Stephen King Essay - King, Stephen (Vol. 55)

King, Stephen (Vol. 55)

Introduction

Stephen King 1947-

(Full name Stephen Edwin King; has also written under the pseudonyms Richard Bachman and John Swithen) American short story writer, novelist, screenwriter, essayist, autobiographer, and children's author.

The following entry presents criticism of King's short fiction works from 1988 to 2000. See also Stephen King Criticism (Volume 17), and Volumes 26, 113.

King is a prolific and immensely popular author of horror fiction. In his works, King blends elements of the traditional gothic tale with those of the modern psychological thriller, detective, and science fiction genres. His short fiction features colloquial language, clinical attention to physical detail and emotional states, realistic settings, and an emphasis on contemporary problems. His wide popularity attests to his ability to tap into his reader's fear of and inability to come to terms with evil confronted in the everyday world.

Biographical Information

King was born in Portland, Maine, on September 21, 1947. When his father abandoned the family when King was only two years old, his mother moved around with King and his brother until they settled down with relatives in Durham, Maine in 1958. King published his first short story, “I Was a Teenage Grave Robber,” in Comics Review in 1965. He also wrote his first full-length manuscript while still in high school. King received a scholarship to the University of Main at Orono, where he was very active in student politics and the antiwar movement. After his graduation in 1970, King was unable to get a teaching job; instead he got jobs pumping gas and then working in a laundry. King spent a short time teaching at the Hampden Academy in Hampden, Maine, until the success of his first novel, Carrie (1974) enabled him to focus on writing full time. In 1978 he was writer-in-residence and an instructor at the University of Maine at Orono. Several of his novels, novellas, and short stories have been adapted for the screen and television, and King has made cameo appearances in many of them. He has been given numerous awards for his fiction, and has contributed short stories, essays, and reviews to several periodicals.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Like his novels, the majority of King's horror tales are characterized by something supernatural or unnatural invading the lives of regular people. In “Night Surf,” a group of six young people in Anson Beach, Maine, gather after surviving the deadly flu virus A6. They spend their time listening to the radio and coming to terms with almost certain death. In “The Raft,” four college kids on a raft are systematically grabbed and devoured by a mysterious blob in the water. Critics note that the majority of King's horror stories explore the lives and concerns of people who are traditionally marginalized by society—the young, the old, and women—a factor that is thought to contribute to his immense popularity. Several of King's novellas and short fiction touch on the confusion, anxieties, and insecurity of childhood. For instance, The Body chronicles the story of four twelve-year-old boys who set out to find the body of a man struck by a train. On the journey, the protagonist, Gordie, begins a process of maturation and self-discovery and realizes the importance of friendship. The novella was made into a popular film, Stand by Me. Another novella, Apt Pupil, focuses on a thirteen-year-old boy's discovery of a Nazi war criminal living next door. In the process, the teenager uncovers his own dark, violent side. “The Monkey,” collected in Skeleton Crew, explores the long-repressed anxiety of Hal, represented by a toy monkey that he believes is evil and responsible for the death of his childhood friend, Johnny. As a child, a terrified Hal threw the toy into a well. Now an adult, Hal returns to his hometown for his aunt's funeral, rediscovers the toy monkey, and is forced to deal with the grief and insecurities from his childhood.

Critical Reception

Commentators note that King's short fiction is often overshadowed by the widespread popularity of his novels. Moreover, some critics believe that his narrative style and thematic concerns are best suited to the longer form of the novel or novella, and not that of the short story. Since many of King's short stories deal with the anxieties and challenges of adolescence, critics perceive such themes as memory, innocence, child abuse, friendship, and security as central to his work. Furthermore, the representation of women and the role of sexuality in King's fiction has garnered critical attention. Stylistically, his use of repetition and flashback has also been a topic of analysis. Some reviewers contend that King's short fiction is overly sentimental, sometimes derivative, inconsistent in quality, and obsessed with violence and morbidity. Despite critical opinion on his short fiction, King's profound influence on modern horror literature cannot be denied. Reviewers regard his work as an insightful reflection of the fears, anxieties, and obsessions of the late twentieth century.

