Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1052
Stephen King (1947 -)
(Full name Stephen Edwin King; has written as Steve King, and under pseudonyms Richard Bachman, John Swithen, and Eleanor Druse) American novelist, short story writer, novella writer, scriptwriter, nonfiction writer, autobiographer, and author of children's books.
Stephen King is a prolific and immensely popular author of...
(The entire section contains 18158 words.)
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- Critical Essays
Stephen King (1947 -)
(Full name Stephen Edwin King; has written as Steve King, and under pseudonyms Richard Bachman, John Swithen, and Eleanor Druse) American novelist, short story writer, novella writer, scriptwriter, nonfiction writer, autobiographer, and author of children's books.
Stephen 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 fiction features colloquial language, clinical attention to physical detail and emotional states, realistic settings, and an emphasis on contemporary problems. His exploration of such issues as marital infidelity and peer group acceptance lend credibility to the supernatural elements in his fiction. King's 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.
King was born in Portland, Maine, on September 21, 1947, to Donald Edwin King, a U.S. merchant marine, and Nellie Ruth Pillsbury King. His father abandoned the family when King was two years old. King, his brother, and his mother went to live with relatives in Durham, Maine, and then to various other cities. They returned to Durham to stay in 1958. King was very close to his mother, who supported the family with a series of low-paying jobs and read to him often as a child. She later encouraged King to send his work to publishers. She died of cancer in 1973 without seeing the enormous success her son achieved as a writer. 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 Maine at Orono, where he majored in English and minored in speech. King has a deep political awareness, and was active in student politics and the anti-war movement; with the exception of his short story "The Children of the Corn," he has avoided setting his stories in the 1960s and 1970s because of the painful and difficult issues associated with the time period. After his graduation in 1970, King was unable to secure a teaching position, and worked as a gas station attendant and in a laundry. On January 2, 1971, King married novelist Tabitha Jane Spruce; the couple has three children. 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 instructor at the University of Maine at Orono; this experience informed his Danse Macabre (1981), a series of essays about the horror genre. King suffered a serious health challenge on June 19, 1999, when he was struck by a van while walking alongside a road near his home. He sustained injuries to his spine, hip, ribs, and right leg. One of his broken ribs punctured a lung, and he nearly died. He began a slow progress towards recovery, cheered by countless cards and letters from his fans. King had also begun work on a writer's manual before his accident, and the result, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000), sold more copies in its first printing than any previous book about writing. In addition to King's advice on crafting fiction, however, the book includes a great deal of autobiographical material. The author chronicles his childhood, his rise to fame, his struggles with addiction, and the 1999 accident that almost ended his life. While King has played with the idea of giving up publishing his writings, his legion of fans continues to be delighted that the idea has not yet become a reality. In 2004, under the pseudonym of Eleanor Druse, King published The Journals of Eleanor Druse: My Investigation of the Kingdom Hospital Incident. He has also continued with his "Dark Tower" series with the publication of The Dark Tower V: Wolves of the Calla in 2003. King completed the final two installments of the series—The Dark Tower VI: The Songs of Susannah and The Dark Tower VII: The Dark Tower—in 2004.
King's fiction has extended into a variety of categories within the horror genre, including vampire and zombie stories, tales of possession, and incidents involving a character's discovery of supernatural powers. He has also successfully branched out into science fiction, fantasy, and westerns. Most of his adult protagonists are ordinary, middle-class people who find themselves involved in some otherworldly nightmare from which they cannot escape. Many of his stories have elements of Gothic fiction. Most notable among these are 'Salem's Lot (1975), The Shining (1977) and Pet Sematary (1983). 'Salem's Lot centers on a series of mysterious deaths in a once-idyllic New England village. The Shining tells the tale of Jack Torrance, an alcoholic writer who brings his family to live in an empty mountain hotel for the winter. Demonized by the spirits that haunt the hotel, he tries to kill his wife and child but ultimately kills himself instead. In Pet Sematary, a college professor resurrects his young son, who is killed when he ventures onto a nearby highway, by burying him in his neighbor's pet cemetery. The child, like the family's cat before him, returns, but with sinister results. Other King novels cited for containing elements of the Gothic include The Dead Zone (1979), Christine (1983), Cycle of the Werewolf (1983), The Talisman (1984), Bag of Bones (1997), and Black House (2001).
Reviewers who have analyzed King's novels often praise the rhythm and pacing of his narratives. Others praise the author for his ability to make the unreal seem entirely plausible. Critics who dismiss King's work usually accuse him of being a formula writer, but his supporters assert that this is part of King's talent, and praise his ability to adapt the Gothic and melodrama in popular literature for contemporary audiences. Heidi Strengell recounts King's repeated use of the Gothic double in his oeuvre, and highlights the numerous forms that double assumes. Critics have also pointed to the influence of literary classics, especially Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Bram Stoker's Dracula, and Herman Melville's Moby Dick on King's use of the Gothic. Jesse W. Nash, on the other hand, argues that King's Gothic is particularly rooted in popular culture and his own life experiences and therefore represents a singular, postmodern interpretation of the genre.
Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 344
Carrie: A Novel of a Girl with a Frightening Power (novel) 1974
'Salem's Lot (novel) 1975
The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger (novel) 1976
Rage [as Richard Bachman] (novel) 1977
The Shining (novel) 1977
Night Shift (short stories) 1978; also published as Night Shift: Excursions into Horror, 1979
The Stand (novel) 1978; revised edition, 1990
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
Creepshow (short stories) 1982
The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger (novel) 1982
Different Seasons (short stories and novellas) 1982
The Running Man [as Richard Bachman] (novel) 1982
Stephen King's Creepshow: A George A. Romero Film [adapted from the stories in King's collection] (screenplay) 1982
Christine (novel) 1983
Cycle of the Werewolf (short stories) 1983; also published as The Silver Bullet, 1985
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
Silver Bullet (screenplay) 1985
Stephen King's Skeleton Crew (short stories) 1985
It (novel) 1986; first published in limited edition in Germany as Es, 1986
Maximum Overdrive [writer and director] (screenplay) 1986
Misery (novel) 1987
The Tommyknockers (novel) 1987
The Dark Half (novel) 1989
The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of Three (novel) 1989
My Pretty Pony (children's novel) 1989
Pet Sematary (screenplay) 1989
Four Past Midnight (novellas) 1990
The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands (novel) 1991
Needful Things (novel) 1991
Dolores Claiborne (novel) 1992
Gerald's Game (novel) 1992
Nightmares and Dreamscapes (short stories, poem, and essay) 1993
Rose Madder (novel) 1995
Desperation (novel) 1996
The Regulators [as Richard Bachman] (novel) 1996
Bag of Bones (novel) 1997
The Dark Tower IV: Wizard and Glass (novel) 1997
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 Straub] (novel) 2001
Dreamcatcher (novel) 2001
Everything's Eventual: 14 Dark Tales (short stories) 2002
From a Buick 8 (novel) 2002
The Dark Tower V: Wolves of the Calla (novel) 2003
The Dark Tower VI: Song of Susannah (novel) 2004
The Dark Tower VII: The Dark Tower (novel) 2004
The Journals of Eleanor Druse: My Investigation of the Kingdom Hospital Incident [as Eleanor Druse] (novel) 2004
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SOURCE: King, Stephen. "October 4, 1957, and an Invitation to Dance." In Stephen King's Danse Macabre, pp. 1-15. New York: Everest House, 1982.
In the following excerpt, King comments on the dual nature of horror in popular literature and film.
If there is any truth or worth to the danse macabre, it is simply that novels, movies, TV and radio programs—even the comic books—dealing with horror always do their work on two levels.
On top is the "gross-out" level—when Regan vomits in the priest's face or masturbates with a crucifix in The Exorcist, or when the raw-looking, terribly inside-out monster in John Frankenheimer's Prophecy crunches off the helicopter pilot's head like a Tootsie-Pop. The gross-out can be done with varying degrees of artistic finesse, but it's always there.
But on another, more potent level, the work of horror really is a dance—a moving, rhythmic search. And what it's looking for is the place where you, the viewer or the reader, live at your most primitive level. The work of horror is not interested in the civilized furniture of our lives. Such a work dances through these rooms which we have fitted out one piece at a time, each piece expressing—we hope!—our socially acceptable and pleasantly enlightened character. It is in search of another place, a room which may sometimes resemble the secret den of a Victorian gentleman, sometimes the torture chamber of the Spanish Inquisition … but perhaps most frequently and most successfully, the simple and brutally plain hole of a Stone Age cave-dweller.
Is horror art? On this second level, the work of horror can be nothing else; it achieves the level of art simply because it is looking for something beyond art, something that predates art: it is looking for what I would call phobic pressure points. The good horror tale will dance its way to the center of your life and find the secret door to the room you believed no one but you knew of—as both Albert Camus and Billy Joel have pointed out, The Stranger makes us nervous … but we love to try on his face in secret.
Do spiders give you the horrors? Fine. We'll have spiders, as in Tarantula, The Incredible Shrinking Man, and Kingdom of the Spiders. What about rats? In James Herbert's novel of the same name, you can feel them crawl all over you … and eat you alive. How about snakes? That shut-in feeling? Heights? Or … whatever there is.
Because books and movies are mass media, the field of horror has often been able to do better than even these personal fears over the last thirty years. During that period (and to a lesser degree, in the seventy or so years preceding), the horror genre has often been able to find national phobic pressure points, and those books and films which have been the most successful almost always seem to play upon and express fears which exist across a wide spectrum of people. Such fears, which are often political, economic, and psychological rather than supernatural, give the best work of horror a pleasing allegorical feel—and it's the one sort of allegory that most filmmakers seem at home with. Maybe because they know that if the shit starts getting too thick, they can always bring the monster shambling out of the darkness again.
We're going back to Stratford in 1957 before much longer, but before we do, let me suggest that one of the films of the last thirty years to find a pressure point with great accuracy was Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Further along, we'll discuss the novel—and Jack Finney, the author, will also have a few things to say—but for now, let's look briefly at the film.
There is nothing really physically horrible in the Siegel version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers;1 no gnarled and evil star travelers here, no twisted, mutated shape under the facade of normality. The pod people are just a little different, that's all. A little vague. A little messy. Although Finney never puts this fine a point on it in his book, he certainly suggests that the most horrible thing about "them" is that they lack even the most common and easily attainable sense of aesthetics. Never mind, Finney suggests, that these usurping aliens from outer space can't appreciate La Traviata or Moby Dick or even a good Norman Rockwell cover on the Saturday Evening Post. That's bad enough, but—my God!—they don't mow their lawns or replace the pane of garage glass that got broken when the kid down the street batted a baseball through it. They don't repaint their houses when they get flaky. The roads leading into Santa Mira, we're told, are so full of potholes and washouts that pretty soon the salesmen who service the town—who aerate its municipal lungs with the life-giving atmosphere of capitalism, you might say—will no longer bother to come.
