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A horror story for an elite: Stephen King takes prize

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But those comparisons, cautions Alan Cheuse, book commentator on NPR's "All Things Considered," go only so far: "The material is not central to the culture in the way that Dickens's material was. Dickens was writing about the very serious core of British society - life in the big city, distinctions of life among the various social classes - and King's material is really much more peripheral. He's telling ghost stories, basically."

King's real gift, says Mr. Cheuse, is his broad appeal. "Even Shakespeare's most serious plays had sections that appealed to groundlings - the lowest audience - and King manages to bring in those serious readers and the lowest common denominator."

A far-ranging oeuvre

King himself has made sure to defy categorization. He writes of blood and gore and cyborgs, a rabid St. Bernard hurling himself against a broken-down Ford Pinto, and dead pets who return to seek revenge. Yet he quotes the Greek poet and essayist George Seferis. He includes Wallace Stevens's "The Emperor of Ice Cream" in his vampire novel "Salem's Lot." He wrote a novella imitating Jorge Luis Borges. And he's written "The Shawshank Redemption" and "The Green Mile."

To some, that straddling of popular and elite literary worlds, and of the human and uncanny, is his greatest gift. "It speaks to something very profound going on in our culture, and the way we understand our own humanness," says Professor Heller. "As our sense of being human changes in a high-tech global environment, our literature is going to have to be attuned to those changes as well. And literature once associated with machines or with the nonhuman is going to seem more humanized and take on more value."

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