Principal Works

The Star Invaders [as Steve King] 1964

Night Shift 1978

Creepshow 1982

Different Seasons 1982

Cycle of the Werewolf 1983

Skeleton Crew 1985

Four Past Midnight 1990

Nightmares and Dreamscapes (short stories, poem, and essay) 1993

Everything's Eventual: 14 Dark Tales 2002

Carrie: A Novel of a Girl with a Frightening Power (novel) 1974

'Salem's Lot (novel) 1975

Rage [as Richard Bachman] (novel) 1977

The Shining (novel) 1977

The Stand (novel) 1978

Another Quarter Mile: Poetry (poetry) 1979

The Dead Zone (novel) 1979

The Long Walk [as Richard Bachman] (novel) 1979

Firestarter (novel) 1980

Cujo (novel) 1981

Roadwork: A Novel of the First Energy Crisis [as Richard Bachman] (novel) 1981

Stephen King's Danse Macabre (nonfiction) 1981

The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger (novel) 1982

The Running Man [as Richard Bachman] (novel) 1982

Christine (novel) 1983

Pet Sematary (novel) 1983

Cat's Eye (screenplay) 1984

The Eyes of the Dragon (juvenile novel) 1984

The Talisman [with Peter Straub] (novel) 1984

Thinner [as Richard Bachman] (novel) 1984

It (novel) 1986

Misery (novel) 1987

The Tommyknockers (novel) 1987

The Dark Half (novel) 1989

The Dark Tower: The Drawing of Three (novel) 1989

My Pretty Pony (children's novel) 1989

Needful Things (novel) 1991

Dolores Claiborne (novel) 1992

Gerald's Game (novel) 1992

Rose Madder (novel) 1995

Desperation (novel) 1996

Green Mile: A Novel in Six Parts (novel) 1996

The Regulators [as Richard Bachman] (novel) 1996

The Two Dead Girls (novel) 1996

Bag of Bones (novel) 1997

Wizard and Glass (novel) 1998

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (juvenilia) 1999

Hearts in Atlantis (novel) 1999

Storm of the Century (screenplay) 1999

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (nonfiction) 2000

Black House [with Peter Straub] (novel) 2001

Dreamcatcher (novel) 2001

From a Buick 8 (novel) 2002

Criticism

Joseph Reino (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Reino, Joseph. “Fantasies of Summer and Fall: Full of Sound and Fury.” In Stephen King: The First Decade, Carrie to Pet Sematary, pp. 117-35. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1988.

[In the following essay, Reino provides a thematic and stylistic analysis of the novellas comprising Different Seasons.]

With brief seasonal subtitles, Different Seasons (1982) attempts to bind together four unusual novellas of varying lengths and moods. Taken from the optimistic “Essay on Man” of the eighteenth-century English poet Alexander Pope, “Hope Springs Eternal” is the subtitle of the vernal season, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption—a subtitle that is, at the tag-end of the violence-ridden twentieth century, little more than a pleasant, but not quite believable, cliché. The second and longest of the novellas, the sinister Apt Pupil, is a “Summer of Corruption”—an apparent variation on the “winter of our discontent” from the oft-quoted opening line of Shakespeare's Richard III. The third and autumnal season, The Body (widely acknowledged as the most nearly autobiographical of King's works), flirts with the attractive deceptions of an American Eden and is, consequently, a “Fall from Innocence.” The fourth, The Breathing Method, easily the most fantastic of the group, is appropriately subtitled with Shakespeare's late fantasy-romance, The Winter's Tale. While this brilliant quartet of tales does not deal with the unabashed horrors and terrors of the more famous novels, nevertheless, according to King's personal observations, “elements of horror can be found in all of the tales, not just in The Breathing Method—that business with the slugs in The Body is pretty gruesome, as is much of the dream imagery in Apt Pupil” (DS, 502). Although King raised sharp objection to psychiatrist-author Janet Jeppson, when she suggested that he has been “writing about it ever since”—“it” being the train accident that killed a young playmate—he admits in his afterword to Different Seasons that, with respect to horror in general, only “God knows why,” sooner or later, “my mind always seems to turn back in that [gothic] direction” (502).

Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, the first “season,” is the most strangely titled of all King's stories, the kind of story (“with a homosexual rape scene”) that Susan Norton's mother complained that “sissy-boy” novelist Ben Mears had written. Taking place in an imaginary Maine prison called Shawshank, the story is supposedly narrated by one of the inmates (nicknamed “Red”), a clever entrepreneur who can “get it for you” for a price, that is, obtain whatever a prisoner might like, or need, from the outside world: pictures, comic books, posters, panties from a wife or girl friend, etc. Red's hundred-page story concerns a banker-prisoner, Andy Dufresne, sentenced to life imprisonment because of incriminating circumstantial evidence in the murder of his wife and her lover. Though consistently denied parole, and tragically unfortunate in attempting to prove his innocence, Andy becomes the financial wizard of the prison (“quiet, well-spoken, respectful, non-violent” [95]), with an unusual smile and a cool far-away look. Red is intrigued by Andy's strange requests, two in particular: a rock-hammer and a Rita Hayworth poster. What Andy is doing with these objects—the Hayworth poster changing to other shapely females as the years go by—is revealed only at the end of the novella, when the reader learns that for years and years (1949-75) Andy had been digging himself a tunnel, and successfully concealing the cellblock escape route (the “hole”) behind sexy, and inevitably distracting, pin-up posters.

Both the prolonged tunneling and the subsequent escape are as improbable as the incriminating evidence that incarcerated Andy in Shawshank State Prison in the first place (18-25). But King makes the narrative plausible by having whole sections of Red's account reported as gossip, rumor, and prison talk, slowly turning Andy Dufresne into a legendary folk hero about whom (like Robert Frost's Paul Bunyon, Washington Irving's Icabod Crane, or some medieval Arthurian knight) one tends to expect the unexpected. Unlike the final section of Carrie, which attempts to verify everything through newspaper reports, eyewitness accounts, and court transcripts, here King exercises his ingenuity by having everything sustained through sheer guesswork and speculation.

Of all the plot improbabilities in Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, however, the most hilarious is the author's success in hiding in his rectum a one-hundred-page (or more) manuscript about Andy Dufresne's life, prison escape, and detailed plans for secret life in Mexico (30, 101). On the occasion of the author-prisoner's parole, this rectal secreting is done so as to escape detection from guards during a strip-down physical examination prior to final release. Thus what the average King enthusiast has been devouring with such interest derives from the same part of the human anatomy that is naturally used to eliminate foul-smelling body wastes, but was “unnaturally” violated (and presumably also much enlarged) by the prison “sisters” during one of their many sodomitic escapades.1 Both this rectal literary joke, and the impossibles and improbables of the quasi-legendary prison career of Andy Dufresne, give the Popean subtitle, “Hope Springs Eternal,” a rather hopeless resonance indeed—implying, one supposes, that if you believe this “story,” you will believe just about anything.2 The “redemption” part of the title has various implications, not the least of which is the elimination of the Bible-quoting Warden Norton, who never so much as cracked a smile and “would have felt right at home” with those infernal New England preachers, the “Mathers, Cotton and Increase” (56).

The Breathing Method, the fourth and last “season,” and a gothic/fantasy successor to such traditional Christmas stories as the medieval romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Charles Dickens's Christmas Carol, is an out-and-out tall tale best suited to winter in which, as one editor points out in connection with Shakespeare's Winter's Tale, “no one expects any probability.”3 In folklore and legend (the Roman Saturnalia, ancient rituals surrounding the birth of Mithra, the tradition of the modrenacht among the Angles, etc.), the season of the winter solstice (21 December) is often filled with fantasy. The main incident in the fourth season is the birth of a child from an accidentally decapitated woman (Sandra Stansfield) occurring “on the eve of that birth we have celebrated for two thousand years” (462). The young woman is unmarried and wearing a false wedding ring, and this mysterious and/or magical birth thus parallels, or even parodies, the traditional Christian belief in the virgin birth recounted in the gospel of Luke. Despite the potential for blasphemous satire (which King does not elsewhere resist), the parallel is not overstressed, and at several points only gently reinforced: (1) by a quotation from a Roman Stoic that might well have come from the Pauline epistles, to the effect that “There is no comfort without pain; thus we define salvation through suffering” (461, 482-83); and (2) by having the tall tale of an impossible Christmas Eve birth told by an eighty-year-old physician, who thereby parallels the author of the gospel of Luke, traditionally believed to have been a physician, from whom the story of the virgin birth is almost exclusively derived.