The gross-out level is one thing, but it is on that second level of horror that we often experience that low sense of anxiety which we call "the creeps." Over the years, Invasion of the Body Snatchers has given a lot of people the creeps, and all sorts of high-flown ideas have been imputed to Siegel's film version. It was seen as an anti-McCarthy film until someone pointed out the fact that Don Siegel's political views could hardly be called leftish. Then people began seeing it as a "better dead than Red" picture. Of the two ideas, I think that second one better fits the film that Siegel made, the picture that ends with Kevin McCarthy in the middle of a freeway, screaming "They're here already! You're next!" to cars which rush heedlessly by him. But in my heart, I don't really believe that Siegel was wearing a political hat at all when he made the movie (and you will see later that Jack Finney has never believed it, either); I believe he was simply having fun and that the undertones … just happened.
This doesn't invalidate the idea that there is an allegorical element in Invasion of the Body Snatchers; it is simply to suggest that sometimes these pressure points, these terminals of fear, are so deeply buried and yet so vital that we may tap them like artesian wells—saying one thing out loud while we express something else in a whisper. The Philip Kaufman version of Finney's novel is fun (although, to be fair, not quite as much fun as Siegel's), but that whisper has changed into something entirely different: the subtext of Kaufman's picture seems to satirize the whole I'm-okay-you're-okay-so-let's-get-in-the-hot-tub-and-massage-our-precious-consciousness movement of the egocentric seventies. Which is to suggest that, although the uneasy dreams of the mass subconscious may change from decade to decade, the pipeline into that well of dreams remains constant and vital.
This is the real danse macabre, I suspect: those remarkable moments when the creator of a horror story is able to unite the conscious and subconscious mind with one potent idea. I believe it happened to a greater degree with the Siegel version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but of course both Siegel and Kaufman were able to proceed courtesy of Jack Finney, who sank the original well.
1. There is in the Philip Kaufman remake, though. There is a moment in that film which is repulsively horrible. It comes when Donald Sutherland uses a rake to smash in the face of a mostly formed pod. This "person's" face breaks in with sickening ease, like a rotted piece of fruit, and lets out an explosion of the most realistic stage blood that I have ever seen in a color film. When that moment came, I winced, clapped a hand over my mouth … and wondered how in the hell the movie had ever gotten its PG rating.
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SOURCE: Strengell, Heidi. "'The Monster Never Dies': An Analysis of the Gothic Double in Stephen King's Oeuvre." Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-Present) 2, no. 1 (spring 2003): 〈http://www.americanpopularculture.com/journal/articles/spring_2003/strengell.htm〉.
In the following essay, Strengell maintains that the use of the Gothic literary mechanism of the double is central to King's works and serves as a symbol of the deep-seated fear of the average person's capacity for evil.
In Danse Macabre (1981), his non-fiction study of the horror genre, Stephen King distinguishes three Gothic archetypes that embody the central issues with which the Gothic era was concerned. To be more precise, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein or, the Modern Prometheus (1818) deals with "the refusal to take personal responsibility for one's actions because of pride" (62); Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) portrays perverse or, in medical terms, abnormal and repressed sexuality as well as double standards of sexuality; and, finally, Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) exploits the possibilities provided by the discovery of the human psyche during the Gothic period, that is, the question of the double. Taking this third archetype as the subject for this paper, I will show that one of the central issues in the Gothic era, namely the paradoxical existence of both good and evil in a single person, remains an important issue in the fiction of Stephen King. This perpetuation reveals our inability to evolve past our base instincts, to purge them completely from the human psyche. The appearance and reappearance of the Gothic double also shows us that popular fiction provides a useful repository for our deepest fear—specifically the fear that each of us is capable of great evil.
The Gothic Double
I will begin by distinguishing the Gothic double from the terms related to it. Alongside Frankenstein's monster, the Wandering Jew, and the Byronic vampire, David Punter sets a fourth Gothic character, the Doppelganger which, in his view, signifies "the mask of innocence" and which is found in, for instance, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (21). On another occasion, he refers to the novel as a record of a split personality (2), and since the terms are far from being identical, they need to be defined at the outset. The term Doppelganger is defined in The New International Webster's Comprehensive Dictionary of the English Language (1999) as "1 A person exactly like another; a double. 2 A wraith, especially of a person not yet dead" (378). Since the German equivalent, too, primarily assumes that the word refers to two separate entities, the term Doppelganger is rejected in this context, although it is widely used in literary criticism. The term split personality is not included in The New International Webster's Comprehensive Dictionary of the English Language, rightly so, because such a diagnosis is no longer considered scientifically valid. After Eugen Bleuler in the late nineteenth century coined the term schizophrenia to replace the old one, dementia procox, the lay public mistakenly understood it as an equivalent to the term split personality. The confusion of the terms meant that the lay term split personality became replaced in scientific usage by dissociative identity disorder (Kaplan, Sadock and Grebb 457). The latter includes various states and signifies a personality disorder in which the person is unaware of what his "other half" is doing. Whether Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde can be diagnosed as a dissociative disorder patient or possibly a borderline personality may occupy a few psychiatrists, but the term Gothic double will do for my purposes.
Like Doppelganger, the word double calls upon ambiguous interpretations and needs therefore to be defined. My definition takes as a starting point the concept of personality. According to The New International Webster's Comprehensive Dictionary of the English Language, personality is: "1. That which constitutes a person; also, that which distinguishes and characterizes a person; personal existence" (942). As the unity of the personality was endangered by Freudian notions, similarly, many Gothic narratives were consumed "by a paranoid terror of involution or the unraveling of the multiformed ego" (Halberstam 55). Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde fittingly displays this juxtaposition of the smooth surface of Dr. Jekyll and that of the "dwarfish" (18), "ape-like" (27) Mr. Hyde. While Dr. Jekyll is pleasant and sophisticated, Mr. Hyde, stunted, crumpled, and ugly, is designed to shock. Indeed, the "Gothic effect depends upon the production of a monstrous double" (Halberstam 54). Thus, for my purposes, the term Gothic double refers to the essential duality within a single character on the further presumption that the duality centers on the polarity of good and evil.
Like many of King's works, Stevenson's novella examines the conflict between the free will to do good or to do evil as well as the theme of hypocrisy. King believes the conflict between good and evil is the conflict between, in Freudian terms, the id and the superego and refers also to Stevenson's terms: the conflict between mortification and gratification. In addition, King views the struggle both in Christian and mythical terms. The latter suggests the split between the Apollonian (the man of intellect, morality, and nobility) and the Dionysian (the man of physical gratification) (Danse 75). Influenced by James Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) and Edgar Allan Poe's "William Wilson" (1839), Stevenson wrote his novella in three days in 1886 (Punter 1; Danse 69). King expresses his admiration for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, regarding it as a "masterpiece of concision" (Danse 69, 80-81).
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the story of a Victorian gentleman who leads a secret life of vice, uses multiple narrators to relate the story of a man doomed by the chemical reproduction of his double. "Man is not truly one but two" says Dr. Jekyll, tormented by a sense of "the thorough and primitive duality of man" (Stevenson 70). Through chemical experimentation, he discovers a potion which dissociates the "polar twins" of the self, transforming his body into that of his other self (70). The other self, Mr. Hyde, allows Dr. Jekyll to satisfy his undignified desires untrammeled by moral scruples. Haunting the streets of London, this small and indescribably ugly character "springs headlong into the sea of liberty" which finally leads him to murder a respectable gentleman (75). Frightened, Dr. Jekyll determines never to use the potion again. However, the metamorphosis has become spontaneous, and, as King aptly notes, Dr. Jekyll "has created Hyde to escape the strictures of propriety, but has discovered that evil has its own strictures" (Danse 73). In the end, Dr. Jekyll has become Mr. Hyde's prisoner, and Jekyll/Hyde's life ends in suicide.
Many of the themes of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde appear in King's work. Like Dr. Jekyll, Reverend Lester Lowe of Cycle of the Werewolf bases his influence on moral superiority, and his high views of himself produce morbidity in his relations with his own appetites. Arnie Cunningham of Christine illustrates another angle of the werewolf myth even more clearly, that is, the werewolf as an innocent victim, predestinated to its destruction. While the Gage creature in King's Pet Semetary constructs part of its maker, the dialectic between monster and maker is resolved in, for instance, Cycle of the Werewolf as a conflict in a single body. Gage Creed's monstrosity in Pet Semetary depends upon the fragility of his father's humanity, whereas the repulsive nature of the werewolf can only be known through the failed respectability of Reverend Lester Lowe. King characterizes Lowe as genuinely evil, whereas Jekyll, although a hypocrite and a self-deceiver, only desires personal freedom and keeps certain pleasures repressed. Punter points out that while Hyde's behavior manifests an urban version of "going native," Jekyll struggles with various pressures (3). Similarly, Lester Lowe who embodies social virtue takes great pleasure in his bloody nocturnal adventures.
Thad Beaumont's alter ego in The Dark Half expresses the violent part of the protagonist's character, of which he himself is not constantly aware. Likewise, the degree to which Dr. Jekyll takes seriously his public responsibilities determines the "hidden-ness" of his desire for pleasure. Punter notes that since the public man must appear flawless, he must "hide" his private nature, to the extent of completely denying it (3). Defying all logic, Beaumont's "dark half," George Stark, has somehow come into existence, and Beaumont must literally face his dark half in a confrontation in which either Beaumont's Jekyll or Stark's Hyde has to die.
The Drawing of the Three introduces a dissociative patient, Odetta Holmes/Detta Walker, who through Roland the Gunslinger and Eddie Dean's intervention is able to merge her two personalities into the woman named Susannah Dean. Odetta developed a second personality as a young girl, when Jack Mort dropped a brick on her head. Her two personalities—the sophisticated and wealthy Odetta and the uneducated and vulgar Detta—lead separate lives, completely unaware of each other. Since both are aspects of her self, she cannot become a whole until those "polar twins" are united in Susannah Dean. When the compassion of Odetta and the strength of Detta merge into Susannah, she becomes a worthy gunslinger on Roland's team.
The dark halves of King's Gothic doubles express unrestrained sexuality. Reverend Lester Lowe "wolf-rapes" Stella Randolph, and the shy Arnie Cunningham transforms into a vulgar senior citizen in the form of the beast; the sexually insatiable Detta Walker uses both foul language and teases men, whereas George Stark commits a sexually charged murder of Miriam Cowley—not to mention the rape-murders of Frank Dodd and the child murders of Carl Bierstone/Charles Burnside. Gothic monsters underline the meaning of decadence and are thus concerned with the problem of degeneration. Punter maintains that they pose, from different angles, the same question appropriate to an age of imperial decline: how much can one lose—individually, socially, nationally—and still remain a man? (1). The question has remained a central issue in the modern Gothic and in King's fiction in particular.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was published at a time when the problem of prostitution was receiving considerable public attention in England. As in Frankenstein and Dracula, the protagonist's vice and decadence are once again sex-related, but also clearly sadistic—the serial killers, Frank Dodd (Dead Zone) and Charles Burnside (Black House), feature these sadistic traits in King. Stevenson had read W. T. Stead's series of articles on child prostitution and was aware that the demand for child prostitutes was being stimulated by the sadistic tastes of the Victorian gentlemen (Clemens 123). More importantly, the theme is evoked at the outset of the novella when Mr. Hyde tramples on a young girl. The violation of the girl's body is settled with a hundred pounds, which reinforces the prostitution motif. Also, the foggy night side of Mr. Hyde's London gives a glimpse of the Victorian gentlemen's subculture: "Once a woman spoke to him, offering, I think, a box of lights" (Stevenson 85)—clearly, she was offering something else. As in Black House where the Fisherman lusts for a young boy's buttocks, the hints of sexual exploitation also suggest male victims, as for instance, in the scene in which Mr. Utterson, "tossing to and fro" on his "great, dark bed," imagines Mr. Hyde blackmailing Dr. Jekyll. This dark "figure to whom power was given" would stand by Jekyll's bedside, "and even at that dead hour he must rise and do its bidding" (20). A disturbing novella, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde gave a detailed depiction of some upper-class gentlemen, but as Valdine Clemens notes, criticized moralistic middle-class sexual repression (for instance, the prevalent homosexual abuse in public schools and prostitution) and patriarchal power (124, 132).
