Stephen King

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Tony Magistrale (essay date Spring 1985)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3293

SOURCE: "Inherited Haunts: Stephen King's Terrible Children," in Extrapolation, Vol. 26, No. 1, Spring, 1985, pp. 43-9.

[In the following essay, Magistrale explores the role of children in King's work.]

On March 25, 1984, in Boca Raton, Florida, Stephen King delivered the closing address at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. Following a discussion about King's childhood readings in the horror genre, someone in the audience asked the author the question, "What terrifies you the most?" King's reply was emphatic and immediate: "Opening the door of my children's bedroom and finding one of them dead."

King's dread that his offspring could be harmed has not inhibited his use of infantile and adolescent characters throughout his writing, which has achieved wide notoriety and brought a degree of untoward fame on its author. It is a fiction centering on excursions into terror, surreal fantasies which spring suddenly to life, the dark spirits that inhabit a deserted town or hotel. His stories are populated with demons and ghosts, monsters and phantoms. And his youthful protagonists are besieged by a variety of these creatures. This siege is in keeping with the foreword to his collection of short tales in Night Shift, where King insists that a requisite for a successful horror story is its ability to "hold the reader or listener spellbound for a little while, lost in a world that never was, never could be." Yet one of the major reasons for King's commercial and critical success as a horror writer is his uncanny ability to blend and convolute the artifacts of everyday reality, replete with brand names and actual geographical locations, with the incongruous and startling details of an imagined realm. In creating this blend, King displays no neglect for the humans who inhabit his works, be they children, many of whom appear to be endowed with either supernatural powers or an uncommon trait, or adult protagonists, the majority of whom are, by and large, middle-class men and women eking out a living in contemporary America. For varied reasons (sometimes accidental, usually deliberate) these characters find themselves suddenly and helplessly enmeshed in the Gothic machinery of a nightmare from which they will not awaken. King's people are not superhuman, but ordinary, flawed, and vulnerable. In his tales, good must struggle against evil, and from the encounter become less good. Behind this moral backdrop, he invests the majority of his protagonists with a persuasive sympathy: we care about these people, hope they will somehow discover a way to survive, and continue reading about the unfolding of their fates with a curious mixture of fascination and apprehension, because in many ways his literary characters represent our own fears and values.

King's most memorable and important characters, and the ones to whom we as readers grow increasingly attached, are his children. Frequently they form the moral centers of his books, and from them all other actions seem to radiate. In King's fiction, children embody the full spectrum of human experience; they are identified with the universal principles of ethical extremes. Some represent the nucleus for familial love. They are often healing forces, as in Cujo and the first halves of The Shining and Pet Sematary, enabling parents in unstable marriages to forgive one another's human failings. On this level of being, many of King's children represent the principle of good in a corrupt world; they seem both divinely inspired and painfully cursed with prophetic knowledge. Danny Torrance in The Shining, Carrie White in Carrie, and Charlie McGee in Firestarter possess superhuman abilities that trigger death...

(This entire section contains 3293 words.)

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and destruction, and yet these children elicit our sympathy because they appear more often in the role of victim than victimizer. It is not really the children who are responsible for their various acts of destruction, but the adults who mislead and torment them.

At the other moral pole are the adolescent hunters—the denim fascists in "Sometimes They Come Back," Christine, and Carrie—who portray ambassadors from an immoral world, their sole purpose being to wreak destruction on anyone or anything weaker than or different from themselves. These "children" have completely severed their bonds with innocence; in their vicious lust to exploit sex, alcohol, and violence, they model their behavior on an extreme conception of adulthood. They want all the pleasures of worldly experience, with none of the responsibilities. Thus, they are simply young versions of the corruption which animates King's adult society. If they manage to live long enough, they will become the Jack Torrances (The Shining), John Rainbirds (Firestarter), and Greg Stillsons (Dead Zone) of the next generation.

The adults in King's world act frequently as children; they explore places where they have no business going, their behavior is often immature and without conscience, and their institutions—the church, the state's massive bureaucratic system of control, the nuclear family itself—barely mask an undercurrent of violence that is capable of manifesting itself at any given moment. The daily interactions in their marriages and neighborhoods bring out the worst in King's adult characters; they revert to the meanness of adolescence, acknowledging their selfish urges only after they have set in motion a series of events which lead to catastrophe. Throughout the novel Carrie, for example, Carrie White is forced into the role of persecuted outsider. Her first and greatest impediment to a normal life is her mother, a woman indoctrinated with a fierce religious fanaticism who refuses to teach Carrie the adjustment skills necessary for survival in the real world. Consequently, Carrie's discovery of her menstrual period—the initial event associated with the emergence into womanhood—brings her only fear and loathing. Her mother translates the biological function into a symbol of corruption sent by God to punish women. As a direct result of her mother's negative sermonizing, and motivated by the final humiliation of having a bucket of pig's blood dropped on her head at the senior prom, Carrie uses her telekinetic powers to destroy everything in sight. Since no one is either willing to, or capable of, guiding Carrie through the difficult transition from adolescence to adulthood, distinctions between good and evil lose their significance for her, and Carrie's night of carnage includes those who are innocent along with those who are culpable. Her only introductions to adulthood are presented through images of violence and pain, and all of Carrie's subsequent reactions become a grotesque reflection of what she has experienced personally. As King himself explains the novel in Danse Macabre, "Carrie can only wait to be saved or damned by the actions of others. Her only power is her telekinetic ability, and both book and movie eventually arrive at the same point: Carrie uses her 'wild talent' to pull down the whole rotten society."

The theme of innocence betrayed is at the heart of Carrie. Indeed, this concept unifies the major work of King's canon: throughout his fiction, the power of evil to malign and pervert innocence is omnipresent. Louis Creed (Pet Sematary), Jack Torrance (The Shining), and Arnie Cunningham (Christine), sacrifice their families and sanities when they succumb to the lure of evil. Evil becomes a pervasive force that these characters cannot resist. Creed is attracted to the power of the Micmac burial ground despite its obvious dangers; Torrance probes the history of decadence and violence in the Overlook hotel and yearns to become part of it; and in his automobile from hell, Arnie Cunningham surrenders both his personality and his soul to avenge a lifetime of frustration. In King's novels and stories, there are few heroes; at best his major characters endure, but they seldom prevail. Like the young protagonist in the tale "Graveyard Shift," his men and women are usually (and often literally) overwhelmed by the legions of the underworld.

The most effective dramatization of King's dark vision occurs through the interaction of adults and children. His children, in spite of their goodwill and special gifts, are shaped and motivated by adults who are enmeshed in a personal struggle with evil. Most often, his young protagonists—Gage Creed, Danny Torrance, Charlie McGee—are forced to pay for their fathers' sins of curiosity; their innocence is the price for an intimate examination of evil.

The short story "Children of the Corn" is one of the more sophisticated illustrations of this formula. A young couple, their marriage in disarray, stumble upon Gatlin, Nebraska, a town where time has apparently stopped. Instead of August 1976, Burt and Vicki discover calendars and municipal records that go no further than 1964: "Something had happened in 1964. Something to do with religion, and corn … and children." Moreover, there are no adults in this town, only children under the age of nineteen.

The time period is certainly of crucial importance to the story's meaning. But King never completely explains its mystery. Nor is it clear immediately why all the adults have been killed and why no child is permitted to survive past the age of nineteen. Like Vicki and Burt, the reader is supplied only with information about an Old Testament Jehovah whom the children worship in the corn fields. In return for their human sacrifices, he invests the crop with a special purity: "In the last of the daylight [Burt] swept his eyes closely over the row of corn to his left. And he saw that every leaf and stalk was perfect, which was just not possible. No yellow blight. No tattered leaves, no caterpillar eggs, no burrows."

Reading King's best fiction is like visiting a city with innumerable corners of intriguing complexity and atmospheres that reward lingering absorption. "Children of the Corn" encourages the reader to linger over multiple interpretations. On the most obvious level, it is a story of religious fanaticism dedicated to a malevolent deity. But such a reading does not, however, explain the significance of the 1964 time setting—the initial period of active involvement by American forces in Vietnam—and its relationship to the fertility of the Nebraska corn. Both appear irrevocably linked. Listening to the radio outside the town, Vicki and Burt hear a child's voice: "There's some that think it's okay to get out in the world, as if you could work and walk in the world without being smirched by the world." And later in the story, after he has learned the awful secret of the town, Burt wonders if human sacrifices were ordained because the corn was dying as a result of too much sinning.

Although King is cautious to avoid so overt a nexus, the reader with any sense of history will recall the violation of the land in Vietnam by such toxic chemicals as Agent Orange. Man's technology carried the poisoning of the soil, not to mention the levels of death and carnage, to the point at which the land itself (the allegorical corn god) demanded repentance. If we place the events of this story in such a context, it becomes possible to understand why all the adults past the (draft?) age of nineteen are sacrificed. These are the individuals who were most responsible for the war, for the "adult sins" that defiled and destroyed acres of Vietnamese landscape, thousands of American and Vietnamese lives, and, finally, what was left of America's innocence. For Vietnam was, among other things, America's collective cultural emergence into the "adult world" of sin and error. Our loss of innocence and our recognition of self-corruption is what gave impetus to the antiwar movement. In trying to decide whose side God favored in this war we were shown with painful certitude that life is a more complicated mixture of good and evil than we earlier had assumed. King's own view on the immorality of the Vietnam experience, as expressed in Danse Macabre, corresponds precisely with such an interpretation: "By 1968 my mind had been changed forever about a number of fundamental questions…. I did and do believe that companies like Sikorsky and Douglas Aircraft and Dow Chemical and even the Bank of America subscribed more or less to the idea that war is good business."

Burt and Vicki are therefore sacrificed because they are adult representatives of fallen, post-Vietnam America. Both have strayed from any sense of a belief in God, their marriage is in disharmony; both appear as selfish, stubborn, and unforgiving individuals, they are anxious to pass through Nebraska and travel on to "sunny, sinful California"; and Burt is a Vietnam veteran. References to this last point are made on three separate occasions, but the most significant reference occurs immediately after Burt discovers the 1964 time setting. While standing on a sidewalk in the town, he smells fertilizer. The odor had always reminded him of his childhood in rural upstate New York, "but somehow this smell was different from the one he had grown up with…. There was a sickish sweet undertone. Almost a death smell. As a medical orderly in Vietnam, he had become well versed in that smell." The association between Vietnam and Nebraska and its corn fields, and the disenchantment inherent in adult experience, is maintained on similar symbolic levels throughout the story. Nebraska and its corn are in the "heartland" of America, its moral center, and out of an effort to reestablish the purity and innocence of an earlier era, both the corn and the land itself seem to be demanding adult penance for a sin that originated in 1964.

King's corn god is furious with the adult world, demanding blood in exchange for reclaiming the land from its state of spiritual and physical barrenness. Burt discovers the god's maxim written on the cover of the town's registry: "Thus let the iniquitous be cut down so that the ground may be fertile again saith the Lord God of Hosts." The very fact that the ground needs to be made "fertile again" suggests that it has suffered from some kind of pestilence. And the "disease of the corn" in this tale, while ambiguous throughout, can be interpreted in terms of American defoliation of the Vietnamese landscape, as well as the more symbolic cultural "illness" of moral guilt and spiritual taint that accompanied American war involvement.

The human sacrifices in "Children of the Corn" have been successful; vitality has been restored to the American soil. The corn itself grows in flawless rows. Moreover, as Burt discovers while running wounded through the open fields, the soil even contains a mysterious recuperative power: "The ache in his arm had settled into a dull throb that was nearly pleasant, and the good feeling was still with him." The corn deity has made the land, and all that comes in contact with it, into an agrarian Arcadia, a neo-Eden of pristine perfection and harmony. But to maintain this environment, the corn deity exacts from this symbolic American community in Nebraska a never-ending cycle of adult penance and revenge. In fact, at the conclusion of the story the corn god lowers the age of sacrifice from nineteen to eighteen, suggesting that the inherited guilt and shame of Vietnam will never be completely exorcised.

In Danse Macabre, on the other hand, King states that he has "purposely avoided writing a novel with a 1960's time setting…. But those things did happen; the hate, paranoia, and fear on both sides were all too real." King may not have directed his energies into a full-length novel, but in "Children of the Corn" he has provided us with a frightening little allegory of the decade's major historical event. It is also interesting, given the time setting for "Children of the Corn," that the "adult world" is interpreted as sinful and in need of punishment. In the sixties, American youth were in the streets directing a cultural critique of the mores and values of their parents. The adults were the enemy; they had perpetuated the war in Vietnam and had sent America's children to perform the killing and the dying.

In Stephen King's Gothic landscape, horror often springs from social reality: the failure of love and understanding triggers disaster. King's world is a fallen one, and evil is perpetuated through legacies of sin, based in social, cultural, mythical, and historical contexts, and handed down from one generation to the next. Adulthood, because of its litany of selfish mistakes, broken marriages, cruel machinations, and drunken excesses, fully embodies this legacy of human corruption; adults show themselves capable of betrayal at any point. The inevitable violence and cruelty which are the usual end results of adult values and behavior force King's adolescent protagonists to relinquish their tentative hold on innocence and sensitivity. Gage Creed, the young boy in Pet Sematary, becomes a grotesque extension of The Wendigo, a creature from the pre-Christian world, because the human adults, Louis Creed and Jud Crandall, avail themselves of the unholy power within the Micmac burial ground. Charlie McGee's childhood in Firestarter is abruptly and hideously fragmented by the government's manipulation of her parents' chromosomes and the Shop's desire to extend the experiment. The child is caught in a conflict over the morality of using her superhuman powers. Knowing her confusion, the Shop engages in psychic blackmail, forcing her to refine her abilities and use them for destructive purposes. Although she cooperates with their devious methods, Charlie loses both parents, is betrayed by a surrogate father, and faces an uncertain future of fear and flight. In the short story "Last Rung on the Ladder," an attorney becomes so involved with his career and his reputation in the world that he fails to heed the plea for help issued from his misdirected younger sister. As a child, he was always there to protect her and lend his support, but as an adult he is too preoccupied. When she finally commits suicide, in large measure because of his failure to become involved, he is left with the enormous burden of responsibility.

Finally, King's novella, Apt Pupil, from the collection Different Seasons, works from a similar set of suppositions. Todd Bowden, a precocious adolescent fascinated with the grisly details of Nazi Germany, discovers an aging war criminal, Dussander, sharing his suburban American neighborhood. Over a period of years the child's fascination deepens into obsession, as he practices more devious and intricate methods of extracting a personal history from the Nazi officer. Through the course of their long relationship, the boy is slowly transformed into a version of the Nazi adult: his interest in schoolwork and sports is abandoned in favor of stalking and butchering helpless drunks and indigent street people. It is a complex, albeit overwritten, study of negative adult influence and the corrupting fusion of evil: the Nazi's oral history of death camp atrocities exacts an intimate, active response from the high school student. Todd may never have been a paragon of moral purity or innocence (in fact his psychological torment of the officer suggests quite the opposite), but steady contact with Dussander pushes him into a deeper, more serious, and personal participation in evil. By the conclusion of the novella, the child relinquishes all control over his own life; he is forged from the same furnace of hate that created the Nazi.

King's children, like those found in Dickens' novels, illustrate the failings of adult society. The destruction of their innocence accomplishes more than a simple restating of the universal theme of the Fall from Grace; it enlarges to include a specific critique of respective societies and cultures as well. Like Todd Bowden in Apt Pupil, the children in "Children of the Corn" are neither symbols of purity nor sensitivity. Yet, similar to many of King's other, more sympathetic adolescents—Carrie, Charlie McGee, Danny Torrance, Gage Creed—they are victimized by the inherited sins of an older world. In each of these examples, the children are constrained to pay for the mistakes of their elders; they do so, significantly, at the expense of their own transition into adulthood.


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Stephen King 1947–

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

The following entry presents an overview of King's career through 1996. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 12, 26, 37, and 61.

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 use 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.

Biographical Information

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 only two years old. King, his brother, and his mother went to live with relatives in Durham, Maine, then various other cities. They returned to Durham permanently 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. He 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 '70s because of the painful and difficult issues associated with the time period. After his graduation in 1970, King was unable to get a teaching job; instead he got jobs pumping gas and then working in a laun-dry. On January 2, 1971, King married Tabitha Jane Spruce, also a novelist; they have 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 an instructor at the University of Maine at Orono, which resulted in his writing Stephen King's Danse Macabre (1981), a series of essays about the horror genre.

Major Works

King's fiction has extended into a variety of categories within the horror genre, including vampires ('Salem's Lot [1975]), zombies (Pet Sematary [1983]), possession (Christine [1983]), and supernatural powers (Carrie). 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 in some supernatural nightmare from which they cannot escape. Many of his stories have elements of gothic fiction. Although several of the novels set up a clash between good and evil, the moral order in King's world is often ambiguous, with no clear victor. The Stand (1978) presents a conflict between good and evil, in which survivors of a world-decimating virus must battle against enormous odds to survive and defeat the demonic Randall Flagg and his followers. In several of King's works a religious undertone is evident, but he avoids overtly religious references. King plays on people's deepest fears in order to draw the reader into his narratives. Often the horror results from social reality instead of a supernatural influence. The breakdown of the social structures of love and understanding leads to a struggle between the individual and society and results in disaster. In Carrie, the title character is an adolescent who feels like an outsider in her high school. She suffers several humiliations until she finally loses control and gains revenge against her tormentors by destroying guilty and innocent alike with her telekinetic abilities. Even children are not immune from terror in King's writing. Children have acted as both threatened protagonists, such as Tad Trenton in Cujo (1981), and threatening antagonists, such as Gage Creed in Pet Sematary. Often children are sacrificed as a result of their parents' actions, including Creed in Pet Sematary, Danny Torrance in The Shining (1977), and Charlie McGee in Firestarter (1980). The perversion and corruption of the innocent is a recurring theme in King's fiction. Louis Creed in Pet Sematary cannot resist the lure of the Micmac burial ground, and his surrender to its evil lure is his and his family's undoing. Jack Torrance cannot resist exploring the dark secrets of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, and his curiosity leads him to insanity and eventually destruction. Arnie Cunningham succumbs to the lure of his possessed automobile in Christine. King is not afraid to take risks or use shocking gore in his fiction. In the novella Different Seasons (1982), a pregnant woman is beheaded in a car accident on the way to give birth, but her body survives. A doctor then helps the beheaded corpse give birth. King has also written several novels under the pseudonym Richard Bachman which rarely contain elements of the supernatural or occult, focusing instead on such themes as human cruelty, alienation, and morality.

Critical Reception

Much of the critical discussion concerning King's work revolves around the value and importance of his novels as literature. Many reviewers dismiss King's fiction as lacking in literary merit because it is popular and because he produces so much of it. Others insist upon a critical commentary on specific aspects of King's fiction before dismissing the author as a panderer of popular trash. Reviewers who have analyzed King's novels often praise him for the rhythm and pacing of his narratives. Others praise the author for his ability to make the unreal seem so plausible. Tony Magistrale said, "one of the major reasons for King's commercial and critical success as a horror writer is his uncanny ability to blend and convolute the artifacts of everyday reality, replete with brand names and actual geographical locations, with the incongruous and startling details of an imagined realm." 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. James Egan stated, "King employs the Gothic and the melodramatic in accordance with the demands of popular formula literature, for he intends to offer his readers a combination of stock thrills and intriguing innovations, the security of the familiar and the unsettling delights of the unknown." Several reviewers criticize King for relying on coincidental plots and sketchy characterizations. Andy Solomon asserted, "By now, everyone knows Stephen King's flaws: tone-deaf narration, papier-mâché characters, clichés, gratuitous vulgarity, self-indulgent digressions." In recent reviews, however, critics praised King attempting to improve his characterization, especially his depictions of women, most notably with his characters Jessie Burlingame in Gerald's Game (1992) and Dolores in Dolores Claiborne (1992). Even those critics who question the value of King's writing as literature acknowledge his commercial success and enormous popularity.

Clive Barker (essay date January 1986)

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SOURCE: "Stephen King: Surviving the Ride," in Fantasy Review, January, 1986, pp. 6-8.

[In the following essay, Barker discusses King's success with, and commitment to, the horror genre.]

First, a confession: I have no thesis. I come to these pages without an overview to propound; only with a substantial enthusiasm for the work of Stephen King and a potpourri of thoughts on fear, fiction, dreams and geographies which may bear some tenuous relation to each other and to King's fiction.

Theoretical thinking was never a great passion of mine, but ghost-trains are. And it's with a ghost-train I begin.

It's called—ambitiously enough—L'Apocalypse. To judge from the size of the exterior, the ride it houses is an epic; the vast, three-tiered facade dwarfs the punks who mill around outside, staring up with a mixture of trepidation and appetite at the hoardings, and wondering if they have the nerve to step out of the heat of the sun and into the stale darkness that awaits them through the swinging doors.

Surely, they reassure themselves, no fun-fair ride can be as bad as the paintings that cover every inch of the building suggest: for the pictures record atrocities that would have turned de Sade's stomach.

They're not particularly good paintings; they're rather too crudely rendered, and the gaudy primaries the artists have chosen seem ill-suited to the subject matter. But the eye flits back and forth over the horrors described here, unable to disengage itself. In one corner, a shackled man is having his head sliced off; it seems to leap out at us, propelled by a geyser of scarlet blood. A few yards from this, above a row of arches that are edged with canary-yellow lights, a man watches his bowels being drawn from his abdomen by a Cardinal in an advanced state of decomposition. Beside the entrance booth, a crucified woman is being burned alive in a chamber lined with white-hot swords. We might be tempted to laugh at such grand guignol excesses, but we cannot. They are, for all the roughness of their presentation, deeply disturbing.

I've never ridden L'Apocalypse. I know it only as a photograph, culled from a magazine some dozen years ago, and treasured since. The photograph still speaks loudly to me. Of the indisputable glamour of the horrible; of its power to enthrall and repulse simultaneously. And it also reminds me—with its sweaty-palmed punks queuing beneath a crystal blue sky for a chance at the dark—that nobody ever lost money offering a good ride to Hell.

Which brings us, inevitably, to the architect of the most popular ghost-train rides in the world: Mr. Stephen King.

It's perhaps redundant, in a book celebrating Stephen King's skills, for me to list his merits at too great a length. We his readers and admirers, know them well. But it may be worth our considering exactly what he's selling us through the charm and accessibility of his prose, the persuasiveness of his characters, the ruthless drive of his narratives.

He's selling death. He's selling tales of blood-drinkers, flesh-eaters, and the decay of the soul; of the destruction of sanity, community and faith. In his fiction, even love's power to outwit the darkness is uncertain; the monsters will devour that too, given half a chance. Nor is innocence much of a defense. Children go to the grave as readily as the adult of the species, and those few Resurrections that circumstance grants are not likely to be the glory promised from the pulpit.

Not, one would have thought, a particularly commercial range of subjects. But in King's hands their saleability can scarcely be in question. He has turned the horror genre—so long an underdog on the publishing scene—into a force to be reckoned with.

Many reasons have been put forth for King's popularity. A common element in most of the theories is his plausibility as a writer. In the novels—though rather less in the short stories—he describes the confrontation between the real and the fantastic elements in his fiction so believably that the reader's rational sensibilities are seldom, if ever, outraged. The images of power, of loss, of transformation, of wild children and terrible hotels, of beasts mythological and beasts rabid and beasts human—all are dropped so cunningly into the texture of the world he conjures—morsel upon morsel—that by the time our mouths are full, we're perfectly willing to swallow.

