Scary Monsters and Superfreaks: The World of Stephen King, A to Z

In honor of the Master of Horror's latest novel 'Revival' hitting shelves today, we break down the author's work from Annie Wilkes to Zihuatanejo

Stephen King Credit: Stacey Cramp/NYTimes/Redux

In 1974, Stephen King started his literary career with a slim novel called Carrie. Today, Revival, his 68th book, hits stands. Set primarily in Maine and Colorado — familiar turf for the writer's "constant readers" — it's a horror story about religion, fanaticism, and rock & roll. (King pulls liberally from his experience in the authors-only cover band the Rock Bottom Remainders, which disbanded in 2012.)

"Evil is inside us," King recently said in the Rolling Stone Interview. "The older I get, the less I think there's some sort of outside devilish influence; it comes from people." Revival features a villain who's not a from-the-depths-of-hell monster or multi-tentacled beastie; he’s just a Methodist minister who’s left traumatized by a tragedy and starts to descend into a fine madness. And like many fine tales of suspense, Revival elaborately tightens the noose of tension for a few hundred pages before kicking the trapdoor loose with a laugh. It’s a major work for the prolific author, and to celebrate it, we've got an A to Z breakdown of the Master of Horror’s mammoth body of work — 26 places, faces, and nightmares that rule King's kingdom. 

A: Annie Wilkes
The 1980s were an incredible, brutal era for King. He put out 19 books in nine years, with most of that span plagued/assisted by daily cocaine use. (See also T.) In 1987, after scaring readers with a small town full of vampires, a killer car, a rabid St. Bernard, a reanimated cat, and a pack of ghosts, King published Misery, starring an unspeakably demonic…human being. Her name was Annie Wilkes, and she kidnapped a successful writer named Paul Sheldon, forcing him to write a novel for her as he recovered from a car accident and the subsequent painkiller addiction. "Misery is a book about cocaine. Annie Wilkes is cocaine," King says in the RS Interview. "She was my number-one fan." Wilkes' detached, pleasant folksiness, paired with her flair for violence and cruelty, won her a place in the Major King Villains pantheon. (Wilkes also won Kathy Bates an Oscar in 1991, when she starred opposite James Caan in Rob Reiner's adaptation.)

B: Bachman, Richard
Between 1977 and 1982, a writer named Richard Bachman published a pair of dark, dystopian novels and two pulpy, modern-day novels. Shortly after Thinner hit in 1984, the (undead) cat was out of the bag: Bachman was King's pen name. "I think I did it to turn down the heat a little bit; to do something as someone other than Stephen King," he wrote in "Why I Was Bachman," an intro to the collected Bachman Books. "I think that all novelists are inveterate role-players and it was fun to be someone else for a while — in this case, Richard Bachman." King makes it sound fun, too, admitting that he wrote The Running Man over the course of three days and saw it "published with virtually no changes." (Before being outed with Thinner, King was eyeballing Misery as the next Bachman book.) In 1989, he published The Dark Half, about a writer whose edgy pseudonym comes alive as flesh-and-blood psychopath. "I'm indebted to the late Richard Bachman," read King's prefatory author's note, "for his help and inspiration. This novel could not have been written without him."

C: Captain Trips
To jumpstart The Stand, one of his most epic and beloved books, King had to murder 99.4 percent of the world's population. He did this with Captain Trips, a code-named superflu engineered by the U.S. military. Once the virus escaped a contamination lockdown, it wasn't long before humanity melted into a phlegmy mass dying of grisly, cancer-like symptoms. The characters who turned out to be immune to the disease — Stu Redman, Franny Goldsmith, Larry Underwood, Nadine Cross, the Trashcan Man, and dozens more — are the ones we follow through The Stand.