Arnie Cunninham of Christine perishes because of his desperate loneliness. An unattractive teenager who finds little solace at home or at school, Arnie falls in love with a 1958 Plymouth Fury. Possessed by the evil spirit of Christine's earlier owner, Roland LeBay, Arnie is alienated from his family, best friend Dennis, and even his high school sweetheart Leigh Cabot. Like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Christine focuses on "humanity's vulnerability to dehumanization" which coexists with the fear of internal evil: "the upsurge of the animal, the repressed unconscious, the monster from id," or, as Douglas E. Winter points out, "the monster from the fifties" (137, 139; Danse 75). The novel also discusses the conflict between the will to do evil and the will to deny evil; the car becomes a symbol of the duality of human nature, as telling as the two sides of Henry Jekyll's town house which bordered both a graceful Victorian street and a slumlike alley (Winter 139-140; Danse 75): "It was as if I had seen a snake that was almost ready to shed its old skin, that some of the old skin had already flaked away, revealing the glistening newness underneath" (Christine 57-58). As Christine magically returns to street condition, Arnie also begins to change, at first for the better, but then he matures beyond his years: "a teenage Jekyll rendered into a middle-aged Hyde" (Winter 140).
In brief, although Stevenson's classic finds no single counterpart in King, its motifs occur in several of King's works.
Cycle of the Werewolf and The Talisman introduce us to another Stephen King double: the werewolf. Perhaps nowhere else in King's fiction is the Gothic double more pronounced than in this figure.
Beginning as a calendar, displaying twelve colored drawings by Bernie Wrightson with brief accompanying text by King, Cycle of the Werewolf evolved into a twelve-chapter novella. Each successive segment takes place on a specific holiday of the year, from January to December, relating the story of the recurring appearance of a werewolf in isolated Tarker's Mills, Maine, and its destruction at the hands of a crippled boy. King defines the predestined nature of the disaster: "It is the Werewolf, and there is no more reason for its coming now than there would be for the arrival of cancer, or a psychotic with murder on his mind, or a killer tornado" (Werewolf 14). Although the werewolf arouses fear and suspicions, only in October do the residents take systematic action to defend themselves. Like "Salem's Lot, Castle Rock, or Derry, Tarker's Mills keeps its secrets, and, similarly, the residents of Tarker's Mills embody all of the diversifying virtue and ugliness found in everyday people" (Larson 104).
What is more, each of the werewolf's victims expands the constant sense of isolation, due to the flaws in their physiques and in their characters (Collings, The Many Facets of Stephen King 80). As an illustration, the February victim, Stella Randolph, is isolated by her skewed romanticism and by her corpulence (80). However, this Valentine's day the lonely old maid receives a visitor: "a dark shape—amorphous but clearly masculine" (Werewolf 21). King depicts Stella's encounter with the werewolf in Gothic terms, combining dreams, sex, and death (21-24). He uses the common French metaphor "orgasm is a little death" to reinforce the Gothic effect of the February section. Indeed, what takes the place of the Valentine figure is a "beast" with "shaggy fur in a silvery streak" (22) its breath "hot, but somehow not unpleasant" (23). Despite Berni Wrightson's illustration of a lustful redhead embracing a werewolf, King never graphically describes the wolf-rape and killing of the fat old maid, but veils it in quasi-romantic images that might have derived from John Keats's classic poem, "The Eve of St. Agnes" (Reino 136).
Like the wheel-chair bound protagonist Marty Coslaw, the Reverend Lester Lowe did nothing to deserve his destiny. Until May, he remains as unaware of the werewolf's identity as anybody else in Tarker's Mills. On the night before Homecoming Sunday, he has, however, a most peculiar dream. In his dream, Lowe has been preaching with fire and force, but has to break off, because both he and his congregation are turning into werewolves. Lester Lowe's relief after the nightmare turns into knowledge when he opens the church doors next morning, finding the gutted body of Clyde Corliss.
King refers to the werewolf in biblical terms as "the Beast" and "the Great Satan," and in the Gothic manner the Beast can be anywhere or, even worse, anybody (Werewolf 45). Unlike a number of other monsters, werewolves, however, frequently arouse pity. Aptly, Collings states that the werewolf is more sinned against than sinning, and that the curse works in two ways: on the level of plot, it transforms an otherwise sensible man into a rapacious monster; on the level of theme and symbol, it divorces him from reality, isolating the person from society and from personal standards of morality (Facets 78).
Although Reverend Lester Lowe shares a fate similar to that of Arnie Cunningham of Christine, he does not evoke fear and pity to the same extent. In the same way as his hypocritical predecessor in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Lester Lowe makes excuses for his behavior without fighting against it. In November, having found out that hunters have been sent out after the werewolf, he deliberately takes the role of the beast and defends himself by comparing the hunters with irrational animals. Ignoring the threat of these adult men, Marty Coslaw's lined notepads, and his direct question—"Why don't you kill yourself?" (Werewolf 108, 111; italics original)—the Reverend Lester Lowe (that is, the werewolf) is forced to analyze his situation. With hubris like that of Victor Frankenstein, he turns to God: "If I have been cursed from Outside, then God will bring me down in His time" (Werewolf 111; italics original). In other words, against the advice of his own creator, Stephen King, Reverend Lester Lowe readily lays the guilt on "God the Father" (Danse 62) and refuses to take responsibility for his actions or to fight his werewolf instincts. Moreover, blinded by his own logical reasoning, Lester Lowe succumbs to even greater evil by deliberately contemplating the murder of Marty Coslaw—this time both premeditated and in full possession of his senses (Werewolf 111).
While many contemporary treatments tend to glamorize the virtues of evil, King's approach is more traditional (Larson 106-107). Larson regards Reverend Lowe as a man unable to free himself from the overwhelming influence of evil, and he is eventually only able to do so through the aid of an outside agency, through the sympathy and concern of Marty Coslaw (107). Despite his fear of the werewolf, Marty recognizes the human being beneath the beast. While aiming his pistol with silver bullets towards the attacking werewolf, he says: "Poor old Reverend Lowe. I'm gonna try to set you free" (Werewolf 125). In the same way, Mina Harker pities the vampire in Dracula: "The poor soul who has wrought all this misery is the saddest case of all" (367). Clearly, King's allusion to this sentiment reinforces the moral tradition that has lain at the heart of the horror genre and has been much absent in contemporary horror fiction (Larson 108).
Undoubtedly, King takes a traditional stand by letting evil perish in the end of the novella, thus, unlike Larson or Anthony Magistrale in The Moral Voyages of Stephen King (57-67), I argue that evil can often be conquered in King's fiction. Although Jack Torrance of The Shining succumbs to evil and takes the mallet to attack his family, Dick Hallorann is able to resist the same evil influence of the hotel—similarly, Lowe could have acted otherwise. In The Talisman, we encounter Wolf, a slow-witted werewolf from the Territories. When he senses that the full moon is rising and that his instincts might lead him to hurt Jack Sawyer who has become his "herd" and whom he is thus expected to defend against all imaginable threats, this righteous creature takes measures to prevent possible accidents and locks up the herd, that is Jack Sawyer, in a shed for three days: "He Would Not Injure His Herd" (321). Unlike the godly Lowe who attempts to silence his crippled eye witness, the animal-like Wolf avoids killing people. Lowe considers his werewolf nature alien to his true self and allows this alien part to commit even grimmer crimes, which pushes him toward greater levels of moral corruption. Wolf, in contrast, lives by the laws of nature, takes into account the facts caused by his instincts, and respects himself. It is interesting to note, however, that while an evil impulse may be conquered the temptation toward evil is never entirely eliminated.
The Writer/His Pseudonym
Another variation of the Gothic double in Stephen King's work is Thad Beaumont/George Stark or the writer/his pseudonym. In the author's note of The Dark Half, King expresses his gratitude to his pseudonym, Richard Bachman, maintaining that the "novel could not have been written without him." In an interview with Walden Books (November/December 1989) and quoted in Magistrale, King acknowledged prior to the publication of The Dark Half that Richard Bachman is the darker, more violent side of Stephen King, just as Stark is the dark half of Thad Beaumont (The Second Decade 66). Remarkably, then, the Gothic double resides within the Gothic double, that is, the reality of the novel reflects reality. Undoubt-edly, both pseudonyms function as a dark alter ego for the artist, a chance to realize his most violent and pessimistic visions. Tony Magistrale notes that the details surrounding the union between Beaumont and Stark underscore King's intimate relationship with Bachman. Furthermore, even information relevant to those trusted persons who knew, protected, and finally revealed King's pseudonym corresponds to the fictional events that the reader discovers in The Dark Half (Decade 63-64).
Like Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, whose transformation is occasioned by scientific explanation, King attempts to establish credibility by the means of medicine. Having suffered from constant headaches, the eleven-year-old Thad Beaumont is operated on, and, instead of a supposed brain tumor, a fetal twin is discovered in his brain. In addition to being Thad's physical twin, George Stark has his origin in the writer's imagination. Considering George "a very bad man," Thad knows that he has "built George Stark from the ground up" (The Dark Half 155). The symbolic funeral of George Stark becomes a moral stand for Thad's part, because he has both indulged his dark fantasies in Stark's fiction and profited financially from his success (Magistrale, Decade 64). Wendy and William, Beaumont's identical twins, underscore the symbiotic relationship of Stark and Beaumont. While responding with similar affection to these different looking men, Wendy and William sense their identical nature. Sharing identical fingerprints and a capacity for mental telepathy, it becomes more obvious that George has a right to feel insulted (The Dark Half 331). Not even Thad is able to make a clear distinction between himself and George: "Who are you when you write, Thad? Who are you then?" (The Dark Half 129; italics original).
