The commercial success of "Four Past Midnight" was guaranteed even before publication begun if for no other reason than that it's author was Stephen King. King falls into that small but envied group of writers whose work sells solely through authors branding and the publishers marketing. His contemporaries in that group are other house-hold names like Danielle Steele, Michael Chricton and John Grisham. These are writers who managed to find and insert that quality or content into their books that reading audiences loved. That was the basis of their initial success and over time the authors have expected to stay within these self-marked boundaries. Basically, the reading audience knows that their favorite author will, more likely sooner than later, come out with a book that is concocted from that standard recipe which initially made them famous. With Grisham audiences expect a legal drama, with Chricton its science fiction and with King it's good adventurous horror (albeit more the latter than the former). Therefore when in 1989 King decided to return from a two year break from publishing and the audience was given his disappointing "The Dark Half" to read they found their need for Stephen King-style-horror unfulfilled. Then in 1990, King published his next book "Four Past Midnight" which contained not one but four stories all written in the standard King style that audiences clamored for and that had made him famous in the first place.
King had published novella's once before as well, and they had done extremely well, both critically and commercially. His previous offering, "Different Seasons" had been published in 1982, and like "Four Past Midnight" contained four novellas. He had also, since then, made known his skill at short stories compilations of which readers had enjoyed a great deal. Therefore, for the fans who had been starved for Stephen King stories (three years without a book to enjoy from King, as opposed to the previous decade or so when he had at least one book out every year in the successful style they enjoyed), "Four Past Midnight" was exactly what they had been craving.
King's most popular skill is his suspenseful horror. He writes stories that frighten people not through gore and violence, although there is a fair amount of that as well, but prominently through the build up in mystery and suspense. These elements work all the more successfully when you realize that King knows exactly what scares people on a base instinctual level. After all, King has his own fare share of "phobias" having admitted a rather large list of phobias he is victim to himself:
"Fear for someone else, fear of others (paranoia), fear of death, fear of insects (especially spiders, flies, and beetles), fear of closed-in places, fear of rats, fear of snakes, fear of deformity, fear of squishy things , fear of the dark" (http://www.horrorking.com). This coupled with his ability to put a spin on seemingly harmless everyday things and making them appear sinister seems to work very well in his books. It is this combination that he employs in the novellas in "Four Past Midnight". ?The Langoliers", the first story, makes sleeping on an airline flight dangerous, ""The Library Policeman" will have you thinking twice about checking a book out of the library and "The Sun Dog" makes the reader look at camera's in a whole new way. This same technique of creating horror is what readers look forward in Dean Koontz novels and even, to an extent in Anne Rice novels; The feeling of a world that is darker and more dangerous existing just under our everyday normal world. The same formula can indeed be translated to other genres and authors, i.e. Ian Fleming's spy novels, Tom Clancy, even Michael Chricton. These authors take everyday elements of our lives and spin them into wholly new, oft fantastical, and always interesting new things.
Another element common with authors who fall into the house-hold name bracket ,that King is a part of, is their easy-to-read books. Audiences read King, or Chricton or Steele expecting to be told a good story. They don't want literature or intellectualism. The plots are straightforward, the prose relatively uncomplicated. Readers can relate to the characters of the stories and that is part of the attraction. These are books that are written for entertainment, not scholarly appreciation. It is this universally understandable technique that defined the success of books like "Pollyana" early in the century, "Exorcist" later and even today the average John Grisham law story. These writers are not attempting at literary elitism and as such the mass audience appreciates them for it.
Another appeal that King works into this book and, indeed, all his others almost, is common ties between novels. In a later novel, "Bag of Bones" King makes mention of the fact that readers love reading about common characters. Indeed it brings about in the readers a sense of familiarity for the world that stories take place in. Therefore it is no surprise that in "Secret Window, Secret Garden" King makes mention of Derry (the town in which "IT" took place) and in "The Sun Dog" there are many characters common to the Castle Rock locale that he had made famous: Polly Chalmers, Alan Pangborn, Norris Ridgewick, Shawshank Prison, The Town of Castle Rock, The Mellow Tiger Bar, Juniper Hill Asylum and The town of Portland. Many "Constant Reader's" (as King refers to them in his introductions) look forward to reading about these familiar people and places.