The net effect is akin to taking that ride on L'Apocalypse, only finding that the dummies on either side of the track, enacting over and over their appalling death scenes, closely resemble people we know. The horror is intensified immeasurably. We are no longer simply voyeurs, watching some artificial atrocity unfold in front of our eyes. We are intimately involved with the sufferers. We share their traumas and their terrors. We share too their hatred of their tormentors.

This is by no means the only approach to writing dark fantasy of course. Many authors choose to plunge their readers into the world of the subconscious (which is, surely, the territory of such fiction charts) with scarcely a glance over their shoulders at the "reality" the reader occupies. In the geography of the fantastique, for instance, Prince Prospero's castle—sealed so inadequately against the Red Death—stands far deeper in the world of pure dream than does the Overlook Hotel, whose rooms, though no less haunted by violent death, are far more realistically evoked than Poe's baroque conceits.

There are, inevitably, losses and gains on both sides. Poe sacrifices a certain accessibility by his method; one has to embrace the fictional conventions he has employed before the story can be fully savored. He gains, however, a mythic resonance which is out of all proportion to the meagre pages The Masque of the Red Death occupies. He has, apparently effortlessly written himself into the landscape of our dreams.

King's method—which requires the establishing of a far more elaborate fictional "reality"—wins out through or commitment to that reality, and to the characters who inhabit it. It also earns the power to subvert our sense of the real, by showing us a world we think we know, then revealing another view of it entirely. What I believe he loses in the tradeoff is a certain ambiguity. This I'll return to later.

First, a couple of thoughts on subversion. It has been argued, and forcibly, that for all the paraphernalia of revolution contained in King's fiction—the weak discovering unlooked-for strength and the strong faltering; the constant threat (or promise) of transformation; a sense barely hidden beneath the chatty surface of the prose, that mythic elements are being juggled here—that, despite all this apocalyptic stuff, the author's worldview is at heart a conservative one. Is he perhaps a sheep in wolf's clothing, distressing us with these scenes of chaos in order to persuade us to cling closer to the values that his monsters jeopardize?

I admit to having some sympathy with this argument, and I admire most those of his tales which seem to show the world irredeemably changed, with no hope of return to the comfortable, joyless, death-in-life that seems to be the late twentieth century ideal. But if there is evidence that gives weight to such argument, there is also much in King's work which is genuinely subversive: imagery which evokes states of mind and conditions of flesh which, besides exciting our anxieties, excites also our desires and our perversities.

Why, you may ask, do I put such a high value upon subversion?

There are many reasons. The most pertinent here is my belief that fantastic fiction offers the writer exceptional possibilities in that direction, and I strongly believe a piece of work (be it play, book, poem) should be judged by how enthusiastically it seizes the opportunity to do what it can do uniquely. The literature of the fantastic—and the movies, and the paintings—can reproduce, at its best, the texture of experience more closely than any "naturalistic" work, because it can embrace the complexity of the world we live in.

Which is to say: our minds. That's where we live, after all. And our minds are extraordinary melting pots, in which sensory information, and the memory of same, and intellectual ruminations, and nightmares, and dreams, simmer in an ever-richer stew. Where else but in works called (often pejoratively) fantasies can such a mixture of elements be placed side by side?

And if we once embrace the vision offered in such works, if we once allow the metaphors a home in our psyches, the subversion is under way. We may for the first time see ourselves as a totality—valuing our appetite for the forbidden rather than suppressing it, comprehending that our taste for the strange, or the morbid, or the paradoxical is contrary to what we're brought up to believe, a sign of our good health. So I say—subvert. And never apologize.

That's one of King's crowning achievements. From the beginning, he's never apologized, never been ashamed to be a horror author. He values the genre, and if horror fiction is in turn more valued now than it was ten or twenty years ago it is surely in no small degree his doing. After all, the most obsessive of rationalists must find it difficult to ignore the man's existence: he's read on buses and trains; in Universities and Hospitals; by the good, the bad, and the morally indifferent.

At this juncture it may be worth remembering that the dreams he is usually concerned to evoke are normally known not as dreams but as nightmares. This is in itself worthy of note. We have other classes of dreams which are as common as nightmares. Erotic Dreams, for instance; dreams of humiliation. But it's only the dream of terror which has been graced with a special name, as though we recognize that this experience, of all those that come to us in sleep, carries some essential significance. It is perhaps that in our waking lives we feel (rightly or wrongly) that we have control over all other responses but that of fear? Certainly we may use the word nightmare freely to describe waking experience ("the traffic was a nightmare," we casually remark), but seldom do our lives reach that pitch of terror—accompanied by the blood-chilling sense of inevitability—that informs the dream of dread.

In reading a good piece of horror fiction, we may dip into the dreaming state at will; we may even hope to interpret some of the signs and signals that nightmares deliver to us. If not that, at least there is some comfort in knowing that these images are shared.

(An aside. One of the pleasures of any fiction is comparing the intricacies of response with other readers, but this process takes on a wonderfully paradoxical quality when two horror enthusiasts are exchanging views on a favorite book or film. The gleeful detailing of the carnage, the shared delight, as the key moments of revulsion and anxiety are remembered: we smile, talking of how we sweated.)

There are many kinds of nightmare. Some have familiar, even domestic settings, in which commonplace particulars are charged up with uncanny and inexplicable power to intimidate. It is this kind of nightmare that King is most adept at evoking, and the kind with which he is probably most readily identified. It is in a way a natural progression from rooting outlandish horrors—Carrie; 'Salem's Lot—in settings so familiar we might occupy them, to making objects from those settings—a dog, a car—themselves the objects of anxiety. I must say I prefer the earlier books by quite a measure, but that's in part because the Apocalypses conjured seem so much more comprehensive, and I have a practically limitless appetite for tales of the world turned inside out.

The other kind of nightmare is a different experience entirely and it is not—at least in the conventional sense—about threat. I mean the kind of dream voyage that takes you out of any recognizable context, and into some other state entirely. The kind that lifts you up (perhaps literally; for me such nightmares often begin with falling that turns into flight) and whips you away to a place both familiar and utterly new, utterly strange. You have never been to this place in your waking life, of that your dreaming self is certain; but there are presences here familiar to you, and sights around every corner that you will recognize even as they astonish you.

What actually happens on these voyages will run from the banal to the Wagnerian, depending on the dreamer's sense of irony, but the way this second sort of nightmare operates upon your psyche is totally different from the first. For one thing, the fears dealt with in the first sort are likely to be susceptible to analysis. They are fears of authority figures, or terminal disease, or making love to Mother. But the second kind is, I believe, rooted not in the specifies of the personality, but is something more primitive; something that belongs to our response as thought-haunted matter to the world we're born into. The images that come to overwhelm us in this region are not, therefore, projections of neurosis; they are things vast; contradictory; mythological.

King can conjure such stuff with the best of them; I only regret that his brilliance as a creator of domestic demons has claimed him from writing more of that other region. When he turns his hand to it, the effect is stunning. The Mist, for example, is a story that begins in familiar King territory, and moves through a variety of modes—including scenes which, in their mingling of the monstrous and the commonplace work as high, grim comedy—towards a world lost to humanity, a world that echoes in the imagination long after the book has been closed. In the final section of the story the survivors encounter a creature so vast it doesn't even notice the protagonists:

… Its skin was deeply wrinkled and grooved, and clinging to it were scores, hundreds, of those pinkish 'bugs' with the stalk-eyes. I don't know how big it actually was, but it passed directly over us…. Mrs. Reppler said later she could not see the underside of its body, although she craned her neck up to look. She saw only two Cyclopean legs going up and up into the mist like living towers until they were lost to sight.

There is much more of breathtaking imaginative scope in The Stand, and in a more intimate, though no less persuasive fashion, in The Shining and 'Salem's Lot. Moments when the terror becomes something more than a fight for life with an unwelcome intruder; when the horror reveals itself, even in the moment of causing us to recoil, as a source of fascination and awe and self-comprehension.

This is the root of the ambiguity I spoke of before, and to which I said I would return. Wanting an encounter with forces that will challenge our lives—that will deliver us once and for all into the regions of the gods ("I had a dream that I saw God walking across Harrison on the far side of the lake, a God so gigantic that above the waist He was lost in a clear blue sky."—The Mist)—yet fearful that we are negligible things and so far beneath the concern of such powers that any confrontation will simply kill us.

Charting that ambiguity is, I would suggest, a function that fantasy genre uniquely fulfill. It is perhaps the liability of King's virtues that such ambiguity is often forfeited in exchange for straightforward identification with the forces of light. King's monsters (human, sub-human and Cyclopean) may on occasion be comprehensible to us, but they seldom exercise any serious claim on our sympathies. They are moral degenerates, whose colors are plain from the outset. We watch them kick dogs to death, and devour children, and we are reinforced in the questionable certainty that we are not like them; that we are on the side of the angels.

Now that's fiction. We are not. Darkness has a place in all of us; a substantial place that must, for our health's sake, be respected and investigated.

After all, one of the reasons we read tales of terror is surely that we have an appetite for viewing anguish, and death, and all the paraphernalia of the monstrous. That's not the condition of the angels.

It seems to me vital that in this age of the New Righteousness—when moral rectitude is again a rallying-cry, and the old hypocrisies are gaining acolytes by the hour—that we should strive to avoid feeding delusions of perfectibility and instead celebrate the complexities and contradictions that, as I've said, fantastic fiction is uniquely qualified to address. If we can, we may yet keep from drowning in a wave of simplifications that include such great, fake dichotomies as good versus evil, dark versus light, reality versus fiction. But we must be prepared to wear our paradoxes on our sleeve.

In King's work, it is so often the child who carries that wisdom; the child who synthesizes "real" and "imagined" experience without question, who knows instinctively that imagination can tell the truth the way the senses never can. That lesson can never be taught too often. It stands in direct contradiction to the basic principles which we are suckled upon and are taught make us strong in the world. Principles of verifiable evidence; and of the logic that will lead, given its head, to terrible but faultlessly logical, insanities.

I return again to the list of goods that King is selling in his fiction, and find my summary deficient. Yes, there is death on the list; and much about the soul's decay. But there's also vision.

Not the kind laid claim to by politicians or manufacturers or men of the cloth. Not the vision of the better economy, the better combustion engine, the better Eden. Those visions are devised to bind and blind us. If we look too long at them we no longer understand what our dreams are telling us; and without that knowledge we are weak.

No, King offers us another kind of vision; he shows us adults what the children in his fiction so often take for granted: that on the journey which he has so eloquently charted, where no terror shows its face but on a street that we have ourselves trodden, it is not, finally, the stale formulae and the trite metaphysics we're taught from birth that will get us to the end of the ride alive; it is our intimacy with our dark and dreaming selves.

Principal Works

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The Star Invaders [as Steve King] (short story collection) 1964Carrie: A Novel of a Girl with a Frightening Power (novel) 1974; movie edition published as Carrie, 1975'Salem's Lot (novel) 1975Rage [as Richard Bachman] (novel) 1977The Shining (novel) 1977The Stand (novel) 1978; revised edition, 1990Night Shift (short story collection) 1978; also published as Night Shift: Excursions into Horror, 1979Another Quarter Mile: Poetry (poetry) 1979The Dead Zone (novel) 1979; movie edition published as The Dead Zone: Movie Tie-In, 1980The Long Walk [as Richard Bachman] (novel) 1979Firestarter (novel) 1980Cujo (novel) 1981Roadwork: A Novel of the First Energy Crisis [as Richard Bachman] (novel) 1981Stephen King's Danse Macabre (nonfiction) 1981Creepshow (short story collection) 1982The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger (novel) 1982Different Seasons (short story collection) 1982The Running Man [as Richard Bachman] (novel) 1982Stephen King's Creepshow: A George A. Romero Film (screenplay) 1982Christine (novel) 1983Cycle of the Werewolf (short story collection) 1983; also published as The Silver Bullet, 1985Pet Sematary (novel) 1983; (screenplay) 1989Cat's Eye (screenplay) 1984The Eyes of the Dragon (juvenile novel) 1984The Talisman [with Peter Straub] (novel) 1984Thinner [as Richard Bachman] (novel) 1984Silver Bullet (screenplay) 1985Stephen King's Skeleton Crew (short story collection) 1985It (novel) 1986; first published in limited edition in Germany as Es, 1986Maximum Overdrive [writer and director] (screenplay) 1986Misery (novel) 1987The Tommyknockers (novel) 1987The Dark Half (novel) 1989The Dark Tower: The Drawing of Three (novel) 1989My Pretty Pony (children's novel) 1989Four Past Midnight (novellas) 1990Needful Things (novel) 1991Dolores Claiborne (novel) 1992Gerald's Game (novel) 1992Rose Madder (novel) 1995Desperation (novel) 1996The Regulators [as Richard Bachman] (novel) 1996Bag of Bones (novel) 1997

James Egan (essay date Spring 1986)

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SOURCE: "'A Single Powerful Spectacle': Stephen King's Gothic Melodrama," in Extrapolation, Vol. 27, No. 1, Spring, 1986, pp. 62-75.

[In the following essay, Egan analyzes King's use of elements of the gothic and the melodramatic in his work.]

The Gothic tradition which has survived into the twentieth century, after passing through the hands of the Gothic dramatists, Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Henry James, and Shirley Jackson, has evolved into a complex mixture of the sensational, the sentimental, the melodramatic, and the formulaic. True, a Gothic work such as Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House occasionally achieves belletristic status, but most examples of the genre can be appropriately categorized as "popular" fiction. Stephen King's numerous references and allusions make plain his familiarity with the Gothic tradition, particularly that part which begins with the publication of Frankenstein. One finds in King many Gothic conventions of setting, plot, characterization, and theme, along with an assortment of melodramatic techniques which accentuate his Gothic motifs and help to shape the world view which permeates his fiction. It must be emphasized, however, that the Gothic and the melodramatic in King are virtually inseparable, just as they are in the Gothic tradition itself. Equally important, one must recognize that King employs the Gothic and the melodramatic in accordance with the demands of popular formula literature, for he intends to offer his readers a combination of stock thrills and intriguing innovations, the security of the familiar and the unsettling delights of the unknown.

As Elizabeth MacAndrew has argued, Gothic literature highlights vice. King treats vice consistently, luridly, graphically. One of the main plots of The Dead Zone details the exploits of Frank Dodd, a rapist-murderer who stalks a succession of young women and ends his spree with the killing of a nine-year-old. Dodd's behavior follows the strangely consistent pattern of the deranged mind, a pattern which King describes in detail. After slapping a victim around and then raping her, Dodd savors the joy of murder: "He began to throttle [Alma Frechette], yanking her head up from the bandstand's board flooring and then slamming it back down. Her eyes bulged. Her face went pink, then red, then congested purple. Her struggles began to weaken." Eventually, the novel's psychic detective, John Smith, identifies Dodd; but Dodd declines to surrender quietly. Instead, he cuts his throat with a razor blade, spraying a bathroom with blood, and hangs around his neck "a sign crayoned in lipstick. It read: I CONFESS." Several humans confront a huge, rabid St. Bernard in Cujo. Cujo mauls Joe Camber and his friend, Gary Pervier, and traps Donna Trenton and her son, Tad, in Donna's car. King devotes a substantial section of the novel to the brutal, life-or-death struggle between Donna and Cujo. The dog bites her, and she in turn slams the car door repeatedly on the dog's head. For melodramatic effect, this war of attrition goes on in nearly unbearable heat and humidity, conditions which cause Tad to go into convulsions and finally contribute to his death. More than a rabid animal, Cujo is evil, a demonic reincarnation of Dodd returned to prey on the innocent once again. Sex competes with violence in Cujo as Steve Kemp, Donna's rejected lover, vandalizes her home while she battles the dog. Kemp's orgiastic violence does additional duty as a symbolic rape: sexually aroused, he nearly demolishes the Trenton home and then masturbates on Donna's bed.

Sex and violence also combine sensationally in Firestarter. John Rainbird, a bizarre, deformed hit-man for The Shop, a shadowy government espionage agency, strangles his victims slowly, hoping to witness death as they draw their last breaths. After learning of Charlie McGee, the adolescent girl with pyrokinetic abilities, he becomes fascinated with the child's power and personality. Rainbird wants to become "intimate" with Charlie—he seems to have fallen in love with her. His grotesque appearance and peculiar intentions evoke the stereotype of the child molester. Gruesome destruction is panoramic in Carrie. Following repeated harassment by her mother and her peers, Carrie White turns her telekinetic powers on the town of Chamberlain: water mains explode, gasoline stations erupt into flames, and the population stumbles about in a state of chaos—all of this because Carrie has become a vindictive, seemingly demonic character who seeks revenge on each and every one of her tormentors and even upon those who did not harm her. Once a victim, Carrie evolves into a methodical executioner whose vendetta take up the final third of the novel. Doubt and guilt do not impede Carrie, who simply kills whomever she chooses. The novel shifts, with melodramatic rapidity, from Carrie the victim to Carrie the avenger.

King's emphasis on blood and gore does not always depend upon vice, however. The Breathing Method, one of four novellas included in Different Seasons, qualifies as a "tale of the uncanny" told at a mysterious gentlemen's club in New York. Miss Standfield, an unwed pregnant woman who has diligently practiced controlled breathing in order to make delivery easier, is beheaded in a traffic accident while on the way to the hospital to give birth. Her body, though, remains alive, and the narrator, Dr. McCarron, helps the "corpse" deliver its child. But McCarron's excursion into the supernatural has not yet ended, for as he prepares to leave, Miss Standfield's head "mouthed four words: Thank you, Dr. McCarron." McCarron informs the head that Miss Standfield has delivered a boy, and the head obligingly dies. The determined innocent-in-distress, Miss Standfield, has heroically, melodramatically, cheated fate and triumphed against all odds. Though diversified, the incidents cited above all emphasize "violence, physical disaster, and emotional agony" which is both Gothic and melodramatic. King starkly polarizes and exaggerates innocence and malignancy for intensified emotional effect.

King's drastic, violent subject matter fits in with his essentially Gothic themes. He stresses the primordial power and pervasiveness of the unknown, the irrationality and unpredictability of the human psyche, and the moral reality of good and evil. King's metaphysics of the Dark Fantastic provides a contemporary rendering of concepts that have permeated Gothicism for more than two centuries. King treats the Dark Fantastic as an environment where the primitive, superstition, and rudimentary incarnations of good and evil hold sway. In such an environment, those who refuse to take the fantastic seriously or who continue to explain it in terms of the realistic are usually its victims. How valid, King asks, are the empirical and psychological paradigms upon which contemporary society relies to explain reality? And what of the nature of reality itself? Should one conclude that reality is chaotic and menacing? Can subjective phenomena such as the Dark Fantastic be understood objectively? King makes, moreover, a highly plausible assertion about the relationship of the known to the unknown: the territory of the unknown is immense and probably expanding, not diminishing, despite the increasing sophistication of modern investigative methods. Since King deals with the volatile, explosive behavioral eruptions are to be expected. The plot, characterization, rhetoric, and world view of his fiction support these thematic premises and may be viewed, in melodramatic terms, as vehement arguments for them.

Critical consensus holds that melodrama stresses plot over character, plot which relies considerably upon coincidence and accident. Melodramatic plots feature rapid movements from one crisis to another and frequently terminate in death crises, or they accentuate "crucial times in life that seem to determine one's fate once and for all." King's characteristically fast-moving and episodic plots often depend upon coincidence to link together a series of crises which hinge on or end in death. He builds The Stand around several subplots which trace the lives of half a dozen people who try to survive a plague that destroys virtually the entire population of the earth. In order to survive, the main characters must surmount disaster after disaster. Above all, they must avoid the Dark Man, Randall Flagg, and finally confront him—in each case they are at risk. Everyone encounters hazards in the form of emotional agony, encounters with death or near misses, and the need to kill. Nick Andros loses his lover, Rita, to a drug overdose, Mother Abagail must stare down Flagg's menacing animal familiars on a lonely Nebraska road, and Harold Lauder must deal with maddening jealously after the woman he loves rejects him for another. The Stand ends in a holocaust when an atomic bomb destroys Flagg's assembled forces. The Dead Zone opens with the protagonist's dangerous fall while ice skating as a youth, proceeds to an auto accident which leaves him in a coma for five years, and then traces his encounters with a rapist-murderer. Before the novel closes, he tries to assassinate a diabolical politician, only to be shot in the attempt. One seldom finds a dull—or normal—moment. Clearly, much of what happens to Smith seems accidental or coincidental, particularly his astounding awakening and apparently full recovery from a lengthy coma.

King uses a variety of specific plot devices, moreover, to keep the level of suspense high in his crisis fiction. Short, fast-paced, rapidly changing scenes are commonplace, notably in 'Salem's Lot, The Stand, and The Shining. Though his novels tend to be long, he breaks narrative detail down into many miniature, self-contained episodes, a favorite tactic of melodramatists. Multiple narrative viewpoints are another suspense tactic. In The Stand and 'Salem's Lot he tells the story from the vantage points of many characters, often switching points of view as he changes chapters. The effect is both panoramic and provocative because important details are provided in small increments.

King likewise creates suspense with the thriller tactic of ending chapters on a climactic high note which whets the reader's curiosity, or by providing clues and hints which create a state of nervous anticipation. As it draws to a close, The Shining evolves into a continuous chase scene, a suspense device in itself. Danny Torrance has, in fact, been the object of a chase since the novel opened. An early chapter ends with Danny being stung by wasps while he sleeps, another when the ghost of Room 217 tries to strangle him, and a third when the hedge animals pursue him through the snow to the front porch of the Overlook Hotel. The suspense generated at the end of each chapter holds the reader's attention: one grows more curious about who or what will be Danny's final pursuer. King fancies murder-mystery plots and effectively utilizes the suspense inherent in such plots. In Cujo, Donna Trenton and her son turn up missing and the planting of clues begins. The police discover Donna's car has vanished, Vic Trenton tells them about the taunting note he received from Donna's ex-lover, Steve Kemp, and the police soon apprehend Kemp. Once the clues rest in the hands of the authorities, the reader waits eagerly for them to deduce that Donna took the car to Joe Camber's garage for repairs and wonders how long it will take for her to be rescued from Cujo.

An equally important way of creating thrills is intrinsic to the Gothic genre itself. The deliberate, necessary blurring of appearance and reality in most of King's fiction keeps the reader uncertain and therefore attentive to plot developments. In The Mist a group of people huddles inside a supermarket while an impenetrable, acrid mist blankets the world outside and carnivorous creatures prowl around. What the creatures may be, where they came from, how they might behave, and the extent to which insanity has infected those inside the market are all uncertain matters. The ambiguity of the situation makes distinctions between truth and falsehood problematical at best. A similar motif appears in 'Salem's Lot—the Lot has been invaded by a vampire and his familiar. Is an "invasion" by a vampire possible, or no more than a mass hallucination? If vampires are real, might they be killed by the methods folklore prescribes? Who faces the greatest danger from the undead? Few of these questions allow for definite answers and suspense grows out of the uncertainty.

A final suspense gambit, clearly a stock melodramatic one, consists of delaying the "inevitable and wholly foreseen" denouement. Perhaps King's clearest and most emphatic use of this tactic occurs in Christine, the story of a 1958 Plymouth inhabited by the demonic spirit of its former owner, Roland LeBay. Arnie Cunningham, a lonely, socially isolated teenager, becomes frenzied as soon as he passes LeBay's house and notices the car for sale. It becomes apparent from the outset that Christine has a relentless supernatural grip on Arnie and that he will readily do her bidding. The plot makes it equally clear that Arnie's closest friend, Dennis Guilder, suspects and fears Christine's malign influence. A romantic and a revenge plot intervene, but the denouement methodically arrives: Christine turns Arnie into a human lackey and Dennis finally succeeds in destroying the evil machine.