Since George constitutes an integral part of Thad's psyche, he does not genuinely attempt to get rid of George. Elisabeth compares the relationship with alcohol or drug addiction, stating that Thad revealed George's identity only through the force of circumstances: "If Frederick Clawson hadn't come along and forced my husband's hand, I think Thad would still be talking about getting rid of him in the same way" (The Dark Half 202). Indeed, this contradiction has resulted in alcohol addiction, a suicide attempt, and lifelike dreams. However, only as Stark threatens Beaumont's immediate circle, does he realize the intimacy of their relationship and its fatal consequences. Starting as a thriller, the final confrontation of the two brothers and its victory for Thad receives a mythological explanation. Conducting human souls back and forth between the land of the living and the land of the dead, sparrows are able to distinguish the original brother from the dead one and to take the latter where he belongs. Nevertheless, Thad's victory may prove of short duration, and he is referred to in a less pleasant context later in King: in Needful Things (1991) we learn that Thad Beaumont has broken up with his wife and in Bag of Bones (1998) that he has committed suicide.
The Serial Killer
The serial killer also represents the modern counterpart of Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde. The Dead Zone, for example, concerns the removal of masks, both political and psychological. The Gothic duality is displayed even in the novel's central symbol, the wheel of fortune, which, apart from representing blind chance, reveals a second disc. Winter explains that at its heart is the Presidential Seal, a symbol of a different game of chance—politics—and its paradoxes (76). Focusing on the masquerade of politics, Greg Stillson, a Congressional candidate whose name is an intentional conjunction of "still" and "Nixon" (263), takes the Vietnamese masquerade-game of the "Laughing Tiger" a step further: "inside the beast-skin, a man, yes. But inside the man-skin, a beast" (The Dead Zone 297). The Dead Zone also connects the fates—and masks—of Johnny Smith whose resemblance to Everyman is signaled in the prosaic simplicity of his name and Frank Dodd, the strangler-rapist whose identity is withheld until one of "Faithful John's" psychic revelations.
As a consequence of a car crash, Johnny lies in a coma for four and a half years. Awakening in May 1975 at the age of twenty-seven, he discovers that the world has changed: the war in Vietnam has ended, a Vice-President and President have resigned, Johnny's girlfriend is married and has borne a child, Stillson has made his political move, and an unidentified rapist is killing young women in Castle Rock. Apart from regaining consciousness, Johnny has acquired occult powers of precognition and telepathy which both cause his estrangement from his past life and force him to take a moral stand: whether or not to stop Stillson and Dodd. Although this Faithful John serves the purpose of good, his Jekyll-and-Hyde mask (The Dead Zone 14) haunts his girlfriend Sarah Bracknell (later Sarah Hazlett) throughout the novel.
While Johnny is comatose, the policeman Frank Dodd commits his brutal rapestranglings. Joseph Reino maintains that the crimes seem to emerge from the blankness of the coma, as if they were merely the dark side of the otherwise sunny personality, and as if Frank was Johnny's evil "other"—this pair thus possessing something like Edgar Allan Poe's "bi-part soul" (67). Despite the grim verdict, King provides the character with a background which explains some of the hideous acts. While awaiting a young victim (Alma Frechette) to walk into his trap, Dodd's mind is momentarily obsessed with an embarrassing childhood memory: a lesson in sexual education given by his abusive mother. When Frank was innocently playing with his penis, his mother, a huge woman, caught him in the act and began to shake him back and forth. Here King emphasizes parental responsibility for aberrant personality development, arguing that Frank "was not the killer then, he was not slick then, he was a little boy blubbering with fear" (The Dead Zone 65). Albeit somewhat simplistically, King underscores the significance of the formative years.
When Alma Frechette appears, fate plays a decisive role in a genuinely Gothic manner, and, again, everybody must be suspected. Familiar with the killer, Alma does not suspect anything but wonders at his Little Red Riding Hood outfit (The Dead Zone 66). Before long, she is strangled at the moment of Dodd's ejaculation. "Surely no hometown boy could have done such a dreadful thing," states the pious narrator (The Dead Zone 68), and from then on almost two years pass without more killings.
Significantly, Johnny Smith's awakening from the coma coincides with the fourth murder. However, it takes deep self-exploration on the recovered Johnny's part before he accepts the sheriff George Bannerman's request to assist in the murder investigation. By acknowledging his psychic abilities and acting accordingly, Johnny humbles before fate. In King's world, nobody escapes his destiny, and, at any rate, a well-developed brain tumor would cause Johnny's death within a few months. However, by bearing responsibility for his next, Johnny prevents Greg Stillson's presidency and its likely consequence, a nuclear war, as well as Frank Dodd from continuing his murder series. After all, the investigation turns out to be of short duration, since the deputy Frank Dodd commits suicide the same evening the two men meet at the police department. Remarkably, the childish face hides the Gothic mark of the beast (The Dead Zone 233), evil actions having their root in childhood. After gathered enough evidence, Bannerman and Smith visit Dodd's house and find him dead: "Knew, Johnny thought incoherently. Knew somehow when he saw me. Knew it was all over. Came home. Did this" (The Dead Zone 253). In other words, the two men are connected, and their interrelations are further reinforced by the nature of their mothers: the sexual neurotic, Henrietta Dodd, who "knew from the beginning" (The Dead Zone 252) and Vera Smith who marks her son with her religious frenzies: "God has put his mark on my Johnny and I rejoice" (The Dead Zone 61).
The opening page of Cujo repeats the story of Frank Dodd, stating that "he was no werewolf, vampire, ghoul, or unnameable creature from the enchanted forest or from the snowy wastes; he was only a cop named Frank Dodd with mental and sexual problems" (Cujo 3). Like Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Frank Dodd personifies a victimized human being who does not "suit in his skin." Although regarded as a respected resident of Castle Rock, Frank Dodd lacks identity and is perhaps therefore a master of disguise.
A number of serial killers suffer from impotence except during their violent acts and are not considered genuinely males, but are despised as freaks and monsters. Charles Burnside a.k.a. Carl Bierstone and the Fisherman of Black House has all but one of these characteristics: born evil and without conscience, he justifies cruelty as an end in itself.
Black House is a kind of sequel to The Talisman, both works being jointly authored by Peter Straub and Stephen King. A Victorian novel with allusions to Charles Dickens's Bleak House, Dickensian characters, and references to Edgar Allan Poe and Mark Twain, Black House reads as a tale of horror or a detective story with a blend of thriller and fantasy (Gaiman 2). The narrative reintroduces the then twelve-year-old Jack Sawyer of The Talisman. Now this retired, burned out ex-LAPD homicide detective lives in the small Wisconsin town of French Landing—interestingly, in scenery resembling Tom Sawyer's and Huckleberry Finn's foggy riverside. Children are being abducted from French Landing by a cannibal named "The Fisherman" who has disguised himself as an Alzheimer's patient in the local old people's home and is aided in his dastardly misdeeds by a talking crow called "Gorg." The Fisherman is a pawn in the hand of the Crimson King, evil monarch of End World, who attempts to abduct a wunderkind in order to annihilate the universe with his powers. Jack and a gang of philosophically inclined motor bikers called the Hegelian Scum take action to save the wunderkind, Ty Marshall, and arrest the Fisherman.
Parodying the thriller formula, the narrator takes us to the murder scene of Irma Freneau:
We are not here to weep…. Humility is our best, most accurate first response. Without it, we would miss the point, the great mystery would escape us, and we would go on deaf and blind, ignorant as pigs. Let us not go on like pigs. We must honor the scene—the flies, the dog worrying the severed foot, the poor, pale body of Irma Freneau, the magnitude of what befell Irma Freneau—by acknowledging our littleness. In comparison, we are no more than vapors.
(Black House 35-36)
The Fisherman himself is named after Albert Fish, a real-life child-killer and cannibal, whose crimes he imitates in the novel's fictional world. In his study of the interrelationship between the reader and the novel, Edward Bullough states that a work of fiction has succeeded when the reader participates in the communication process so completely as to be nearly convinced that the art is reality (758). In Black House, the authors gap the bridge between the reader and the text by equating the reader with the narrator (a first-person plural narration), by using the present tense, and even by letting the reader choose the story ending that best serves his purpose. Perhaps the otherwise too fantastic occurrences of the story become more realistic by these means, combined with King's usual artillery: lifelike characters and initially realistic settings.
The serial killer turns out to be a tall, skinny, and senile old man (Black House 22). Although a soul brother to the other men who reside at the Maxton Elder Care Facility with his "sly, secretive, rude, caustic, stubborn, foul-tongued, meanspirited, and resentful" character (Black House 23), Charles Burnside hides his true self:
Carl Bierstone is Burny's great secret, for he cannot allow anyone to know that this former incarnation, this earlier self, still lives inside his skin. Carl Bierstone's awful pleasures, his foul toys, are also Burny's and he must keep them hidden in the darkness, where only he can find them.
(Black House 26)
The secrets with which Charles Burnside indulges himself turn him into a loner, forcing him to hide his misdeeds. As a tool in the hands of a greater evil, Burnside takes his pleasure feeding on children who are not worth sending to the End-World to the Crimson King, a creature who ultimately hides beneath the Fisherman mask.
Assisted by Gorg, the speaking crow, Charles Burnside addresses the End-World like a vassal or a stray dog fed with crumbs. While action is needed, the senior citizen undergoes a transformation. In Charles Burnside's place is Carl Bierstone and something inhuman (Black House 111). The inhuman inside Burny's head signifies Mr. Munshun, Crimson King's close disciple and servant, a vampire-like figure. Nearing the end of his usefulness, Burny is at Mr. Munshun's request forced to take Ty Marshall, a promising breaker to an appointed meeting place. The term breaker is used for those slaves of Crimson King who break the beams leading to the Tower, thus aiming at the total annihilation of the universe. Driven by contradictory urges, this odd serial killer is afraid of the consequences of his actions (Black House 541), but, despite a deadly wound, still lusts for Ty Marshall's "juicy buttocks." Like the witch of "Hansel and Gretel," he is reluctant to hand over his prey: "A good agent's entitled to ten percent" (Black House 550). Only seldom can a parallel be drawn between a serial killer and a wicked witch from a fairy tale, which perhaps bears further witness to King's genre blending.
The Gothic double of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde shares some traits with characters in King's work. First, flawed humanity moves between the two poles of good and evil, causing contradiction and anguish to the subject. Second, the Gothic gnome, that is, the "dwarfish" and "ape-like" half of the personality is hidden at the cost of hypocrisy and oft hideous crimes. Therefore, a disguise is needed, which causes further tension and the fear of getting caught. Tension also intensifies from the constant threat of transformation.
Monsters of the nineteenth century scare us from a distance while at the same time, as Halberstam notes, "We wear modern monsters like skin, they are us, they are on us and in us" (163). King, too, states that "the monsters are no longer due on Maple Street, but may pop up in our own mirrors—at any time" (Danse 252). Presumably, both convictions are based on two facts; good and evil can and do exist within a single person and, concomitantly, we are ultimately unable to evolve, to purge our baser selves from our psyche. King puts it straightforwardly: "Werewolf, vampire, ghoul, unnameable creature from the wastes. The monster never dies" (Cujo 4).
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――――――. Stephen King as Richard Bachman. Mercer Island, Washington, Starmont House, 1985.
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Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4160
KENNETH GIBBS (ESSAY DATE 1986)
SOURCE: Gibbs, Kenneth. "Stephen King and the Tradition of American Gothic." Gothic New Series 1 (1986): 6-14.
