Stephen King Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis
In Stephen King’s fictional world, evil exists in and of itself—not simply as an abstraction or as a manifestation of human character. Evil cannot be explained away in psychological terms. One of King’s quarrels with Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of The Shining (1977) is that the director put the emphasis on the main character’s imagination of evil and not on the Overlook Hotel, which King has called “a huge storage battery charged with an evil powerful enough to corrupt all those who come in contact with it.” For King, evil is some kind of operational, preadult, elemental force that is completely beyond human control. It haunts the world; it is not merely a psychological aberration. King’s stories focus on this evil; they are not clichéd studies of demented persons.
In the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe, King writes metaphysical mystery stories that focus on crumbling families who represent a disintegrating universe. King, referring to The Shining, puts it this way:People ask, “Is it a ghost story or is it just in this guy’s mind?” Of course it is a ghost story, because Jack Torrance himself is a haunted house. He’s haunted by his father. It pops up again and again and again. He’s haunted by that. It’s just a case of however you want to define “haunted.”
King’s “however” refers to the inside and the outside, the character’s mind and the hotel’s ambience. They are, so to speak, one and the same—as they are in Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” in which the “house” of the title refers to both the physical residence and the family of Madeleine and Roderick Usher, brother and sister in Poe’s classic horror tale of human and earthly corruption. As Roderick and Madeleine collapse against each other, so does their house crumble. Modern readers may prefer a psychological—that is to say, a social science—explanation, but the power of Poe’s and King’s stories derives from their refusal to reduce their work to parables about the mental lives of human beings.
Roderick Usher is not responsible for his ability to read his sister’s mind; in fact, he is terrified by his closeness to his sister and by the power that has taken possession of him. The same is true in Carrie, in which a mother’s bullying stimulates her adolescent daughter’s telekinetic powers. In Firestarter (1980), two adults who have acquired parapsychic powers in a government drug experiment pass on these powers to their child. In The Dead Zone (1979), John Smith suffers several severe head injuries that trigger his powers of second sight, making him able to see aspects of both the past and the future. In The Shining, Danny Torrance seems born with the ability to “shine,” to visualize images of the future; something in the atmosphere of the Overlook Hotel stimulates his ability to forecast the horrible crimes his father will commit. All these stories suggest how strongly King has been influenced by both science fiction and the gothic tradition in the novel. From the image of the haunted house (a staple of gothic novels), he has moved to the prospect of a haunted world. In The Stand (1978), for example, a virus developed in a government laboratory is let loose in spite of a sophisticated security system and nearly succeeds in killing every human being.
King’s mystery and horror fiction has a subtext. His stories take up things that people do not want to confront openly. In one interview, he speaks of writing ’Salem’s Lot (1975) during the Watergate hearings. He kept watching witnesses saying that they could not recall what had happened. He was fascinated with Senator Howard Baker’s repeated question to witnesses, “What did you know and when did you know it?” For King, the element of mystery and horror in ’Salem’s Lot was not the vampires but the town that was obviously hiding something, tucking away things in closets, and that these events were occurring in daylight, when it should have been possible to see what was happening.
Both Danny Torrance in The Shining and Johnny Smith in The Dead Zone know things that they would prefer to forget. Danny desperately loves his father, Jack, but the signs of Jack’s unstable personality and violence are everywhere in evidence. He has broken his son’s arm in an angry fit over Danny’s messing with his play manuscript and has severely beaten one of his students for slashing his car’s tires. Jack is an alcoholic who has always had trouble controlling his temper, but he views his violent reactions as fits or attacks—much like the attack of the wasps that sting him when he inadvertently disturbs them. Life itself has a way of unnerving Jack Torrance. He is out of control, yet as a parent and as a writer he wants very much to be in charge. He has, in fact, a rage for order that drives him insane, for life cannot compose itself for him. Each of Danny’s visions makes it clearer that it is his father whom he should fear, but each time Danny is aroused from his spells he tries to deny the evidence that his father is a murderer. The very word “murder” appears in Danny’s waking dreams as “redrum,” a telling reversal, a clue that the father he loves is not his protector but his destroyer.