King's emphasis on fast-moving, thrilling plots moves his work in the direction of another melodramatic convention, allegorically simple good and evil characters whose appearances correspond with their inner natures. He typically delineates such characters, moreover, as extremes of vice or virtue, freely adopting the Gothic convention that neurotic and obsessional emotional dynamics are the aspects of a character's psyche to be stressed, in addition to the Gothic preoccupation with guilt, fear, and madness. His characters act more out of compulsion than out of free choice. Like many other melodramatists, King plays up the consistent dual result of compulsion: victimization by a variety of aggressors, including nature, society and evil individuals, and subsequent aggression. Finally, characterization in King fits in with the traditional melodramatic striving after pathetic effects. Jack Torrance, protagonist-turned-antagonist of The Shining, suffers from a variety of unresolved psychological problems, including memories of a family-abusing father, alcoholism, and an explosive temper. When he arrives at the Overlook, Jack is driven to discover its dark secrets by his inner demons of guilt, paranoia, and self-destructiveness. These inner demons join forces with the demons who inhabit the Overlook to transform Jack into a victim and then into an aggressor. The amount of free will he possesses remains open to serious question from the story's outset.

King portrays Carrie White as a victim from early childhood until death. Denied a normal maturation and social life by her mother's religious fanaticism, she becomes the perpetual butt of jokes and harbors fantasies of vengeance against her many tormentors. After Carrie's humiliation at the prom, fantasies evolve into aggressive obsessions, and then into overt madness during her telekinetic vendetta against Chamberlain. Surely madness compromises the matter of free will, yet Carrie's dilemma loses none of its pathos. The reader can easily sympathize with her because of her frustrated, empty life and because she possesses powers which mystify and perhaps control her. Carrie's vendetta, of course, also creates sympathy for the innocent victims who must pay for her lifetime of deprivation. Driven by a messianic desire to save civilization, John Smith in The Dead Zone has the ability to "see" the future. But his second sight reveals to him only the dark side of awareness—he can predict what will be, but can rarely convince others. A melodramatic simplicity stands out in Smith's character when King plays him off against his two primary antagonists, a rapist-murderer and a ruthless politician—obviously society can only profit from his exposure of these evildoers. Still, society refuses to listen, preferring to suspect Smith and his "gift." This pariah-like treatment intensifies Smith's obsession to carry out his quest, and pathos mixes with irony as he pushes onward to save his uncaring fellow man. Predictably, Smith dies as he lived, only vaguely aware of the mysterious forces which drive his personality. He does not pause for detailed reflection. He acts.

The single-natured yet relatively complex villain acts as the moving force in melodrama generally, and in Gothic melodrama demonic-seeming villains predominate. King's villains blend into the tradition of Gothic melodrama: monopathic, relentless, obsessed, they are his most fully realized and intriguing characters. Randall Flagg is literally a demon, a shape-shifter who can become a man, an animal, or a disembodied force. Evil displays itself in Flagg's very appearance, for those who dream of him see only a faceless man. Though Flagg may be surrounded by a supporting cast of criminals and semi-demons, he has no rival as The Stand's most interesting villain. Harold Lauder and Nadine Cross rediscover a truism, that all who serve Flagg eventually become his pawns. The Dark Man's cruelty knows no limits: he crucifies his victims, turns them into slobbering imbeciles, or hurls them from the upper floors of buildings. He broods endlessly over his relentless ambition to destroy his enemies in Boulder, led by the saintly Mother Abagail, and works tirelessly to build an arsenal. Both demon and workaholic, Flagg eventually falls victim to another melodramatic convention, namely that "Evil can only destroy itself, no matter how hard it tries." John Rainbird, the huge, grotesquely scarred Indian of Firestarter, looms as the most physically conspicuous Gothic villain in King's fiction. His sinister freakishness evokes pathos when he encounters Charlie McGee, the innocent adolescent heroine. Here, beyond doubt, appearances alone are reliable measures of good and evil. Rainbird lives for a single purpose, to kill, doing so with ingenuity and pleasure. A creature of almost pure malignancy, monopathic, devoid of qualities higher than a powerful survival instinct. Rainbird dominates the novel. Before Andy and Charlie McGee can escape from The Shop, they must confront him, must either destroy him or be destroyed.

In constant danger themselves, women in Gothic melodrama often become a source of danger to others as well. "King follows this convention of characterization closely, establishing his female characters, for the most part, as vulnerable stereotypes in order to make the convention operate more effectively. Soon after the Torrance family's arrival at the Overlook, Wendy turns into a target of Jack's mania. In order to fight back, she jeopardizes Danny by using him as a psychological weapon or a bargaining chip. Susan Norton, a heroine-turned-predator in 'Salem's Lot is coveted by the vampire Barlow. Susan signals danger for the novel's two main protagonists, Ben and Mark, because of her close relationship with both before she became a vampire. Fran Goldsmith of The Stand suffers as the object of Harold Lauder's unrequited love. Even though she finds Lauder's diary and realizes that he plans revenge by killing Stu Redman, her new lover, she cannot determine where and when Lauder will strike, or whether he intends to kill her also. In the end, Fran becomes both victim and threat when Lauder decides to retaliate by detonating a hidden bomb at a meeting of the Boulder citizens' council where Stu will be present; not surprisingly, several innocent people perish. Women, then, generally serve as targets of villainy and objects of pathos so that King's male villains can remain the most powerful figures and the initiators of his fiction's primary action.

Small children and elderly people, Michael Booth argues, serve to "reinforce pathetic effects" in melodrama, and this is their primary purpose in King's fiction. The theme of virtue in distress, a convention of the sentimental novel, King applies primarily to children. Tad Trenton in Cujo surely merits pity because he is at the mercy of a panoply of forces he cannot understand: hunger, thirst, a distressed mother, a rabid dog, and supernatural powers. Billy Drayton's position in The Mist offers little improvement. The boy has lost his mother, gotten trapped in a crowd of increasingly demented strangers, and been singled out as a sacrificial offering to propitiate carnivorous beasts. Charlie McGee's dilemma may be the most pitiable of all, for she is "gifted" with pyrokinesis, a talent which causes her endless anxiety. If pyrokinesis itself were not problem enough, The Shop captures and uses her as a psychological guinea pig, John Rainbird lusts after her, and she must use her "gift" to kill nearly the entire staff at The Shop's compound. King's child characters are purposely one-dimensional, stereotypical innocents-in-distress whose misfortunes invariably invoke pity. He treats the elderly in similar fashion—for example, Jud Crandall in Pet Sematary, Matt Burke in 'Salem's Lot, and Mother Abagail in The Stand each of whom faces a hazardous situation, a superior human opponent, or the supernatural. Like the children, these three must cope with complex problems alone, and their physical infirmities parallel the physical immaturity of the children. Pathos arises from the reader's fear that the older people, despite their heroic efforts, cannot finally escape the status of dependents. When the elderly die at the villain's hands or in the battle against him, however, they at least assure themselves of the mildly heroic stature reserved for virtuous characters in the sentimental tradition.

King relies upon bombastic rhetoric, a fundamental part of Gothic melodrama, to underscore the effects of his plotting and characterization. In the following passage from 'Salem's Lot, Straker, the human familiar of the vampire Barlow, has just strung young Mark Petrie from a ceiling beam to wait for Barlow's return. Straker cannot resist teasing his victim: "You're trembling young master … your flesh is white—but it will be whiter! Yet you need not be so afraid. My Master has the capacity for kindness…. There is only a little sting, like the doctor's needle, and then sweetness…. You will go see your father and mother, yes? You will see them after they sleep." This sarcastic gloating naturally encourages the reader's sympathy for the helpless boy, and emotions polarize, the normal effect of bombast. Straker's bombast echoes the good-evil dichotomies found elsewhere in the novel, the juxtaposition of totally negative and purely positive. Carrie White's mother indulges in an equally blatant outburst when she tries to discourage Carrie from making a dress for the prom: "'Take it off, Carrie. We'll go down and burn it in the incinerator together, and then pray for forgiveness. We'll do penance.' Her eyes began to sparkle with the strange, disconnected zeal that came over her at events which she considered to be tests of faith. 'I'll stay home from work and you'll stay home from school. We'll pray. We'll ask for a Sign. We'll get us down on our knees and ask for the Pentecostal fire.'" Anything but subtle, Mrs. White's diatribe provokes confrontation, as melodramatic bombast usually does. Rhetoric magnifies the emotional conflicts that divide Carrie and her mother, branding Mrs. White as the aggressor and Carrie as the victim. Predictably, her mother's bluntly emotional appeal prompts Carrie to make an emphatically emotional response—a direct, uncompromising denial.

King's handling of subject matter, plot, characterization, and rhetoric implies a world view consistent with the world view of melodrama. Melodrama emphasizes the equitable rewarding of virtue and punishment of vice, and perpetuates the "fantasy of a world that operates according to our heart's desires." Since melodrama sets before us a world of clarity, simplicity, either-or dichotomies, and absolutes, appearance and reality conveniently correspond. Melodrama stresses as well fate and fate's victims. Whether or not fate figures as a cosmic culprit, melodrama encourages pity for victims and outrage at evildoers. Several of King's theories about horror fiction align themselves with the melodramatic world view. A major purpose of such fiction, he asserts, is to "confirm our own good feelings about the status quo by showing us extravagant visions of what the alternative might be." The writer of horror fiction functions, therefore, as "an agent of the status quo," the norm, operating according to what could be construed as a fantasy of a universe governed according to certain fixed principles. Horror stories, he argues, are "conservative," essentially the same as the morality plays of earlier centuries. In effect, horror stories, like other species of melodrama, support a conventional morality. The horror story's "strict moralities," in fact, make it a "reaffirmation of life and good will and simple imagination." King defines the horror story, finally, as an "invitation to lapse into simplicity," a definition which supports the melodramatic preoccupation with absolutes, extremes, dichotomies.

King's fictive practices confirm his belief in the world view of melodrama. Sensationalistic vice tends to be punished grimly: John Rainbird is incinerated, Randall Flagg flees to the nether world, and Jack Torrance forfeits his soul to the transcendent evil of the Overlook. Although not all of King's villains are punished so drastically, their ends are invariably frustrated. As demonstrated earlier, the innocent suffer abundantly, but suffering frequently vindicates their purity or rightness. This premise seems particularly true of child characters. Mark Petrie of 'Salem's Lot believes in the supernatural and in vampire lore, a belief shared by few of the adults he deals with. Mark loses his parents, his friends and nearly his life; however, his suspicions finally prove correct. John Smith of The Dead Zone, a childlike adult, undergoes a similar experience: the well-meaning Smith meets with recurring skepticism and frustration. Yet, in the book's climactic confrontation scene his suspicions about Gregg Stillson are justified—Stillson reveals his villainy when he holds a child in front of him to ward off Smith's bullets. King's dependence upon stereotypical figures, moreover, reinforces a world view that accentuates absolutes, clarity, and simplicity. Since characters are usually delineated as extremes of good or bad, reader recognition of a particular character's nature, motivations, and values rarely proves difficult. Again, in view of the one-dimensional nature of characters, the changes they undergo are easily anticipated and not unduly complex. Nothing will cause a Stillson or a Barlow, for example, to relent in his pursuit of a singular, clearly announced goal. King also provides clarity by means of his characters' preferences for immediate, direct action over lengthy, involved introspection. The major decisions they make often take on an either-or simplicity. All characters in The Stand, major or minor, must choose between the goodness of Mother Abagail and the evil of the Dark Man—the moral middle ground quickly vanishes for both character and reader. The bombastic rhetoric to which King's villains, particularly, seem addicted further illustrates the world of moral and psychological extremes in which they function. Bombast reduces potentially complex issues to simple, emotionally charged ones, establishing morally convenient polarizations. Plot, finally, moves so rapidly from crisis to crisis that it traps characters in the identities they assume early in a story. This crisis plotting necessitates limited, often fated characters who change little, irrespective of the dilemmas that assail them. Though it often appears to generate ambiguity, plotting probably resolves at least as much ambiguity as it creates.

An accomplished melodramatic strategist, King understands horror fiction's formulaic nature and that a formula writer must blend conventions with inventions. His Gothic melodrama provides the "emotional security" inherent in anticipated, standardized subject matter, settings, character and plot types, and themes, while the exciting effects he seeks often derive from his innovative experiments with the familiar. As suggested earlier, King evokes horror and fear by treating a variety of sensational subject matter: gruesome deaths, torture, sexual aberrations, grave-robbing, a worldwide plague, and the like. He offers a haunted house in 'Salem's Lot, a haunted hotel in The Shining, and a wide range of demons, vampires, monstrous, quasi-human villains, and occult powers. Ventures into the unknown, his plots dramatize confrontations with immanent evil, the dark side of the human psyche, and with transcendent evil, the unfathomable mysterium.

King's variations in the formulas of Gothic melodrama are generally noteworthy and often striking. Christine features a haunted automobile, Cujo a dog inhabited by the malingering spirit of a psychotic murderer, and The Shining a menagerie of hedge animals seeking human prey. Technically, King has not created a new species of Gothic being in each instance, but he surely has made substantial changes in the conventional werewolf or ghost figure. Even his relatively traditional villains evoke contemporary versions of the freakish: Randall Flagg recalls Charles Manson and Frank Dodd the sexual deviate whose bizarre exploits are chronicled in tabloids. King's "wild-talent" novels (Carrie, The Shining, The Dead Zone, Firestarter) represent a dramatic innovation in the Gothic convention of the character who possesses extreme "sensibility." He substitutes telekinesis, pyrokinesis, and other forms of parapsychological sensitivity for the heightened emotions of a figure such as Poe's Roderick Usher. The protagonists of the "wild-talent" stories each manifest an advanced awareness or power that sets them apart from the rest of humanity. King's settings fulfill a dual purpose, providing novelty of a sort while simultaneously encouraging a strong sense of reader identification. Even though twentieth-century Gothic settings have grown increasingly localized and familiar, traces of remoteness and the unfamiliar still remain. King has all but obliterated those traces. References to rock music, media celebrities, politicians, and miscellaneous easily recognized items of popular culture stand out in his work. Paul McCartney, Elvis Presley, and Walter Cronkite are each referred to in The Dead Zone, along with Arthur Bremmer and a woman named Moore, two would-be political assassins who aimed at George Wallace and Gerald Ford, respectively. In Firestarter, Mr. Coffee and Cremora are essential parts of Cap Hollister's office equipment, and in Carrie, King cites The Reader's Digest as the source of a story about the White case. King's "brand-names" approach to setting emphatically asserts that Gothic horror cannot be dismissed as obscure and remote; on the contrary, it has an immediate, domestic, and specifically American quality. In short, King has democratized and universalized the Dark Fantastic without depending solely on myth.

A final innovation involves plot and works similarly. Often a large plot segment consists of either a realistic feature of another genre or an entire realistic sub-genre itself. The Dead Zone follows the conventions of the political novel closely, so that Gregg Stillson's rise to power identifies the work as both a political novel and a Gothic tale. Early on, Stillson becomes a successful candidate for office and steadily acquires power, approximating in several ways the stereotype of the fascist manipulator found in modern American political fiction. The reader can witness in Stillson's career the machinations of actual demagogues such as Hitler and Huey Long, both of whom are mentioned in the story, along with Sinclair Lewis' treatment of demagoguery, It Can't Happen Here. The political plot of The Dead Zone suggests that King intends for the Gothic and the realistic to overlap until they are virtually indistinguishable. His plotting may be considered both an argument for the pervasiveness of the Dark Fantastic and a response to the formulaic demand for novelty.

The popular success of King's fiction grows out of his skillful blending of the Gothic, the melodramatic, and the formulaic. King's own observations on the horror genre suggest several reasons why his work has enjoyed such popularity. These comments deserve attention because they indicate the extent to which he understands and controls his medium and his craft. Horror, he points out, stimulates the reader's curiosity; we are simply fascinated by the dark side, for example, by freaks, who are morbidly "attractive" yet "forbidden" and therefore appealing. Horror satiates our curiosity about such "forbidden" delights since "horror is, by its very nature, intriguingly alien and aberrant." The "purpose" of horror fiction, as he sees it, is to "explore taboo lands," to probe the anxieties of its readers; at the least, tales of terror stimulate "simple aggression and … morbidity." Horror has proven itself capable of localizing and making concrete our "free-floating anxieties" of all sorts, political, economic, and psychological. Fears, of course, are universal, and if they can be intensified and made immediate, they will appeal. Clearly, horror caters to the reader's rebelliousness as well; we read to dare the nightmare, to show "that we can ride this roller coaster." Society, in fact, sanctions horror, recognizing in the idiom an invitation "to indulge in deviant, antisocial behavior by proxy." The reader can rebel because he has the equivalent of mob approval, having joined a conspiracy to "destroy the outsider."

Perhaps the most pervasive appeal of horror derives from its indulgence of the reader's innate fascination with death; horror invites us by providing a "rehearsal for our own deaths," by treating death as though it were a "single powerful spectacle" seen through the eyes of a child. Catharsis, escape, and the return to normality, however, must also be part of horror's aesthetic in order for that aesthetic to appeal to readers so powerfully. The "melodies of the horror tale," according to King, "are simple and repetitive … but the ritual outletting of these emotions seems to bring things back to a more stable and constructive state again." One partakes of horror, in part, to reestablish his "feelings of essential normality." Readers long for escape from the abundance of horrors real life surrounds them with, and fictive horror obliges by helping us to "rediscover the smaller … joys of our own lives … by showing us the miseries of the damned."

King's analysis of the aesthetics of horror establishes numerous credible reasons for the appeal of his own fiction. The melodramatic and formulaic qualities of his work imply several additional reasons, for melodramatic and formulaic literature have traditionally enjoyed considerable popularity. Generally, his aesthetic of horror can be explained in terms of the melodramatic and the formulaic. King notes that horror fiction endures because it meets universal needs, essentially the same claim that Daniel Gerould makes for melodrama: "Melodrama is material available to everyone, its devices, characters and situations instantly known, implanted by the culture in the psyche of each of its members. This material may easily be aroused, activated, used." Robert Heilman concurs when he argues that audiences cannot do without melodrama, not only because it is exciting and invigorating in itself, but because it takes us away from complex and "dull or unproductive" contemplations of the "tragic consciousness." Melodrama, then, seems pervasive and permanent. King stresses that horror literature elicits fear and terror, both of which are highly appealing, and melodrama itself evokes analogous emotional reactions. Gerould claims that, owing to its "primal theatrical energy of aggression, anxiety, and eroticism," melodrama caters to the "eternal human longing to be terrified." John Cawelti has demonstrated that the idea of melodrama cannot be dissociated from violence, sensationalism, and terror. The success of any melodramatist, in short, may well depend upon his ability "to feel and project fear."

King considers horror fiction to be simple, explicit, repetitive, and direct rather than complex. Melodrama and formula literature could be characterized similarly, and like horror fiction they make ample allowances for escapism. Simplicity itself often proves exhilarating, a welcome relief which most readers can, at least occasionally, tolerate large amounts of. King magnifies and intensifies emotion, emotion which "takes us out of ourselves" and entices us to escape. He centers much of his fiction around violence, tacitly recognizing that "because it rouses extreme feelings, the representation of violence is an effective means of generating the experience of escape" from boredom and routine. King argues as well that horror fiction regularly attempts to probe taboos, a concern it shares with formula literature in general; the investigation of taboos "permits the audience to explore in fantasy the boundary between the permitted and the forbidden." Like horror fiction, melodrama and the formulaic are emotionally charged, aimed at producing thrills and allowing the reader to violate taboos vicariously and harmlessly.

Several additional features of King's work, all of them intrinsic to melodrama, further account for its popularity. Monopathy or oneness in characters produces a corresponding reaction in readers: as a result of his contact with melodramatic virtue and vice, one experiences a unity of feeling. Since he does not need to deal with a full range of emotions, the reader's reactions will be incomplete but they will also be intense and carefully channeled. Melodrama presents, moreover, a "clear menace," something we search for subconsciously, a menace which demands an emphatic denial. King calls up an abundance of such menaces: perversely evil characters, demons, a nuclear accident, and a plague, to name a few. Thus, the reader can easily determine that "guilt belongs to monstrous individuals," such as Flagg or Rainbird, with whom he is "not identified." Melodrama likewise employs the "disaster principle," stimulating us to feel the uncomplicated responses of pity for victims and indignation at evildoers. The "disaster principle" provides the additional benefit of self-pity when the reader identifies with an innocent character, for example, John Smith or Tad Trenton. King entices his readers with a number of psychological rallying points in addition to a variety of escape routes, both overt and subtle, and they respond to these appeals overwhelmingly, with a narrowly focused, intense enthusiasm.

The reasons why Stephen King has become virtually a brand name during the past decade become apparent when one examines his work objectively. He has given careful consideration to the aesthetics of horror fiction and has attained a sophisticated awareness of his strengths and weaknesses as a practitioner of a popular genre. King's treatments of the Gothic and macabre are the opposite of impulsive meanderings—he consistently seeks to create a "single powerful spectacle." That goal dictates a strategy which can best be described as melodramatic and formulaic, and one which places him in a loosely defined but densely populated tradition that has existed from the beginning of literary history. Irrespective of one's attitude toward violence or sensationalism, King deserves credit for understanding his subject matter, craft, and audience well. King proposed in 'Salem's Lot to celebrate "superstition and ignorance," his synonyms for the mysterious, the supra-rational, and the anti-scientific. His wildfire popularity suggests that he has found a large audience willing to share in that celebration.

Further Reading

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Keesey, Douglas. "'The Face of Mr. Flip': Homophobia in the Horror of Stephen King." In The Dark Descent, edited by Tony Magistrale. New York: Greenwood Press, 1992, pp. 187-201.

Asserts that "one of the socially specific fears most often represented in King's horror is homophobia."

Quinn, Judy. "King of the Season." Publishers Weekly 243, No. 32 (5 August 1996): 293-94.

Discusses the simultaneous publication of King's Desperation and The Regulators under his pseudonym, Richard Bachman.

Michael McDowell (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: "The Unexpected and the Inevitable," in Kingdom of Fear: The World of Stephen King, edited by Tim Underwood and Chuck Miller, New American Library, 1986, pp. 83-95.

[In the following essay, McDowell asserts that King's novels are effective because of their rhythm.]

It was with some hesitation that I agreed to write about Stephen King's work. I was trained as an academic, with an eye towards analysis and criticism, but now I have only contempt for the sapping methods of literary "appreciation" taught in colleges and graduate schools. The idea of analyzing a volume of writing that I think very good seems unappealing and pointless. Increasingly, I find myself in the critical vein that either gushes, "Oh God it's great you've got to read it!" or moans, "Can you believe that anybody would publish this," or is silent from indifference. So that I think the best—and probably most helpful—reaction to King's work is a simple, "Oh God I've read everything, and I haunt the bookstores waiting for the next one."

Certainly, that is the common reaction.

