The genre of bestsellers has evolved greatly over the course of the 20th century, beginning with the early bestsellers of Maurice Johnson and Winston Churchill, evolving into the present bestsellers of John Grisham and Tom Clancy. The overall genre has changed immensely in the past hundred years as the same author names and style of books repeatedly appear on the bestsellers lists, suggesting the idea that the recent bestsellers are based more upon basic story lines and accepted author name than upon the artistic merit or substance of the work, which characterized many bestsellers at the turn of the century. Stephen King is the epitome of this evolution of the bestseller genre as he established himself as a credible, best-selling author early into his career, now only needing to produce new stories with variations on the same theme of his past successes. I intend to show that Stephen King's literary career and book successes demonstrate the changing landscape of the bestseller genre, which is now primarily judged on author name, past literary history, and formulaic plots. I will demonstrate that King uses a basic formula in the majority of his stories, which he then combine with recycled characters and modern technology. This formula, which appears throughout Nightmares and Dreamscapes, marks the advent of a new age of book selling, in which author name, combined with the power of the Internet promotion, becomes a primary base for commercial success.
Stephen King has been one of the most successful authors of all time, in terms of book sales and the number of weeks his novels have appeared on the bestseller lists. King continued this success, when, in 1993, he published Nightmares and Dreamscapes, King's 3rd short story collection, after the publications of Night Shift (1978) and Skeleton Crew (1985). Nightmares and Dreamscape fulfilled the high expectations of the book community, selling well over a million copies of the hardcover version in its first year of publication. The success of which marked the formation of the modern bestseller, which combined author history, formulaic plot and the power of the Internet.
King's success with Nightmares and Dreamscapes follows the same basic King story line behind many of his other successful stories: place ordinary people in fantastic situations and follow their reactions, with 'fantastic' defined as "Existing only in imagination; fanciful; imaginary; not real. Indulging the vagaries of imagination; whimsical; full of absurd fancies; capricious" (4). This formula is exhibited in other King bestsellers such as It and Cujo. In It, Pennywise the clown, who is ageless evil, tries to kill children in the town of Derry, encountering a group that call themselves the "Losers," who attempt to kill him in 1957 and 1985. In Cujo, an ordinary mother and son, Donna and Ted Trenton, are attacked and held captive in their car by a rabid dog in a remote area of Maine, after Ted has dreams of a monster in his closet. Both novels, in addition to numerous other King novels, places the ordinary protagonist(s) in fantastic situations, causing them to deal with the unusual situation around them. In Nightmares and Dreamscapes, he then combines this formula with addition of then-current popular culture to place these stories within a modern historical context, which the reader would be able to connect with. For example, the first story of the collection, 'Dolan's Cadillac,' centers around the story of a teacher who methodically plots to avenge the death of his wife who was murdered by Dolan, a big time mob boss, in order to put the his wife's ghost to rest. The story presents the formula of the ordinary man, who comes into contact with a fantastic situation, that of the big time mob boss Dolan. In the story, there are many references made to popular culture such as McDonalds and the precise model of Dolan's Cadillac, which places the story in the modern era. This formula is continued in another story, 'the Night Flier,' where an ordinary reporter sets off on the trial of a murderer, whom he believes to be a vampire. Thus, again, a seemingly ordinary man comes into contact with a fantastic event or being, this time a vampire serial killer. In the story, many references are made to popular culture in the form of entertainment news and noteworthy events. For example, the reporter's editor jokes about plans on running the vampire story beside a picture of Danny Devito from the Batman movie, "What do you think if we run the best of these (contact sheets) next to a photo of Danny Devito in that Batman movie?" (1 p. 113). The reference is to the movie 'Batman Returns,' which was originally released in 1992. Later in the story, another pop culture reference is made in relation to Magic Johnson, the former star basketball player for the Los Angeles Lakers, who disclosed in 1991 that he was HIV positive, a precursor to the AIDS epidemic, "but the ever popular common man was still a lot more interested in mass murders, buried scandals in the lives of the stars and just how Magic Johnson had gotten AIDS" (1 p. 118). Both references place the story within the context of the last decade of so, which most American readers can relate to. Thus, King has used an established, successful formula throughout most of Nightmares and Dreamscapes, only escaping this formula for a parable titled 'the Beggar and the Diamond' and a non-fiction piece, 'Head Down,' on the Bangor, Maine Little League team, which King's son played on. He places the ordinary man in an extraordinary situation, combing a common horror story plot line with pop culture references and recycled characters.