D: Derry
Scariest town of all time? It's a contender, at least, thanks largely to 1986's It. King spent 1,138 pages painting Derry, a fictional Maine city based on Bangor, as the birthplace of one of his most ancient evils: a shape-shifting entity that resurfaced every 27 years since time immemorial. King returned to Derry a decade later for Insomnia, and for a memorable, It-related scene in 11/22/63. The troubled town has appeared in more than 20 other King stories and novels, either with small mentions or spooky little detours. The only other town so frequently seen in the King-verse is Castle Rock, the backdrop for Needful Things, "The Body," Cujo, and many more. 

E: Eddie Dean
A single story told across eight books published over a span of 30 years, King's The Dark Tower is nominally the tale of Roland Deschain, the last in a line of knight-like gunslingers from a land called Gilead. Roland journeys through a variety of worlds — including our own — to reach the Dark Tower, the lynchpin of all universes. In book two, 1987's The Drawing of the Three, King gives Roland some friends — or, in the mystical parlance of The Dark Tower, a "ka-tet." They're named Eddie, Susannah, and Jake, and there's a lot to each of the characters. But Eddie is the everyman, the modern New Yorker who can only process this journey through time, space and genres by constantly cracking jokes. If Roland isn't King's personal Dark Tower stand-in, Eddie is. (His first subplot: kicking a vicious drug addiction.) (Side note: The Tower saga has connections and echoes in more than 15 other King works. For more, see the next letter.)

F: Flagg, Randall
When we first see Flagg in The Stand, he's just a guy in "sharp-toed cowboy boots clocking on the pavement; a tall man of no age in faded, pegged jeans and a denim jacket." Also called as the Walkin' Dude, Flagg wears a yellow smiley-face button and turns out to be one of the most sinister villains in King's work. Not just because he rallies and leads every dark-hearted superflu survivor in The Stand, either — Flagg is also the No. 1 or 2 baddie in The Dark Tower (depends who you ask), and he has cameos in a bunch of other stories. The thing about Flagg is you don't always know if it is Flagg — he changes his look and his name like a pair of those old jeans. Keep your eye on Marten Broadcloak, Richard Fannin, and Walter O’Dim, more famously known as the Man in Black.

G: Gerald's Game
The year he turned 45, King released a pair of deeply feminist novels, each one a narrative experiment that stands alone in his oeuvre. The first was Gerald's Game, which found Jessie Burlingame handcuffed and alone in a remote cabin after her husband had a heart attack during some kinky foreplay. Nearly the whole novel took place with Jessie locked to her bed, a person-trapped-in-a-room book that managed to never feel like a Misery do-over. Six months later, Dolores Claiborne was a single unbroken monologue told by another incredible Maine woman. The two books sync up in a mind-bending moment involving a solar eclipse.

H: Hearts in Atlantis
Similar to the singular narratives of Gerald's Game and Dolores Claiborne, there's no King book quite like Hearts in Atlantis. For 250 pages, it looks like King's writing a semi-autobiographical, Dark Tower–affiliated novel set in 1960. Then it jumps to the University of Maine in '66 for 150 pages — a completely new story that's also semi-autobiographical. The novel then concludes with two meaty short stories and one tiny vignette. The whole "collection" — for lack of a better word — swivels around peace, love, and Vietnam, some of the subjects closest to King's own heart. 

I: It
Until King published his revised, uncut version of The Stand in 1990, It was his longest book. Tomes like The Dark Tower VII, Under the Dome, and 11/22/63 came close to the top, but this tale of kids fighting an evil clown named Pennywise still stands as the second-thickest. "I thought to myself, 'Why don’t you write a final exam on horror, and put in all the monsters that everyone was afraid of as a kid?'" King reflected to Time in 2009. "'Put in Frankenstein, the werewolf, the vampire, the mummy, the giant creatures that ate up New York in the old B movies. Put 'em all in there.'" King accomplished that through a monstrosity that was actually just one manifestation of a timeless, morphing being that even King himself struggled to fully explain. While It has one of King's more controversial endings, the book as a whole is unimpeachable.

