Stephen King American Literature Analysis
King occupies an unusual position among modern American writers. He is, first, a phenomenally successful commercial writer: His novels and short stories, in both hardcover and paperback editions, have sold many millions of copies; each new work he writes is virtually assured of best-seller status; and films, teleplays, and other spinoffs from his stories have made his name nearly an ironclad guarantee of profitability. At the same time, he can also lay claim to being a “serious” writer who treats universal themes with great originality. The vehicle he uses is often—but by no means always—the horror novel, and the question he most often addresses is that of the nature of evil. Though this theme has been central to many of the greatest works of literature, today’s secularized modern society has generally rejected traditional beliefs in absolute good and evil. King’s works do not suggest any specific moral or religious doctrines, but he does seem to assert that evil is real, absolute, and inherent in nature.
In several of his works, evil is portrayed as a supernatural force which takes over some object or human being. In the novel The Shining (1977), for example, a demoniac power has occupied the old Overlook Hotel, and it gradually possesses Jack Torrance, the hotel’s caretaker, and drives him insane. In The Stand (1978), Satan takes on the form of Randall Flagg, one of the few survivors of a biological holocaust, in an attempt to conquer what remains of the world. An automobile is evil’s habitat in Christine (1983), as the vehicle’s new teenage owner is transformed by the car into a murderer.
Though King’s heroes and heroines are frequently victims of this supernatural power, often they fall into the clutches of evil through weakness or temptation. Thus, in Pet Sematary (1983), Louis Creed allows both his curiosity and remorse at the death of his cat to draw him into a haunted Indian burial ground. A corpse buried there, it is said, will return to life. He buries his cat, and it does indeed return, but as a foul, murderous parody of its former self. Even after seeing the results, Creed again succumbs to temptation when his wife dies.
In Carrie, a young girl is obviously a victim of two kinds of evil: her mother’s religious fanaticism and the cruelty of her teenage peer group. Pushed beyond any acceptable limits of humiliation, however, she uses her telekinetic power to destroy everything and everyone around her—thus, in a sense, immersing herself in evil for revenge. Jack Torrance, the hero of The Shining, falls prey to the forces of the Overlook Hotel at least partly through guilt and weakness—he is a recovering alcoholic whose uncontrollable temper has often led him into trouble.
Occasionally, King has created terror without invoking supernatural forces. The monster of Misery (1987) is entirely human—an insane fan who holds her favorite writer captive and forces him, through torture, to write a novel especially for her. In The Running Man (1982), written by King under the pseudonym Richard Bachman, a corporate future society provides a setting of repression, deception, and brutality. The hero, Ben Richards, must himself descend to violence and murder to escape and expose the villainous rulers.
In all these situations, however, King seems to be asking the same fundamental questions that have troubled the human psyche since the days of the great Greek playwrights: Are humans the victims or the masters of their fates? Can evil possess people against their wills, or is there something deep inside each individual that connives at evil’s ultimate victory?
Yet evil does not always win. In Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, one of four novellas in Different Seasons (1982), a confessed murderer confined in Shawshank Prison is redeemed through his growing friendship with another inmate who is really innocent, and the two of them escape. All the nastiest monsters ever conceived are rolled into one in the massive It (1986), which is ultimately defeated, not once, but twice, by the same group of six people—first as children, then as adults. Most often, however, even when King allows his monsters, demons, aliens, or greedy politicians to get their comeuppance, a question is always left in the reader’s mind: Is evil truly defeated? The reader often suspects the answer is negative.
While King’s approach to the question of evil is the most profound element of his writing, his novels and short stories succeed primarily because of his craftsmanship in creating fascinating, extremely believable characters and settings. He is especially adept at portraying the unique perceptions of children. The ability of King’s youthful protagonists to believe and experience what adults usually ignore or deny renders them more open and aware of evil and, occasionally, equips them to fight it in ways their elders cannot comprehend. His adult characters generally are relatively ordinary people placed in extraordinary circumstances.
While best known for horror and as an unofficial spokesman for the state of Maine, King has also become a remarkably thoughtful voice on the demands of the writing life: its toll on one’s life, the frustrations of actually crafting a story, and the moral consequences that art brings to bear on both creator and audience. He has done this through various characters who are writers, as well as in his nonfiction autobiography and writing guide, On Writing. True to his blue-collar roots, King considers writing tough but rewarding work and believes that it should be approached as such. He has also written notable works on baseball, including the essay “Head Down” about his son’s Little League team and Faithful (2004) with Stewart O’Nan, about the Boston Red Sox’s 2004 championship season.
First published: 1974
Type of work: Novel
A telekinetic teenager wreaks vengeance on her fanatic mother and the classmates who have humiliated her.
King’s first published novel. Carrie, is also one of his most unusual efforts in its style. Only about half the story is written in traditional narrative form: The remainder uses what is called the epistolary style, meaning that the action is carried forward through the use of fictional letters, newspaper pieces, academic journal articles, and selections from books written by witnesses to the events long after their occurrence.