The Dead Zone
In The Dead Zone, Johnny Smith shakes a politician’s hand and realizes that Greg Stillson will one day be president of the United States. The trouble is that Stillson is pure evil. He has intimidated powerful figures into supporting him and pandered to the lowest elements of society while pretending to stand for decent American values. He is a malevolent personality who will start World War III. Johnny can envision this scenario and believes that it is as inevitable as Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. Johnny’s dilemma is that he does not want to resort to violence. Yet he watches Stillson go from one success to another. Diagnosed as having a brain tumor, knowing that he has very little time to live, Johnny decides to intervene in history, but assassinating Stillson proves unnecessary. When Stillson grabs a young child to shield himself from Johnny’s rifle, his political career is doomed.
As mystery-horror novels, The Shining and The Dead Zone exemplify King’s view that much of what people know is repressed. Reality has its own mysterious subtext that cannot be simply resolved by the detective or the novel’s hero. Indeed, Johnny Smith must die because of his knowledge of history. The Overlook Hotel seems malign because it looks over—has an overview of—history. It is a repository of evil to which someone as sensitive as Danny Torrance responds. In The Dead Zone, The Shining, and other King novels there is little doubt about who the criminals are. Suspense is created not by finding out who did what, but by putting together the horrifying clues that demonstrate that people would just as soon overlook the evil in their midst.
“The dead zone” is a term Johnny Smith coins. It stands for those things that he cannot see or remember—the elusive aspects of history that make gaps in his life. He suggests that the gaps in every human being’s life account for much of the mystery of existence. He describes the dead zone as “a mental birthmark. A fouled circuit, a faulty relay . . . [a] small faulty section.” Even Johnny’s kind of knowing is a “pretty limited thing,” he tells one character. “It’s like some of the signals don’t conduct.” As one of his doctors puts it, the dead zone is a “subset of a larger overall set.” In traditional mystery stories, the dead zone or subset comprises those clues and bits of missing evidence that are eventually found and fitted into a solution to a crime. When the criminal is caught or the crime exposed, the world of the mystery novel recovers its equilibrium. It is whole, it is complete, it is a “set.” The terms “set” and “subset” suggest King’s interest in scientific explanations of mystery, yet the terms do no more than define the problem. Johnny’s gift of second sight is never adequately explained.
Although King’s work has been immensely popular and his books have received many rave reviews, he has also been attacked in the press for a lack of wit and intelligence. Some of his early work is rather leaden, the dialogue stilted and the plotting somewhat confused. King admits to a certain lack of maturity in his presentation of female characters and of minorities. He sees the later attacks on his fiction, however, as a sign that he is out of step with modern liberal notions of morality. He believes that his fiction does not inhabit the relativistic universe of his severest critics. His view of existence is conservative—almost reactionary in the sense that he implies that human beings are still living in the dark ages. He has referred to his “old-fashioned frontier vision.” He believes that “there exist fundamental values of good and evil warring for supremacy in this universe.” Thus, he suggests that he is “at odds with what is essentially an urban and liberal sensibility that equates all change with progress and wants to destroy all conventions, in literature as well as in society.” Life in his stories is regressive, not progressive. His characters have to return to childhood and to their origins. Sometimes, as in Cujo (1981), children cannot withstand elemental evil; other times, as in The Shining, a child escapes madness, if not the horror of a disintegrating family. At best, however, King’s characters are granted no more than a reprieve from diabolism.
Many of King’s novels are ingenious reworkings of classic mystery and horror stories. ’Salem’s Lot, for example, was inspired by Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). Having taught Stoker’s novel as a high school teacher, King was intrigued by the idea of creating a modern vampire story. Set in a small town in Maine, ’Salem’s Lot centers on a successful writer who returns to write about his hometown. In this case, he is fascinated with a supposedly haunted lot, the place where, in fact, he went through a horrible initiation experience. The novel is about origins, about where people really come from. It seems to have a strongly autobiographical source, for King, lacking a father, seems drawn to stories about families gone awry, children questioning their identities, and adults finding that they have not outgrown their childish fears. King’s fiction reads like a haunted house standing for and holding the haunted minds of human beings.