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Donald Trump is Stephen King’s Bible salesman made flesh

Horror author has sold 400 million books and has a remarkable knack for capturing aspects of the national mood

This week brought us the spectacle of Donald Trump selling Bibles at $60 a pop.

The former president has teamed up with the country singer Lee Greenwood to promote the “God Bless the USA Bible” – it’s the King James version with the US constitution and Declaration of Independence thrown in for good measure. And they retail at $59.99.

Somehow in between dealing with myriad court cases and floating his social media company, Trump found time to publicise his own take on the holy book, causing outrage among Christians and predictable turns of mockery from opponents and satirists. But the stunt is timely in that it carries an uncanny echo of the opening scene of The Dead Zone, the 1979 Stephen King novel which chronicled the political rise of a right-wing political fabulist with a messianic streak.

When readers first meet Greg Stillson, on the opening pages of King’s novel, he is engaged in the classic American activity: moving through towns and selling, in this case Bibles.


“He’s a door-to-door salesman. He’s a huckster from the word go and in that sense he’s got a lot of that Trump genome in him,” King said in an interview a few years ago.

‘It was a boogeyman of mine and I never wanted to see him actually on the American political scene. But we do seem to have a Greg Stillson as president of the United States’

—  Stephen King, on his novel The Dead Zone

This week, the US cultural world paused to salute the 50th anniversary of the publication of King’s debut novel Carrie, the story of the archetypal strange-girl-outsider who uses telekinetic powers to shocking effect as vividly depicted in Brian De Palma’s film version, released in November 1976.

Since then, nothing has slowed King down. Not substance addiction, not the June day in 1999 in Maine when he was struck by a van while walking near his home and almost lost his life. He writes novels and stories faster than most of us can read them: 65 novels and novellas to date, with 400 million copies sold. His vivid imagination and tenacity have made even the frostiest of the literary set acknowledge that his place in the tradition of American writing is assured, even if both the man and his shelf remain blissfully unbothered by the higher-brow awards.

At 76, he shows no signs of easing up and is one of the few contemporary writers who is instantly recognisable, with the gaunt frame, an off-to-mow-the-garden fashion sense, trademark spectacles and a distinctive amicable voice. But what has yet to be fully figured out is the profound impact he has had on the shaping and perception of American culture, through his novels and the film adaptations, both within the US and internationally.

King has been an imaginative force since the resignation of Richard Nixon. It’s a phenomenally enduring presence. Think, if you are old enough to recall, of the potency of the poster images of his stories outside your local cinema – Christine or The Dead Zone or Cujo or The Shining or Stand By Me or Misery or IT. All of these were specific and vivid depictions of Americana through the decades, reworking his obsessions with the menace and charm of the small town running through the surface horror storyline and the recurrent theme of the freedom and perils of childhood.

Whether or not you like King’s novels, his reach of storylines and ideas and characters who have become symbols of decades past is extraordinary. “None of us will be remembered as long or revered as deeply as our contemporary Stephen King,” the late critic Leslie Fiedler predicted, well over 20 years ago.

More than one serious critical study of King as a political force has been undertaken: his ”fiction reflects dramatic political upheavals of the past 50 years”, writes Michael J Bluin in his introduction to Stephen King and American Politics, ”including disillusionment in foreign wars, disenchantment with the welfare state and a drift towards theocracy”.

Right now, many Americans fear an acceleration of that very drift. Reflecting on The Dead Zone during the last administration, King said: “I don’t think that I necessarily predicted Donald Trump when I wrote The Dead Zone. I know that American voters have always had a real attraction to outsiders with the same right-wing, America First policy. And if that reminds people of Trump, I can’t be sorry because it was a character that I wrote. It was a boogeyman of mine and I never wanted to see him actually on the American political scene. But we do seem to have a Greg Stillson as president of the United States.”

And King remains one of the outspoken critics of Donald Trump in a week when political life has imitated art with The Donald turning Bible salesman. And the strangest thing about Stephen King, the chronicler of so many unforgettable nightmares and late-night cinema scares, is that he has, over the past 50 years as a unique chronicler of the American subconscious, become a comforting and reliable voice in a fast-changing country when everyone is warning that ”the ice is gonna break”.