The novel’s main character is Carrie White, a high school senior trapped between two equally horrible kinds of existence. At home, Carrie is smothered by a mother who is a fanatical religious fundamentalist and has cut the girl off from all normal social life. To Margaret White, all women are, like Eve, egregiously sinful. Carrie is God’s punishment for her own sin of once allowing her now-dead husband to touch her. The daughter has spent her whole home life praying, asking forgiveness for her sins, or being locked up in a closet as punishment for unholy thoughts.
The other half of Carrie’s life is perhaps even worse: At school, she is a social pariah. Her quiet religious demeanor, modest clothing, clumsiness, and dull appearance have made her the perpetual target of teasing, crude practical jokes, and all the meanness that children can inflict upon one another. The novel begins, in fact, with an incident that illustrates Carrie’s terrible predicament. While showering after gym class, Carrie experiences her first menstruation. She has no idea what is happening because her mother, believing that periods are the evidence of sin, has never mentioned them. Quite logically, Carrie believes she is bleeding to death. Her classmates, however, unaware of Carrie’s ignorance, begin contemptuously laughing, chanting “PER-iod!” and throwing tampons at her. Carrie’s screams bring in her gym teacher, who begins to understand the situation and helps Carrie to recover and go home.
With the onset of her womanhood, Carrie for the first time becomes fully conscious that she possesses a tremendous telekinetic power (“telekinesis” is the purported ability to move or affect physical objects using only the power of the mind). In the locker room, in agony, Carrie had unconsciously blown out light bulbs and knocked things over. Now, in her long-pent-up resentment toward both her classmates and her mother, she will begin to take control of the power and learn to use it for an ultimate, terrible, vengeance.
The leader of the “in” group of girls at school is Chris Hargensen, the epitome of the spoiled brat. Typically, she had led the hazing of Carrie in the shower. When the gym teacher punishes all the girls, Chris refuses to accept the punishment; the principal then bans her from attendance at the senior prom. Seeing Carrie as her nemesis, Chris determines that she will get revenge. She is given her opportunity when Sue Snell, another of the “in” group, experiences so much guilt after the shower incident that, as a kind of atonement, she persuades her boyfriend to ask Carrie to the prom. When Chris learns this, she helps to ensure that Carrie and her date are elected queen and king so that they will be onstage for the ultimate humiliation that Chris and her thug boyfriend have planned: They arrange for large buckets of pig’s blood to drop on Carrie and her date just as they are being crowned.
After being drenched, Carrie’s shame and anger explode, and she unleashes her tremendous power to burn down the school and destroy much of the surrounding town. She also confronts her mother, whom she had defied to attend the prom. In a religious frenzy, Margaret White stabs her daughter, wounding her fatally, but Carrie strikes back with her mind, killing her mother. She then finds Chris and her boyfriend and kills them, too, before dying herself, in the arms of Sue Snell.
Carrie is an excellent example of King’s talent for characterization. Though by the end of the novel, Carrie has become an insane engine of destruction, the reader cannot help but sympathize with a young girl whose spirit barely escapes annihilation by forces which have sought constantly to humiliate her and make her conform. Chris and her boyfriend are portrayed as so believably evil that Carrie’s retribution, trapping them in a mangled and burning car, seems appropriate.
Like most of King’s novels, Carrie examines the nature and power of evil, which is represented by Carrie’s two tormentors, her mother’s religious mania, and teenage society’s demands that everyone conform to preconceived notions of beauty and success. As he was later to make more explicit in The Stand, King sees evil as an inevitable part of both nature and civilization. Carrie is a victim, and her telekinetic power is a curse which begins to manifest itself without her bidding. Her eventual use of it for wantonly destructive ends is simply a defensive reflex against the humiliation she has suffered. Thus, though Carrie seems on the surface to be simply a novel about a terrible supernatural power, it is also a social commentary on the consequences of religious fanaticism and the intolerance of adolescent peer groups.
First published: 1975
Type of work: Novel
A novelist returns to the small town of his youth, only to discover that it is being taken over by vampires.
King’s second published novel and first best seller was ’Salem’s Lot. It is a variation on the famous vampire novel of Bram Stoker, Dracula (1897), but is set in the modern world and, like most of King’s novels, in a remote area of rural Maine. The main character is Ben Mears, an author who has recently lost his wife in a motorcycle crash. Unable to conquer his grief after many months, he returns, after an absence of twenty-five years, to the town of Jerusalem’s Lot, known by most of its inhabitants as “’Salem’s Lot.”