Another hesitation is that my view of King and his work is probably skewed. In the first place, I know the man, and like him very much. For another thing, I am a writer of occult fiction myself, and therefore read King with a more specialized eye than his usual admirer. Usually, in fact, to be read by another writer is like having a carpenter over. He's not going to admire your taste in decoration, he's going to be looking at how you built the house. You try to show him the new living room furniture, and he wants to know what kind of cement you put in the foundations. When I read Stephen King, I'm looking to see how he puts the damn books and stories together, and what makes them stand so straight and solid.

This innate, technical evaluation is in operation every time I read a book of fiction. (For pleasure, I have to make do with books on astronomy and particle physics.) I pick up a book with a promisingly lurid cover. On page twelve I've guessed not only the premise, but five important plot points, and the ending. I always know what's coming next. Discordances of tone grate. Misshapen or improbable dialogue sounds in my mind like Hanna-Barbera voices. It's a great tribute to King that by some point in the story, I no longer think about the cement in the cellar foundations and don't care how tight the sashes are in the window frames. I'm simply propelled room to room through the narrative, as by an energetic host, gaping and wary and fearing. It can take me a great while to finish one of King's books, simply because he transforms me into a timid reader. "Oh God," I think, "he's not going to do that, is he?" I put the book down for a space, till I have courage to pick it up again and make sure that, indeed, he is going to do it.

He always does, of course. No wet fuses. And the climaxes are exactly right. The dynamite is laid, stick by stick, and every one of them goes off, in a precise, rhythmic pattern.

Which brings me to the point of this little essay.

Stephen King's rhythm.

It is what stands out most for me in the books, it is what makes me sweat with jealousy when I read him, it is what—I suspect—makes the narratives so enormously effective.

It has become increasingly apparent to me that books rise or fall by the rhythm of the narrative. A story can carry you along—despite lapses in grammar, probability, or tone—if the rhythm is right. This rhythm is manifest in many ways, and in different measurements—that is to say that there are rhythms that are apparent on a scale of kilometers (an entire book), and rhythms that are manifest on a scale of centimeters (a sentence or two), and everything in between. In fact, a novel may be looked at as a series of interlocking rhythms. Five sentences that are rhythmically just right form a good paragraph; five good paragraphs, set up just so, make a good section to be separated by asterisks; six good sections make a very good chapter; and then all you have to do is write thirty of those, arrange them in the right order, smooth down the lumps, and now you have a good, rhythmic book—one that propels the reader forward. Prologue to fin.

People out there who don't write books, or who write books thoughtlessly, are saying, "That can't possibly be how it's done." But it is. It's how Stephen King writes, and I know because, one, it's how I write and I recognize the phenomenon when I see it; and two, he's told me so.

Of course you can't freehand a chart of arcs and say, "Well, here's the shape and rhythm of my new novel." But you can have a story in mind, and start writing it. The rhythm begins to develop on its own accord. It's astonishing how quickly it's established—usually for me by the end of the second chapter. And every book's rhythm is different, just as the tone of every book is different. Then, as you proceed further and further into the story, the rhythm becomes more complex, and more demanding. You can't always feel when it's right, but by God, you surely do know when it's wrong. When it's wrong—and you're conscientious—you stop and fix it, and then you go on. At the end, you sit down, read the book through—not for spelling errors, not for the rightness of the dialogue or the plausibility of motivation—but to make sure that it reads well. Which is to say, to make certain that the rhythm is right.

Some scenes, you'll invariably find, are overlong considering their importance. This would mean that a reader would spend longer with them than he should. It's a fault most obvious in transitions between disjointed sections. So you trim them back so that the amount of space they take up on the printed page is commensurate with their relative importance to the narrative.

On the other hand, some important scene may not be given its proper weight in the story simply because you wrote it too briefly. Then, even if you got everything in the first time, you have to write a few more pages, simply so that the reader will be slowed down a bit during the important bits.

Of course, there are no hard and fast rules about length versus importance. You know when it's wrong, and you can have a pretty good idea when it's right. If you write as much as King does (or as I do), the process of meting out space in a narrative becomes second nature. You don't often get it wrong. There's a little mental tape measure that reads off in pretty exact measurements. "This scene ought to get twelve pages. This transition ought to be three paragraphs and a snatch of dialogue. This can't be more than a page and a half."

To illustrate:

A few months ago, Stephen King asked me to read through the manuscript of his new novel, Misery, and tell him what I thought. I gladly acceded to the request, and devoured the book. I liked it very much, and saw many things to praise, and very few to object to. I made one small suggestion for a refinement of cruelty, and King said, "Very nice. I'll add it. Anything else?"

"The climax needs one more beat," I said. "I have no idea what it should be, but you need about six more pages of something. To slow it down. Because now it's over too quickly. Just a beat, that's all."

"I felt that," King replied. "But I was hoping I was wrong. I wasn't. I'll fix it."

And I know that he will have fixed it by the time the book is published. Because I've never come across even so small a lapse as that in one of his published books. I was gratified to find that error in rhythm, in fact, because it showed me that he had to work (even if only a little) to establish his perfectly rhythmic narratives. It wasn't all sheer and casual talent.

What this also shows, I think, is that the process of creating a rhythm actually exists. When I said that Misery's climax needed an extra beat, King knew exactly what I was talking about. A build-up needs a pay-off, and the pay-off has to be in proper proportion to the build-up. Otherwise, the story is unbalanced, and in some way the reader will be dissatisfied. All through King's books, there are smaller build-ups and pay-offs, culminating in a final pay-off that balances everything that came before. One great arc encompasses all the smaller ones. The pattern may be worked out subconsciously, or by instinct, but it's still no accident.

I remember when a consciousness of this kind of narrative rhythm first came into focus for me. It wasn't after studying literature through four years of college and three of graduate school. It was reading The Shining. And it was the scariest moment in the book, the point at which the boy Danny, having willed away the vision of the dead, drowned woman in Room 217, finds her bloated hands round his neck.

Time passed. And he was just beginning to relax, just beginning to realize that the door must be unlocked and he could go, when the years-damp, bloated, fish-smelling hands closed softly around his throat and he was turned implacably around to stare into the dead and purple face.

What happens next?

What happens next is that we get a new chapter. And it's not a chapter telling us what happens to Danny, and whether he's killed, whether he's only injured, whether he's able to will the ghastly residue away. It's a chapter dealing with Jack's parents.

I never read ten pages so quickly in my life, desperate to know what had become of the boy.

And when I found him again, at the beginning of the next chapter, Danny had bruises on his neck and was half-catatonic—but he wasn't dead.

At that point, I put the book down, and I said, aloud, "What a cheap device!"

Then I immediately incorporated the technique into the book that I was writing at the time.

Now, of course, the trick seems obvious. Bring the narrative to a fever of suspense—and then maintain that suspense by switching focus to an unrelated incident. While some poor victim hangs over the edge of the cliff by a fraying rope, pebbles spilling into his face, we switch to his distressed girlfriend begging a skeptical park ranger for assistance in finding him. The boyfriend can hang there for quite a while, in fact, till we get back to him. It's a cheap use of rhythm, but done correctly, it works. And it may be done so well, in fact, that the manipulated reader feels nothing but a straightforward anxiety for the poor victim at the end of the rope.

For me, the great lesson of that narrative sequence from The Shining was the importance of rhythm. I'm faintly embarrassed that it took this sledgehammer example of the thing to show me that. Now, I'm happy to say, I can be appreciative of much subtler sequence rhythms in King's work.

I much admire Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, the first of the four novellas that comprise Different Seasons, and as I read it, I was astonished by the delicacy of the construction. To nearly any reader, it is apparent that the climax of the story will be the attempt of Andy Dufresne to escape from Shawshank prison. The middle part of the story consists of various legal attempts that Dufresne makes to avoid or to shorten his term in prison. His trial. His model prisoner attitude. His discovery of the real murderer. Each of these fails, as we know it will. Then, at last, he's left with only one solution—an escape from the prison. What we've been waiting for. Something clever, something harrowing.

And of course, I assumed, a great deal of suspense would be tied up in whether he makes it or not.

Here again, King astonished me.

Only three-quarters of the way into the narrative, I came across this paragraph:

In 1975, Andy Dufresne escaped from Shawshank. He hasn't been recaptured, and I don't think he ever will be. In fact, I don't think Andy Dufresne even exists anymore. But I think there's a man down in Zihuatanego, Mexico named Peter Stevens. Probably running a very new small hotel in this year of our Lord 1977.

When I read that paragraph, I looked up from the book puzzled and shocked. I flipped to the end of the story, and saw that there was a good quarter of the narrative to go. Why give away the fact that Dufresne makes his escape, and survives? How would the rest of the story maintain a balance of suspense against what had come before?

The answer should have been obvious—the narrative maintained suspense through rhythm.

What I thought would come next was a detailing of the escape. But I was wrong.

What came next was the discovery of the escape by the consternated officials of the prison, told in completely satisfying detail. But still we didn't know how the escape was accomplished. And it is this that comes next, the narrator's methodical analysis of what must have happened, because it couldn't have happened any other way. Then at the last, a coda—the narrator's release from prison, and his resolve to join up with Dufresne in Mexico.

Thus, three very satisfying sections of narrative follow the "give-away" of Dufresne's successful escape, and each of them is a payoff for something set up earlier in the book. The corrupt prison officials' comeuppance. The method of Dufresne's harrowing escape. And—what came as a pleasant surprise—the resolution of the narrator's future.

None of these passages would have been half so effective if we'd been troubled with wondering whether Dufresne would succeed with his escape. That question put to rest in a brief paragraph, we're able to relish the solution of three more questions.

Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption has a lovely, audacious shape, and I can't believe that it requires another writer to appreciate it fully.

There is another example of bold rhythm in Apt Pupil, the second and longest novella in Different Seasons. The very title of the piece leads us to believe that Todd will be instructed in Nazi Dussander's evil, and (because King never pulls his punches), we realize well before the end that Todd will take his rifle to the edge of the freeway and begin picking off motorists—in a feeble imitation of the concentration camps' commanders' power to decide, casually and arbitrarily, who is to live and who to die. That snipering will be the Apt Pupil's graduation exercise, and it will end the story. That's the Inevitable Conclusion to the story.

But I know that while King delivers the inevitable, he never delivers it in quite the way I expected it. If I'm waiting at the front door, waiting for the bell, he goes around to the back, and knocks.

So what, I wondered, would be the Surprise to temper the Inevitability?

Here's how Apt Pupil ends:

"I'm king of the world!" he shouted mightily at the high blue sky, and raised the rifle two-handed over his head for a moment. Then, switching it to his right hand, he started towards that place above the freeway where the land fell away and where the dead tree would give him shelter.

It was five hours later and almost dark before they took him down.

In other words, the snipering happens, but we don't see it. But all our worst imaginings—of what misery a young man with a rifle above a freeway can cause in the space of five hours—are excited by that simple, final sentence. This long story ends with a jolt precisely commensurate with what has gone before.

I remember when I first read that, I was shocked by its cold brevity. Then disturbed—because I sat back and thought to myself, "All right, just how many people did he kill, and who were they, and if I had been driving along that freeway, would he have picked me out for death?"

And then I nodded a little nod of professional acknowledgment to King, who had done it again. Provided me with the unexpected and the inevitable.

King likes horror movies. King has written them, and for every script he's written, he's probably seen three hundred. In a film, it is an easy matter to give the viewer a jolt. The hapless victim—let's make her a girl this time—climbs naked out of bed and peers through a darkened window, checking out that strange noise outside. She sees nothing. She turns back to her boyfriend, and says, "I didn't see any—" At that moment of course, a great hairy arm crashes through the window, grabs her around the throat, and a moment later, she spills backward through the sash in a shower of glass, never to be seen again. Later the boyfriend dies as well. (This is another in the "Fuck and Die" school of film production.)

Ominous music leads up to the jolt, the jolt comes in a sforzando of strings, and the audience gasps and represses (or does not repress) its screams.

But how do you do the equivalent in a book?

To see a hand crash through the window when you're not expecting it is not the same thing as to read, "She turned away from the window and reassured her boyfriend that there was nothing outside. Then a great hairy arm crashed through the window and caught her around the neck."

Not the same thing at all.

The difficulty is this. In a film, you can have five minutes of real (or is it "reel"?) time leading up to the climactic moment, and then the climactic moment takes less than a second. You have no control over the speed or the sequence of the action.

You can't do that in a book, because you can't control a reader's pace. You can't say, "All right, Gentle Reader, here's a slow part where I'm building suspense. Wait a minute, I'm still building—feel that terror mount?—a couple of paragraphs more, just to make sure you're good and primed, and now—and now—voy-la!—here's the surprise! Here's the great hairy arm through the window, and my God, weren't you scared?"

I've read books like that. I've even said hypocritically nice things to authors who write after that fashion, and if I'm not damned for that, I won't be damned for anything.

You just can't do it the way the movies can.

Or can you?

King obviously can, because his books are genuinely frightening. They deliver honest jolts. And they do it—have you guessed?—through rhythm.

There are ways of slowing a reader down and speeding him up. They are, in their way, quite technical, and have to do with the length of sentences, the length of words within those sentences, with the length and the alternation of the paragraphs the sentences make up.

A succession of long paragraphs, each composed of long sentences with great big words in them, is a lulling read. A good writer can make such a passage almost hypnotic. Then a one-line paragraph can jolt you right out of that trance. From the same sequence in The Shining, dealing with Danny's exploration of Room 217:

A long room, old fashioned, like a Pullman car. Tiny white hexagonal tiles on the floor. At the far end, a toilet with the lid up. At the right, a washbasin and another mirror above it, the kind that hides a medicine cabinet. To the left, a huge white tub on claw feet, the shower curtain pulled closed. Danny stepped into the bathroom and walked toward the tub dreamily, as if propelled from outside himself, as if this whole thing were one of the dreams Tony had brought him, that he would perhaps see something nice when he pulled the shower curtain back, something Daddy had forgotten or Mommy had lost, something that would make them both happy—

So he pulled the shower curtain back.

The woman in the tub had been dead for a long time …

Notice particularly how the last sentence of the paragraph describing the bathroom runs on, repetitious and soothing and dreaming. Then that's cut off by a single line of simple action—"So he pulled the shower curtain back"—which is given a paragraph of its own. Then the next paragraph begins in a terrible, matter-of-fact way—and that's the jolt.

When I say that the method for achieving this jolt is technical, I'm not suggesting that King did anything other than sit down at his keyboard and type out those very words, first draft, as they appear there. The technique is in his brain, and probably he doesn't know any way to write except in this casually efficient and effective manner. But to have constructed that passage in any other way would not have been either as efficient or effective. King's technique placed the words, the sentences, the paragraph breaks, the very punctuation in the manner that would precisely maximize the current of the jolt.

There are times when this rhythm is so important that the words themselves almost don't matter—when the sound of the words in the brain and their length and their alternation is to be considered much more than any specific meaning they convey. In the above passage, I would put the sequence, "as if this whole thing were one of the dreams Tony had brought him, that he would perhaps see something nice when he pulled the shower curtain back, something Daddy had forgotten or Mommy had lost, something that would make them both happy," into that category. The repetitious, stringalong nature of the passage is the giveaway—at least to me, who use it frequently—that it's the lulling rhythm at work on the reader here, and not the actual content of Danny's groping mind.

By the same token, there are ways of speeding a reader up.

One-sentence paragraphs is one. Short sentences within those short paragraphs.

Even sentence fragments to serve as paragraphs.

Rapid alteration of dialogue, with no adverbs ("…, he admonished balefully") and as few identifying tags as possible ("…, said the dead saleslady").

Put so badly, these sound—once again—like the cheapest of the cheap devices. But they work, and good writers use them. From the first page to the last.

And, contrariwise, bad writers don't use them. A bad writer may tell a story, and the story he tells may be a good one. But if he can't control the reader, the good story he tells won't be told well, and the reader won't be satisfied. I really do believe it is as simple as that.

Someone once asked me what I thought horror fiction did. What its purpose was. (King is asked this question frequently as well. It is only a very little less annoying that "Where do you get your ideas?") I don't know what he stipulated as the purpose of horror fiction, but I replied that when I wrote horror fiction, I tried to take the improbable, the unimaginable, and the impossible, and make it seem not only possible—but inevitable.

That is to say, the writer of horror fiction propels—or tries to propel—the reader up in a spiraling succession of improbabilities, and convince him that there is no other way that the story could unfold. That he presents the reader, at every turn, with a surprise—that after a moment's consideration becomes an inevitability.

You want the reader to say to himself, "Oh God that was a surprise, and a scary one, and I should have seen it coming, but I didn't, and yes—the author is right—it couldn't have been any other way." (This is, of course, only a little better than reciting the splendid review that the New York Times is going to accord your next work.)

This combination of the Unexpected and the Inevitable is, I think, what King probably does best. The foundation for the success of our belief in his narrative is laid, as has been often said, in the crushing normality of his settings and characters. I would add also that his characters' thoughts are crushing normal as well. That's why we believe in them. The action unfolds with a semblance of worldly verisimilitude, and then the unexpected intrudes. The descriptions of the horrors tend to be flattened rather than heightened: "The woman in the bathtub had been dead for a long time …" (This is surely better, one can see, than "The terrified boy stared at the naked, corrupting, purulent, grinning corpse of what had once probably been a cheerful middle-aged woman …" Which is how some writers of horror fiction write, I'm sorry to say.) King's flatness in these descriptions accords the horrors the same legitimacy as his characters' lawn-mowers, and their thirst for a cold Pabst, and their tedious marital squabbles.

It is this rhythm of the mundane and the unnatural—the crushingly mundane and the stupefyingly unnatural, I think I can say—that provides the power of King's horror. That the same language is used for both gives a terrible credence to the reality of the unnatural. I admire Lovecraft—and considering King's tributary story Jerusalem's Lot, it appears that he did too. It may be that he still does, but there seems to me to be little left of that progenitor in King. No obscure eldritch adjectives, no unthinkable monstrosities, no unnameable deities, no indescribable horrors, and no straggling dead man's ravings to end a story as the flapping obscenity sweeps down out of the sky and bursts through the shutters. King's characters may go mad, King's narration does not. It remains clear-eyed, matter-of-factual, observing entirely too much for the reader's comfort.

(What King still has in common with Lovecraft is the overwhelming sense of place. Castle Rock is not as overtly sinister as the valley of the Miskatonic, but nasty things happen there. And if there's not an actual map of Castle Rock on King's bulletin board, I've a pretty good idea that if he were set down in that mythical municipality, he'd been able to get from the TasTee Freeze to the Dew Drop Inn without asking directions from a homicidal cop.)

In this regard, the alternation of the mundane with the unnatural, King employs a kind of flatness—an absence of rhythmic alternation. When the corpse trundles on in a King novel, there are no Bernard Herrmann strings in the background, but the same Muzak that was playing before plays on, to disconcerting effect. In this case, it is the absence of a perceptible rhythm that lends its heightening effect.

I don't really think it would matter if not a single reader of King's work understood, in a technical way, how his books are built on interconnecting and intersecting rhythms. For despite his narrative expertise, King's books work for most in a way that they perceive as visceral. And, as I say, I no longer belong to the camp that analyzes, draws apart, deduces formulae and sketches diagrams. I'm happy to say I'm on that side that passes around a book (not a reviewer's copy, but one paid for with American currency at a book store or a supermarket or a shop that sells cigars and lottery tickets) and says, "Hey listen, you got to read this, and I promise you, it'll give you fucking nightmares."

Carol A. Senf (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3580

SOURCE: "Donna Trenton, Stephen King's Modern American Heroine," in Heroines of Popular Culture, edited by Pat Browne, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1987, pp. 91-100.

[In the following essay, Senf discusses the female protagonists of King's Cujo and asserts that "Donna especially in her display of courage becomes a new American heroine, a strong woman with whom women in the twentieth century can be proud to identify."]

For the past ten years Stephen King has been an enormously popular writer, and part of the reason for that popularity is the fact that his books feature ordinary human characters with whom the reader can readily identify. Moreover these ordinary people become heroes and heroines because they confront unspeakable horrors with courage and conviction.

By far the strongest of King's heroines is Donna Trenton in Cujo. To establish her as a modern American heroine, King does two things: First he places her in a realistic environment and shows her confronting the same problems that face ordinary human beings today; second he deliberately contrasts her with the dependent women of earlier Gothic literature and horror films, the women her son Tad thinks of when he dreams of warning her about the monster in his closet: "Be careful, Mommy, they [monsters] eat the ladies! In all the movies they catch the ladies and carry them off and eat them!" (King's italics). Though Tad never confesses his fears to his mother, Donna is aware of the tradition of female weakness and passivity. A former librarian, she repeatedly compares herself—sometimes facetiously but more often seriously—to a damsel in distress and her husband to the knight who will rescue her. In fact, King reveals that Donna must abandon the notion that the heroine is someone to be rescued. Only then can she attempt to save both her son and herself from the rabid Cujo, a monster that King emphasizes is a symbol for all the evil forces against which human beings must struggle, only then can she become a suitable representative of the modern, more assertive woman.

In a similar fashion, Charity Camber, a working class version of the trapped American woman, accepts responsibility for herself and her son and escapes from a brutal and abusive husband. A lesser version of the heroine, Charity is also a strong and courageous woman with whom twentieth-century readers can be proud to identify.

Although King is often identified as a writer of supernatural horror because of his early novels, Salem's Lot and The Shining, his emphasis on ordinary human life is clear from the very beginning of Cujo, which he prefaces with the following quotation from W. H. Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts":

     About suffering they were never wrong,      The Old Masters: how well they understood      Its human position; how it takes place      While someone else is eating or opening a window      or just walking dully along …

By choosing this quotation, King emphasizes the human rather than the superhuman; and he distances himself still further from his early novels in the rest of Cujo. Reinforcing the ordinary quality of human suffering is the first page of the novel, which identifies the monster in Castle Rock, Maine, as a sick human being:

He was not 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.

King is obviously playing with the readers' expectations. However, the figure of Frank Dodd, a sick and destructive human being rather than a vampire or a haunted house, will appear again and again in the novel, sometimes linked with Cujo, another example of an evil that occurs within the natural world:

Screaming, he got both hands under the dog's muzzle again and yanked it up. For a moment, staring into those dark, crazed eyes … he thought: Hello, Frank. It's you, isn't it? Was hell too hot for you? (King's italics)

Despite Sheriff Bannerman's reference to Dodd's return from the grave, however, King expects the reader to recognize that Cujo and Dodd are both examples of evil within the natural world, not supernatural Evil.

In addition to being about natural evil, Cujo is about women. Although Bannerman, Joe Camber, and Gary Pervier are men victims of Cujo and Vic Trenton is practically destroyed by the death of his son, Cujo—more than King's other novels (with the possible exception of Carrie) focuses on women's experiences. From the first paragraph, which catalogues Frank Dodd's six victims—all women or young girls—to the last, the novel scrutinizes the lives of women in twentieth-century America.

Danse Macabre, a work in which King combines autobiography with his analysis of the horror tradition, reveals that King understands the complexities of women's lives, especially the ways their lives are influenced by their relationships with men. For example, comments on the movie Alien illustrate his awareness of men's condescending attitudes to women:

The Sigourney Weaver character, who is presented as tough minded and heroic up to this point, causes the destruction of the mothership Nostromo … by going after the ship's cat. Enabling the males in the audience, of course, to relax, roll their eyes at each other, and say either aloud or telepathically, "Isn't that just like a woman?"