J: JFK
A few of King's favorite references from Sixties culture and politics: Nixon. 'Nam. The Beatles. JFK. That last one was the crux of an 849-pager King published in 2011 called 11/22/63, after the date Kennedy was assassinated. The novel is a time-traveler's investigation into Lee Harvey Oswald, and whether he indeed had any help. Jake Epping, a modern day English teacher from Maine, is the one who takes on the Marty McFly–ish task of journeying back to the late Fifties, through the pantry of a local diner. (Just go with it.) The door to the past always dumps the traveler out in 1958, so Jake spends five fascinating years making his his way from Maine to Texas, fastidiously tracking Oswald. If everything goes right, Jake plans to save not only Jack Kennedy but maybe, through the right ripples, Bobby, too, or Martin Luther King — or even America itself, from Vietnam. And yes, there is a time-travel love story. An awesome one.

K: Kids
King and his wife, the novelist Tabitha King, have three children. They're all middle-aged now, and two are authors — but they came of age during the early part of Stephen's career, and his parental concerns and musings on childhood show up all over the place. King's first three books — Carrie, 'Salem's Lot, and The Shining — all feature kids with visions and/or telekinesis and/or a surplus of gumption. Children and teenagers remained a constant in King's work through the end of the Nineties, whether as supporting characters (Cujo, Desperation) or protagonists (The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Wizard and Glass). And it's no coincidence that one of the greatest King adaptations put to film, Rob Reiner's Stand By Me, came from "The Body," a novella that seems effortless in its rendering of young friendships and teenage curiosity. (On the flip side of "The Body," also collected in Different Seasons, is "Apt Pupil," where 13-year-old Todd Bowden makes an ex-Nazi tell him Holocaust stories until they both start doing heinous things.)

L: Lisey's Story
You can break King's work down into decades or you can separate it into "pre-accident" and "post-accident" eras. In 1999, King was struck by a minivan and suffered a variety of serious injuries. 2006's Lisey's Story is a sort of alternate universe version of that story, one where the famous author dies and his wife is left behind with grief, an office of old papers, and a few crazed fans. The King substitute is author Scott Landon, and his wife of 25 years is Lisey (rhymes with CeeCee), a remarkable woman who comes in contact with the unearthly realm from which her husband got his stories. After publishing Lisey's Story, King told BookPage "it's going to be a long time, if ever, before I write anything this good again." He echoed the sentiment this fall, telling Rolling Stone he considers Lisey's his best book. "That one felt like an important book to me because it was about marriage, and I'd never written about that. I wanted to talk about two things: One is the secret world that people build inside a marriage, and the other was that even in that intimate world, there's still things that we don't know about each other."

M: Mr. Mercedes
King has always loved a good mystery, but he somehow went 40 years without publishing an all-out detective novel. (He has, however, written a couple mystery paperbacks — The Colorado Kid and Joyland — for Hard Case Crime.) He rectified that situation this June with Mr. Mercedes, where a suicidal retired detective hunts down a maniac who recently plowed a car into a crowd for kicks. King gives his leading man some sidekicks and lends his perp a disturbing backstory, in addition to throwing a mass-murder plot into the mix. Detective Bill Hodges and his buddies will now star in a trilogy, with the second book, Finders Keepers, coming in 2015.

N: Night Shift
Before hitting it big, King worked in laundromats and taught high school English. On the side, he published short stories in magazines like Playboy, Penthouse, a UMaine literary magazine called Ubris, even Cosmopolitan and Redbook. After Carrie, King published three more novels and then dropped a story collection, Night Shift. It contained brief pseudo-prequels to 'Salem's Lot and The Stand, which King would publish later that year; a few of the entries — "Children of the Corn," "The Lawnmower Man," "Sometimes They Come Back" — later spawned films and sequels. So far, King has published five batches of short stories and three novella collections. Next fall he'll publish The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, which he says will contain 20 brief-ish works and "should be a pretty fat book." (For comparison, 1993's Nightmares & Dreamscapes held 24 stories and clocked in at 816 pages.) 