King also reuses many characters, which have appeared in other successful King novels, in addition to reusing characters from other successful horror stories and franchises (see Supplementary Materials for a complete list of common ties between Nightmares and Dreamscapes and other King stories). For example, in the story, 'Night Flier,' the reporter's name is Richard Dees. Dees earlier appeared in the novel, the Dead Zone, which centers around the story of a man, Johnny Smith, who wakes up with special powers of clairvoyance after five years in a coma. The Dead Zone (1979) was another successful King novel, spending over ten weeks on the paperback bestseller list. King himself said that sometimes a character needs to be brought back because they have something more to say, "sometimes a supporting character in a novel catches a reader's attention and refuses to go away, insisting he has more to say or do. Richard Dees, the protagonist is such a character" (1 p.802). King continues this use of past characters later in the collection in the stories, 'Popsy' and 'Home Delivery.' In 'Popsy,' a little boy is kidnapped by a man at a shopping center only to incur the wrath of the boy's kindly grandfather. King, in the 'Notes' section of Nightmares and Dreamscapes, admits that the little boy's grandfather is in fact the Night Flier from the previous story. "Is this little boy's grandfather the same creature that demands Richard Dees open his camera and expose his film at the conclusion of the 'Night Flier?' You know, I rather think he is" (1 p. 802). King varies this idea somewhat in the story, 'Home Delivery,' in which he uses a successful idea from a fellow horror writer's collection. The story surrounds a woman learning to overcome her fears at the same time realizing that she is living in a town of zombies. The zombies were taken from King-friend George Romero's horror trilogy, 'Night of the Living Dead,' 'Dawn of the Dead,' and 'Day of the Living Dead.' "John Skipp and Craig Spector came up with the idea of an anthology of stories exploring what things would be like if George Romero's zombies from his Dead Trilogy took over the world. The concept fired off in my imagination like a Roman candle, and this story was the result" (1 p. 806). King realizes that he can further the success of his current novel by bringing in a character from a past, successful novel. This idea is emphasized in many other modern bestsellers, such as Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan series. In the Jack Ryan series, Clancy reuses many characters throughout the series, which provides the reader with a familiar base for each story, exemplified in the characters of Admiral Greer, Robby Jackson, and Daniel Murray. By introducing these past characters, King is reinventing the success of past novels.
In addition to the recycling of characters, King also uses common themes and stories in Nightmares and Dreamscapes. King is no fool, realizing that he can have another success by simply putting a variation on some established horror theme such as vampires or ghosts. For example, in the story 'Night Flier,' King uses the age-old Dracula vampire theme as the base for this story. However, he puts an interesting spin on the story by having the vampire fly around in a Cessna airplane instead of on his own wings, debasing the traditional idea that vampires turn into bats to fly around. In another set of short stories, King uses the subject matter of smokers. In the story, 'the Ten O'clock People' from Nightmares and Dreamscapes, smokers are the only ones who possess the ability to see 'bat people,' who live inside the bodies of people in high, powerful positions. King visited the theme of fantastic circumstances surrounding the specific area of smokers earlier in the short story 'Quitters Inc.' in the previous collection, Night Shift. In 'Quitters Inc.,' smokers, who enroll in a dramatic stop smoking program, face drastic consequences for relapsing into smoking. This reuse of familiar themes is not unique to King. John Grisham likewise uses common themes in many of his legal thrillers, especially the theme of a single lawyer taking on a corrupt enterprise such as the mob, the United States government or another law firm. For example, in Grisham's bestseller 'the Rainmaker,' young lawyer Rudy Baylor fights a corrupt insurance company who refuses to pay for the surgery of a terminally ill policyholder, who eventually dies after failing to receive treatment. This theme is also seen in another of Grisham's bestsellers, 'the Street Lawyer,' in which the protagonist Michael Brock quits his job at the most prestigious law firm in Washington D.C. in order to fight housing injustices among the D.C. homeless, ultimately having to battle his previous employer in court. Just as in the King stories, the protagonist, in the Grisham books, is able to overcome great obstacles to emerge victorious. Thus, Grisham uses the simple theme of David versus Goliath in the majority of his novels, simply adding enough new twists and characters so as to not repeat himself. This theme of David versus Goliath is repeated in the above-noted Tom Clancy 'Jack Ryan' series in which Ryan attempts to correct all corruption and injustice pertaining to the United States Government, while in elected office.