Furthermore King is aware that men's attitudes to women range far beyond gentle condescension to fear and outright hostility; and his discussion of the movie The Stepford Wives comments on men's hostility to liberated women. In fact, King is aware that he shares some of these fears:

If The Stepford Wives concerns itself with what men want from women, then Carrie is largely about how women find their own channels of power, and what men fear about women and women's sexuality … which is only to say that, writing the book in 1973 … I was fully aware of what Women's Liberation implied for me and others of my sex. The book is … an uneasy masculine shrinking from a future of female equality…. Carrie White is a sadly misused teenager…. But she's also Woman, feeling her powers for the first time….

Aware of male fears of women, King is able to use this understanding in his books. Carrie's extraordinary power is unleashed in one terrifying night that destroys an entire town, but Cujo reveals that women terrify men even with less extraordinary strength. Arriving on the scene after his wife has finally overcome Cujo, Vic Trenton wants to escape rather than offer her comfort for her ordeal:

He didn't know what he had expected, but it hadn't been this. He had been afraid, but the sight of his wife … standing over the twisted and smashed thing in the driveway, striking it again and again with something that looked like a caveman's club … that turned his fear to a bright, silvery panic…. For one infinite moment, which he would never admit to himself later, he felt an impulse to throw the Jag in reverse and drive away … to drive forever. What was going on in this still and sunny door yard was monstrous.

Especially perceptive here are King's recognition that men rarely admit their fear of women openly and his use of the word "monstrous" to describe one man's response to a woman's exhibition of power. He knows that such exhibits are so rare that they inspire awe and terror.

Although Cujo culminates with Donna's horrifying ordeal and her need for exceptional courage, most of the novel takes place within the minds of Donna and Charity as they face more ordinary problems. Douglas Winter observes of the novel that its "storyline evolves about two marriages," and that both of these "marriages are in jeopardy."

Of the two Charity is less interesting, and King spends less time on her because her problems are less psychologically complex. This is not to say that her problems are not serious—in some ways more serious than Donna's—for Charity is married to a physically abusive man:

Joe had used his hands on her a few times in the course of their marriage, and she had learned…. Now she did what Joe told her and rarely argued. She guessed Brett was that way too. But she feared for the boy sometimes.

Most of the sections that involve Charity focus on her attempts to show her son a better way of life, one that is physically very different from their life with Joe. Escaping even briefly from Joe requires both luck and skill—the good luck of winning the lottery and skill in the courage to approach her husband. In fact, King reveals that she could "sometimes gain the upper hand just by seeming brave. Not always, but sometimes." King also lets the reader know that these moments of bravery are risky, however, for the Camber marriage, like so many other marriages, is essentially unequal: "Joe could go places alone or with his friends, but she couldn't, not even with Brett in tow. That was one of their marriage's ground rules."

Joe's power over Charity stems both from his greater physical strength and from the economic advantage of having money to spend as he chooses. Probing Charity's mind after she wins the lottery, King reveals to the reader how economic dependence on their husbands affects women:

Lady Luck had singled her out. For the first time in her life, maybe for the only time, that heavy muslin drape of the everyday had been twitched a little, showing her a bright and shining world beyond. She was a practical woman, and in her heart she knew that she hated her husband more than a little, but that they would grow old together, and he would die, leaving her with his debts and … perhaps with his spoilt son.

In short, five thousand dollars isn't enough to provide her and Brett with more than a brief escape.

If King had stopped his portrait here, the reader would be left with a kind of caricature of an unliberated woman who is trapped by economic dependence and fear of physical power. However, King recognizes that many women are not able to take charge of their lives because they are also trapped by powerful internal compulsions, in Charity's case by love for the man who continues to victimize her:

Was she going to kid herself and say that she did not, even now, in some way love the man she had married? That she stayed with him only out of duty, or for the sake of the child (that was a bitter laugh; if she ever left him it would be for the sake of the child)?… That he could not, sometimes at the most unexpected moments … be tender. (King's italics)

Passages like this one focus on the kinds of complex emotional issues that King's ordinary characters face every day and negate a criticism so often leveled against popular writers like King—that they create nothing but caricatures. Moreover, it negates Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's specific criticism that King cannot "develop a believable woman character between the ages of seventeen and sixty." Both Donna and Charity are believable human beings because they confront the ordinary problems faced by the readers. The character of Charity, however, is more clearly modeled on an older notion of the heroine as a person to be rescued by someone else, by circumstance, or by luck. Less heroic than Donna, Charity escapes from her husband largely because of luck rather than because of skill and self knowledge. Nonetheless, at the end of the novel, she is a confident and independent woman who is working to achieve her own goals. Such independence and preparation for her son's college education could not have happened while she was married to Joe Camber.

If Charity is believable, strong, and almost heroic, Donna is an ordinary woman who becomes the modern American heroine. Middle class and college educated—a librarian married to an advertising executive—Donna is also much more articulate about her condition as a woman and about everything that being a woman means.

Despite these differences, King very carefully highlights significant similarities in the two women. The first of these similarities is the fact that Donna, like Charity, is aware of her physical limitations. Although Donna is a large woman—five-eleven and "an inch taller than Vic when she wore heels"—and an athlete, she is easily physically intimidated by both Steve Kemp and Joe Camber; and King's careful relating of Donna's thoughts also reminds us of how women are—more often than men—influenced by their physical condition:

Falling off the back porch when she was five and breaking her wrist.

Looking down at herself … when she was a high school freshman and seeing to her utter shame and horror that there were spots of blood on her light blue linen skirt…. Holding Tad in her arms, newborn, then the nurse taking him away; she wanted to tell the nurse not to do that … but she was too weak to talk….

Furthermore, though her husband is not the kind of man to employ physical force, King makes it clear that Vic is in control, for Donna "hadn't wanted to come to Maine and had been appalled when Vic had sprung the idea on her." Such details suggest that the Trenton marriage is unequal and that Vic makes the important decisions.

King, who is exceptionally sensitive to material culture in the twentieth century, further reveals the inequality in their marriage by focusing on the cars they drive, an emphasis that clearly reveals Donna's economic dependence. Vic drives an expensive imported sports car, a Jaguar, while Donna drives one of the least expensive automobiles ever produced in Detroit, the Ford Pinto. In this way King reveals that Vic is a man who likes to pamper himself; and, when he shows that Vic is totally aware of the media attention to the dangers associated with driving the Pinto, he also reveals that such pampering may be at the expense of his family. Ironically, however, Donna and Tad don't die inside a burning Pinto. Donna survives, and Tad dies of dehydration when Cujo traps them inside the Pinto during three of the hottest days of the year.

Furthermore, like Charity Camber, Donna feels trapped though her feelings of entrapment are only partially due to lack of money. A former professional, Donna contemplates going back to work. However, she ultimately labels it a "ridiculous notion, and she shelved it after running some figures on her pocket calculator." Here—as elsewhere—King uses financial worries to emphasize ordinary problems, the kind of problems a reader might face. However, despite the reference to money here and elsewhere in the novel—Vic's new advertising agency is having financial difficulty, for example—Donna's problems are not lack of money, but the fact that she has too much time on her hands—time to worry about her loss of identity. Donna recognizes the problem:

She started to sharpshoot at Vic about little things, sublimating the big things because they were hard to define and even harder to articulate. Things like loss and fear and getting older. Things like being lonely and then getting terrified of being lonely…. Feeling jealous because his life was a daily struggle to build something … and her life was back here, getting Tad through the day.

Donna's later heroism is foreshadowed when King shows that she can't escape the loneliness in the ways that are acceptable for women: volunteer work, "hen parties," and soap operas. A doer and a confronter rather than an escapist, Donna tries to fill her life in traditionally acceptable ways—through housework and through caring for her son. She realizes, however, that this work won't last because "every year the world gets another little slice of him." Ultimately her loneliness and sense of frustration lead her to a disastrous affair with Steve Kemp, a man as physically brutal as Joe Camber and certainly more psychologically abusive.

The affair with Kemp is an illustration of Donna's weakness—of her tendency to drift until someone else provides her with a solution. On the other hand, the scene in which she ends the affair even though he threatens to rape her in her own kitchen foreshadows the final climactic scene when she decides that she cannot depend on someone else:

She had been afraid to use her loudest voice, and had done so only when it became absolutely necessary. Because that was where civilization came to an abrupt, screeching halt. That was the place where the tar turned to dirt. If they wouldn't listen when you used your very loudest voice, a scream became your only recourse.

Ironically, although Donna fears the absence of civilization, she will discover herself only when she has rid herself of civilization and its expectations for women. Screaming at Kemp, she discovers her power over him: "And if I get a chance to tear your balls off or put one of your eyes out, I won't hesitate." It is a power that women rarely achieve.

Trapped by Cujo in the Pinto, which becomes a symbol of her entire life as a dependent, Donna slowly begins to take control of her life. At first, clearly expecting to be rescued—by Vic, by the mailman when he comes to the Cambers, by anyone—she remains like the old style passive heroine:

She didn't know why no one had answered the SOS she had been beeping out. In a book, someone would have come. It was the heroine's reward for having thought up such a clever idea. But no one had come.

Alone in the Pinto, with only her four-year-old son for company, Donna becomes a new kind of heroine, a woman who takes control of her life rather than waiting for someone—the proverbial knight—to save her. In fact, Donna begins to realize during the ordeal that she is a new kind of woman:

That had been the first time she had really believed—believed in her gut—that she was going to grow up and become a woman, a woman with at least a fighting chance to be a better woman than her own mother, who could get into such a frightening state over what was really such a little thing….

Finally, forced again by external circumstances to take matters into her own hands, Donna contrasts herself to the heroines of earlier literature, the traditional damsels in distress:

The time had come, and Donna knew it…. No one was going to come. There was going to be no knight on a silver steed riding up Town Road No. 3—Travis McGee was apparently otherwise engaged.

Tad was dying.

Reminding the reader again that Cujo takes place in the real world, King has Donna's victory over Cujo come too late to save Tad. The little boy dies while his mother is battling the monster; and Donna, who had earlier saved his life when his tongue blocks his windpipe and who finally overcomes the monstrous dog, cannot bring him back to life. It is thus a hollow victory. Her marriage in jeopardy and her son dead, Donna has lost all the things that supposedly provided meaning for traditional heroines. Realizing, however, that the modern heroine must not be afraid to confront life, readers should feel purged by their vicarious participation in her victory. As Donna herself recognizes before she leaves to do battle, this ability to confront one's problems is all that matters:

Had this terrible vigil been only a matter of hours, or had it been her whole life? Surely everything that had gone before had been a dream, little more than a short wait in the wings? The mother who had seemed to be disgusted and repulsed by all those around her, the well-meaning but ineffectual father, the schools, the friends, the dates and dances—they were all a dream to her now…. Nothing mattered, nothing was but this silent and sunstruck dooryard where death had been dealt and yet more death waited in the cards…. The old monster kept his watch still….

King seems to realize here that his readers—especially his women readers—are ready for a new kind of heroine, a woman who is prepared to leave behind triviality—the constant dusting of pottery knickknacks that Donna equates with women's lives—and confront the unspeakable with courage and conviction.

Recognizing his readers' needs, Stephen King makes Donna Trenton a new kind of heroine. First, he presents her as an ordinary human being, one troubled by the same kinds of problems that confront ordinary human beings, and he shows that such an ordinary human being can live with dignity and courage. Finally he has this ordinary person confront an exceptional—almost superhuman—adversary.

Stephen King has become an immensely popular writer, and part of that popularity is undoubtedly his ability to write a suspenseful story. However, another—and probably more important—reason for his popularity stems from his ability to create characters with whom the readers can readily identify. Although most of his novels focus on men characters, Cujo scrutinizes the problems that confront twentieth-century American women. Donna and Charity are ordinary women, one middle class, well educated and articulate; the other, working class, uneducated, and less introspective. Despite seemingly overwhelming odds, each woman manages to take control of her life. Donna especially in her display of courage becomes a new American heroine, a strong woman with whom women in the twentieth century can be proud to identify.

James Egan (essay date Winter 1989)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6738

SOURCE: "Sacral Parody in the Fiction of Stephen King," in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 23, No. 3, Winter, 1989, pp. 125-41.

[In the following essay, Egan discusses how the sacral parody common to gothic literature is at work in King's fiction.]

Leslie Fiedler's observation in Love and Death in the American Novel that the Gothic is a parodic medium, "a way of assailing clichés by exaggerating them to the limit of their grotesqueness," has generally been supported by subsequent analyses of Gothic literature. Rosemary Jackson points to Gothic's tendency to "invert romance structures," for example, the quest, by twisting the quest into a "circular journey to nowhere." Coral Ann Howells makes explicit what Fiedler had implied, namely that in Gothic novels the structure of the external world breaks down, that the Gothic idiom destabilizes. William Patrick Day's recent study offers the most sophisticated reading of the parodic tendencies of Gothic and the implications of those tendencies. If, as Day contends, the Gothic parodies both romance and realistic fiction, and if the "Gothic world is one of unresolved chaos, of continuous transformation … of the monstrous that is the shadow of the human," resolution in such a world would be grotesque or absurd, the articulation of the basic intent of the parodic. If the "wasteland of the Gothic is a world in which cruelty, violence and conflict are the only principles upon which the characters can act, only to destroy themselves," an atmosphere of radical distortion and mutation becomes normative, akin to the aesthetic direction of the parodic.

Not only can Gothic fantasy exhibit the "disintegration of the spiritual," but the Gothic has long contained "a religious undercurrent of meaning." Nineteenth-century Gothic writers occasionally employ religious images to define man as "eternal victim" or place guilty wanderers at the center of essentially Calvinistic parables of sin and retribution. To cite several familiar examples of Gothic's incorporation of the sacral, Shelley's Frankenstein works ironic variations on creation, Resurrection and Adamic motifs, Stoker's Dracula invokes a largely Christian ritual to defeat the vampire, and Lovecraft's universe features a pantheon of dark gods. Stephen King's habits as a Gothicist have been much discussed, but his consistent development of Gothicism's parodic tendencies and the direction of his parody deserve more attention. Douglas Winter notes that in The Mist King accentuates the powerful shaping influences of science, materialism and religion and questions the worth of such influences. Tony Magistrale has argued, more specifically, that "one of the major elements linking Stephen King's fiction to the inclusive gothic tradition is its attack on the very foundations and values upon which society is built." Some of those values are societal bonds, science and religion. King depicts both government and organized religion as "spiritually bankrupt" and religious extremists are conspicuous in his fiction.

His attack upon Christian religious traditions, impulses and assumptions is, I would suggest, more comprehensive and sophisticated than either Winter or Magistrale indicates. King's Gothic world not only identifies itself but, in the most extreme instances, mimics its own identity by bonding itself to religious concepts, so that the "monstrosity" of his Gothic often relates directly to his "inversion of the numinous." King mocks religious targets, both literally and allegorically, by means of fairly conventional satiric stratagems, primarily caricature, ironic inversion, the grotesque and the burlesque and satiric juxtaposition. Rarely does he use humor as a form of catharsis, but rather as a device of intensification. King's sacral parody serves two primary purposes, to define the Gothic nightland more fully and to test the conventional religious beliefs of the normative world. Though his Gothic universe characteristically inverts and mimics the routinely sacral, King's stance toward the sacral does not appear uniformly negative. In some cases, an encounter with the Gothic underworld affirms the power of the sacral and sets the boundaries of the underworld. In others, escape from the darkness becomes possible when a secular credo replaces the sacral. King's parodic targets fall into several categories, categories which invariably overlap. My discussion presupposes a close relationship among these religious targets and the categories I employ have been selected because in each of them a particular target receives prominent emphasis. King occasionally mimics rather specific doctrinal issues, but for the most part his parodic emphasis falls on Christianity in the broadest sense.

Religious derives gone awry, particularly fundamentalist obsessions and the ludicrous, grotesque and violent consequences of such obsessions surely qualify as one of the primary targets of King's sacral parody. Several of his characters are obsessed in this fashion, for example, Vera Smith, mother of protagonist John Smith in The Dead Zone. Though the issue seems far from clear to anyone else, Vera considers her son's return to life after a long coma as the Lord's work, part of the providential plan, believing that "all actions of the creature happen under the lordship of the creator" and that the "Lord is always present, active, responsible and Omnipotent." She refuses to consider another Christian idea of providence, namely that "God's sovereignty is hidden to mankind, discernible only by faith, and then not as a clearly perceptible pattern." After the accident which nearly killed Johnny, Vera turns ever more zealously to her pronounced fundamentalist beliefs in an attempt to explain and justify his misfortune. A reliance on the "inerrancy of the Bible" typifies fundamentalism, yet that reliance has often proved troublesome for fundamentalists because of the ambiguity of highly personal interpretations of the Bible; and so it goes with Vera Smith. Her obsession grows into a fanatical zeal, culminating in her belief that Christ plans to come to earth in a flying saucer to commune with His faithful and to reward believers such as herself. Here King takes aim at the ludicrous consequences of fanatical "zeal," long a fundamentalist characteristic, as well as at the eschatalogical bent of fundamentalism, its belief in a vivid, apocalyptic "end to the existing order of things." Vera's zealous response to Johnny's trip into the unknown actually distances her from her son, who becomes a living icon, a way to verify her perception of the ways of the divine and her own manic zeal. Vera has begun to run in circles, so that the more she practices her beliefs, the more ineffectual and preposterous they seem. Vera's obsessions have distorted her into a comic character; she has become a caricature, a woman whose religious predilections have become the dominant features of her personality. While these predilections may well be a response to divine love and to a providential plan, they also alienate her from the husband and son she claims to love. The strong evangelical zeal historically associated with fundamentalism likewise manifests itself in Vera, who tries, aggressively and repeatedly, to convince Johnny that a divinely ordained mission awaits him. Yet King darkens her evangelistic quest before it can really begin, implying that evangelism alienates, spreading confusion and dissension. Directly after Johnny's accident, as she leaves the hospital with Sarah, Vera, "looking dreamily up at the moon," announces: "It isn't in God's plan for Johnny to die." Then she smiles: "In that smile Sarah suddenly saw Johnny's own easy, devil-may-care grin, but at the same time she thought it was the most ghastly smile she had ever seen in her life." Imagistically and thematically, King treats Vera's compulsive evangelism as a mixture of the ludicrous and the "ghastly."

Vera Smith, however, merely echoes perhaps the most dangerous fundamentalist fanatic in all of King's fiction, the mother of Carrie White in Carrie. A militant, literal biblicist, a church unto herself, a tyrannical twentieth-century Puritan who insists that private reading and meditation on God's word must be enforced at all costs, Mrs. White embodies many fundamentalist clichés and their destructive consequences. She stands committed to the fundamentalist assumptions that neither an ordained ministry, nor a formal theological education, nor group reinforcement should be required for the true believer. The Gothic world tests, by means of Carrie's parapsychological powers, the efficacy of Margaret White's assumptions. Unfortunately for her, the Word has no explanation for the telekinetic prowess Carrie displays at an early age, except to suggest that Carrie should be labeled the "Devil's child, Satan spawn." Her pathological horror and "ever-present" fear of sin, an evangelical trait, along with a fundamentalist zeal for proselytizing, lead her into a crusade to convert Carrie into a replica of herself, so much so that she tries to conceal from her daughter the more "awkward" aspects of sexuality, such as breasts and menstruation. She strives as well to convert non-believers outside of her home, but with little success; unfortunately for Carrie, these failures probably redouble her mother's attempts to keep her "pure." Mrs. White's horror of sin and desire to spread God's Word turn the White home into a grotesque, darkly comic environment. She regularly punishes Carrie by locking her in a closet for hours to beg forgiveness before a glowing crucifix, on the assumption that torture will lead naturally to moral improvement. In a particularly ludicrous scene, after Carrie has endured the humiliation of experiencing in a school shower her first menstrual period, she returns home to confront a mother who decides that prayer is the answer to menstruation:

[Carrie's] sobs were too strong to allow more [than the word 'Momma']. The latent hysterics had come out grinning and gibbering. She could not stand up. She could only crawl into the living room with her hair hanging in her face, braying huge, hoarse sobs. Every now and again Momma would swing her foot. So they progressed across the living room toward the place of the altar, which had once been a small bedroom.

As Carrie and her mother lurch toward the place of atonement, we are reminded of a serio-comic religious procession punctuated by screaming, kicking and "grinning." Margaret White, however, proves very capable of directing the same sort of violence toward herself, and she does so when Carrie refuses to abstain from going to the prom:

Momma screamed. She made her right hand a fist and struck herself in the mouth, bringing blood. She dabbled her fingers in it, looked at it dreamily, and daubed a spot on the cover of the Bible.

Self-mutilation here translates as a distorted form of punishment, a propitiation to a presumably angry God, yet the ritual of atonement borders on the absurdly comic. Irrespective of her intentions, Mrs. White plays the fool, the slapstick, dreamy-eyed buffoon who has managed to punch herself in the mouth.

The cataclysmic ending of Carrie, moreover, may be read allegorically as the mutation of evangelism into a parodic form. Carrie mimics her mother's excesses, taking them to massively destructive ends; she finally becomes the "Angel's Fiery Sword" her mother wanted her to be, a demonic evangelist who presides over a hellish, fiery holocaust. Unlike her mother, Carrie makes converts—converts who come to believe in the power of the unknown. Fundamentalist religious postures have been mocked by the fierce "zeal" of telekinesis. By trying so hard to preserve Carrie's purity and to create a saint, Margaret White has helped to fashion a demon who rejoices in the chaos she creates.

In both novels King presents the reader with what Elizabeth MacAndrew calls a statement of the grotesque "which contains a pervasive comic element arising from and producing that uncomfortable sense of the incongruously horrible that makes the viewer laugh as he inwardly groans." Ironically, Mrs. White's "psychological monstrosity" may be seen as a tangible example of the shadowy moral evils she so thoroughly fears. Again ironically, the religious excesses of Margaret White and Vera Smith distort both women to the point that they come to resemble zealous automatons, character types occasionally found in the Gothic universe. King's dark humor offers no catharsis here.

Ministers, priests, sacraments and formal rites and rituals are likewise parodied in King's fiction. The Reverend Lowe in Cycle of the Werewolf qualifies as a case in point. A werewolf responsible for monthly killings, Lowe experiences little introspection, yet King's mocking touches can easily be seen when such introspection occurs. Near the end of the Novel, Lowe examines his situation, realizing that he is a werewolf, the scriptural Beast reincarnated, but still he declares, "I am a man of God." Lowe has undergone a parodic version of an examination of conscience. Despite his earnest declaration, the reader recalls that Lowe has a Gothic double, that he is very much a bestial creature from the Gothic universe, who hardly seems intent on spreading the gospel. If Lowe's examination of conscience contains elements of prayer, those elements are somewhat suspect because they do not provide a "means of grace" for him. Earlier, when the minister imagines his congregation metamorphosing into an assembly of werewolves, a grotesquely comic element surfaces. Indeed, as Randall Larson argues, pentecostalism may be one of King's targets here, yet other evidence of mimicry appears as well. Lowe's parishioners perform a parodic "low-church" ritual, a sharing of fellowship, but their evangelistic zeal has become bloodlust. For Lowe as well as his parishioners metamorphosing into a werewolf means experiencing a grotesquely rapturous ecstasy. By means of satiric juxtaposition King links ecstasy with bestial regression, riddling the notion of rapture with dark elements of self-delusion and degradation. Lowe's vision of his congregation suggests that an ominous metamorphosis awaits those who reach for the "high." A final religious irony underlies the story's parody. At no point can Lowe discover why or how he has become a werewolf. He seems to have been fated, in a mockery of traditional low-church notions of "election," to carry the mark of the Beast and to descend periodically into a hellish underworld, for no apparent reason. Lowe's status as unenlightened victim calls into question the providential scheme of things, the supposed divine benevolence, and adds an ironic twist to the identities and purposes of those called to do the Lord's work. So also does Lowe's belief that "if it's the Lord's will," he will find Marty Coslaw, who has discovered his duplicity, "And silence him. Forever." Christian providence appears to have a demonic equivalent. Lowe dies without ever recognizing an overriding purpose or sense of individual wrong doing which would account for this dark "election" as a werewolf. In the absence of that purpose, a Gothic foreboding figures importantly in the story.

