The gruesome genius of Stephen King

When it comes to the four-wheeled page-turner, Stephen King is like a vintage car enthusiast, a Mr Toad. He adores the fine-tuned purr of the old-school novel, loves to lift the bonnet, show off its moving parts, and perve over the chassis. Racer or classic, ancient or modern, he cherishes them all, living for the thrill of the open road – the inimitable lure of the story. Ever since the publication in 2000 of On Writing, the justly-acclaimed memoir that followed his near-fatal collision with a van, King has never missed an opportunity to road-test his delight in the awesome potential of the popular novel.

This obsession goes way back. When young Steve first read Lord of The Flies, he reports that it grabbed him by the throat with “This is not just entertainment, this is a matter of life and death.” For as long as anyone can remember, King has been writing as if the end is nigh. Which, in King’s case, it usually is. As well as obsessing to the max, apparently in some last-chance saloon, King can often be found having the time of his life with his characters. He has the natural storyteller’s gift for conducting a love affair with a favourite protagonist in a way that’s not schlocky.

Holly, inspired by Covid, and written in a white heat from August 2021 to June 2022 is both a 400-page horror novel, and also a case study of King’s authorial psychology. In case you missed this, amid the visceral horror of his plot, he button-holes the reader in an author’s note, which confesses that “I’ve loved Holly from the first” – Ms Dibney made her debut as a walk-on part in Mr Mercedes (2014) – “and I wanted to be with her again.” King’s portrait of Holly is sympathetic, subtle and seductive. His ability to recruit his audience to the colours is just one of his best qualities as a compulsively entertaining artist.

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