The final interesting aspect of the success of Nightmares and Dreamscapes, and with it the rise of the modern bestseller, is that it employed the use of the Internet in the aspects of promotion and advertisement. King published the short story, 'Umney's Last Case,' on the Online Bookstore in the early part of 1993. Patrons could pay $5 to read the text of the story online or download the story onto their personal computers. This use of the Internet marks the first time such a promotion/advertisement for a major author has ever occurred. King, understanding the power and range of the Internet, wisely employed its' use in the promotion of Nightmares and Dreamscapes. King later employed the Internet again in the promotion of another of his books, the novella "Riding the Bullet," which is King's first book, only available over the Internet, "Online readers are snapping up the novella, "Riding the Bullet," which was made available on the Web today. On Barnesandnoble.com alone, more than 200,000 customers requested free copies of the story in a 24-hour promotion, according to the company" (2). Thus, King has recognized the power and strength of Internet promotion. This recognition has signaled the beginning of a different age of book selling, as now publishing companies have to deal with the Internet culture, in addition to the more established literary culture, for promotion and sales of their books. However, King is not the only bestseller author to employ the use of the Internet for promotional purposes. In 1997, the publishers of Tom Clancy's novel Power Plays: Politika launched a web site to accompany the release of Clancy's book in paperback. The site features information about the novel and the author, chat, and a game based on the book. In addition to the web site, America Online posted excerpts from the novel initially, with the entire Internet community later posting excerpts from the novel as well. John Grisham, in addition to Clancy, has also used the Internet to promote his work recently, beginning with his book, "the Brethren." "Beginning today, Liquid Audio is distributing a free preview of the first two chapters of the book as a digital download to consumers via Amazon.com, Barnes &Noble.com, Borders.com, and more than 300 other retail Web sites in the Liquid (TM) Music Network as well as news sites?Users can pre-order a copy of THE BRETHREN via participating retailers; the novel is scheduled to officially hit bookstores world-wide on Feb.1, 2000?'The extensive distribution network of Liquid Audio gives us an additional channel for promoting and selling our books, both online and through traditional markets' said Terrence Cheng, web producer for Random House. ``This promotion provides John Grisham fans with a sneak preview of the book and makes it easy to pre-order a copy from participating retailers'' (3). As a testament to the strength of Grisham's name and past literary work, Doubleday Publishing ordered 2.8 million copies for the first edition hardcover printing. Thus, both Grisham and Clancy, two of the best-selling authors in recent times, have also begun to use the Internet to promote their upcoming releases.
Overall then, Stephen King's short story collection demonstrates the advent of the modern bestseller. For the majority of recent books from such authors as John Grisham, Tom Clancy and Stephen King, best selling novels succeed due to a formulaic plot, recycled characters which are familiar to the reader from past novels or popular culture, and strong Internet promotion and advertisement. We learn, after examination of King's Nightmares and Dreamscapes, that bestsellers have changed in recent years due to the above-stated characteristics, which are all apparent in his short-story collection.