In the following essay, Gibbs assesses the influence of Herman Melville's approach to the Gothic on King's work, particularly The Shining.
In the foreword to Night Shift Stephen King names many well-known literary forebearers from whom he derives the Gothic techniques central to his fiction—among those mentioned are Bram Stoker, the Beowulf poet, Henry James, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and, of course, Edgar Allan Poe; but he omits any reference to one major figure in American literature—Herman Melville. The omission seems justified, since, admittedly, Melville's use of the Gothic in his fiction often seems peripheral to his central thematic concerns. For Poe, Gothic techniques are definitely a necessary adjunct to his artistic vision, and Poe is therefore the recipient of far more recognition as a master of the Gothic than is Melville. Yet, when the overall spirit behind King's use of the Gothic in his major novels, especially The Shining, is compared with that of, for example, Melville's Moby-Dick, such close parallels appear that Poe's traditionally exclusive position at the fountainhead of American Gothic fiction may be profitably revalued.
King's affinity with Melville stems not only from their mutual dependence on standard Gothic techniques but from their employment of what Joseph Campbell refers to as the "monomyth" of "separation—initiation—return" (30) in relation to the achievement of transcendence in their fiction. Since Gothic literature has its roots in Romanticism, it shares the basic tenet of Romanticism that there is a division between the world we perceive with our senses and the intuitively apprehended world of the spirit. Whereas the mythic hero departs from his social world on his quest, the Romantic hero not only leaves society but also travels beyond the constraints of the physical world. If the Romantic artist has a strong penchant towards subjective idealism and feels that dreams may have greater reality than conscious, objective existence, the significance of the world of the senses can diminish until he, as does Poe, may plaintively wonder "Is all that we see or seem / But a dream within a dream?" (482). If the common reality of sensuous, rational experience has no integral validity, then nothing exists for the questor to return to, the dreamer can never awake, and the mythic circle of separation and return is broken.
In accord with the optimistic tenor of Emerson's theories on transcendence, American writers have often been eager to commence the artistic quest beyond the phenomenal world. For example, Walt Whitman writes in "Passage to India": "For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go, / And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all" (347). In contrast to this trend, Melville's Moby-Dick cautions that when the artist's ship seeks to break through the containing masks of the phenomenal world, the voyage is captained by a madman who will sink the entire enterprise before a return from the outward journey is possible. But one character in Moby-Dick, Ishmael, does survive precisely because he balances Ahab's desire to transcend the phenomenal worlds, the empirical world of masks, with a deep appreciation of the beauty and necessity of the opposing world of the senses. Ishmael has seen the whale from both sides, both as symbol of transcendence and as a physical, living entity, and he has learned to respect each side of the transcendental dialectic: "Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly, this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them both with equal eye" (480). Like the symbolic bifurcation of the whale's vision, Ishmael views existence from a dual perspective; he skeptically and rationally investigates the actual, material world, discounting authorities who have not immediately experienced the whale, and he does intuit that there is a level of reality that exists beyond. Ishmael's stance is somewhat akin to Whitman's period of more sensual mysticism in "Song of Myself," where he declares, "I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul" (42). In this perspective both the material and the spiritual worlds coexist, allowing the protagonist to complete the mythic journey from this world to the beyond and back.
Poe, on the other hand, exemplifies in his art what David Halliburton identifies as "pure transcendence" (278). In "The Poetic Principle" Poe locates the source of the beautiful beyond the phenomenal world; "It [man's sense of the beautiful] is no mere appreciation of the Beauty before us—but a wild effort to reach the beauty above" (418). Once someone reaches such beauty above, he certainly would not willingly return to the far less desirable beauty before him. As illustrated in "The Fall of the House of Usher," the movement in Poe's fiction is completely, and irrevocably, away from any contact with the material world, for Roderick Usher, the only character possessing knowledge of higher, spiritual, aesthetic principles, disappears and will never return to illuminate the terrified, uncomprehending narrator. The two worlds—the spiritual intuitions of Usher and the rational, skeptical proclivities of the narrator—do not harmoniously cojoin as they do in Ishmael's character. Poe ends his tale with, as described by David Halliburton, a "fall from life as we know it to life as we know it not" (292).
It should be noted that Poe not ony disregards the aesthetic importance of the material world but also struggles to reach the Beauty above with a "wild effort" [italics mine]. Contained in the drive toward pure transcendence is the potential for the wild monomanic fury found in the characters Ahab in Moby-Dick and Jack Torrence in The Shining. In both Melville and King, an attempt to break through the material world in order to reach the beyond carries with it the danger of an uncontrolled, unbalanced aggression toward elements of the physical world.
A very succinct analysis of Poe's approach to transcendence occurred during a lecture by Richard Wilbur, renowned poet and critic of Poe, when he responded to a question about the similarity between his poetry and Poe's with the remark:
… his [Poe's] attitude toward poetry and toward the world is not mine at all. I'm not at all interested in writing a kind of poetry that annihilates the world so as to bring us closer to some sort of beyond. I'd rather proceed toward the beyond by way of a concrete world affectionately taken.
A key word in this quotation, "affectionately," indicates that for Wilbur art must lovingly retain the "concrete world," the world before us, while at the same time moving toward the beyond. In other words, both worlds must cohere in a mysterious unity of diversity; otherwise, the circle of separation and return is broken and all that is left is half an arc into the unknowable world beyond and an annihilation of the world as we know it.
Richard Wilbur's remarks do not specifically refer to Gothic art, and before proceeding further in this paper some understanding of what differentiates Gothic art from other forms of literary creativity is necessary. In the foreword to Night Shift, Stephen King defines the main constituent of Gothic art to be fear. And this fear occurs when the artist demonstrates that "… the good fabric of things has a way of unraveling with shocking suddenness" (xi). The sense that another reality underlies the good fabric of the conventional, rationally perceived world can as easily initiate fear as it does joy. Entrance into the world beyond can be joyful as it is for Emerson in "Nature" when he becomes a transparent eyeball and bathes in the circulation of "Universal Being" (189) or fearful as it is to Ishmael when on the masthead he learns that entrance into that universal, oceanic state may be personally destructive. In the Gothic fiction of Melville and King, this fear of what may be in the beyond becomes closely analagous to a descent into that other world of the mind, the subconscious, where the dream existence may as easily be nightmarish as idyllic. Hence, for Gothic fiction the journey of separation—initiation—return often assumes a parallel psychological movement of separation from the rational, conventional mind, an initiation into the demonic potential of the subconscious, and a return back to rationality tempered with a sense of the energies of the subconscious.
Since it is one of the functions of the Gothic artist to reveal the fears that arise once the threshold of the rational world is passed, his creative energy may itself be conceived as productive of fear. If the artist successfully completes the circular journey through fear back to the rational and conventional, his artistry may signify that both sides may be held in balance, a situation that accounts for Melville's remark after completing Moby-Dick: "I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb" (142). Since both creative energy and demonic force are often symbolized by fire, the Gothic artist must, as Ishmael so clearly demonstrates in Moby-Dick, not be consumed and confused by fire, but must master it and integrate its power productively, not destructively, with the rational, concrete world. In both the try-works of the Pequod and the cellar of the Overlook resides a burning core which is the primal manifestation of creative power. When first encountered in the Gothic tale that utilizes elements of the psychological journey into the subconscious, this power may seem wicked and evil, but this fearful sense of evil can be assimilated into the artistic vision in order to produce that balance of the subconscious and the conscious that reflects the completed cycle of the psychological quest.
The images surrounding the advent of a positive outcome from the rending of the fabric of the material and rational world generally indicate that some sort of rebirth has occurred. As in the epilogue of Moby-Dick where Ishmael surfaces back into the conventional world charged with an understanding of the mysteries of the beyond, reentrance into this world by the protagonist signals a successful completion of the mythic journey. In contrast to Ishmael, who surfaces from the vortex of the Pequod's descent, Roderick Usher disappears into the tarn at the end of "The Fall of the House of Usher." Nothing is reborn at the end of Poe's fiction. Even A. Gordon Pym, who survives the events recorded in his tale, did not live to conclude his artistic rendering of the end of those events. Gordon V. Boudreau presents an interesting highlight on this discussion when he quotes D. H. Lawrence in his article "Of Pale Ushers and Gothic Piles: Melville's Architectural Symbology": "While 'the rhythm of American art-activity is dual … a sloughing of the old consciousness' and 'the forming of a new consciousness underneath,' there is 'only the disintegrative vibration' in Poe" (80). Boudreau's study perceptively argues that in Melville the Gothic symbology ushers us into the presence of a new eschatology, in effect a rebirth of the new from the old. Poe, in contrast, presents us with a disharmony between the conventional attitudes of his narrator in "The Fall of the House of Usher" and the esoteric knowledge of Usher; at the end of the narrative the narrator, unlike Ishmael, understands little more than at the beginning. This disharmony occurs because of Poe's Gnostic-like tendency to annihilate the concrete world in order to reveal the beyond, tendency that violates the motif of rebirth as exemplified in Melville's art.
Other than as rebirth, the coupling of the beyond with the concrete world can be symbolically presented as an atonement between father and son. In The Shining and Moby-Dick, however, the father figures seek to violently rend the fabric of the material world and display little affection for the son. Both Ishmael, who rejects the one-sided nature of the father figure Ahab's quest, and Danny, who tricks his father into destruction, do not reach atonement with these father figures, but rather with a father surrogate whose black skin signifies the dark, sometimes terrifying mystery of the beyond. Both Ahab and Jack Torrence personify a state close to what Poe described as the "wild effort to reach the Beauty above," and the fury and single-mindedness of their efforts preclude atonement. It is the son who completes the circular journey and forms a harmonious relationship with the beyond by entering into a parallel relationship with a dark character—Queequeg in Moby-Dick and Halloran in The Shining.
A close inspection of the ending of The Shining reveals how close the symbolic parallels are between Melville and King. At the end of King's novel, Danny is fishing like a rejuvinated fisher king for a "pink whale." Then, "The tip of the fishing rod bent. Danny pulled it back and a long fish, rainbow-colored, flashed up in a sunny, winking parabola, and disappeared again" (447). The reference to whales obviously recalls Melville, but King's use of the rainbow more seriously indicates his sympathy with Melville's artistic concerns. Traditionally, the rainbow signifies the end of a destructive phase and the beginning of a new order. In Moby-Dick Melville expands the conventional use of the rainbow into a comprehensive symbol for artistic vision:
For, d'ye see, rainbows do not visit the clean air; they only irradiate vapor. And so, through all the thick mists of the dim doubts in my mind, divine intuitions now and then shoot, enkindling my fog with a heavenly ray.
King's The Shining ends with the rainbow, which, as in Moby-Dick, signifies a balance between the fogs, vapors, and doubts that well up from the subconscious, that area opened to view once the fabric of the rational and conventional parts, and the conscious mind, the instrument of the concrete world. When Danny's fishing pole brings the rainbow fish from the waters of the subconscious up in one, graceful parabolic arc, he performs an act as representative of artistic harmony as Melville's rainbow. And since the rainbow is an arc, the drawing of the rainbow fish up from the depths and down again illustrates the completion of the circular journey of myth and the artistic union of opposites.