Without demeaning the power of these spring and winter narratives, Rita Hayworth and Breathing Method appear as prologue and epilogue to the central tales of summer and fall that are among King's finest creations: Apt Pupil and The Body. The former concerns a thirteen year old's not-quite-accidental discovery of a Nazi war criminal living secretly in California, while the latter recounts the adventures of several twelve year olds who set out to find the dead body of a boy struck by a train, and in the process one of them (the teller of the tale) makes significant discoveries about his personal sensitivity and poetic proclivities. Taken together, Apt Pupil and The Body are youth-oriented companion pieces, offering in-depth analyses of young boys who can easily take their place among King's other preteens: Mark Petrie, Richie Boddin, Danny and Ralphie Glick, Danny Torrance, and Marty Coslaw. Interestingly, in both Apt Pupil and The Body, King again explores depth after desperate depth of feelings about father-son relationships that are central to a sympathetic understanding of much of his work—a psychological dimension too often glossed over by reviewers, who seem to harp exclusively on elements of terror, horror, and the supernatural.4

CORPSES THAT REFUSE TO STAY BURIED

The protagonist of Apt Pupil is a thirteen-year-old “innocent” in the pleasant-enough beginnings of this California revelation, but a seventeen-year-old criminal in its tragic conclusion. A stereotypical American boy of WASP background—the family was Methodist (164)—Todd Bowden has the kind of “summer” face that might easily be found advertising Kellogg's Corn Flakes: “hair the color of ripe corn, white even teeth, lightly tanned skin marred by not even the first shadow of adolescent acne” (109). Despite the gradual deterioration of Todd's personality throughout this 175-page “Summer of Corruption,” his face matures but never loses its boyish attractiveness: “young, blond, and white” (281). Even toward the end of Apt Pupil, when Todd is one of four victorious boys named to Southern Cal's All Stars, the newspaper photograph is “grinning openly out at the world from beneath the bill of his baseball cap” (254). When identified as the probable killer of local derelicts, he is remembered as having an “ain't-life-grand” air about his improbable face (282).

In addition to a happy-time television reaction to nearly everything (good or bad), several other aspects of Todd's personality—always superficially favorable—receive considerable attention: his “aptness” as a school student, his high degree of intelligence and foresight, his full-blooded teenage slang, and his outstanding athletic abilities. These apparent positives in Todd's All-American makeup, however, inevitably deteriorate. So boyishly appealing and attractive at first, showing “perfect teeth that had been fluoridated since the beginning of his life and bathed thrice a day in Crest toothpaste” (113), his smiles sour into the sardonic expression of a psychopath beaming out “rich and radiant” (131) as he eagerly absorbs Nazi stories about gas chambers, conspirators hung by piano wires, or lampshades designed of human skin. On one occasion, when the old concentration camp commander (Kurt Dussander, whom Todd all-too-willingly befriends) is forced to tell Todd about the experimental nerve gas (poetically nicknamed Pegasus) that caused its victims to scream, laugh, vomit, and helplessly defecate, the All-American Boy is happily consuming two delicious chocolate Ring Dings. Even old reprobate Dussander reacts negatively, not only in being forced to remember horrors he himself eagerly perpetrated in German concentration camps, but especially because of Todd's enthusiastic “That was a good story, Mr. Dussander” (136). Ironically, King puts in the mouth of the old Nazi, wanted by the Israelis for being “one of the greatest butchers of human beings ever to live” (262), reactions that are likely to pass through readers themselves when he says aloud to the boy, “You are a monster.” Innocent-looking Todd reminds Dussander that “according to the books I read, you're the monster, Mr. Dussander,” who sent thirty-five hundred a day into the ovens “before the Russians came and made you stop” (127). The next time Dussander (in something resembling teenage slang) is tempted to damn Todd as “putrid little monster,” he only thinks it (135), keeping to himself his disgust with Todd's behavior, even though that behavior is viciously patterned after his own (giving an inkling of King's attitude toward the relationship of postwar American behavior to the Nazis.)

