The Tragic Real-Life Story Of Stephen King

As one of the most prolific and popular authors of the last half-century, Stephen King has defined horror for a generation. With the 1974 publication of his first novel, Carrie, King began a career that has seen the Maine native rise from struggling writer to pop-culture phenomenon whose legions of fans meet him with the kind of adulation that's usually reserved for athletes and pop stars.

Now in his seventies, King shows no signs of stopping. Having written over 60 novels and 200 short stories, King continues to produce work that's both relevant and influential. A true icon in an ever-changing entertainment landscape, his enduring popularity is rare for any celebrity and virtually unheard-of for a novelist. At the core of King's success as a storyteller is his uncanny ability to channel the essence of ordinary life into extraordinary circumstances. This, combined with an uncomplicated prose style, has made him the horror genre's answer to Bruce Springsteen. Popular and populist, Stephen King is a blue-collar boogeyman who delivers frights of the people and for the people.

Nevertheless, King's rise to the top of the literary heap has been anything but easy. From his hand-to-mouth childhood and battle with alcohol and drug addiction to the devastating road accident that nearly claimed his life, the king of horror has suffered more than his share of real-life terrors on the path to wealth and fame. This is the tragic and triumphant true story of Stephen King.

Stephen King's broken home

Stephen Edwin King was born in Portland, Maine, on September 21, 1947, to Donald and Nellie Ruth Pillsbury King. According to Lisa Rogak's 2009 biography, Haunted Heart: The Life and Times of Stephen King, baby Stephen's birth came as a surprise. Years earlier, Ruth King was diagnosed as infertile, which had led the Kings to adopt Stephen's older brother, David Victor, in 1945.

In the early years of their marriage, Ruth and Donald King were constantly on the move. Donald, a merchant marine, was frequently away from home. As Stephen King writes in his 1981 nonfiction book Danse Macabre, his father was a fan of horror and science fiction stories and had himself unsuccessfully tried his hand at writing. The discovery of a box of his father's books, which included a volume by horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, would prove a revelatory moment for King.

With the end of the World War II, Donald King returned home on a more or less permanent basis and took a job as a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman. Although Stephen King has virtually no memories of his father, he has described him as "a man with an itchy foot." "As my mother once told me, he was the only man on the sales force who regularly demonstrated vacuum cleaners to pretty young widows at two o'clock in the morning," King says. When the author was only two years old, his father left to get a pack of cigarettes and never returned.     

Stephen King's mother struggled to make ends meet

Faced with supporting herself, four-year-old David, and two-year-old Stephen alone, Nellie Ruth King often relied on the kindness of relatives while searching for work. Constantly on the move in the nine years after Donald King's untimely departure, Ruth King (she preferred to be called by her middle name) and her sons found themselves living in Chicago; Fort Wayne, Indiana; Malden, Massachusetts; and West Depere, Wisconsin.

At times, financial circumstances forced her to leave David and Stephen with extended family for weeks or months at time. In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Kings writes, "I lived an odd, herky-jerky childhood, raised by a single parent who moved around a lot in my earliest years and who — I am not completely sure of this — may have farmed my brother and me out to one of her sisters for awhile because she was economically or emotionally unable to cope with us for a time. [...] My mom [...] was one of America's early liberated women, but not by choice."

At times, Ruth King was forced to work two or three jobs at a time to put food on the table for her tiny family. When babysitters were too expensive, David and Stephen were left alone reading to each other to pass the time and stay out of mischief. In 1958, the Kings finally found a permanent home in Durham, Maine, when Ruth's sister Ethelyn gave her a house in which to live in exchange for helping care for their ailing parents.

Stephen King's traumatic childhood

Poor health kept young Stephen King home for most of what should have been his first year in elementary school. A case of measles and repeated bouts of strep which led to painful ear infections kept him either in bed or in the doctor's office. The treatments, which involved the repeated lancing of his eardrum, left King traumatized. "The pain was beyond anything I have ever felt since — the only thing close was the first month of recovery after being struck by a van in the summer of 1999," King writes.

When asked if there was an event in his childhood that in some way "warped" him into writing horror stories, Stephen King says he can't point to any particular incident. However, he has related one horrifying story that occurred when he was four. In Danse Macabre, King states, "According to Mom, I had gone off to play at a neighbor's house — a house that was near a railroad line. About an hour after I left, I came back, she said, as white as a ghost. I would not speak for the rest of the day [...] It turned out that the kid I had been playing with had been run over by a freight train while playing on or crossing the tracks [...] My mom never knew if I had been near him when it happened..." Although King claims to have no memory of the incident, novelist and psychiatrist Janet Jeppson told him "'ve been writing about it ever since."