A detailed exploration of The Shining reveals that the novel contains more parallels to Moby-Dick than just the ending. Each novel investigates the nature of the artist's creativity. Each envisions the artistic mind as split between two powers: on one side is a father figure, monomanic and destructive; on the other is a filial figure, receptive of ambiguity, interested in reconciliation, and harmoniously creative at the end of the narrative. Both Ishmael and Danny are protected by a dark man, whose function, so profoundly symbolized in the character of Queequeg, is to wed the youthful mind with the aphotic instinctual powers that roll like lava beneath the thin layer of rationality.
In the basement of the Overlook fumes the raging volcanic furnace, centrally located as is the try-works on the Pequod. This is the center of creative energy which must be controlled, for "she creeps." The furnace's "channeled destructive force" (15) is often equated with Jack Torrence's vicious temper which strikes out at both his son Danny and his former student George Hatfield. Also, in the crates beside the furnace lies the whole sordid history of the Overlook, which Jack views as the factual source for a future great novel. Thus, in conjunction with the furnace resides the substance of Jack's art.
While Jack becomes obsessed with the history of the Overlook that rests deep within the building, his son Danny is as deeply lost inside himself with Tony, his imaginary playmate, and the mysterious word "Redrum." Both father and son are obsessed with the horror of murder that lies deep under their consciousness. D. H. Lawrence states in Studies in Classic American Literature that "Murder is a lust to get at the very quick of life itself, and kill it …" (80); hence, a tenuous but valid connection exists between Ahab and his quest to slay Moby Dick and Jack and his crazed, homicidal assults upon his son and George Hatfield. Ahab seeks to strike through the mask of the White Whale, and Jack seeks to strike through his son into the supernatural level that inhabits the Overlook. Although the spiritual manifestations of the Overlook are surrounded with references to Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death," Jack Torrence is actually in Ahab's symbolic world on a quest for some way to break through the mask of the rationally perceived world into the supernatural realm beyond.
Danny, on the other hand, approaches the murderous areas within himself in a much more controlled way than his father's mad use of force. Rather than using a rocque mallet, a weapon like Ahab's harpoon that would smash into the other world, Danny observes the anagram "Redrum" in a mirror and deciphers its meaning by reflection. Reflection is a much more rational, balanced act than the method pursued by his father, for it unites the intellect, the mirror, with the object reflected, the subconscious impulses toward murder.
The rocque mallet wielded by Jack Torrence has two sides—one hard, the other soft; but Jack chooses only one side—the hard. Like Ahab, he forsakes balance and succumbs to monomania. In the process Jack becomes the very thing he has always desperately sought to avoid; he becomes his father, a despicable drunkard with little, pig-like eyes, who once beat Jack's mother with a cane in tempo with the phrase, "'I guess you'll take your medicine now'" (224). Despite Jack's pathetic protest that "'You're [his father] not in me at all'" (227), the pulse beats in his forehead as it did when his father became mindlessly angry, the pig eyes set into Jack's head, and his hand thirsts for the rocque mallet, a phallic weapon similar to his father's cane, in order to give his son Danny "his medicine."
Jack's madness occurs because he cannot deal adequately with the forces that surge beneath his conscious mind. One of the most prominent images in the novel, the wasp image, focuses on Jack's inability to balance conscious control with subconscious impulses. Again recalling the foreword to Night Shift, the wasp nest that Jack uncovers beneath the roof of the Overlook is comparable to the frightening prospects revealed once the fabric of conventional reality is parted. Wasps, anti-creative insects whose nests hold venom, not honey, symbolize how radically Jack's own mind has fallen from its creative potential to destruction. The brain-shaped wasp nest, or wasps themselves, always appear in conjunction with Jack's mental disintegration; the image is there when Jack loses his temper with Danny and George Hatfield; it is present as Jack's dipsomania returns; and, significantly, the image coheres around Jack's attitudes toward his own father, who once exterminated a wasp nest while the youthful Jack watched in awe. And a strong connection between the wasp image and the maliciousness that begins to dominate Jack's creative self is evidenced in lines such as "The moving wasp, having stung, moves on …" (189).
Jack cannot control the wasp impulse within himself because he does not know how to assimilate the positive elements of his father. His father was both cruel and loving, yet Jack hopelessly muddles these two sides so that his art which should be productive, loving one might say, becomes perverted into a need to destroy. As Jack's sanity deteriorates, he listens more intently to his father's illusionary voice which connects art with murder:
You have to kill him [Danny], Jacky, and her, too. Because a real artist must suffer. Because each man kills the thing he loves. Because they'll always be conspiring against you, trying to hold you back and drag you down.
According to Erich Neumann, an outstanding interpreter of Jungian psychology, the hero, the creative man, must battle against these negative aspects of the father and unite himself with the father's positive qualities. In other words, the father must be split so that his destructive side can be eliminated and his creative side salvaged and integrated into the personality. In contrast to Jack's failure to do this, Danny performs this necessary bifurcation of the father by acquiring as a surrogate father the nurturing and loving Dick Halloran, who, like Queequeg, fosters a productive association with the subconscious.
Dick Halloran performs the service of awakening Danny to the affirmative nature of his gift—the shining. Since it is Danny's shining that sets the supernatural forces of the Overlook into motion, his shining is associated with the artistic and creative talents of a writer of Gothic tales. Rightly employed, the shining would give insight into others (a necessary foundation for the novelist's ability to develop character) and it releases the supernatural sensibilities so vital to a Gothic writer. Although Halloran concludes that Jack does not possess the shining, Jack certainly sees the same supernatural occurrences that Danny's shining empowers him to see. But unlike Danny, he denies his gift. Just as his denial of his father only strengthens the father's evil dominance, his ignorance of the potential of his shining leads to the upsurgence of its negative, evil side. The more insane Jack becomes, the more the affirmative creativity of the child turns into a diabolical threat to his artistry. Even his play The Little School is rewritten so that the young protagonist Gary Benson changes from a force for good against authority into a "monster masquerading as a boy" (259). Jack's authority toward his son Danny likewise changes into the obsession that Danny's greater imaginative powers impede his own. The supernatural occurrences at the hotel seem more dependent upon Danny than upon Jack; therefore, in order to convince himself that "It's not you [Danny] they want," Jack twistedly feels that he must insinuate himself into the service of the occult hierarchy of the hotel by sacrificing Danny.
Danny, however, proves more powerful than his father. Before his confrontation with his mallet-swinging, murderous father, Danny discovers the identity of Tony, the imaginary playmate who always announces the arrival of Danny's full shining powers. Again Danny looks into a mirror, that symbol of the rational mind, and sees that "the stamp on his features was that of his father" (420). This father figure is Tony, Danny's alter ego which arises from Danny's heretofore undisclosed middle name Anthony. At the moment of this discovery Danny understands that his is "a halfling caught between father and son, a ghost of both, a fusion" (421). This moment of revelation results in Danny's birth into a whole self: "He seemed to be bursting through some placental womb …" (426). Now Danny directly experiences what King describes in his foreward to Night Shift as "that connection point between the conscious and the subconscious" where "the horror tale lives" (xix). Danny defeats the destructive side of his father by harmonizing the adult, conscious life with the horror that lies underneath. In effect, his shining has illuminated the fogs and vapors of horror. Danny next remembers the all-important need for control and by reminding his own completely demonic father about the creeping temperature gauge on the hotel's furnace, sends this negative father figure to destruction.
Like Ishmael's, Danny's initiation into adulthood teaches him how to balance the positive features of the paternal nature with the imaginative energies that originate in the more subconsciously liberated area of childhood. Mark in 'Salem's Lot follows essentially the same process when he discovers that Barlow, the vampire, speaks to him in "a friendly voice, amazingly like his father's" (292). After both discern the true nature of this bogeyman/father and cause the horrifying figure to be purified in fire, each is united at the end of the novel with a new father figure and a new balance has been struck thereby between the conscious and the subconscious.
Because Stephen King's novels, especially The Shining, do not end in annihilation of conventional reality, but in rebirth symbology that signals harmony between the spiritual, the beyond, and this world, they reflect the spirit of the Gothic in Melville's Moby-Dick. King's basic artistic sympathies do not lie as closely to Poe's aesthetic, where the Gothic vision necessitates the dropping of this world like a husk in order to reach the beyond, as they do in Melville's where the Gothic vision harmonizes the rational, concrete world with a profound sense of the interpenetration of the sometimes beatific, sometimes horrifying, mysteries of another world.
Boudreau, Gordon V. "Of Pale Ushers and Gothic Piles: Melville's Architectural Symbology." Emerson Society Quarterly 18 (1972).
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Cleveland: Meridian, 1956.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Selected Writings. Ed. William H. Gilman. New York: New American Library, 1965.
Halliburton, David. Edgar Allan Poe: A Phenomenological View. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1973.
King, Stephen. Foreword. Night Shift. New York: New American Library, 1976 xiv-xv.
――――――. 'Salem's Lot. New York: New American Library, 1975.
――――――. The Shining. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1977.
Lawrence, D. H. Studies in Classic American Literature. New York: Viking, 1961.
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1964.
Poe, Edgar Allan. Selected Prose and Poetry. Ed. W. H. Auden. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1967.
Wilbur, Richard. Lecture. Antiquarian Society. Worcester, MA, 21 Oct. 1980.
Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4301
JESSE W. NASH (ESSAY DATE SPRING 1997)
SOURCE: Nash, Jesse W. "Postmodern Gothic: Stephen King's Pet Sematary." Journal of Popular Culture 30, no. 4 (spring 1997): 151-60.
In the following essay, Nash examines the influence of the popular culture representation of sensational literature and the Gothic tradition on King's works, arguing that these influences led King to create a "postmodern Gothic."
Although sympathetic critics have given it an impressive literary lineage, Stephen King's novel Pet Sematary has resisted easy categorization. Mary Ferguson Pharr detects the influence of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, but she notes that King's work is the least self-conscious of many such variations (120). Tony Magistrale, in "Stephen King's Pet Sematary: Hawthorne's Woods Revisited" and in his book Landscape of Fear: Stephen King's American Gothic, finds a strong affinity in theme and purpose with Nathaniel Hawthorne, among other New England and/or transcendentalist writers. Slavoj Zizek relates Pet Sematary to the tragedies of Sophocles (25-26).
One need not, however, give King such a distinguished pedigree to appreciate Pet Sematary's complexity or recognize its importance in contemporary popular culture. To do so, one might suggest, runs counter to the very spirit of King's works. As he himself informs us in Douglas Winter's Stephen King: The Art of Darkness, King's primary sources for his novel are his own life experiences and fantasies, popular culture, and his reading of archaic burial lore (145-146, 150). In other words, the key to understanding Pet Sematary does not lie in the "classical" literary tradition so much as in popular culture itself and how popular culture appropriates, reworks, and represents more classical literary artifacts.
