the Corn and Firestarter hit the screens. Bigger and better things were ahead.
In fiction, Splatterpunk hadn’t yet disrupted the genre. Many of the old masters were still active, and trashy paperbacks were selling like hotcakes. Clive Barker shattered barriers with the publication of The Books of Blood. Horror still wasn’t taken seriously by most people.
This was nearing the end of what most people consider to be the early phase of Stephen King’s career. The landmark work that signified a change was It, in 1986.
Now there is a plethora of nonfiction books about King, but at the time there was very little academic interest in him. One of the first significant studies of his work was by Douglas E. Winter. ’84 saw the publication of Stephen King: The Art of Darkness.
Despite good writing about King from people like Bev Vincent, Rocky Wood, and George Beahm, none compares with Douglas Winter’s work.
People should know who Winter is, but he hasn’t been active in the genre for quite some time. Douglas E. Winter edited two pivotal anthologies of horror fiction: Prime Evil and Revelations. He wrote articles on the genre for various publications, and though his fiction output has been infrequent, Winter wrote some groundbreaking short stories. “Splatter: A Cautionary Tale” is right up there with Karl Edward Wagner’s “Sticks” as my favorite in all of horror.
Douglas E. Winter has been called The Conscience of Horror. His perceptive insights and erudite observations brought more respectability to the genre than any other nonfiction writer before or since.
Stephen King: The Art of Darkness is partially composed of various interviews Winter did with King for publications in the years before its release. The book has biographical information about King and his life, and it reflects upon his work in relation to popular culture.
Winter also breaks down every novel, story, and cinematic adaption, discussing King’s evolution as a writer and a student of human society.
I was completely in love with King and every thing he wrote back in 1984. I even liked all the movies. Douglas Winter helped me to understand the work in deeper ways, and to consider the subtext and metaphor within it all. The book is intelligent and scholarly, yet is also entertaining. Reading it is never a chore, but a joy.
To many fans, the early King years are his Golden Age. Readers recall those early books with infinite affection. I think any fan will benefit from reading Stephen King: The Art of Darkness. Sadly, this classic work is completely out of print now, but copies are easily and inexpensively available.
Now, nearly forty years later, I joined Douglas E. Winter and traveled down a time tunnel into the darkness of my past, and to the formative years of the most beloved and prolific author of horror in history. You know what? I am still learning from it.
Mark Sieber learned to love horror with Universal, Hammer, and AIP movies, a Scholastic edition of Poe’s Eight Tales of Terror, Sir Graves Ghastly Presents, The Twilight Zone, Shirley Jackson’s The Daemon Lover, The Night Stalker, and a hundred other dark influences. He came into his own in the great horror boom of the 1980’s, reading Charles L. Grant, F. Paul Wilson, Ray Russell, Skipp and Spector, David J. Schow, Stephen King, and countless others. Meanwhile he spent as many hours as possible at drive-in theaters, watching slasher sequels, horror comedies, monster movies, and every other imaginable type of exploitation movie. When the VHS revolution hit, he discovered the joys of Italian and other international horror gems. Trends come and go, but he still enjoys having the living crap scared out of him. Cemetery Dance recently released his collection He Who Types Between the Rows: A Decade of Horror Drive-In. He can be reached at [email protected], and at www.horrordrive-in.com.