Poverty haunted Stephen King

Although Stephen King earned a partial scholarship to New Jersey's Drew University, his slim finances kept him in his home state after high school. Instead, he followed his older brother David to the University of Maine at Orono. In college at the height of the Vietnam War, King was active in campus protests and wrote a column for the campus newspaper called "King's Garbage Truck." In his freshman year, he made his first professional sale to Startling Mystery Stories. The short story, titled "The Glass Floor," earned the struggling student a windfall of $35.

To supplement the weekly stipend of $5 his mother sent him, King took a job in the school's library. There, he met the woman who would become his wife, a history major and aspiring poet named Tabitha Spruce. "He really was literally the poorest college student I've ever met in my life," Tabitha King told Biography in 2000. "He was wearing [...] cut-off gum rubbers because he couldn't afford shoes."

In 1970, the couple had a child, a daughter named Naomi. After graduation, King and Spruce married and moved to a trailer in Hermon, Maine. While he unsuccessfully searched for a teaching position, King took on a succession of low-paying jobs to make ends meet. The struggling author pumped gas and worked in an industrial laundry. Often depressed, King felt that all he had done with his education was replicate his mother's life.   

The death of Stephen King's mother

As detailed in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, a sickly six-year-old King spent the better part of a year in bed. To pass the time, King read everything he could get his hands on, from classics to comic books. While convalescing, he made his first tentative steps at composing his own tales. King writes, "Imitation preceded creation; I would copy Combat Casey comics word for word [...] sometimes adding my own descriptions..." The budding author eventually worked up the courage to show one of his hybrid creations to his mother. Ruth King was impressed with her son's effort, but when asked if he made the story up on his own, Stephen sheepishly admitted that he had copied it. Admonishing him that he should write his own story — an even better story — Ruth King set her son the path to becoming an author.

Sadly, Nellie Ruth King would not see her son's rise to fame as one of the most popular authors of all time. On December 18, 1973, just months before the publication of Carrie, she lost a long and torturous battle with cancer. The circumstances of his mother's death would have a profound effect on Stephen King, and in 1978, he would publish the short story "The Woman in the Room." Told from the perspective of a man who euthanizes his dying mother, King wrote the story as a way of dealing with the complicated emotions he had regarding his mother's illness.

Stephen King's first bestseller nearly wound up in the trash

Stephen King's life would change forever in 1974 with the publication of Carrie. However, the groundbreaking horror novel that launched his career might never have seen the light of day had not a perceptive Tabitha King rescued it from the wastebasket.

The elements of Carrie, the story of an ostracized teen girl who wreaks bloody vengeance on her high school tormentors with her newly discovered psychokinetic powers, came to King in bits and pieces over a number of years before he finally sat down to write it. A King details in On Writing, after furiously typing out three single-spaced pages, the frustrated would-be author felt he just couldn't get a handle on the narrative. Uncomfortable with writing from the perspective of Carrie's mostly female characters, King gave up and tossed the manuscript in the trash.

Fortunately for King, his sharp-eyed wife retrieved the discarded manuscript, smoothed the crumpled pages out, and read them. Explaining that he was really onto something, Tabitha told him that she could help with the teen girl perspective.

Carrie found a publisher in Doubleday, and King received a modest but much appreciated advance of $2,500 that allowed the struggling family to buy a new car. However, the best was yet to come. On Mother's Day 1973, King found out that the paperback rights for his first novel had sold for the astonishing sum of $400,000, of which he was guaranteed half. Stephen King's days of financial instability were over. He was now a professional novelist.

Stephen King's ill-fated attempt at directing

By the mid-1980s, Stephen King was a household name, a millionaire, and the undisputed master of literary horror. Although many of his works had been adapted for the screen, few had met with King's approval. A Stephen King novel was money in the bank, but a film based on a Stephen King novel was a consistently dodgy proposition.

King, a lifelong fan of cinema, finally got his chance to step behind the camera in 1986 thanks to Italian movie mogul Dino De Laurentiis. According to Slash Film, King and De Laurentiis had hit it off during the production of the film Cat's Eye, an anthology of three short stories. De Laurentiis had given King the rare opportunity to adapt his own work for the screenplay and recognized his talent as a visual storyteller. When King expressed an interest in directing, De Laurentiis gave the bestselling author a shot.

Unfortunately, King's directorial debut would prove disastrous. Maximum Overdrive, based on King's short story "Trucks" about sentient machines taking over the Earth, was a critical and box office failure and an ultimately frustrating experience for the author, who was deep in the throes of cocaine addiction and alcoholism during the film's production. "The problem with that film is that I was coked out of my mind all through its production, and I really didn't know what I was doing," King tells Tony Magistrale, author of Hollywood's Stephen King. Nevertheless, Maximum Overdrive has since garnered a reputation as a cult classic.