Pet Sematary's connection to Shelley's Frankenstein in particular must be seen within the dynamics of a contemporary popular culture matrix. In Danse Macabre, King refers to Frankenstein as "caught in a kind of cultural echo chamber" (65). People are often less familiar with Shelley's actual text than they are re-presentations of the figure of Frankenstein in popular culture. It is helpful to think of the echoes Frankenstein sets in motion in terms of Clifford Geertz' notion of "webs of significance" (5). The webs in which King is enmeshed are not entirely those of Shelley; even when he shares webs of significance with Shelley, such as the problematic nature and popular fear of science and technology, his attitude in regard to those webs is entirely different. For example, in her introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, Shelley credits the ultimate origin of her novel to her husband's and Lord Byron's rather tabloid, sensationalistic discussions of "Dr. Darwin," but she distances herself from those discussions, confessing that she does not know if they are accurate depictions of what Darwin had actually written or done (xxiv).
In Pet Sematary, on the other hand, King revels in the tabloid and the sensational, using at one point in the novel the supposed authenticity of the Shroud of Turin as an argument against scientific rationalism and its debunking of the possibility of miracles (200). Along with "penis envy" and the "oedipal conflict," the Shroud is one of those strange truths that Arnie Cunningham in Christine recognizes and to which he subscribes (24). Similarly, to emphasize his preference of the sensational over the purely realistic, King tells his readers in the introduction to Skeleton Crew that in The Thorn Birds his "favorite part was when the wicked old lady rotted and sprouted maggots in about sixteen hours" (21).
In Frankenstein, Shelley's focus is not on what is scientifically or realistically possible but rather the moral dilemmas of modern human beings. Pet Sematary, however, does want us to reconsider what is possible precisely because King is a child of the tabloid, the medical oddity, and archaic lore. Therefore, if King is rewriting Frankenstein, he is rewriting it from a vastly different personal, cultural, and historical perspective, and so much so, I would like to suggest, that Frankenstein and Pet Sematary no longer share the same genre.
King's novel is an example of what we might fruitfully think of as "postmodern Gothic," which is a transformation or historical mutation of the traditional Gothic tale. Such a designation takes seriously King's ties to the traditional Gothic genre but also recognizes the influence of the prevailing postmodernism of much of late twentieth century popular culture (see Collins). Such a designation has the added benefit of allowing us to determine what is gained and what is lost in King's transformation of traditional literary forms. It will be suggested in this essay that King's postmodern Gothic is more amenable to popular or mass sentiment than the traditional Gothic work, and thus King is more willing to tackle explicitly cultural issues as opposed to the traditional Gothic preoccupation with personality and character. In the process, King is able to launch a full frontal attack on the modern American experience, developing a powerful and consistent cultural critique, using the voices of those he understands to be typically marginalized in contemporary American society, the child, the adolescent, the ordinary Joe and Josephine of lower, middle, and rural America, the wise non-academic, and at least in the case of Carrie, Verena Lovett forcefully argues, the tabooed, menstruating woman (175).
What is lost in King's mutation of the Gothic genre is more difficult to grasp, especially since his Gothic fiction is often more successful in portraying middle America than so-called "realistic" mainstream fiction (Nash 38), but the problematic nature of his postmodern mutation cannot be avoided. What is often lost in the gale of fright, supernatural menace, and cynical social commentary is a certain sense of textual logic, integrity, and purpose. Pet Sematary is a good instance of the dilemmas King's postmodern Gothic poses. In that novel, King gives us a cast of characters whose actions and eventual fate are truly horrifying, but they are placed in a logically inconsistent fictional universe, a universe so supernaturally oppressive that they have no choice in the matter. Horror is achieved at the expense of logic, but with the loss of logic, the novel's ability to address real problems in a real America is compromised. What we must eventually fear in King's fiction is not the real world of oppressive parents and governments but the imaginary, but if this is the case, King's work loses its critical edge, its power to engage American society. Thus, King's greatest problem is a side effect of his greatest asset, his postmodernism, his privileging of folk, archaic, and popular traditions over that of scientific rationalism.
This postmodern privileging of the popular and the archaic converges nicely in Pet Sematary. If Rabelais is the master preserver of popular culture's history of unrestrained and subversive laughter, as Bakhtin argues (3-58), then Stephen King is the master of popular culture's history of unrestrained, subversive, and thus unsettling fear. In the case of Pet Sematary, the fear in question is the primordial fear of the dead and the archaic forces associated with death and dying. Zizek is at least partly correct when he notes that the "fundamental fantasy of contemporary mass culture" is that "of a person who does not want to stay dead but returns again and again to pose a threat to the living" (22).
Zizek's description is lacking in two regards. First, the fantasy, as it is rooted in the popular imagination and the archaic religious mind, is based on a fear of the dead, and that fantasy is not that someone will "want" to come back from the dead but that someone or something will bring that person back. In Pet Sematary, it is not little Gage who wants to come back; it is his father who will not let him go. A second and perhaps even more significant aspect of this common fantasy is that it expresses a pre-scientific or superstitious fear that death is not final, that death can somehow be overturned, that one can be both dead and alive at the same time. The importance of this fear is that it flies in the face of what we know from our own experience and from what we know medically and scientifically.
But it is precisely this superstitious fear that King privileges in his critique of the American family and society in Pet Sematary. The fear he evokes is not escapist; it is evoked in earnest. It is obvious from King's comments in Winter's work and his own Danse Macabre that he takes his novel, its social commentary, and its supernatural ambience seriously. Winter refers to King's use of the supernatural as "rational supernaturalism," in which the order and facade of everyday life is overturned (5-9). That is, King and his admirers tend to take his supernatural creations seriously, as more than literary creations, as in nineteenth century ghost stories. These supernatural beings represent a popular and archaic distrust of the scientific and the rational. In King's hands, the supernatural and the fear it generates do not offer an escape from the rigors of culture, as in more traditional Gothic novels, but they offer an avenue by which a direct confrontation with the problematic nature of the modern American experience can be launched.
More often than not, the object of the supernatural attack in King's fiction, especially in Pet Sematary, is the modern family and its hapless members. King's postmodernism is nowhere more in evidence than in his insistent deconstruction of the "magic circle" that is the modern American family. An essential element of this deconstruction is King's privileging of adolescent discourse over that of adults and rationalism. Adolescents must battle the supernatural because adults cannot or will not, as in IT. Even when the supernatural is not introduced, as in Rage, the adolescent is given a privileged place from which to speak, and to speak unchallenged. The enemy of such adolescents, of course, is that symbol of American modernism, the middle-class family. It is the family that makes of adolescence such a gruesome age. According to King, it is the sorry state of relationships within the family that makes the adolescent vulnerable to the enticements of the supernatural, especially in Christine. It is the fragile, illusory nature of the nuclear family that gets Louis Creed in trouble in Pet Sematary. But one could easily point out that King's own "rage" in this instance is misplaced. The American family is not designed to prepare its young for battles with the supernatural. Whether or not such families do a good job of preparing their members for the adult world is another question, but that is not the focus of Pet Sematary or his other postmodern Gothic novels. The irony is somewhat incredible. The American family is judged to be inadequate because it does not prepare its members to deal with the imaginary.
In King's works, it is as if troubled, hypocritical families attract the attention of the supernatural. There is a logical problem, however, with King's presentation in these novels, one that also plagues and eventually undermines the textual integrity of Pet Sematary. The supernatural in King's fiction is rather catholic in its choice of families. In IT, the children of both "healthy" families and obviously dysfunctional ones are targeted. In Christine, Arnie Cunningham is an easy mark for the supernatural because of his rebellion against an overbearing mother and a weak father, but so is his friend Dennis who comes from a more normal and loving family. In Pet Sematary, ancient supernatural forces toy with the Creeds, a young family riddled with problems, but also with an older more mature family, their neighbors, the Crandalls. Thus, whether or not one comes from a healthy or a dysfunctional family makes little difference in the battle with the supernatural.
So we have to wonder if, logically, the attack of the supernatural has anything to do with the health or structure of the American family. If this is the case, we have to wonder what role a critique of the American family actually plays in the postmodern Gothic novel. The American family is not the source of the evil that threatens people, and it is not ultimately the family itself that attracts evil. More often than not, it is the child, the adolescent, and the "adolescing" adult, to use Erikson's apt description (91), who attract evil because they are in rebellion against the adult world. King's privileging of the discourse of adolescents and the discourse of fear traps him. The ultimate complaint of adolescents is that they are misunderstood by adults, but King's monsters and supernatural beings seem to understand them well enough, that they are akin to monsters in their own right, giving awkward credence to what adults have feared all along, that their children are monsters, that they might want to eat their parents, as they do in both Salem's Lot and Pet Sematary. In short, what King says he is doing in his novels is not what his novels actually do. In fact, his novels work so well as artifacts of popular culture because that old subversive fear that popular culture has preserved since archaic times is rarely challenged. But if the supernatural, the object of archaic and popular fear, is so catholic in its choice of families and individuals, what difference does family structure make? One can only assume that because King's work is popular and postmodern, it must include an attack on adulthood and the family even if that attack has no logical place in the tale. One can go even further. In the battle with the supernatural, as we learn in IT, coming from a dysfunctional family may be to one's benefit.
Such contradictions especially complicate the narrative logic of Pet Sematary and Louis Creed's symbolic role in that narrative. A physician, Creed moves his wife, two children, and cat from Chicago and the tyranny of his wife's Jewish natal family to Ludlow, Maine, which is not as bucolic as it seems. Creed finds a father-figure in his older neighbor, Jud Crandall, but it is this father-figure who introduces him to the old Indian burial ground that lies just beyond the pet cemetery and who first suggests that he might use the burial ground to resurrect the cat Church. When he resurrects Church, Creed only learns what the town and Crandall have known for a long time: the dead do come back, but "changed," if not psychotic. But this does not stop Creed from eventually burying his son and then his wife in the burial ground, bringing them both back but with horrifying consequences.
It is clear from King's own comments that it would be a mistake to think of Creed as a hero (Winter 145-54). King is actually quite critical of his protagonist. According to King, Creed "never ceases to be the rational man" (Winter 151). It is not clear, though, how Creed is a rationalist, and on this point, the inherent weaknesses in King's postmodern Gothic resurface. More specifically, Creed is made to represent something he is not, rational. One does not have to be a clinical psychologist to realize early on in the novel that Creed is acting and behaving irrationally.
Inside his new house, Creed experiences a "premonition of horror" (35). One might accuse Creed of being rational for not taking seriously that premonition, but of far more importance is Creed's seemingly irrational avoidance of an everyday problem, the potentially dangerous location of his home near a road frequented by speeding trucks, and yet he takes no precautions to protect his two young children, Ellie and Gage, by erecting a fence. When the family cat Church is presumably killed by one of those trucks, Creed responds irrationally. He does not build a fence at that point, heeding a real warning; no, he considers resurrecting Church. So central is the cat to the health of his family—and thus the significance of the cat's name—that Creed takes the cat to the old Indian burial ground and resurrects him. When Gage is killed by still another of those trucks, he, too, is resurrected in spite of how badly Church turns out. Gage goes on a killing spree, committing the ultimate atrocity, killing and cannibalizing his own mother. Still, Creed does not learn from his mistake. He takes the corpse of his wife to the old Indian burial ground and resurrects her. No, Creed is not a rational man, but that is because King as author will not let him be rational.