The name Todd suggests “toddy,” a pleasant drink of brandy or whiskey mixed with hot water, sugar, and spices. Like the boy's blue-eyed All-American appearance, therefore, his name has sweet connotations. Winter suggests a sinister undercurrent—quite apt, one might add—to this attractive first name, since “Todd” is similar to the German word for death, Tod.5 Kurt Dussander's name derives from Peter Kurtin, Monster of Düsseldorf, a novel about an actual criminal included in Father Callahan's recollections of gothic junk in 'Salem's Lot (296). But Dussander's American pseudonym is the kinder-sounding “Arthur Denker,” the first name deriving from the mythic medieval king,6 and the patronym from yet another German word, “thinker” (Denker). The fake last name covertly suggests the octogenarian's cleverness in concealing his true identity by skillfully avoiding detection and capture by sharp Israeli authorities for so many years. Dussander's ability to “think” things through is so masterful that inexperienced Todd, who at one point had the potential of being an absolute blackmailer, comes to feel that “his skull had turned to window-glass and all things were flashing inside in large letters” (201). The living room of Dussander's house contains a neat symbol of all the false facades in Apt Pupil (Americans and ex-Nazis included): “the fake fireplace” that was “faced with fake bricks” (115).

The Jekyll/Hyde qualities of the Todd/Denker names seem—and indeed are—the exact opposite of what they pleasantly suggest, and have parallels in some unusual literary techniques. The most important of these is the series of empty-headed clichés, banalities, proverbs, and (on Todd's part) slang simplicities that are placed in plot situations in such a way as to point up their utter shallowness. As names reverse (e.g., from sweet “toddy” to grim “death”), so do the cliché-drenched conversations among the doomed older characters.

Important among these typically American pseudoprofundities are the following. Todd's parents “don't believe in spanking” because “corporal punishment causes more problems than it cures” (115). Todd's father (Dick Bowden) thinks that “kids should find out about life as soon as they can—the bad as well as the good.” His silly rationale is that “life is a tiger you have to grab by the tail, and if you don't know the nature of the beast it will eat you up” (120). Dick Bowden balances off his wife's cliché, “Waste not, want not,” with his own innocuous “Not by a long chalk” (138). Todd's teacher (the well-intentioned Mrs. Anderson) lectures the students of the California school (of which sweet-looking Todd is one) about finding “YOUR GREAT INTEREST,” hers being “collecting nineteenth-century post cards” (117). The guidance counselor (satirically nicknamed “Rubber Ed,” ‘’Sneaker Pete,” and the “Ked Man” by mocking high school students) idiotically supposes that his rubber-covered Keds gives him “real rapport” with the students. He too has an assortment of dismal colloquialisms on which he thinks he can structure educational success: that he could “get right down to it” with the kids, “get into their hangups,” knew what a “bummer” was, and understood and sympathized when “someone was doing a number on your head” (166).

The upshot of all this “right-thinking,” superficial claptrap that passes for wisdom—a parody of certain educational practices that dominated American society during the period of the 1976 bicentennial, the time-frame of the story (206)—is that Todd Bowden, one of the young people these insights were supposed to direct into proper channels of patriotic behavior, becomes a Nazi admirer and hobo murderer. King is not saying that benign and “liberating” clichés are inherently wrong or that they cause Todd's inclination toward social misbehavior. Rather, his gothic perspective is that benevolent philosophies, reduced to thoughtless aphorisms and innocuous clichés, are utterly powerless against the boy's adamantine malevolence. Todd, too, is entrapped in his own kind of verbal superficiality, mostly teenage American slang that might have been considered “cute” in something other than a California neo-Nazi context: “Gotcha,” “Right on,” “You'll go ape,” “School's cool,” “Crazy, baby,” “It blows my wheels,” “Blasts from the past,” etc. Only infrequently does Todd trot out some really humorous wit, as on the occasion when his mother brings up a matter that Todd does not want to deal with, and he leaves her with the wise crack: “I've gotta put an egg in my shoe and beat it” (134). All too frequently, unfortunately, his mind reverts to mindless banalities, as when, entrapped by Dussander, he thinks of a “cartoon character with an anvil suspended over its head” (202).