Father Donald Callahan in 'Salem's Lot meets a fate similar to Lowe's when he challenges the Gothic universe manifesting itself as Barlow, the king vampire. We learn that Callahan, suffering from a crisis of faith and identity, very much needs the support and consolation his venerable traditions and rituals would presumably give him. Early encounters with Barlow show Callahan the victor who manages to exorcise the vampire from his sanctuary, the Marsten House. Yet Barlow boasts that he will eventually win, and makes good on his boast. In the crucial confrontation scene between the two, the sacred flame of Callahan's cross feebly flickers out, and the vampire contemptuously tosses the cross away. Then he initiates the failed priest into the Gothic universe by forcing Callahan to drink his blood, an appropriately Gothic "exorcism," a reversal of the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist. Callahan becomes a Cain-figure, an outcast with the devil's mark upon him, who can no longer enter the church he once served. True, Callahan can easily be faulted as an individual whose weak faith caused him to be drawn into the Gothic underworld. Yet does his failure not reflect the failure of his rituals, his sacraments, his church itself as well? King leaves the matter open to question, yet one may safely conclude that a priest with a crisis of faith and a drinking problem, on a mission of good, discovers no convincing proof in the rituals he practices that such rituals can keep back the darkness or refute the vampire's mocking laugh. If the sacramental system was designed to "secure God's aid in correct living" and to "protect against the crises of life," Callahan has not been its beneficiary. The priest's formal system of religious practice works no more effectively for him than Mrs. White's fundamentalist improvisations did for her.

The ways and workings of mysticism, affective and supra-rational approaches to the Visio Dei, are still another form of the sacral which King consistently undercuts, though his parody of the Visio seems more indirect and allegorical than do most of his other sacral inversions. Christian mysticism "stresses that God can be known in immediate fashion, not merely by inference." In order to possess the Visio Dei, an intense and fulfilling experience of transcendent truth which unites the mystic with God and allows him to see God in the whole world, the mystic must pass through several stages of purification. Having awakened supra-rationally to a "consciousness of Divine Reality," the mystic must undergo various purgations to heighten his illumination of the divine, notably a mystic death, the "Dark Night of the Soul." To lift the "veil of imperfection" and to achieve a heightened consciousness of God, a mystic needs to experience psychic fatigue and emptiness. Despite the Dark Night of the Soul, the transcendent union with God ultimately achieved promises to be positive and uplifting—a transfigured vision of the universe allows the mystic to see beauty in all things and to achieve peace, rest and often bliss. The extrasensory powers possessed by several of King's characters serve as a metaphor of mystical perception and its varied results, some of which are plainly affirmative. Mother Abagail in The Stand, for example, remains steadfast during the epidemic of plague because of her visionary apprehension of an important role she has been given to play in heading a mission against the demonic adversary, Randall Flagg. After leading her pilgrims to Boulder, she vanished without explanation into the wilderness, explaining on her deathbed that her mystical vision had become blurred, requiring that she submit herself to purgation and endure the Dark Night of the Soul, thereby to offer proper guidance to her followers. After her sojourn in the wilderness, Abagail regains enough of her mystical insight to define the proper way to defeat Flagg. Her purification and repentance allow for the birth of a new self and she dies in union with the divine.

For the most part, though, King treats the Visio and the mystical way less reverently. If mystics typically attain a transfigured vision of the universe, the experience of several of King's characters suggests that they encounter the parodic opposite, that King deflates mysticism by means of burlesque, allowing the mystical to intrigue and compel characters, only to leave them disenchanted or traumatized. Rather than experiencing the Visio, these characters gain insights into its inversion, the Gothic underworld; their dark trips into the unknown call mystical ecstasy into question. If a "mystical adventure" may be defined as a "going forth" from the normal self, what happens to Carrie White might qualify as "mystical," but hardly as an "adventure." Carrie's telekinesis gives her, in addition to the ability to move objects, an immediate and intense awareness of the feelings and perceptions of those around her. As her telekinesis develops, so does her heightened insight. Carrie comes to perceive, in her "mystical" fashion, not the "beauty in all things," but the malignity in the hearts of her peers and her mother. For Carrie, the mystical Dark Night of the Soul becomes a venture into the Gothic darkness. She experiences pain and death rather than the Visio Dei, the emptiness of the void rather than fulfillment through unity with the One.

Similar problems afflict Danny Torrance in The Shining. Throughout the novel, King portrays Danny as a "sincere acolyte," an innocent whose "shine" allows him to make first contact with the Gothic world of the Overlook Hotel, to sense the darkness waiting to envelop him and his family. Though King does not add an explicitly religious dimension to Danny's life, as he did with Mother Abagail and Carrie, the notion of acolyte works metaphorically to suggest that Danny leads a procession or pilgrimage of sorts; technically, the term "acolyte" refers to a "cleric in the highest of the four minor orders of the Western church." Figuratively, then, Danny's heightened powers read as another version of the mystical. Before he arrived at the Overlook, moreover, Danny's shine had acquainted him with other forms of darkness: quarreling, alcoholism, child abuse. When Tony, Danny's contact in the world beyond the here and now, warns him about "redrum," the reader recognizes the continuation rather than the onset of a pattern, even though Danny himself realizes that his shine sometimes alerts him to dark possibilities that do not develop into facts. What happens at the Overlook, however, accentuates the problematic nature of mystical insight. Danny was born with a sophisticated power from whose potentially dangerous effects he has virtually no protection. His shine makes him highly attractive to the dark forces that inhabit the hotel, and Danny is vulnerable because, although he senses danger, he usually cannot locate it precisely. He confronts in innocence many of the hotel's traps, a number of which are religious inversions. When the ghost of Room 217 tries to strangle him, Danny encounters a parodic "welcome" into the afterlife, a grotesquely distorted Visio which traumatizes him. Nor does his mystical sensitivity alert him to his father's demonic ecstasy. After Jack strikes his bargain with the hotel, he erupts into a murderous "rapture," a frantic desire to destroy Danny and Wendy, so as to enjoy a "higher truth" by meeting the hotel's demonic manager. The Gothic world of the Overlook seems to strip Danny's Visio of its affirmative qualities. He has not been uplifted by his mystical abilities, has not found ecstatic happiness or even harmony with the world around him, has not been able to understand more than a little of the actual workings of his shine. Rather, his raptures, premonitions and trips out of his body have typically been horrific, a burlesque deflation of the alleged effects of mysticism and of mystical religion's contention that good should be sought in "that which is above and beyond this life." The Overlook's voracious attempts to assimilate Danny mock mysticism's exaltation of a "union with God in which the self disappears."

John Smith's mystical-seeming powers are equally unsettling in The Dead Zone. Smith recognizes his talents early on and feels "uncomfortable" about them even after he wins big at the wheel of fortune. After his lengthy coma, Smith's abilities intensify greatly, but with equivocal results. Dark visions haunt him: he senses the catastrophic fire at Cathy's, the horror of Frank Dodd and his mother and the menace of Gregg Stillson. Yet Smith's knowledge seems overwhelming, inundating, and his warnings are feared as often as they are heeded. He evolves into a Cassandra-figure, a pariah besieged by fanatics of all sorts and the cynicism of a culture dubious of mystical awareness. Eventually, despite Smith's concession that he has become a Jeremiah-like prophet on a mission to stop Stillson, a mission his insight has led him to, he can appreciate the moral ambiguity of his planned assassination and must wrestle with the thought that "This was no holy business he was on." King creates the appearance of mystical awareness in Smith's case, seemingly to illustrate the frustrations, the unsettling moral paradoxes and the lack of reassurance connected with such awareness. Johnny's acceptance of his "mission," one presented in implicitly religious terms, further dramatizes that transcendence and illumination are not necessarily the rewards of those who possess mystical sensitivity. In the three novels discussed, King undercuts the Visio by suggesting that psychic fragmentation and radical, mutated psychic development accompany it; by rendering ambivalent and ironic the higher levels of consciousness available to those who experience it; and by upsetting the normal balance between pain and pleasure which characterizes the mystical state by accentuating pain, darkness and calamity.

With its series of ironic resurrections which unify the varied forms of sacral parody in the novel, Pet Sematary represents perhaps the most thoroughgoing inversion of Christian motifs in all of King's fiction. He evokes the Christian concept of Resurrection through Scriptural quotes and paraphrases at the opening of each division of the book, only to deny it with his plot, characterization and thematic emphases. The Pet Sematary is the nexus of the Gothic universe, an ageless and forbidding place seemingly far older than Christianity. King defines the Gothic universe, in part, by means of allusions to Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos. On one of his last trips to the Micmac burying ground, Louis Creed hopes that the strange shapes he sees around him are not "the creatures which leap and crawl and slither and shamble in the world between … [the] dark and draggling horrors on the nightside of the universe." Yet his experiences rebuke his hopes. The platform on which the burying ground stands resonates with age and alienness, as do many ceremonial locations in Lovecraft's mythos tales. When Creed ascends the forty-five steps to the platform for the first time, he wonders whether the Micmacs who allegedly carved them were "Tool bearing Indians." On a later trip, he "cocked his head back once and saw the mad sprawl of the stars. There were no constellations he recognized and he looked away again, disturbed." Again King recalls a Lovecraftian sense of the void. Eventually Louis Creed concludes that the "grave markers in the Pet Sematary, those rude circles" recall a "much older God than the Christian one." Carrying Gage through Little God swamp, Creed encounters various personifications of his deepest fears, a "grisly, floating head," "its mouth drawn down in a rictus" and "a diffuse, ill-defined watermark … better than sixty feet high. It was no shade, no insubstantial ghost; he could feel the displaced air of its passage, could hear the mammoth thud of its feet coming down, the suck of mud as it moved on." Creed has seen the Wendigo, the God-figure of the burying ground, whose monstrous material presence recalls Lovecraft's mythos creatures at the same time that it mocks the presumed anthropomorphism and aetherial nature of the Christian God. The succession of dark priest-figures in the novel, moreover, echoes Lovecraft's mythos priests. Judd Crandall tells Creed of Stanny B, a Canuck "medicine man" of sorts, who "was a proper Christian and would preach on the Resurrection when he was drunk enough," a shape-shifter who, Crandall thinks, metamorphoses into an Indian as he leads Crandall to the burying ground. Crandall himself undergoes a similar metamorphosis, speaking of the Micmac past as though he had actually experienced it, becoming a shadowy "hood" which seems to "surround a blankness" as he leads Creed to the burying ground for the first time, and finally a priest who helps Louis bury the family cat and construct a cairn over Church's grave. Throughout the novel, King blurs Crandall's identity, and his knowledge and purposes are never clear. As did Stanny B, however, Crandall understands the dark rituals of the burying ground and the ceremonial formulas necessary to petition eldritch forces. Like Lovecraft's mythos priests, Crandall serves as the often terrified but still willing agent of the elder gods.

That the burial ground offers passage into an alien and terrifying universe the animals and people who return to life well demonstrate. As the book unfolds, a progression of demonic resurrections occurs, each in some way more complex and ominous than the last. A sustained mockery of Christian notions of the afterlife unites these resurrections. After Creed brings Church back to life, the cat lurches, sways and behaves like a snake, its animal vitality replaced by the confused energies of a creature scrambling for a foothold in the now unfamiliar world of the living. Church comes to resemble a demon in animal form, full of bizarre menace and peculiar power. Crandall finally tells Louis the story of Timmy Baterman, a World War Two casualty brought back to life by his father. To Crandall, Timmy seems "damned," possessed of a preternatural knowledge of dark secrets in the lives of those who confront him. The return of the damned to an earthly existence plainly satirizes the Christian notion of a benign providential control of the afterlife.

Pet Sematary's most acute horrors, however, involve the rebirth of Gage and Rachel Creed. Louis buries Gage with a guarded optimism, but the resurrection of his son animates a demonic being more vindictive and aggressive than Timmy Baterman, one who kills and cannibalizes out of pure malignity. If Gage has become a reanimated body from which the original soul has fled, his presence inverts the Christian belief that the unique personality survives after death. In desperation, Louis buries Rachel, who returns as the "best" and therefore the most terrible of the novel's parodic resurrections, the soul mate of the dark magician, the bride of the Frankenstein Doctor Louis Creed has become. Creed has finally succeeded in keeping open the passage to the Gothic world itself. The horror of Pet Sematary derives from our comprehension of how ominous that world can be. Timmy, Gage and Rachel, then, call into question the Christian perception of Resurrection in the spirit by reducing resurrection to a material level and equating it with the evocation of Gothic doubles who embody the monstrous, torture, madness and death. These bodies brought back from the dead resemble in no way Christ's glorified body, nor do they suggest a Christian Resurrection of the Just. King links a demonic creation motif to his resurrection parody in Pet Sematary, finally, to expand the range of the parody. Louis Creed devolves into an anti-creator whose "works" ridicule the Christian assumption that man was made in God's image. Gage and Rachel embody the darkness of his own heart; he has remade them into images of himself which allow the Gothic world an opportunity to exert its mocking, nihilistic force and to deny the sacral, the vivifying message of Christian Resurrection. To compound the irony of Creed's final predicament, he seems as much the mad victim of the burying ground's narcotic power as the powerful "creator" of diabolic life forms.

If Pet Sematary illustrates the malevolent energies of the Gothic and implies at least the partial triumph of those energies, The Stand indicates the limited and qualified nature of any such triumph. Because of the inherent instability of the Gothic world, it will inevitably fragment and mock its own devices. One of King's most fully realized Gothic worlds rises out of the post-apocalyptic ashes of The Stand, and again sacral parody figures prominently in his definition and development of that world. In the other novels discussed, a normative and empirical world exists in contradistinction to the Gothic shadowland, but in The Stand the epidemic of superflu decimates virtually the entire human population and much of the normative along with it. The reasons why the survivors have endured are not yet clear, and many of them possess uncommonly keen psychic perception. As Douglas Winter points out, however, Gothic fiction has traditionally played a major part in the apocalyptic; in a variety of ways the "new world" of The Stand is "haunted," so that in the rival empires of Boulder and Las Vegas the Gothic, not unexpectedly, manifests itself in uncommonly diverse and complex fashion. The novel's plot details an epic conflict between a foreboding Gothic world and a flawed but essentially righteous one. From the story's beginning, Randall Flagg, Gothic shape-shifter and apocalyptic Antichrist, establishes himself and his objectives with the help of sacral parody. Flagg sets the tenor of his demonic rule by recruiting Lloyd Henreid as his right-hand man, his "St. Peter," offering to "slip the keys to the kingdom right in [Lloyd's] hand," and then quoting Scripture to suggest to Lloyd that in the new realm of Antichrist, "the meek … shall inherit the earth." Flagg attempts to convert Nick Andros with another familiar ploy, this time echoing Satan's temptation of Christ on the pinnacle of the temple by whispering to Andros, "Everything you see will be yours if you will fall down on your knees and worship me" (Luke 4:1-13). As Flagg gains control of Las Vegas and the regions west of it, he takes up residence in a mammoth temple, the MGM Grand Hotel, where his growing legions of followers can worship him. Flagg underscores his reign of terror by crucifying those who oppose him and by impregnating the "virgin" Nadine Cross in an appropriately Gothic mimicry of the Incarnation.

The unstable, self-parodic nature of Flagg's empire soon becomes apparent, however; almost as soon as it reaches an apex, Flagg's power wanes. He loses control of the catatonic Nadine and tosses her out of a window, destroying his own offspring in the process. Proving that the "effective half-life of evil is always relatively short," Flagg's psychic perception falters and he loses sight of Tom Cullen, who escapes from Las Vegas with abundant information about Flagg's activities. His allies and followers, lieutenants as well as rank and file, begin to desert him, reflecting in their behavior the "dreadful insecurity" characteristic of Gothic fiction, their fear of a "contingent world which is altogether unpredictable and menacing." The instability of Flagg's empire has evoked a Gothic sort of paranoia in his followers. He succumbs, finally, not to desertion by his faithful, but to confrontation by his double and rival, the fire demon, Trashcan Man. Trash, Flagg comes to understand, may be stronger than himself. Trash begins his rebellion by burning and bombing the air force Flagg has assembled to attack Boulder. After this episode Trash feels repentant and dreams of atonement: "if he found something … something big … and brought it to the dark man in Las Vegas, might it not be possible. And even if REDEMPTION was impossible, perhaps ATONEMENT was not." Trash selects a nuclear bomb as a token of propitiation and presents it to Flagg, but the bomb detonates, destroying the Dark Empire of the west. Flagg cannot control the course of events or this climactic confrontation with his double. Instability has degenerated into chaos in a Gothic environment whose parodic impulse ultimately turns on itself. Trash's sacral gesture of atonement implies that even at its apex the intrinsically destabilized Gothic universe cannot achieve coherence through religious inversion.

The destruction of Las Vegas, finally, points to the limits King chooses to place on the Gothic world of The Stand. A fire demon has served as a providential agent by turning the apocalyptic fires of purgation on Flagg's empire: the ball of electricity generated by Flagg to torture his Boulder captives grows to a "tremendous size" and a mysterious hand appears in the sky, "The Hand of God!" which seemingly directs Flagg's electricity toward the cart holding Trash's bomb. The apocalyptic plague which aided Flagg's rise to power has given way to an apocalyptic judgement which will, at least temporarily, free the world of his influence. King has opted to curtail the chaos and terror of the Gothic underworld by denying the "possibility that the Gothic atmosphere will take over completely and that the conventional, stable division between self and Other will disappear completely."

King's sacral parody uses the Gothic universe to mock Christian conventions, but the novels in question are not devoid of affirmation or lacking in constructive redefinition of the sacral. The examples of Father Callahan, Carrie and Margaret White and Louis Creed illustrate the formidable power of the Gothic underworld, a world fully capable of destroying those who enter it. Not all who enter the vicinity of the underworld, however, meet the same fate. The Boulder colony escapes by providential fiat and Ellie Creed because of her physical distance from her father's transactions with the burial ground.

Another group does battle with the darkness and emerges with at least a qualified victory. In Cycle of the Werewolf Marty Coslaw can destroy the werewolf in part because he believes in the power and extent of the underworld. While Constable Neary denies all evidence pointing to Reverend Lowe as the werewolf, Marty accepts what his eyes and instincts tell him. He has not been corrupted by a false mythology which would maintain that a minister could not become a Gothic beast because of the protection his sacral role allegedly provides. Marty engages the darkness, in detective-like fashion, and investigates its mysteries without allowing himself to become enthralled by them. Another child survivor is Danny Torrance, who undergoes some daunting tests: the child-ghoul in the Overlook's playground, the hedge animals, the ghost of Room 217 and, worst of all, his own father. Danny also believes in the Gothic but resists enthrallment. In the climactic scene when he must confront the Jack-thing that stalks him through the halls of the Overlook, Danny faces down the darkness by empirically and matter-of-factly denying the inversions and distortions that support the Jack-thing. His denial does not refute the underworld itself, but rather defines correctly the Gothic qualities that adults typically fail to see. Mark Petrie and Ben Mears succeed in 'Salem's Lot, where Father Callahan had failed, destroying Barlow and most of the vampire colony. Mark leads the way by accepting the power of the underworld and doubting the intrinsic supremacy of the sacral to the Gothic. He confronts the Gothic world as an ingenious detective might, fully appreciating its menacing riddles, but denying that the power of the Gothic can benefit him. In part because he imitates Mark, Ben Mears manages to stake Barlow and to profit from the saving power of the sacred cross. Though Ben uses sacral devices, his own energy and ingenuity are his deepest resources of strength.

The survivors of the battles enumerated above embody a code or strategy which helps them to escape the terminal effects of the darkness. Their basically secular value systems allow them to maintain a careful distance from unqualified reliance upon conventional icons of and assumptions about the sacral and about institutionalized forms of it. They accept the fact that the Gothic can overwhelm the sacral and that coming to terms with the underworld means respecting its fierce powers. In effect, these characters "Gothicize" themselves; they defeat the monstrous with implicitly mocking gestures of defiance toward conventional and easy religious assumptions, rebellious gestures which reflect basic impulses of the Gothic itself. By so doing they can confront the Gothic without becoming enthralled by its most attractive qualities, and investigate it with enough detachment to make them effective detectives. Gothic postures of defiance, then, allow them to be in the Gothic world but not of it. King also relocates the intrinsic strength of the sacral by linking that strength with the innocence and purity of childhood. Childhood often possesses in his fiction an immense natural ability to negate the distortions of the underworld, to protect children from enthrallment, largely because King's child protagonists trust their own instincts, their native cunning, intuition, resourcefulness and purity. Recognizing that the systems and icons of adults regularly fail, these children turn to their own "simplicity" and frequently find their salvation in it. For King's adult characters, the taking on of childlike attitudes often becomes a metaphoric denial of Gothic enthrallment and a commitment to survival.

King's sacral parody consistently illustrates that in the Gothic universe a variety of Christian religious beliefs or procedures are inverted and turned awry, from fundamentalism to mysticism, rapture and communion with the Godhead, to sacraments and rituals, to Resurrection and the notion of divine providence. Dark, grotesque humor, often connected with the Gothic motifs of decay and breakdown, arises from that parody. Sacral parody not only reinforces Magistrale's argument that King implies the dissolution of "traditional concepts of social solidarity," but suggests that the weaknesses of the conventionally sacral may invoke Gothic horror. The Gothic archetypes examined by William Day, finally, help to clarify the nature and direction of King's parody. Somewhat predictably, King creates a Gothic underworld where conventional values are suspended or irrelevant. Again typically, he describes many sacral versions of the radical mutation and distortion characteristic of Gothic. King does present his Gothic environments as destabilizing and occasionally as self-parodic, but he stops short of nihilism, of insisting that there can be "no ascent from the underworld." Though he evidently questions the efficacy of the sacral, King's invocation of providence in The Stand and the escape routes scattered through his fiction mitigate somewhat the radical Gothic belief in the total "disintegration of the spiritual." For King, enough human qualities remain uncorrupted to allow for some measure of protection against the terrors of the nightland.

Andy Solomon (review date 2 September 1990)

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SOURCE: "Scared but Safe," in New York Times Book Review, September 2, 1990, p. 21.

[In the following review, Solomon argues that although there is nothing new in King's Four Past Midnight, it is a difficult book to put down.]

A decade ago, in Danse Macabre, Stephen King made his literary esthetic clear: "I try to terrorize the reader. But if … I cannot terrify … I will try to horrify; and if I find I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out. I'm not proud." The figures on his royalty checks suggest this strategy works, and he sticks to it closely in Four Past Midnight. Unlike Mr. King's adventurous novel The Eyes of the Dragon, this quartet of short novels risks few departures from earlier form.

By now, everyone knows Stephen King's flaws: tone-deaf narration, papier-mâché characters, clichés, gratuitous vulgarity, self-indulgent digressions. Each is amply present in these pages ringing with echoes of earlier King. Most tales revisit the old Maine setting. The characters are types rather than individuals. Even the taste for the crude looks familiar—five pages rendered with more detail than we care for to describe a man's getting interrupted in the bathroom by a phone call.