As Natalie Schroeder cautions us, the causes of Creed's behavior are ultimately "ambiguous" (137). By the time we are near the end of the novel, it is not clear if Creed acts as he does to protect the "magic circle" of his family, or once he has been introduced to the magic circle of the Pet Sematary and what lies beyond it, the magic circle of Little God Swamp, if it is not the powers of that other, more primordial magic circle guiding and pulling him. By the end of the novel, we know that the powers at work in the Indian burial ground have the ability to put Jud to sleep and thus block his possible interference with Creed's plans to exhume and rebury Gage; they warn the older man to stay out of things (321). At roughly the same time, as Creed is exhuming his son's body, he feels the power of the "place" growing and calling out to him (323). Even earlier, Jud voices his fear that the "place" had arranged the death of little Gage (274-75), and he, too, can feel the power of the place growing (319). The driver of the truck which hits Gage cannot explain why he speeded up instead of slowing down. Something came over him, and he put the "pedal to the metal" (293). And Creed himself is put into a deep sleep while Gage returns to wreck havoc at the Crandall home (376). Because of the nature of the supernatural involvement in his world and its manifest power, Creed does not really have the freedom to be rational. What would it mean to be rational in the world of the Wendigo?
Because we are in the midst of a postmodern Gothic universe in Pet Sematary, wherein the premonition is privileged over reason, where the dream should be taken seriously, and where ghosts have more authority than scientists, we might expect King's portrayal of the ghost Victor Pascow to be less contradictory, but we would be wrong. Pascow dies in the infirmary while under Creed's care. Before he dies, he issues a warning. "In the Pet Sematary," he begins but falters and then eventually says, "It's not the real cemetery" (73-74). Later that night, now as a ghost, Pascow visits Creed again. With dried blood on his ghostly face, Pascow seems to Creed to be an "Indian" (83). His appearance is noteworthy. We are tempted to think of him as the representative of a more archaic, more natural form of religion, but Pascow's warnings only seem to plant the seed of temptation in Creed's mind. Creed fails to heed Pascow's warnings, but Creed's daughter, Ellie, does heed those warnings and yet, because she does heed those warnings, she actually contributes to a deepening of the tragedy that is unfolding in Ludlow.
While in Chicago visiting her grandparents, and presumably under the influence of Pascow, Ellie dreams the truth about Church, that he has been killed (172). Back in Ludlow, after Gage's death, she dreams that Creed, too, will die (300). On the plane trip back to her grandparents after the funeral, she dreams of Gage coming back and retrieving a scalpel from his father's medicine bag (312). Pascow personally visits her dreams to warn her that her father is in danger (316). But Pascow's warnings have a tragic consequence. Because of Ellie's dreams, Rachel decides to make a return trip to Ludlow to check on her husband. Basically, Ellie and Pascow send Rachel to a rather gruesome death.
It is not clear if Pascow represents forces inimical to the Wendigo of the Indian burial ground or if he himself is an "Indian" spirit. In any case, the forces at work in Ludlow are so powerful that they can insure that Rachel and Ellie will be away when Creed exhumes and reburies Gage. And those forces can extend their power beyond the realm of Ludlow. There are sudden flight cancellations that make it possible for them to fly to Chicago with Rachel's parents immediately after Gage's funeral (295). When it becomes apparent that something is wrong in Ludlow, Rachel is able to get a ticket back to Ludlow, but it is in a roundabout, time-consuming fashion. She thanks "God" for saving her the last seats on the various legs of her flight back (326), but it is obvious that she is being kept out of the way until it is too late for either her or Creed. She, like her husband, has been carefully orchestrated from the very beginning and orchestrated in such a way that they cannot resist.
In this postmodern Gothic novel, King weaves together archaic lore and myth and the postmodern rebellion against rationalism. In fact, the key to understanding Pet Sematary and appreciating its rich complexity lies in noting the tension in that text between the supernatural and the modern American experience. The ultimate symbol King uses to denote the Mystery of death in Pet Sematary is a circle or spiral (286), and the ultimate symbol of the modern American family, referred to cynically as a "magic circle" (121), is Church the family cat. The modern American family's bonds are so fragile that it is held together by a pet, and when that pet is killed, those bonds are so threatened that a man of reason, Louis Creed, attempts the forbidden and what we normally think of as impossible.
The problem with King's postmodern Gothic universe is that in that universe Creed can resurrect his son. When King discusses Creed, he evaluates him as if he lived in our world and not in the Gothic world King has created for him. King's momentary lapses in this regard indicate a greater problem with many postmodern Gothic artifacts of popular culture. It is a problem King shares with such diverse authors as Frank Miller, Dean Koontz, John Saul, and Anne Rice, to mention but a few. The very real problems these authors wish to address, such as the nature of the American family, child abuse, crime, and gender, are addressed in such mythologically-exaggerated worlds that those worlds become the problem to be overcome, and not the issues that first inspired them. In Pet Sematary, King has transformed the Gothic tale in an exciting and truly horrifying fashion, but in doing so, he has made something so much more frightening that we forget to confront death.
One of the things that holds the American family together, King tells us in Pet Sematary, is its fear and avoidance of death. Unfortunately, in the "flash" of the novel, the true horror of death, its mundane character and its very ordinariness, is lost, and that defeats King's stated purpose in writing the novel. He tells Douglas Winter that he "had never had to deal with the consequences of death on a rational level" (147). The novel was to be such an exercise, but very quickly the novel ceased to be an investigation of death and funerals. As King tells Winter, when the ideas came for the novel, and they came very quickly, it was not the death of a cat or the possible death of his own son that triggered his emotional response. It was the possibility that they might come back from the dead (Winter 146). In this sense, King's novel does not deal with death. It deals with a fear that replaces the fear of death, and that fear is the fear of the return of the dead. Such a replacement is a defense mechanism no doubt, and that is probably why King's novel is so popular and why the ideas that form the basis for that novel are so persistent in folk and popular culture. Death may well be an issue the American family and society will not face, but then neither will Stephen King.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Trans. Helene Iswosky. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1968.
Collins, Jim. Uncommon Cultures: Popular Culture and Post-Modernism. New York: Routledge, 1989.
Erikson, Erik H. Insight and Responsibility. New York: Norton, 1964.
Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic, 1973.
King, Stephen. Carrie. New York: NAL, 1975.
――――――. Christine. New York: Viking, 1983.
――――――. Danse Macabre. New York: Everest House, 1981.
――――――. IT. New York: Viking, 1983.
――――――. Pet Sematary. New York: Doubleday, 1983.
――――――. Rage. The Bachman Books: Four Early Novels by Stephen King. New York: NAL, 1986.
――――――. Salem's Lot. New York: NAL, 1975.
――――――. Skeleton Crew. New York: NAL, 1985.
Lovett, Verena. "Bodily Symbolism and the Fiction of Stephen King." Gender, Genre and Narrative Pleasure: Popular Fiction and Social Relations. Ed. Derek Longhurst. London: Allen and Unwin, 1989.
Magistrale, Tony. Landscape of Fear: Stephen King's Gothic American. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1988.
――――――. "Stephen King's Pet Sematary: Hawthorne's Woods Revisited." The Gothic World of Stephen King: Landscape of Nightmares. Ed. Gary Hoppenstand and Ray B. Browne. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1987.
Nash, Jesse W. "Gerald's Game: The Art of Stephen King." The New Orleans Art Review 11 (1990).
Pharr, Mary Ferguson. "A Dream of New Life: Stephen King's Pet Sematary as a Variant of Frankenstein." The Gothic World of Stephen King: Landscape of Nightmares. Ed. Gary Hoppenstand and Ray B. Browne. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1987.
Schroeder, Natalie. "'Oz the Gweat and Tewwible' and 'The Other Side': The Theme of Death in Pet Sematary and Jitterbug Perfume." The Gothic World of Stephen King: Landscape of Nightmares. Ed. Gary Hoppenstand and Ray B. Browne. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1987.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. New York: Bantam, 1981.
Winter, Douglas. Stephen King: The Art of Darkness. New York: NAL, 1986.
Zizek, Slavoj. Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture. Cambridge, MIT P, 1991.
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Egan, James. "Antidetection Gothic and Detective Conventions in the Fiction of Stephen King." Clues: A Journal of Detection 5, no. 1 (summer 1983): 131-46.
Surveys King's use of Gothic elements throughout his oeuvre.
――――――. "'A Single Powerful Spectacle': Stephen King's Gothic Melodrama." Extrapolation 27, no. 1 (spring 1986): 62-75.
Analyzes King's use of the Gothic and melodrama.
Hicks, James E. "Stephen King's Creation of Horror in 'Salem's Lot: A Prolegomenon towards a New Hermeneutic of the Gothic Novel." In Consumable Goods: Papers from the North East Popular Culture Association Meeting, edited by David K. Vaughan, pp. 85-93. Orono, Maine: University of Maine National Poetry Foundation, 1987.
Delineates King's handling of the Gothic, horror, and the American pastoral in 'Salem's Lot.
Hoppenstand, Gary, and Ray B. Browne, eds. The Gothic World of Stephen King: Landscape of Nightmares. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1987, 143 p.
A collection of essays on such topics as King's use of allegory, his use of the grotesque as metaphor, and the symbolism of the automobile in his work.
Keesey, Douglas. "'Your Legs Must be Singing Grand Opera': Masculinity, Masochism and Stephen King's Misery." American Imago: Studies in Pyschoanalysis and Culture 59, no. 1 (spring 2002): 53-71.
Recounts the numerous instances of male suffering in Misery, and asserts that these episodes ultimately result in a triumph of masculinity.
Magistrale, Anthony. "Art versus Madness in Stephen King's Misery."In The Celebration of the Fantastic: Selected Papers from the Tenth Anniversary International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, edited by Donald E. Morse, Marshall B. Tymn, and Csilla Bertha, pp. 271-78. West-port, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992.
Examines the various roles art plays in the lives of the characters in Misery.
Magistrale, Tony. Landscape of Fear: Stephen King's American Gothic. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1988, 132 p.
Collection of essays on such subjects as King's treatment of technology, his use of social criticism, and the role of children in his works.
Punter, David. "Problems of Recollection and Construction: Stephen King." In Modern Gothic: A Reader, edited and with an introduction by Victor Sage and Allan Lloyd Smith, pp. 121-40. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996.
Argues that in many of his works King sets up a universal "we" that in adulthood is able to overcome feelings of childhood inadequacy.
OTHER SOURCES FROM GALE:
Additional coverage of King's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 5; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vols. 1, 17; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography and Resources, Vol. 2; Bestsellers 90:1; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61-64; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 1, 30, 52, 76, 119, 134; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 12, 26, 37, 61, 113; Contemporary Popular Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 143; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1980; DISCovering Authors Modules: Novelists and Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Junior Discovering Authors; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 5; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Major 21st-Century Writers; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 17, 55; Something about the Author, Vols. 9, 55; Supernatural Fiction Writers, Vols. 1, 2; and Writers for Young Adults Supplement.