What is really interesting is Stephen King the phenomenon himself. Part of the appeal of his books is attributed a great deal with the publics fascination with him, with Stephen King the man. In an America, that in the eighties and nineties became celebrity obsessed, Stephen King's rags-to-riches life is exactly the kind that captures the average Americans imagination:
"Stephen Edwin King was born in Portland, Maine in l947, the second son of Donald and Nellie Ruth Pillsbury King. After his parents separated when Stephen was a toddler, he and his older brother, David, were raised by his mother. Parts of his childhood were spent in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where his father's family was at the time, and in Stratford, Connecticut. Stephen and his brother paid frequent visits to members of his
mother's family in Malden, Massachusetts, and Pownal, Maine. When Stephen was eleven, his mother brought her children back to Durham, Maine, for good. Her parents, Guy and Nellie Pillsbury, had become incapacitated with old age, and Ruth King was persuaded by her sisters to take over the physical care of the elderly couple. Other family members provided a small house in Durham and financial support. After
Stephen's grandparents passed away, Mrs. King found work in the kitchens of Pineland, a nearby residential facility for the retarded. Stephen attended the grammar school in Durham and then Lisbon Falls High School, graduating in l966. From his sophomore year at the University of Maine at Orono, he wrote a weekly column for the school newspaper, THE MAINE CAMPUS. He was also active in student politics, serving as a member of the Student Senate. He came to support the anti-war movement on the Orono campus, arriving at his stance from a conservative view that the war in Vietnam was unconstitutional. He graduated from the University of Maine at Orono in l970, with a B.S. in English and qualified to teach on the high school level. A draft board examination immediately post-graduation found him 4-F on grounds of high blood pressure, limited vision, flat feet, and punctured ear drums.
He and Tabitha Spruce married in January of l97l. He met Tabitha in the stacks of the Fogler Library at the University of Maine at Orono, where they both worked as students. As Stephen was unable to find placement as a teacher immediately, the Kings lived on his earnings as a laborer at an industrial laundry, and her student loan and savings, with an occasional boost from a sho"rt story sale to men's magazines.
Stephen made his first short story sale to a mass market men's magazine shortly after his graduation from the University. Throughout the early years of his marriage, he continued to sell stories to men's magazines. Many of these were later gathered into the Night Shift collection or appeared in other anthologies.
In the fall of l97l, Stephen began teaching high school English classes at Hampden Academy, the public high school in Hampden, Maine. Writing in the evenings and on the weekends, he continued to produce short stories and to work on novels.
In the spring of l973, Doubleday & Co. accepted the novel Carrie for publication. On Mother's Day of that year, Stephen learned from his new editor at Doubleday, Bill Thompson, that a major paperback sale would provide him with the means to leave teaching and write full-time. After having lived in and around Bangor since their marriage, the Kings moved their growing family to southern Maine because of Stephen's mother's failing health at the end of the summer of l973. Renting a summer home on Sebago Lake in North Windham for the winter, Stephen wrote his next-published novel, originally titled Second Coming and then Jerusalem's Lot, before it became ?Salem's Lot, in a small room in the garage. During this period, Stephen's mother died of cancer, at the age of 59.
Carrie was published in the spring of l974. That same fall, the Kings left Maine for Boulder, Colorado." (Written in part by Tabitha King,, http://www.stephenking.com)
From living in that trailer when "Carrie" was published to ranking amongst the top 40 highest paid entertainers in America, (Forbes 1998) King's is exactly the kind of story that fascinates people.
"Four Past Midnight" was also made popular because of the format of its stories. Instead of one novel this was a compilation of four novellas. King had published a compilation of novellas once before with his "Different Seasons" (1982). This book had been wildly successful, in part due to the non-horror stories King had published in it and in part due to the format. King defined the novella as an author's no-man's-land. Amidst the realm of 25,000 to 35,000 words there exists, in King's opinion, the somewhat awkward hybrid of the novel and the short story. Then in 1985, four short novels originally written by him under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman were compiled and republished by NAL in an omnibus edition. Again, these were four Stephen King stories published in one compilation. Therefore, when "Four Past Midnight" came out for a King-starved readership, the prospect of getting four Stephen King horror stories for the same price as one large novel was exactly the incentive they needed to drive sales through the roof. Even marketing of the book was done to take advantage of this popularity. Ad's made clear that these were good solid horror stories in the Stephen King style that was famous. The cover had the authors name adorned in bold large white capital letters, even larger than the name of the book. Advertisement's stated: "Past midnight, something happens to time, that fragile concept we employ to order our sense of reality. It blends, stretches, turns back, or snaps, and sometimes reality snaps with it. And what happens to the wide-eyed observer when the window between reality and unreality shatters, and the glass begins to fly. These four chilling novellas provide shocking answers." With "The Dark Half" fans of King didn't know quite what to expect and found themselves let down by the end of the novel. This time the publishers were making sure that fans got exactly what they yearned for. Interestingly, one of the stories in the compilation, "Secret Window Secret Garden" was thematically very similar to "The Dark Half". Both were written from the point of view of a writer who was successful and who was haunted by an aspect of himself. It is almost as if "Secret Window Secret Garden" was a result of some left-over ideas from "The Dark Half" and maybe an attempt to get the story that readers disliked earlier into a format that they might enjoy.
But in the end, the main lesson that "Four Past Midnight" teaches us is that a book written in the formula that a famous author is expected to write in will always have a large audience. People love their standard fare of stories, and writers like Stephen King are more than happy to provide just that.
King, Stephen. Four Past Midnight. Viking. New York, 1990.
Magistrale, Tony. Stephen King, The Second Decade. Twayne Publishers. New York, 1992.
Andy Solomon. The New York Times. September 2, 1990.
Gary Hoppenstand in an interview by Jonathan P. Davis
published in "Stephen King's America"
Michael A. Morrison. The Washington Post. August 26, 1990
The Stephen King Home Page: www.stephenking.com.