Not proud at all, Mr. King rehashes plot devices as well. Like an earlier work, The Stand, one of these novellas, The Langoliers, eliminates all humanity but for a few survivors, this time on a plane that has passed through a "time rip." This ploy of minimizing his cast serves Mr. King's purpose; he constantly relies on there being no one around with the common sense his characters invariably lack—until the last moment when, miraculously, they realize exactly how to avert catastrophe.

However, we don't read Stephen King for common sense, originality or insight into the adult world. Many who wouldn't want the fact broadcast read this master of suspense to escape their helpless fear of the headlines and to re-experience the more innocent terrors of childhood, to be once again a preschooler whose heart pounds from a nightmare. In this collection, only Secret Window, Secret Garden, because it is about an adult's psychological disintegration, fails to achieve that effect. The Langoliers exploits the primal infant's fear of abandonment, even of ceasing to exist. The Library Policeman reawakens the most haunting dimensions of childhood admonitions. In The Sun Dog, the terrifying agent is a boy's Polaroid camera. Mr. King's recurring tactic of making the ordinary function in a bizarre way always hooks the child in us. Significantly, this "simplified" Polaroid is too complex inside to fix. We had hoped, growing up, for comforting knowledge of how the world works, but the technology opening onto the 21st century has outraced us.

Also abundant here is another source of Mr. King's mass appeal, springing ironically from his clichéd diction, what Paul Gray in Time magazine once called "postliterate prose." Admittedly lazy,—he says "I'm a lazy researcher"—Mr. King often avoids laboring at description by summoning preexisting images from cartoons, old movies, television shows and commercials. Here, sinister men wear "white Andromeda Strain suits." People wind up in a "dreary version of Fantasyland." A ruffled adulterer, when caught, looks "like Alfalfa in the old Little Rascals." Men wish for guns "like the one Dirty Harry wore." Slacks are "the color of Bazooka bubble gum."

As the poet laureate of pop, Mr. King is read by many who might otherwise never read fiction at all. He creates an immediate and familiar landscape and could form the ideal bridge from the Road Runner to Dostoyevsky's Raskolnikov.

There is little here Mr. King has not done before, but once again he proves difficult to lay aside.

Gail E. Burns and Melinda Kanner (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: "Women, Danger, and Death: The Perversion of the Female Principle in Stephen King's Fiction," in Sexual Politics and Popular Culture, edited by Diane Raymond, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1990, pp. 158-72.

[In the following essay, Burns and Kanner discuss the relationship between women and evil in King's work and assert, "On a complex and subtextual level, women are represented in ways that reveal male fear and envy of female sexuality and reproductive biology."]

I hope that this study may lessen the male-centering propensity and shed new light on the psycho-sexual role of woman; that it may indicate how much more that is feminine exists in men than is generally believed, and how greatly woman's influence and strivings have affected social institutions which we still explain on a purely masculine basis.

With these words, the psychologist Bruno Bettelheim expresses the mission of his cross-cultural inquiry into rites de passage. With these words, one might well begin an inquiry into the construction and situation of women in the world of Stephen King's fiction.

In all societies, relations between men and women are expressed, in part, through the symbolic acquisition of the powers and capabilities not normally under the control of one sex or the other. Women seek to capture the social, economic, and political control typically enjoyed and exercised by men; men, on the other hand, symbolically mimic female biological capabilities, most notably menstruation and childbirth, revealing envy of that which they lack.

In a complex, large-scale society such as ours, we turn our attention to the artifacts of popular culture to gain insight into our myths, our irreconcilable conflicts, our symbolic envies. To this end, Stephen King's work provides fertile ground for the anthropologist.

Eric Norden's 1983 Playboy interview with Stephen King reveals something of King's attitudes about sex, sexual relations, and women. Asked if he has any "sexual hang-ups," King replies that his only sexual problem is that he is a sufferer of "periodic impotence." Asked why explicit sex is largely absent from his novels and stories, he replies that, first he is uncomfortable with sex, second, he has trouble creating believable romantic relationships which would be necessary to avoid arbitrary or perfunctory sex, and finally, that he has, in fact, included an S & M fantasy in one of his novellas. Norden continues in this line of questioning:

Norden: Along with your difficulty in describing sexual scenes you apparently also have a problem with women in your books …

King: Yes, unfortunately, I think it is probably the most justifiable of all those [criticisms] leveled at me … I recognize the problems but can't yet rectify them.

The women in King's fiction, then, are not carefully crafted, three-dimensional characters. The problem King has with women has nothing to do with writing women convincingly. Rather the deeply unconscious, culturally shared understandings of what constitutes Woman that emerge from the pages of these novels provide the basis for this analysis.

King himself and critics alike have commented that he cannot write convincing female characters. Our investigation reveals that the construction of female characters in Pet Sematary, as in his other fiction, draws upon and reinforces widely, if unconsciously, shared cultural myths about the female principle. This paper explores the construction of women in Stephen King and draws upon his controversial novel, Pet Sematary, as exemplary of the representation of women in King's fiction.

Precisely because of his immense popularity, Stephen King provides fertile ground for scholarly analysis. Although critical and academic audiences for the most part ignore, denigrate, or otherwise declare King's fiction as unworthy of serious consideration, the vast popularity of this body of popular culture suggests an area for investigation by the social scientists as well as the literary critic.

Since the 1974 publication of his best-selling novel, Carrie, Stephen King has received vast popular attention. His novels and collections of stories, in press continuously from their first publication and frequently converted into theatrical and made-for-television movies, have generated unprecedented levels of readership and media attention. Infrequently has this positive and sustained popular reception been matched with critical enthusiasm. The schism which traditionally has inhibited serious investigation of popular culture is dramatically reflected in the lack of academic reactions to Stephen King. Certain notable exceptions do exist. Two general categories of critical treatment address the various dimensions on which King exists as a phenomenon.

First, the predominant approach to King's fiction, written by fans-cum-critics, glorifies King's literary product as unrecognized genius. These authors have contributed significantly to deepening King's appeal through their attention to his biography and its connections to his writing, their plot expositions, and their detailed cataloguing of the corpus of King's work. However valuable their contributions, this treatment has done little to advance our understanding of the underlying culturally shared symbols which account in large measure for King's popularity.

A second treatment of King has begun to explore the possibilities of scholarly interpretations by locating King's fiction in the context of theme and genre, of metaphor and archetype.

The recent publication of Hoppenstand and Browne's The Gothic World of Stephen King provides a collection of essays which understands King's fiction and films in the light of the contemporary re-telling of traditional horror myths, the struggle of adolescents in an adult world, the adult reliving of childhood horrors and interpretations of morality.

The high-culture low-culture dichotomy which has all but precluded serious literary analysis of King's fiction places the burden of untangling King's signification system on the shoulders of popular culture studies. The literary quality of King's work is not at issue, nor are the myriad explanations for his popular success. The aim here is to understand the women in King's fiction in the larger cultural context, to come to terms with those unconsciously shared and understood ideals, values, and understandings which give his plots and characters meaning, which give his images sustained potency.

In a recent made-for-cable-TV program, Stephen King's Women of Horror, horror writers and filmmakers, including Clive Barker, John Carpenter, and Anthony Hickox, comment on the role of women in horror fiction. John Carpenter, a director of horror films, observes:

In society we have a lot of mixed feelings about women, what they should do and what they shouldn't do, and I think you see it reflected in horror movies all the time. It's a kind of anxiety level on the bottom. Women's traditional roles … there's a lot of confusion. The confusion comes from men a lot of the time.

Female reproductive potential, sexuality, and death are forged by King in a manner that invariably locks his female characters into particular, sexually defined roles. Although this analysis focuses on Pet Sematary, a cursory examination of the larger context of Stephen King's work reveals that the powerful reproduction/sexuality/death dialectic is present in all his work and provides the symbolic matrix in which all girls and women are embedded. Menstruation, mothering, and female sexual desire function as bad omens, prescient clues that something will soon be badly awry.

Women as mothers are incapable of caring for or protecting their children. In King's world, mothers are pathetically unable to save their offspring: witness Donna and Tad Trenton (Cujo), Wendy and Danny Torrance (The Shining), Vicky and Charlie McGee (Firestarter). Indeed, mothers and maternal figures alike are very often the agents of destruction, as in the cases of Margaret White (Carrie), Heidi Halleck (Thinner), and Annie Wilkes (Misery). King consistently portrays women at the mercy of their hormones, a force of nature that he links with the supernatural and which results in death rather than life.

Women in traditional horror fiction are portrayed as victims, targets of evil, easily terrorized, susceptible to the seductive forces of vampires and murderers. Where women are represented as the agents of horror themselves, they traditionally have appeared as "devourers, vampires, seductresses who can make you crash because you're listening to their song." Women in King's fiction are neither vacant, screaming victims nor are they evil incarnate. The ways in which women embody evil and act as conduits for the supernatural are ambiguous and drawn from culturally and socially shared understandings. The evil that women are and the evil women do in King is ambiguous, derived from precisely the forces of life and attraction.

Carrie White (Carrie) and Roberta Anderson (Tommy-knockers) experience some sort of dysmenorrhea which functions as a portent of their personal destruction and, through them, the destruction of their communities. In each case King defines menstruation as the trigger for the paranormal/supernatural events of these novels. Carrie's and Bobbie's reproductive potential cannot result in life; instead it is perverted and becomes the transmitter of mutation and death. This biological conundrum is a hallmark of King's fictional females.

Bobbie Anderson, as she discovers and progressively uncovers the mysterious evil buried beneath the earth, lays open a trench.

She began to unbutton her jeans so she could tuck in her blouse, then paused. The crotch of the faded Levi's was soaked with blood. Jesus. Jesus Christ. This isn't a period. This is Niagara Falls.

Days later, as she resumes her exploratory digging:

Her period had started again, but that was all right; she had put a pad in the crotch of her panties even before she went out to weed the garden. A Maxi.

Women who do manage to give birth generally fail their children in the most fundamental ways. This failure is linked consistently in King's novels to their sexuality, manifest as excessive or inadequate. Donna Trenton, for example, watches her son die of dehydration and is helpless to act until it is too late. Cujo, the rabid St. Bernard, keeps the mother-child dyad trapped in a disabled Pinto for three days, but it is the mother, Donna, not Cujo, who sets the tragic circumstances in motion and is therefore ultimately responsible for her son's death. The car has not been repaired because her sexual relationship with the local tennis pro, Steve Kemp, estranges her from Vic, her husband, creates havoc in the household, and results in the fatal car break-down.

He [Steve Kemp] had known Donna was cooling it, but she had struck him as a woman who could be manipulated with no great difficulty, at least for a while, by a combination of psychological and sexual factors. By fear, if you wanted to be crude.

Wendy Torrance's lack of decision nearly results is her son Danny's death. She knows of her husband's recurrent violence; his past alcoholic rages have resulted in child abuse including the broken arm of the infant Danny. Wendy, however, ignores Jack's erratic behavior, his inability to write, and even her growing suspicions that he is drinking again. She takes no measure to end the abuse, to save herself or her son. It is, in fact, Danny's telepathic distress signal to Halloran that results in their rescue from the Overlook.

Why is Billy Halleck (Thinner) afflicted with a gypsy curse? Because he killed the old man's daughter. But what caused the fatal automobile accident? Heidi Halleck, who is masturbating her husband Billy as they cruise along a busy city street. The facts that it is female desire, female sexual initiation, and, most importantly perhaps, sexual expression which cannot result in conception all function significantly in the sex/death dialectic.

As Heidi Halleck's desire realizes its expression, this temptation-turned-tragedy results in the death of seven people, including the entire Halleck family.

But he couldn't speak. The pleasure woke again at the touch of her fingers, playful at first then more serious … The pleasure mixed uneasily with a feeling of terrible inevitability … Then: Thud/thud.

And, when blame is clearly assigned to the granddaughter of the deceased, the underlying cause of the tragedy is made public.

He was getting a jerk-off job from his woman and he ran her down in the street.

Heidi unwittingly passes on the gypsy curse to their daughter, through her roles as biological creator and maternal nurturer. They share a strawberry pie, laden with placental, vaginal, and menstrual imagery. The pie, presented to Billy by the old gypsy man, will undo the curse when Billy feeds it to another woman. The imagery of the pie is explicit.

This thing—purpurfargade ansiket—you bring into the world like a baby. Only it grows faster than a baby, and you can't kill it because you can't see it—only you can see what it does.

The pie, with a "darkish slit" under which a blood-like ooze pulsed, would extract the curse from Billy, contain it, and, finally implant it in the eater. As Billy followed the old man's instructions, allowing the blood from his knife wound to spill into the pie, his wound healed, the pie sealed itself, and

He collapsed back against the park bench, feeling wretchedly nauseated, wretchedly empty—the way a woman who has just given birth must feel, he imagined.

The conjunction of the expression "the curse" with the bloody mass seeping from a dark slit, the perverse restorative, life-giving powers of the pie, the urgency of oral incorporation of the pie by another, and the ultimate responsibility for the series of devastations aimed at Heidi present an ambiguous exposition of the female to the reader.

In Firestarter, another case of an inadequate mother precipitates tragic events. The Shop, a nefarious secret agency, comes after Charlie because of her telepyrotechnic powers. That ability is the result of some genetic mutation caused by drugs used in an experiment for which her parents volunteered. Yet the most rudimentary knowledge of biology assigns the blame to Vicky for that mutant gamete. The evil which pursues them can only be construed as punishment for her flagrant disregard of her future reproductive role.

"I'm Vicky Tomlinson. And a little nervous about this, Andy McGee. What if I go on a bad trip or something?"

He ended up buying her two Cokes, and they spend the afternoon together. That evening they had a few beers at the local hangout. It turned out that she and the boyfriend had come to a parting of ways, and she wasn't sure exactly how to handle it. He was beginning to think they were married, she told Andy; had absolutely forbidden her to take part in the Wanless experiment. For that precise reason she had gone ahead and signed the release form and was now determined to go through with it even though she was a little scared….

How do you explain to a seven-year-old girl that Daddy and Mommy had once needed two hundred dollars and the people they had talked to said it was all right, but they had lied?

Her subsequent inability to defend herself and Charlie results in her own grisly death and Charlie's abduction by the evil secret agents.

Carrie's mother, Margaret White, is not, in any conventional sense maternal, but rather a hyperbole of perverted female sexuality and maternity. Her extreme puritanical view of sex—in the best Freudian tradition—produced a very strange girl.

After Carrie's humiliating public first menstruation, she returns home, hoping to find explanation from her mother.

"Why didn't you tell me?… Oh, Momma, I was so scared!"

Her mother articulates the connection of female sexuality, menstruation, motherhood, and evil:

And Eve was weak and loosed the raven on the world … and the raven was called Sin, and the first Sin was Intercourse. And the Lord visited Eve with a Curse, and the Curse was the Curse of blood. And Adam and Eve were driven out of the Garden and into the World and Eve found that her belly had grown big with child.

Carrie's menarche somehow endows her with incredible tele-kinetic powers through which she punishes her classmates, her mother, and the entire town. Specifically, it is her rage at the ignominious outcome of her first date that prompts her to unleash her talents. This date with Tommy, particularly when they are chosen King and Queen of the Prom, is heavy with sexual implication and death imagery. In the recollection of a classmate, Norma Watson, the moment is described.

All at once there was a huge red splash in the air. Some of it hit the mural and ran in long drips. I knew right away, even before it hit them, that it was blood. Stella Horan thought it was paint, but I had a premonition just like the time my brother got hit by a hay truck. Carrie got it the worst.

Annie Wilkes (Misery), although not biologically a mother, assumes a demented maternal role in Paul Sheldon's life. The fact that she is a killer nurse—notably in a hospital nursery—again punctuates King's death/reproduction theme. She disables and infantalizes Paul with drugs, rendering him dependent on her for all his needs.

Castration imagery figures prominently in Annie's terrorist maternity. First, a hobbling episode, representing both dependence and castration:

Just a little pain. Then this nasty business will be behind us for good, Paul … She gripped the handle farther up in her left hand and spread her legs like a logger … The axe came whistling down and buried itself in Paul Sheldon's left leg just above the ankle.

Then later, the surgical removal of another of Paul's appendages in the thumbectomy.

Then he had been still and let her give him the injection and this time the Betadine had gone over his left thumb as well as the blade of the knife … As the humming, vibrating blade sank into the soft web of flesh between the soon-to-be-defunct thumb and his first finger, she assured him again in her this-hurts-Mother-more-than-it-hurts-Paulie voice that she loved him.

The contrast between Annie and Misery Chastain, the voluptuous heroine of Paul's best-selling books, might be amusing were it not for Annie's crazed torture of the bedridden novelist. It is Misery's death in childbirth which catalyzes Annie's perverted mothering and underscores both the dangers of women who fail to fulfill their proper roles and the power of the male author over the death and resurrection of his female characters.

Women occupy particularly horrible roles in King's fiction. They are not, typically, wide-eyed, screaming, terror-stricken virgins, nor are they recognizable villains who suck the blood of those who would fall prey to their seductive powers. Rather they are the evil which results from the perversion of convention, the misuse of female sexual desire, the dangers of the empty, or emptying womb, the destruction which is unleashed by a failed mother.

In Stephen King's Women of Horror, narrator Strozier notes

It is precisely their essence of femininity, the seductiveness in women that provides a perfect launching point for exploring the taboos of our society, the physical attractions, the compulsions, and attractions … The corruption of one's nature is a prime target for horror writers.

The emotions which surround sex and motherhood are compelling. The manipulation of these feelings serves to disorient, confuse, upset, and attract the reader. King has particular interest in "scaring women to death."

It would be sexist to say that only ladies care about their children—in fact, it would be a downright lie—but there does seem to be such a thing as a "maternal instinct," and I go for it instinctively.

Indeed. Quite apart from King's ability to scare women, or men for that matter, his effectiveness depends upon hitting responsive chords, seeking out and bruising cultural sore spots, reflecting and creating images at reflexive and unconscious levels.

The soil of a man's heart is stonier, Louis—like the soil up there in the old Micmac burying ground. Bedrock's close. A man grows what he can … and he tends it.

Pet Sematary elaborates the dysfunctionally dangerous, and destructive female principle in the world of Stephen King. The reproductive power of women, distorted in King's novels, becomes the object of envy and perversion. Sex expressed outside the context of procreative intercourse, sex initiated by a female, becomes linked with death rather than life. In this perversion, the power of procreation—of resurrection—becomes the property of men rather than women.

Rachel Creed, the mother in Pet Sematary, is a good, if ineffective mother who provides the link between the dangers of life and mysteries of death. Failed by her own possessive, fearful parents and witness to her sister Zelda's agonizing, slow death, Rachel produces Ellen and Gage—children who themselves are doomed. Deserted by his father and protected by his mother, Louis Creed fathers Ellen and Gage in the only distorted ways he can piece together from his skill as a physician and his role as a watchful and complaint "son" to the older neighbor Jud Crandall.

Prompted by Rachel's pathological inability and unwillingness to educate their daughter, Ellie, in matters of death, Louis Creed submits to the tutelage of Jud Crandall, his surrogate father, to learn the secrets of resurrection buried in the man's arcane knowledge.

Rachel's abdication of responsibility is revealed after a visit to the local pet cemetery, a burial ground established by children to honor their dead pets. Ellie's matter-of-fact approach to death is matched by her father's pragmatic, honest responses and contrasted with her mother's paranoid and terrified refusal to expose the child to death in any manifestation. Ellie's next exposure to the possibilities of death held by life comes with the neutering of her male cat, Church. Finally, the accidental death of Church while Rachel, Ellie, and Gage are visiting Rachel's parents set in motion the text of life restored and subtext of sex and death.

This perversion of reproduction is played out in several dimensions. Through two themes King juxtaposes the central elements and resolves the conflicts which inhere: Opposing forces are inverted, transformed and reversed.

At the center of the mother/father opposition are the dismal, dysfunctional childhoods of Rachel and Louis. Rachel, the daughter of upper middle class, urban parents, is dominated and controlled by her father, Irwin Goldman. Disapproving of Rachel's relationship with Louis from the start, Goldman offers Louis a "scholarship" for his medical school education in exchange for Louis' termination of his relationship with Rachel. The offer rejected, Louis severs himself from the Goldmans in every way possible. Rachel remains, at least partly, under the domination of her parents, succumbing to their pressure and accepting their gifts.

The parent/child mania in this relationship comes from Rachel's childhood. Her older sister, Zelda, had died of spinal meningitis when Rachel had been left by her parents, alone, at age eight, to watch her disabled and dying sister. Rachel was never told about death, but rather initiated into its mysteries. Rachel, the product of a politely dysfunctional home, transmits the destruction of ignorance to her own daughter, Ellie. By failing to tell Ellie about death, she leaves her maternal responsibility to Louis.

Louis, a child raised by his mother alone, suffers a different dysfunction. His mother, too, protected him. Where Rachel, as her mother before her, failed to instruct the daughter in the mysteries of death, Louis' mother misled him in matters of birth, about women finding babies in dewy grass when they really wanted one. "Louis had never forgiven his mother for telling it—or himself for believing it." Early in his life, Louis is educated about the natural place of death from his undertaker uncle, and by the same mother who had lied to him about sex. In his mind, Jud Crandall's voice and his mother are merged for him as he recalls the death of his first love at age twelve. The mysteries of death, unknown to Rachel, remain mysterious. The secrets of burial are as much a part of Louis' knowledge as his skill as a physician.

Rachel Creed, like the Biblical Rachel, will weep for her children and not be comforted, because they are not.

The pet cemetery is the site of death and burial and it is the perversely fertile soil, the soil of a man, for rebirth. This is signalled early by Rachel in an argument with Louis about confronting Ellie with the facts of death. Louis argues that Ellie knows the "facts of life," or the mechanics of human reproduction. "Where babies come from has nothing to do with a goddam pet cemetery," Rachel screams at Louis. Indeed, for the men in Pet Sematary, the pet cemetery has everything to do with where "babies" come from. The conversion of death into life, the reversal of natural processes, depends upon a complexly woven code of sex and death, in which all ordering, all processes, all functions become perverted.

Four major manifestations of the conjunction of sex and death form the center of the text: First, the juxtaposition of sexual encounters between Louis and Rachel with a death related episode; second, the metaphorical description of the pet cemetery's attraction and the pull of death is like the power and irresistibility of sexual attraction; third, the coincidence of castration actuality, anxiety, and threats with death imagery and death episodes; finally, the specifically sexual nature of the "knowledge" that those who return from the Micmac burial ground articulate in their resurrected state.

Sexual encounters between Louis and Rachel becomes linked with death when they are non-procreative—oral sex, masturbation—or when they occur at Rachel's instigation. On his first day as head of University Medical Services, the same day that Rachel was to schedule the castration of Ellie's cat, Louis Creed presides over the death of a young man fatally injured by an automobile. This man, Victor Pascow, in his dying words, warns Louis about the pet cemetery, speaks the words that Jud would speak ("a man's heart is stonier"). When Louis returns home that evening, Rachel greets him with seduction: a hot bath and a masturbatory sexual encounter. The occurrence of death followed by sex is repeated when Church, the now un-dead cat, brings home a Christmas Eve present of a dead crow, which he deposits at the Creed doorstep. Again, as Louis disposes of the crow, Pascow, Jud, Church, and Louis are conjoined in a prelude to sex. When Louis joins Rachel in bed, she greets him again with female-initiated sex, this time fellatio. Sex, when expressed in any way other than one which will result in conception, becomes the link with death. Initiated by Rachel, following Louis' encounters with death, these sexual liaisons confer upon Louis not the powers of female reproductive capabilities, but an inversion of these powers: their accumulation endows him with power of resurrection. The reversal of the sex-conception sequence into the death-sex sequence provides the transforming joint.