Possibly offensive to some readers—and this may explain the negative criticism of Apt Pupil by some reviewers—is the fact that the Nazi proves the more elegant and perceptive in language skills than the sentimental, cliché-ridden Americans, who—as Dussander scornfully points out—“put photographs of firemen rescuing kittens from trees on the front pages of city newspapers” (202). Thus at the dinner table with Todd's parents, when offered another glass of cognac by Todd's mother, Dussander gracefully declines with the proverb, “One must never overdo the sublime” (149). When in...

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Tony Magistrale (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Magistrale, Tony. “Ship of Ghouls: Skeleton Crew.” In Stephen King: The Second Decade, Danse Macabre to The Dark Half, pp. 86-99. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992.

[In the following essay, Magistrale offers a mixed assessment of King's short fiction collection Skeleton Crew and asserts that the stories focus on the same themes as King's longer fiction.]

When rationality begins to break down, the circuits of the human brain can overload. Axons grow bright and feverish. Hallucinations turn real: the quicksilver puddle at the point where perspective makes parallel lines seem to intersect is really there; the dead walk...

(The entire section is 6463 words.)

Jonathan P. Davis (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Davis, Jonathan P. “Childhood and Rites of Passage.” In Stephen King's America, pp. 48-69. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Davis explores King's treatment of childhood in his short fiction and novels.]

The child in adult life is defenceless
And if he is grown-up, knows it,
And the grown-up looks at the childish part
And despises it.

—Stevie Smith “To Carry the Child”

Anyone who has read Stephen King extensively will find that he spends a large amount of time exploring childhood. Childhood to King is a magical time, a time when the world seems magnificent...

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Leonard Cassuto (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Cassuto, Leonard. “Repulsive Attractions: ‘The Raft,’ the Vagina Dentata, and the Slasher Formula.” In Imagining the Worst: Stephen King and the Representation of Women, edited by Kathleen Margaret Lant and Theresa Thompson, pp. 61-78. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Cassuto finds parallels between “The Raft” and the slasher-film genre, and views the mysterious monster in the story as an embodiment of the vagina dentata.]

“Twice-told tales” occupy a time-honored place in American literature, but Stephen King's “The Raft” deserves attention as a twice-written one. King himself was so haunted by his own...

(The entire section is 8979 words.)

André L. DeCuir (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: DeCuir, André L. “The Power of the Feminine and the Gendered Construction of Horror in Stephen King's ‘The Reach’.” In Imagining the Worst: Stephen King and the Representation of Women, edited by Kathleen Margaret Lant and Theresa Thompson, pp. 79-89. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, DeCuir examines the themes of childbirth and horror in King's “The Reach.”]

In “A Dream of New Life: Stephen King's Pet Sematary as a Variant of Frankenstein,” Mary Ferguson Pharr attempts to draw parallels between Mary Shelley's great work and Stephen King's reworking of “the dream of new life … a dream both...

(The entire section is 5150 words.)

Joe Sanders (essay date fall 2000)

SOURCE: Sanders, Joe. “‘Monsters from the Id!’ in Stephen King's ‘The Monkey.’” Extrapolation 41, no. 3 (fall 2000): 257-65.

[In the following essay, Sanders relates King's story “The Monkey” to the film Forbidden Planet, in its psychic personification of the human id or subconscious.]

Considering how much more effective Stephen King's horrific images are on the page than on the screen, it probably is just as well that no movie has been made of “The Monkey,” in which a scruffy child's toy seems to be the source of all supernatural menace. What could be frightening about a broken clockwork monkey that can't even bang its little cymbals...

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