A crazed fan broke into Stephen King's home

In 1991, Stephen King experienced a real-life horror story so terrifying that it could have been ripped from the pages of one of his books. On the morning of Saturday, April 20, 1991, King's wife, Tabitha, discovered 26 year-old Erik Keene of San Antonio, Texas, in their stately Victorian home in Bangor, Maine. Keene was carrying a backpack which he claimed contained a bomb. Mrs. King was alone in the house at the time and fled to a neighbor's home to call the police. When authorities arrived, they discovered Keene in the Kings' attic brandishing what appeared to be a homemade detonator. A police dog caused Keene to drop the device, which was discovered to be fake.

Although the police initially couldn't establish a motive for the break-in, Keene revealed to the press that he intended to exact revenge on King for allegedly stealing the plot of his 1987 bestseller Misery from Keene's aunt. After serving 127 days of a two-year suspended sentence, Keene was extradited back to Texas for a parole violation.

As reported by the Bangor Daily News, King and his wife have dealt with a number of unhinged fans and trespassers, including a California man named Steven Lightfoot, who asserted that the author was the real assassin of Beatle John Lennon, and Bretislav Bures, a Czech national who was arrested for stalking after leaving disturbing notes in King's mailbox and confronting his wife, Tabitha, on the street near their home.

Stephen King faces his demons

In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King writes that he took his first drink at age 18 on a high school trip to New York and Washington D.C. As is the case with most first-time drinkers, he overdid it and wound up violently ill. Still, alcohol became a regular habit from that moment on. "Alcoholics build defenses like the Dutch build dikes," King writes. " I spent the first twelve years or so of my married life assuring myself that I 'just liked to drink.'" However, when Maine enacted a returnable bottle law in the early 1980s, seeing the sheer number of empties in his recycling made King realize he had a problem. Yet, he wouldn't be able to address it for several more years.

By 1985, King had added an addiction to cocaine to his drinking problem. While on the drug, he would stay up late with his pulse racing dangerously as he wrote. At last, King's wife staged an intervention. Gathering friends and family, Tabitha King confronted the author with his substance abuse and delivered an ultimatum: Get clean or get out.  Wisely, King chose rehab and has been clean and sober since the late 1980s.

An accident nearly cost Stephen King his life

On the afternoon of Saturday, June 19, 1999, Stephen King was taking his daily walk along a secluded country road near his home in North Lovell, Maine. While walking against traffic on Route 5, King was struck by a light blue minivan driven by 43-year-old former construction worker Bryan Smith. According to The Guardian, Smith had taken his eyes off the road while trying to get control of one of his dogs that was rummaging through his beer cooler.

Hurled over the van, King struck his head on the windshield and landed in a ditch 14 feet away from the point of impact. Smith assumed he had struck a deer until he noticed King's bloody glasses on his front seat.

King suffered a concussion, a shattered hip and pelvis, broken ribs, a punctured lung, and a fractured thigh bone. Had he not quickly pivoted to the left as the van bore down him, he very well could have been killed on impact.

School shootings led Stephen King to pull a book from print

Stephen King's 1977 novel Rage, written under the pseudonym Richard Bachman, has a long and unfortunate connection to school violence. The story of a disturbed high school student who takes a classroom hostage at gunpoint, King has described Rage, written in 1965 while the author was still in high school, as a book of "unpleasant truths."

Rage has been connected to incidents going back to at least 1988, and King decided to have the book removed from circulation. In his 2013 essay "Guns," written in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, King elaborates that although he doesn't believe the novel is the sole cause of the incidents, it may have acted as a "possible accelerant." "I pulled it because in my judgment it might be hurting people, and that made it the responsible thing to do," King writes.

Ironically, Rage has become a collector's item. Since being pulled from print, first editions regularly sell for exorbitant sums.

Stephen King's waning eyesight

Severely nearsighted since childhood, Stephen King has worn what he describes as "Coke-bottle glasses" for most of his life. However in a 1998 interview with CBS' 60 Minutes, King revealed a much more serious threat to his eyesight than his lifelong myopia. "I do have a retinal problem. It's called macular degeneration," King told correspondent Lesley Stahl. "Blindness is the ultimate result, but right now, I'm fine. I just don't see very well."

Related to aging, macular degeneration is the leading cause of vision loss and affects more than ten million Americans. The progressive condition affects the central portion of the retina, causing a loss of vision in the center of the eye while leaving peripheral vision largely unaffected. "That's the part I want to keep as a man and as a writer — what I see out of the corners," King jokes. However, the writer has since revealed on his official website that, while he does have a genetic predisposition to the condition he, as yet, isn't experiencing symptoms.