George R. R. Martin’s got nothing on Stephen King. Sure, the world Martin created for the back-stabbing inhabitants of A Song of Ice and Fire is meticulous, but it’s not the tightly woven domain King has hinted at throughout some 50 novels. He’s spawned an intricate universe where characters reference events from his other books like they’re trading gossip about an old school friend and consequences that unfold from seemingly insignificant events ripple outward throughout his King-dom. (Get it?!) These winks to the reader make possible that knowing moment between author and audience, a moment King seems to revel in offering his die-hard fans.
Two examples can be found in the recently released Mr. Mercedes. Taking a step outside of its fictional universe, the novel marks its allegiance to the real world by referencing two of King’s film adaptations: “... that old Plymouth in the horror movie ...” (Christine) and “‘You ever see that TV movie about the clown in the sewer?’” (It). But the real treasures linger in the background of King’s novels, in the aspects that unite his characters.
Castle Rock is an imaginary town in Maine which serves as the setting for a ton of supernatural incidents. Cujo, The Dead Zone, The Body, The Dark Half, Needful Things, Bag of Bones and Lisey’s Story all originate here. Dreamcatcher and Insomnia are both situated in Derry, the second most-commonly referenced town borne from King’s imagination. This unsuspecting burgh also harboured one of his most notorious villains: Pennywise the Clown. The story of a group of kids in the ‘50s facing an ancient evil, It is undoubtedly one of King’s most revered works — and that hasn’t gone unnoticed by its author. It’s Bev and Richie reprise their roles in King’s recent novel 11/22/63.
While the return of a pair of swingin’ youngsters was undoubtedly met with glee from King’s long-time fans (whom he calls his “constant reader”), there’s also another entity that continues to appear, an organisation shrouded in mystery which has lurked in the background for too long. The Shop has served as King’s go-to shady government sector. Plots develop from their interference in spooky matters. In The Tommyknockers (set in the fictional Haven, also home to The Colorado Kid), The Shop takes control of aliens. It is responsible for the Arrowhead Project, the monster-inciting incident from The Mist. Poor Charlie McGee’s experiments are conducted by The Shop in Firestarter. Bob Jenkins in The Langoliers throws The Shop’s name into the hat as the time-displaced characters attempt to solve the mystery of their situation.
In the afterword to Wizard and Glass, the fourth book in the Dark Tower series, King writes:
I have written enough novels and short stories to fill a solar system of the imagination, but [Wizard and Glass protagonist] Roland's story is my Jupiter — a planet that dwarfs all the others ... a place of strange atmosphere, crazy landscape and savage gravitational pull. Dwarfs the others, did I say? I think there's more to it than that, actually. I am coming to understand that Roland's world (or worlds) actually contains all the others of my making.
Dark Tower, which follows the gunslinger Roland Deschain, has provided the biggest gathering of universal connections. Characters are tethered to its sprawling narrative and fly like kites. Their threads twist together in a design of such complexity you’ve got to wonder just how big King’s whiteboard really is. ‘Salem’s Lot’s priest Father Callahan, for example, plays a large role in Song of Susannah (book six of the Dark Tower series) and The Dark Tower (book seven), and in Wolves of the Calla (book five) he refers to many characters from ‘Salem’s Lot. The real town of Bridgton, Maine is the setting for Susannah and The Dark Tower, and also Cujo and Dreamcatcher. Insomnia’s The Crimson King also extends his tyranny, becoming The Dark Tower’s ultimate villain.
Those are just a few examples. The extent and reach of the Dark Tower series across King’s work is staggering. His son, author Joe Hill, even hopped on the referential bandwagon with his novel NOS4A2. It includes a number of nods those with a keen eye will spot. First there’s a subtle wink to a mysterious Maine town called Derry. NOS4A2’s Charles Manx also makes mention to Shawshank Prison, made infamous in King’s novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, and then compares himself to the True Knot, a collective of life-sucking nomads from Doctor Sleep. King repays the favour by name-dropping Manx in Doctor Sleep and kits out a character from Mr. Mercedes in a Judas Coyne T-shirt. Who’s that? The anti-hero of Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box.
The biggest and most obvious advantage to setting novels in the same universe is that everything already exists. In a pre-existing world, instead of starting from the ground up, King adds layers to what’s established. The towns of Derry and Castle Rock grow sturdy over time. Their connections thicken through the experiences of generations of King’s characters. It’s a testament to his writing that the names of people and places permeate and linger. When you come to pick up your next King book there’s a strong likelihood you’ll recognise the name of a bit character or an unusual event mentioned in an off-hand manner. This is why King’s fans keep returning to his books. The constant reader knows about the key under the mat. They’re encouraged to let themselves in the back door. That’s the success of King’s secret tapestry: You can decide to sit back and feel welcome amongst old friends — or you can go treasure hunting.