O: Overlook Hotel
You probably know the story like the back of your iPhone: Jack, Wendy, and Danny Torrance head to the Overlook, a beautiful, haunted Colorado hotel, to play caretakers for the winter. Jack hopes to get some writing done; instead, he goes insane and tries to kill his family. With its moving topiaries and its decomposing bathtub-woman, the Overlook became a classic King locale. Stanley Kubrick's seminal 1980 film adaptation depicted the hotel fantastically, but King went on to make his own four-and-a-half-hour ABC miniseries with frequent collaborator Mick Garris. In 2013, King published Doctor Sleep, about a grown-up, alcohol-addled Danny Torrance. While Sleep is a Shining sequel, the Overlook itself has become a ghost, one that haunts Dan's dreams and manages to play a significant role despite burning down years before.

P: Pet Sematary
King doesn't just do horror — the man has written prison dramas, coming-of-age stories, sci-fi yarns, and adventure books. But Pet Sematary, like The Shining and It, is capital-letters HORROR. It's about a father who becomes obsessed with resurrecting the dead, and it helped launch a thousand modern "old Indian burial ground" knockoffs. It's also legendary for being the one book King thought might be too scary to share. "I couldn't ever imagine ever publishing Pet Sematary, it was so awful," King later said. "But the fans loved it. You can't gross out the American public, or the British public for that matter, because they loved it too." King also called it "a terrible book — not in terms of the writing, but it just spirals down into darkness. It seems to be saying that nothing works and nothing is worth it, and I don’t really believe that.”

Q: Queen Laura DeLoessian
In 1984, right before It and just after Pet Sematary, King teamed up with horror author and pal Peter Straub with the notion of collaborating on a project. What they concocted was The Talisman — think Mark Twain meets The NeverEnding Story, with a side of creepy sauce. The epic fantasy novel introduced several key concepts that would bleed over to the 2001 sequel, Black House, as well as King's own Dark Tower saga. (Notably, the idea of "twinners," or versions of people that exist in separate worlds.) The Talisman gets its start when 12-year-old Jack Sawyer discovers that his dying "queen of the B-movies" actress mother, Lily, is — in the fantasy realm called the Territories — Laura DeLoessian, the ailing Queen of the Universe. The titular talisman, a magic crystal, is the only thing that can save the Queen(s).

R: Riding the Bullet
In March of 2000, nine months after almost being killed by a van [see also L], King put a novella called Riding the Bullet online for $2.50. Years before anyone would know what a Kindle or an iPad was, at least half a million people snapped up the author's digital merchandise. Time did a King cover; the New York Times did a hefty profile, calling the project "the world's first mass e-book." He followed Bullet by selling six monthly installments of his serial novel The Plant on his website, charging readers $1 on the honor system. He's since returned to digital-only/digital-first stories with 2009's Ur and 2011's Mile 81.

S: Storm of the Century
King's work has inspired an astonishing number of films, series, and TV movies. (A random sampler from the last 10 years would include: CBS's Under the Dome; Frank Darabont's The Mist; Kimberly Peirce's Carrie remake; A&E's Bag of Bones, starring Pierce Brosnan.) In 1999, after years of programming based on well-thumbed horror bibles, the new King miniseries, Storm of the Century, was all-original. "Every image of the story seemed to be a movie image rather than a book image," King writes in the intro to the hardcover screenplay. The script revolved around André Linoge, a horrible man terrorizing a quiet Maine island. King linked back up with Craig R. Baxley three years later for Rose Red, another ABC miniseries.

T: The Tommyknockers
King's story of a buried UFO that wreaks havoc with the local townsfolk is not especially well-regarded, and its creator understands. In the Rolling Stone Interview, asked if his cocaine habit was starting to affect his work, King said: "Yeah, it did. I mean, The Tommyknockers is an awful book. That was the last one I wrote before I cleaned up my act. And I've thought about it a lot lately and said to myself, 'There's really a good book in here, underneath all the sort of spurious energy that cocaine provides, and I ought to go back.' The book is about 700 pages long, and I'm thinking, 'There's probably a good 350-page novel in there.'" 