As a child, Ben had spent four years in ’Salem’s Lot, which he remembers fondly with the idyllic images that most Americans have of life in a small town. He hopes to rekindle pleasant memories, regain a sense of home, and find some peace of mind. Entering the village, however, he is startled by his sight of the Marsten House, a great mansion built on a hill overlooking the town. Ben is filled with foreboding, and the reader knows that the Marsten House is going to be a central factor in the events to come. King describes the mansion as if it is alive, almost conscious, and full of evil. It had been built many decades before by a mobster named Hubie Marsten, who shotgunned his wife to death and then hanged himself. When he was nine, Ben had visited the abandoned building on a dare and had seen an apparition—Marsten’s spectral corpse swinging from a roof beam. Now, he feels almost as if the house has been waiting for his return.
Despite his memories and fears, Ben settles comfortably into ’Salem’s Lot. He soon meets a young woman, Susan Norton, and a romance begins. A cast of interesting characters who live in ’Salem’s Lot appears, and the reader is lulled into believing that this is simply a nice little town like a hundred others. Yet something is wrong; there is an undercurrent of dissatisfaction, a sense that nothing and no one are going anywhere in ’Salem’s Lot, a kind of “deadness.” These feelings seem to be prophetic, for two young boys, Danny and Ralphie Glick, become the first victims of the vampire Barlow, who has occupied Marsten House and is served by his oily assistant Richard Straker. Converted by Barlow into undead zombies, the Glicks begin attacking others, including young Mark Petrie, a former playmate. Though Petrie drives the Glicks away with a cross-shaped toy tombstone, Barlow’s flock of vampires begins to grow as spouses, friends, and relatives spread the plague.
On an impulse, Susan Norton goes to Marsten House, where she meets Mark, who has figured out that the house is the source of the evil. Susan and Mark discover Barlow and attempt to kill him, but they are captured by Straker. Mark escapes to tell Ben what has happened, and Ben teams up with Mark and two friends, Dr. Jim Cody and the alcoholic priest Father Callahan, to raid Marsten House. There they find Straker, hanged and drained of blood by Susan, who is now a vampire. Ben is forced to kill her; Barlow, however, is nowhere to be seen.
The following evening, Barlow attacks and kills Mark’s parents and confronts Father Callahan. The priest brandishes a cross at Barlow, but it fails to drive the vampire away because Father Callahan had long before lost his faith in its power. Callahan leaves the town in shame, but Ben, Mark, and other friends yet untouched by the vampire go throughout the town, driving stakes through the hearts of every vampire they can find. Though Dr. Cody is killed by Barlow, Mark and Ben succeed, in a violently bloody scene, in killing the chief vampire.
This is not the end, though, for Mark and Ben cannot be sure that all the vampires have been eliminated. They flee across the country, winding up in Mexico, where they hope they will be able to rebuild their lives. Ben, however, keeps up on events in Maine by getting old copies of a Portland newspaper. When he reads a report of strange goings-on in the area of ’Salem’s Lot, he decides he must once more return to finish the job of destroying the vampires. He and Mark burn the town, yet the reader is left with the uneasy feeling that the vampires may yet come again.
’Salem’s Lot is a relatively straightforward horror story that succeeds primarily because it is well crafted and very frightening. King’s carefully wrought descriptions of physical details, as well as his fascinating, often humorous, outsider’s view of small-town characters, bring the village to life and render the horrors of its creeping vampirism all the more gripping and terrible in their irony. Especially poignant is the agonizing necessity Ben faces of having to destroy Susan, who had begun to repair the damage caused by his wife’s death. In the end, Ben’s fury at Barlow as the chief vampire is compounded by the fact that Barlow has stolen his love and second chance at happiness. As with any good scary story, at its conclusion King leaves the reader in doubt about whether evil has really been vanquished.
’Salem’s Lot is also one of the grimmest of King’s novels. Though most of King’s works involve horrific violence, copious quantities of blood, and human weakness in the face of almost overwhelming evil, ’Salem’s Lot is one of the few that do not offer the reader some kind of catharsis through the redemption or victory of the hero. In interviews, King attributed the novel’s dark tone to the background of what he felt were frightening political events occurring at the time he was writing. His own fears about the future of the country are supposedly reflected in ’Salem’s Lot. The degree to which a writer’s psychological moods are related to his writing is debatable, but the effectiveness of ’Salem’s Lot as an outstanding horror novel is not.
First published: 1977
Type of work: Novel
The caretaker of a haunted hotel is driven insane by its demons and tries to murder his family.
As ’Salem’s Lot is dominated by the brooding presence of Marsten House, The Shining is similarly occupied with the evil possessing the Overlook Hotel, an elegant old resort on a remote Colorado mountain. Built early in the twentieth century, the Overlook has passed from owner to owner, unprofitable and unlucky for all of them. It has frequently been the scene of murders, suicides, and other unspeakable crimes. Within the hotel lives a demoniac spirit that has corrupted nearly everyone who has spent time there.
When the hotel prepares to close down for the winter, as it does every year, Jack Torrance is hired to maintain the building and grounds through the off-season. Jack is a writer and former English teacher trying to recover from alcoholism. He has also inherited a volcanic temper from his father. Though he loves his son, Danny, deeply,...
(The entire section is 7548 words.)
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