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A horror story for an elite: Stephen King takes prize

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Whether you've read the novel or not, you know the spine-tingling story: A perfectly normal man in a remote old house starts hearing voices, slips into insanity, and kills his family.

"The Shining"? You're off by 200 years. It's America's first novel, "Wieland," written by Charles Brockden Brown in 1798.

Of course Stephen King, with 300 million copies of his books in print, sells better than his Revolutionary forefather, now relegated to the footnotes of American literary history. But the reigning master of horror is still battling the forces of snobbery. Wednesday, as he receives the National Book Foundation's Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, he's also at the center of a debate over what, exactly, is "literature."

The lifetime achievement award has gone to the likes of John Updike, Philip Roth, and Eudora Welty, and the announcement that King was next in line drew roars of protest and fears of an imploding Western canon from literary critic Harold Bloom and a host of others who deride King's work as "penny dreadfuls" - and dismiss the horror genre as pure pulp. For literary lions and fervent fans, such tirades probe the line between highbrow and lowbrow - and raise some eyebrows, too.

"These lines between popular and elite have always been very fluid in American culture," says Dana Heller, an English professor and director of the Humanities Institute at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. "A lot of that [fluidity] has to do with how we understand the term 'popular' itself. It could be base and vulgar, the lowest common denominator. But there's also a definition of popular that arises with democratic movements - that what people at large like must be good."

King has been compared to Edgar Allan Poe and William Shakespeare - and derided by Mr. Bloom as "an immensely inadequate writer." Like Charles Dickens, King's published his work in serial form to great commercial success. Critics quibble over which parallel is best: J.K. Rowling, John Milton, Dean Koontz, Danielle Steel, Nathaniel Hawthorne.

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