U: Under the Dome
"I started this in 1976, gave up, tried again in 1979, gave up, and finally broke my brains and wrote this thing in two years," King told New York Times book critic Janet Maslin in a live TimesTalk on November 10, 2009, the day Under the Dome was released. "And I gave it to my sister-in-law and she said, 'Oh, it's like The Simpsons Movie.'" Whether the dome gets an earthbound or supernatural explanation in the end is beside the point — King accomplished something here he hadn't done since The Stand. He wrote a thousand-page novel filled with a staggering amount of characters living through difficult, but almost entirely real-seeming circumstances. Sure, plague-like superflus and impenetrable domes are pulpy concepts, but the way King watches the situations play out feels uncomfortably honest. Dome became a bonkers, Lost-echoing summer series at CBS. It was recently renewed for a third season.

V: Vampires
During his early-Seventies tenure as a high school teacher, King had a penchant for assigning both Bram Stoker's Dracula and Thornton Wilder's Our Town to his students. For his second novel, he decided to smash the two concepts together, setting this hybrid horror story in a bucolic Maine town called Jerusalem's Lot — known as 'Salems Lot for short. Vampires have played a key role in King's work from the get-go, and bloodsuckers show up in books and stories like "The Night Flier," Wolves of the Calla, and American Vampire, a Scott Snyder graphic novel that featured early contributions from King. In an intro to American Vampire's first trade paperback, King said vampires should be, "Stone killers who never get enough of that tasty Type-A. Bad boys and girls. Hunters. In other words, Midnight America. Red, white, and blue, accent on the red. Those vamps got hijacked by a lot of soft-focus romance." If that sounds like a Twilight jab, it is — while King cosigned J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter early and often, he's said Twilight author Stephenie Meyer "can't write worth a darn."

W: White, Carrie
"The story had so many strikes against it from the very beginning that it never should have been written at all," King writes in the early Eighties essay "On Becoming a Brand Name." He's talking about how he'd envisioned Carrie as a novel set in the world of teenage girls, "a totally foreign environment." Fast-forward a couple paragraphs: "I crumbled up my two pages and threw them in the kitchen wastebasket. About an hour later Tabby saw them there, fished them out, read them, and pressed me to go on." Tabitha advised him on how to turn Carrie White from a cardboard concept into a living, breathing character. Thanks to her, King got a career out of Carrie, and we got a pretty good Brian De Palma movie in addition to a gripping book.

X: X-Files, The
Once in a while, King's been known to jump in as a mercenary guest writer on a project (see V). The X-Files was one of the lucky few, with a season five episode: 1998's "Chinga," written by King and show creator Chris Carter. It's a standalone entry, it's about an evil doll, and it's set in — you guessed it! — Maine. King's affinity for The X-Files was on-message with the pulpy sci-fi films, books and TV series of his youth, such as The Twilight Zone. (In Danse Macabre, his 1981 nonfiction treatise on all things horror, King praised called Rod Serling's show as "damn near immortal.")

Y: Yankees, New York
Baseball is one of King's strongest passions, and he's a die-hard Red Sox fan. With that Bawsten territory, of course, comes a built-in hatred of the New York Yankees. And it was indeed the Yanks that the Sox found themselves facing in the 2004 ALCS — during a season King had agreed to chronicle alongside novelist Stewart O'Nan for a book called Faithful. "The sibyl in me," King wrote of the daunting matchup, "says the Yankees have been our Daddy and will continue to be our Daddy; that we are the Pequod, they the great white whale." The Sox managed a come-from-behind victory for the ages and went on to win their first World Series in a million years.

Z: Zihuatanejo
Before The Shawshank Redemption was a super-long film about hope and bromance, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption was a hundred-page novella that kicked off the sparkling Different Seasons collection. In both the film and the story, the idea of escaping down to "Zihuatanejo" — a paradisiacal Mexican town on the Pacific — is one of the few things that keeps Andy and Red going as they face life sentences in a hard penitentiary in freezing-ass Maine. "Get busy livin' or get busy dying'," Andy likes to say, and in Shawshank, livin' means Zihuatanejo, the place that's "just too pretty to forget."