A second death/sex conjunction appears in the frequent comparisons between the pull of death and the attraction of the pet cemetery with sex. The necessity of man submitting to the demands of the burial ground is described as something

you do because it gets hold of you. You do it because that burial place is a secret place, and you want to share the secret … you make up reasons … they seem like good reasons … but mostly you do it because you want to. Or because you have to.

After Jud calls Louis to deliver the sad news that Church's dead body lies on the road, another victim of the truck route, Louis contemplates how wrong this all seems, how he believed his family would be exempt from such tragedy in another death/sex connection.

He remembered one of the guys he played poker with, Wikes Sullivan, asking him once how he could get horny for his wife and not get horny for the naked women he saw day in and day out. Louis tried to explain to him that it wasn't the way people imagined in their fantasies—a woman coming in to get a Pap smear or to learn how to give herself a breast self-examination didn't suddenly drop a sheet and stand there like Venus on the half-shell. You saw a breast, a vulva, a thigh. The rest was draped in sheet, and there was a nurse in attendance, more to protect the doctor's reputation than anything else. Wicky wasn't buying it. A tit is a tit, was Wicky's thesis, and a twat is a twat. You should either be horny all the time or none of it. All Louis could respond was that your wife's tit was different. Just like your family's supposed to be different, he thought now. Church wasn't supposed to get killed …

Other imagery links male sexuality and the male power of resurrection through the burial ground. Jud describes to Louis some of the secrets he has kept from his wife, Norma.

I used to go up to the whorehouse in Bangor betimes. Nothing many a man hasn't done, although I s'pose there are plenty that walk the straight and narrow. I just would get the urge—the compulsion, maybe—to sink it into strange flesh now and then … Men keep their gardens too, Louis.

Castration, first of Church the cat, then Louis's own castration fears are tied to death and the recreation of life. Before their moving to Maine, Louis intervened on behalf of Church and obstructed a scheduled neutering by canceling the vet appointment. There is the strong suggestion that the cat's virility and Louis' own masculinity are somehow pieces of one puzzle.

In fact there had been some trouble over that back in Chicago. Rachel had wanted to get Church spayed, had even made the appointment with the vet. Louis canceled it. Even now he wasn't really sure why. It wasn't anything simple or as stupid as equating his masculinity with that of his daughter's tom … but most of it had been a vague but strong feeling that it would destroy something in Church that he himself valued …

The anticipation of Church's neutering precipitates Ellie's questions about death. The second and successful scheduling of the vet appointment comes immediately before Louis's encounter with the dying Pascow. In a dream, as Louis imagines life had Gage lived, had he not been killed in the same road where Church died, he re-writes the scenario by saving Gage from certain death. In his scenario, his closest contact with himself is genital, as though saving Gage was somehow an act of procreation.

He yanked Gage backward and landed on the ground at the same instant, crashing his face into the rough gravel of the shoulder, giving himself a bloody nose. His balls signaled a much more serious flash of pain—Ohh, if I'd'a known I was gonna be playing football, I woulda worn my jock—but both the pain in his nose and the driving agony in his testes were lost in the swelling relief of hearing Gage's wail of pain and outrage …

As Louis embarks on his grave-robbing to recover the body of his son, he encounters the physical obstacles that might block his entrance into the cemetery. As he begins his ascent of the cemetery wall, he comes upon decorative arrow tips at the top of the fence. He realizes that his testicles, not to mention his internal organs, are in peril. As if by protecting his testicles, becoming aware of them, saving Church's sexual potency, unconsciously hurting himself in his fantasy rescue of Gage, Louis invests his testes with the power of resurrection.

Equally important is the nature of the knowledge of sexual intimacies announced by those who return from the dead. Timmy Baterman, a figure from Jud's past, was the only other human re-buried and, importantly, resurrected by his father in the Micmac cemetery. When Timmy returned from the dead, he reveals his secret knowledge.

'Your wife is fucking that man she works with down at the drugstore, Purinton. What do you think of that? She screams when she comes. What do you think of that?'

When Gage returns and confronts Jud in prelude to his death at the hands of the un-dead toddler, he reveals the secrets of Norma's sex life, again underscoring the connection of non-procreative sex and the world of death.

Norma's dead and there'll never be no one to mourn you … What a cheap slut she was. She fucked every one of your friends, Jud. She let them put it up her ass …

Then, just before the fatal blow is delivered, Gage speaks to Jud in Norma's voice, telling him how she and her lovers laughed at him, how they made love in their bed, how she knew of his whorehouse visits. As Jud lunges to silence Gage, Gage strikes him with a scalpel from his father's medical bag. The father's instrument of life becomes the son's instrument of death.

Sex provides several vital connections through which Louis acquires the powers to produce a version of life. First as the aftermath of Louis's encounters with death, sex with Rachel allows Louis to gain access to female reproductive powers through this post-mortem contact. Next, the desire to visit the Micmac burial ground to bury first Church then Gage, is presented as like sexual desire. Third, the power to resurrect life is initiated through and invested in male sex organs and male sexuality. Finally, sex becomes the secrets held by the dead who return and share them with the living.

Pet Sematary reveals a slight departure from King's typical treatment of women. Rather than the direct conduit of danger, destruction, and evil, Rachel Creed provides two rather more insidious and vital connections for the horrors of rebirth.

The inadequacies of her own childhood disable her as a mother. Her fatal failure lies in her inability to teach her daughter that which a mother must teach: the mysteries of death. Her pathological inability to deal with death, and thereby save her family, results from the failures of her own parents.

Through her sexual behavior—desire, initiation, preferred forms of expression—she enables Louis to capture that which he lacks as a man, as a father, and as a physician: the ability to give, not simply save, life. Louis's role as a physician-turned-father-grave-robber-turned-life-giver is central to the conversion. Louis, who has presided over dozens of deaths, whose life was built upon saving life and relieving suffering, sought not the ultimate goal of his profession but the ultimate, collective male fantasy. A man's heart is stonier, Louis is told by Jud Crandall, and man tends his garden, grows what he can. What is grown in this stonier ground is a rockier life, born of the captured and distorted power of female reproduction.

Rather than victims or diabolical villains, women in Stephen King's fiction are the triggers of evil, the literal embodiment of danger. On a complex and subtextual level, women are represented in ways that reveal male fear and envy of female sexuality and reproductive biology. Not unlike the myth and ritual that symbolically play out and, to an extent, resolve male ambivalence toward women, King's women are dangerous figures indeed, to be feared as lovers, wives, and mothers.

Scores of societies known to anthropology play out similar dramas in symbolic and expressive forms. The couvade, for example, is a conspicuously ceremonial event in which men symbolically mimic post-partum recovery after their wives give birth. Institutionalized transvestism and clothing exchange, dramatic male rites of passage which entail genital blood-letting, and masquerade cults in which males exaggerate female fertility are, like the underlying drama in Pet Sematary, the symbolic working out of male envy and ambivalence. This resolution is derived from and responsible for shaping essential and unconsciously shared images.

Those women who are neither sexually linked to men nor maternally linked to children are not immune from male antagonism. Their failure to fulfill their expected, validated sociobiological functions renders them no less dangerous to their communities. Their sexuality is their vulnerability; the realization of their sexual desire results in destruction and death. Mothers fail their children, witness their abuse, and stand helpless to prevent their deaths. Finally, and most vividly illustrated in Pet Sematary, the ultimate perversion of the female principle is illustrated in the male appropriation of the powers of reproduction.

Chris Pourteau (essay date Summer 1993)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2686

SOURCE: "The Individual and Society: Narrative Structure and Thematic Unity in Stephen King's Rage," in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 27, No. 1, Summer, 1993, pp. 171-78.

[In the following essay, Pourteau discusses the struggle of the individual against society in King's Rage.]

The seemingly popular conception among literary critics that Stephen King's writing ability is somehow "less" than those writers usually considered "great writers," or "literary writers," stems from the "considerable comment and controversy" about his "prodigious popularity and productivity." A primary thesis of Mark Schorer's essay, "Technique as Discovery," establishes that writers who may be properly termed "artists" are those writers who consciously craft their works. Schorer says that, unlike H. G. Wells (whose over-confidence and disregard for the artistry of his profession necessitated his present-day obscurity), these artists will endure. The crafting of the work, according to Schorer, is what gives the work meaning; thus, through analyzing an artist's technique, we may discover the meaning of the work. In recent years, Stephen King has been granted Schorer's title of "artist" by such critics as Anthony Magistrale, Joseph Reino, and Douglas E. Winter. Despite his "prodigious popularity and productivity," King's reputation as a "literary" writer grows daily.

Anthony Magistrale argues that "The theme of innocence betrayed … unifies the major work of King's canon." Children, particularly, become victims as their characterization naturally implies a more innocent, corruptible state. As Magistrale suggests, "In King's novels and stories, there are few heroes; at best his major characters endure, but they seldom prevail … King's people are not superhuman, but ordinary, flawed, and vulnerable." Thus, King's works are often morality plays between good and evil, though his characters are not easy to pigeon-hole into moral categories.

Bernard J. Gallagher calls King's novels "psychological allegories," arguing that "external social pressures from the public world have led to a debilitating psychic fragmentation" of some of King's characters. As Gallagher suggests, the primary tension in King's work stems from the battle between the individual and society to control the individual's freedom:

King believe[s] that the individual's relationship to his environment and to other individuals is based upon a complex interchange in which external events affect the unconscious which in turn disturbs the balance of the id, ego, and superego, which in turn disturbs the individual.

Gallagher, states that "he [King] may be nothing less than a closet Freudian who has chosen to abandon the Freudian emphases on infantile regression and the Oedipal conflict." Though Gallagher may go too far when positing King's abandonment of the Oedipal conflict, particularly when we see that conflict expressed so dramatically in Rage, he nevertheless recognizes the important psychological tension between the individual and society in King's works.

Looking at King's adolescent character types more specifically, Tom Newhouse says,

King's novels and stories that depict teenage life are profoundly critical of the parental expectations, conservative values, and peer pressures which teenagers must face. In addition, King's teen protagonists come into awareness engaging the contradictions between the logical realm of routine activity and the darker regions of violent, destructive impulses. They are often outsiders who turn to violence as a response to exclusionary social environments which deny them acceptance, or who resort to destructive attitudes that they believe will advance them upward.

As Newhouse defines it, King's "brand of fiction" combines "social realism and archetypal horror, exposing deficient institutional and social values and the flimsy rational biases on which they are founded." In his analysis of Rage, Newhouse describes the novel as a treatise against authority, and, "though Charlie's revolt has a basis in genuine madness," the real motivation behind Charlie's civil disobedience is the "all too familiar" repression of the individual by society. Accepting Newhouse's assertion that this theme of the individual vs. society is the primary tension running through Rage, an examination of the structure of the novel should show, as Mark Schorer suggests, that this theme is evident in the technique of the novel.

In his essay, "The Concept of Point of View," Mitchell A. Leaska offers three classifications for narrative point of view: 1) omniscient narration, in which the writer controls and has access to all points of view in the narrative, 2) limited narration, in which the perspective of the storyteller is limited either to first or third person and sometimes colored by the interpreter's own psychological condition, and 3) non-narrated presentation, in which the character presents, in present tense, the reality of the text directly to the reader. King, to some extent, employs all three narrative techniques in Rage.

In Chapters 10 and 35, we have direct, present-tense addresses by Charlie to the reader. Chapter 10 is a discussion of "sanity," with Charlie standing "(metaphorically speaking …)" before the reader and telling us that he is "perfectly sane." Chapter 35 is Charlie's sign-off chapter, i.e. his last address to the reader, and his final announcement: "That's the end. I have to turn off the light now. Good night…." The two chapters engender in the reader a sense of proximity to Charlie. Both chapters indicate examples in Rage of an obliterated narrative; Charlie has obliterated his own narration, for no longer are the readers separated from him by the narrative construction of the very past events he has described.

The classification of limited narration will only be mentioned briefly here, as it is obvious and occupies 32 of the novel's 35 chapters. At least two levels of this narration occur in Rage: the first is Charlie's relation of the events on that May morning to the reader; the second is when Charlie tells us of relating his autobiography to his classmates while he holds them hostage. While, in one sense, he is Leaska's first-person observer (for example, during the camping trip with his father when he hears the older men denigrating his mother and all women in general), he is also the narrator-participant during the primary narrative. His present state of mind, filled with the tension of his struggle with society, is reflected in his presentation of authority figures:

School administrators and teachers are seen as hollow bullies, deluded by an authority that belies a weakness which is ultimately revealed during the tense confrontation, and parents are portrayed either as insensitive brutes or dark sexual monsters, like Charlie's Navy recruiter father.

The presence of the omniscient narrator is a debatable one, but, perhaps, an inescapable conclusion when examining Chapter 33 of the novel. Chapter 33 is an interoffice memo describing the catatonic mental state of Ted Jones, the classroom representative of the social norm, who, as a result of his "humbling" by Charlie's teachings and the class's physical assault, has retreated into that state. Yet, since it is learned (in Chapter 34) that Charlie's mail is censored by his own psychiatrists (he was committed to Augusta State Hospital on August 27, 1976), and the memo (dated November 3, 1976) is presented alone, without comment by Charlie, the reader may assume Charlie's ignorance of both the memo and Ted Jones's fate. Such an assumption, however, implies the presence of an outside controller of the narrative. The only solution to the problem of control in Chapter 33 (other than an outside fictional compiler, of which the reader is given no evidence since Charlie's narrative is, apparently, a direct, spoken address to the reader), is an omniscient narrator. Though we never hear the "voice" of that narrator, its presence is the only way to explain the inclusion of the memo in the novel. This shifting point of view reflects the individual/social tension thematically developed by King and structurally developed in the narrative; Charlie's struggle with society is mirrored by a struggle for control of the novel itself.

Rage is divided into 35 chapters (forming 170 pages), varying from half a page to 12 pages in length. The events of 29 of those chapters occur two years before Charlie's "present" (when he is telling the story), and entail the events taking place between the hours of 9:05 am and 1:00 pm on the day Charlie takes over his class. With the exception of Chapter 33, as noted above, the reader can assume that Charlie has a varying measure of control of the narrative throughout the novel.

His intrusions in various chapters of the narrative serve a specific purpose. Chapter 5, in which he transcends the primary time of action to a prior time of action, the camping trip with his father, sets up the Oedipal tension played out within the theme of individual vs. society in all Charlie's rebellions against authority. Chapter 10, as described earlier, allows Charlie a non-narrated, dramatic presentation of his theories on sanity. Chapter 15 represents a dramatic pause between Charlie and the reader as he briefly describes the class's silent reaction to his tale of Oedipal tension described in Chapter 14. Chapter 35 is Charlie's revelation that his rebellion, perhaps, was not as successful as he had at first hoped; it shows his own vulnerability and the final clamping down of society on Charlie, the individual.

A dual purpose of these chapters remains consistent throughout all four of them. They share a common characteristic: they break-up the flow of the narrative, allowing Charlie to control the presentation of the events to the reader. In Chapter 5, Charlie decides to obliterate the narrative restraints he had set for himself by telling of the camping trip with his father which occurred when Charlie was a boy. In Chapter 10, Charlie steps completely outside the narrative structure to theorize on the concept of sanity. In Chapter 15, Charlie's dramatic pause allows the reader to assess the effect of his Oedipal conflict on his secondary audience, his classmates. In Chapter 35, the reader learns from Charlie that society, for the moment at least, has beaten him, and it is ironic that he briefly retakes control of the narrative to prove that point. Except for this last chapter (the control of which is debatable since the reader learns of the ultimate failure of Charlie's struggle and that he must end the narrative because he must "turn off the light now," a restraint placed upon him by the society which has conquered him), these explicit examples of Charlie's narrative control occur in the first half of the novel.

The narrative of Chapters 16-31 is told in past tense but is set entirely within the classroom. Though some characteristics of the narrative are similar to the first half of the novel, the authorial control Charlie established by sectioning off the narrative before Chapter 16 is nonexistent thereafter. One characteristic shared between the two halves of the novel is Charlie's account of his relationship with his father. These descriptions which occur in the second half of the novel, in Chapters 16, 29, and briefly at the end of Chapter 22, however, do not break the primary time of action as it is broken in the first half of the novel. These stories are again told to the reader during that time, for they are stories which Charlie tells to the class while he holds it hostage. By getting rid of the quotation marks which ordinarily characterizes his dialogue with his classmates in these chapters, Charlie places the reader in the classroom with the rest of his hostage audience. Thus, Charlie is not narrating a story second-hand to the reader about his revelations to his classmates (and their subsequent revelations to him); the reader is, instead, placed within the classroom and experiencing those revelations first-hand, as they happen.

Though Charlie maintains some control over the narrative in the second half of the novel, he cannot step outside its boundaries and becomes obligated to his peer audience. He must shape his narrative based on their reactions and despite the fact that his peers, with the exception of Ted Jones of course, support him after their initial shock of Charlie's murder of Mrs. Underwood and Mr. Vance, Charlie must gauge their responses and mediate his actions accordingly. While giving a treatise on individual rebellion against an oppressive system, Charlie, ironically, finds himself reliant on his new society's (his peers') acceptance of him in order to "teach" them.

The last four chapters of the novel, Chapters 32-35, reaffirm society's control over the narrator, each in its own unique manner. Chapter 32 is a transcript of the court writ establishing Charlie's conviction of two murders, its judgment of his insanity, and its sentencing of him to Augusta State Hospital. Though Charlie's awareness of the writ gives him control over its presentation (his comment after the transcript confirms his awareness of it), the court's decision is the first step in society's final subjugation of the individual. Chapter 33, the interoffice memo, as already noted, is outside Charlie's narrative and, thus, not controlled by him.

Chapter 34, however, is a bit more ambiguous. This chapter is a transcript of a letter, evidently from Charlie's best friend, Joe McKennedy. After a first reading of the letter, the reader might think it would please Charlie, for in it we learn that Joe has become a successful undergraduate at Boston University, that Charlie's friends are still "pulling for [him]," and that those of his classmates whom he has influenced toward self-reliance have become productive, though independent, members of society. Thus, on the surface, all has turned out for the best—for everyone but Charlie.

The subjugation of the individual by society is presented here in at least three important ways. First, McKennedy's text has been replaced in several instances by "[Following has been censored as possibly upsetting to patient]"; thus, the hospital controls what Charlie may read, what version of reality he may receive from the outside world. Second, the letter has no signature, simply ending with a "With love, your friend," and a blank page. The reader has to guess that McKennedy wrote the letter based on his self-reference as an "old buddy" of Charlie's, and the only character who qualifies for that position, based on Charlie's narrative, is Joe McKennedy. Whether McKennedy chose not to sign the letter (which seems unlikely) or the hospital censored his name, the obliteration of the signature takes away the personal identity of the letter's writer. Third, the letter writer warns Charlie that, "It would sure be a loss to the world if you clammed up and just scrunched in a corner all day." Taken in the context that Charlie's confession to both the reader and his classmates had provided him with some measure of freedom, this warning is especially significant. Indeed, it foreshadows the next chapter, where the reader learns that Charlie is happy to be able to keep a secret again from the hospital staff. Thus, Charlie has lost the liberating capacity he had found, the ability to confront and defeat his personal weaknesses through confession.

Chapter 35, as noted before, is Charlie's final, questionable attempt to control the narrative. Ultimately, however, the power to continue speaking is not his. His need to keep a secret again, to internalize his struggle for individuality, is particularly dramatic when the reader realizes that Charlie is in the ultimate situation of social control, psychiatric observation. It seems that Charlie himself knew this might happen, for, in Chapter 31, the last free act of his narrative is making a false grab for his gun, hoping that Philbrick, the police officer who has come down alone to the classroom (at Charlie's request) to personally escort Charlie out, will shoot him dead. Though Philbrick shoots him three times, Charlie survives and is tried for his crimes.

Thus, Rage exhibits a common theme of King's fiction, the struggle of the individual against society. As Mark Schorer suggests in his definition of the artist, thematic unity should extend itself to King's technique, and, indeed, the narrative structure parallels that struggle. In the first 15 chapters of Rage, Charlie Decker maintains some measure of authorial control by moving away from his primary narrative three separate times. Between Chapters 16 and 31, however, he is locked within the framework of his own narrative and must tailor his actions within the narrative, and portions of the narrative itself, to his audience. The final four chapters, each representative of the social repression of the individual, lock Charlie's cell and throw away the key. Though Charlie regains control of the narrative in the final chapter, it is only to tell the reader that he has lost his struggle for individualism.

Karen A. Hohne (essay date Fall 1994)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4325

SOURCE: "The Power of the Spoken Word in the Works of Stephen King," in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 28, No. 2, Fall, 1994, pp. 93-103.

[In the following essay, Hohne analyzes the use of official and unofficial language in King's fiction.]

Orality seems straightforward and decorative, occurring in texts as either the voice of the poet or the people and apparently functioning very much on the text's surface. In fact, as a way of embodying and/or discussing power, it can be a central organizing factor in a text. Orality indicates power relations both in terms of who values the spoken word and how that word behaves towards other languages. Precisely because orality is a large and flexible category, containing many oralities, it is useful for authors and complex for scholars. It may, for instance, be dialogizing and internally persuasive or monologic and authoritative. It may function as a container of knowledge, preserving a history unvalued by those in power and only occasionally sanctified by being written down, or it may work as a mobile dispenser of silence and death, obliterating all voices not its own. Because it is polymorphous, it is a good vehicle for double-voicedness in texts, gesturing simultaneously towards both ends of the power spectrum.

When it is recorded, orality may preserve a poetic tendency to involve word play and consciousness of words' sounds as well as their meaning, as, for instance, dialect stories do or, for a perhaps more familiar example, rap does (where the supposed spontaneity of the moment is even usually carefully duplicated on the record—party sounds, inappropriate snorts of laughter, etc.). But generally when it is captured and preserved in a more or less static text (in such forms as the fairy tale or epic poem), orality's playfulness is frozen; it stops being an open, welcoming, hands-on endeavor, a work of the world and of empowerment, and becomes closed, forbidding, esoteric, and disempowering (the distance between epic poetry and rap, for instance, is above all the distance between the power that rules and the power of the people). Although epic poetry comes from folk epic and these two are connected in the mobius strip of literature, recorded oral narratives tend to be as flat and monologic as the spoken-aloud forms are orchestral and dialogizing.

Orality's double-sidedness is often disregarded whenever the term is applied to texts, but a fine example of its slippery dual nature is Stephen King's writing, where there is a great tension between the heteroglossic orality that is slang speech, which codifies a knowledge rejected by those in power, and monologic orality, which embodies that power.

Bakhtin designated the two language sets functioning in the dialect story as literary (written) and extraliterary (oral), but in actually working with double-accented texts, I found the terms official and unofficial more helpful, since they preserve the languages' very important relationship to both power and to authority, and since clearly orality may be either official or unofficial, as is the case with King.

Official language is a set of verbal and non-verbal authoritative languages which attain value in society based on their association with entrenched power. Thus included in this category as verbal languages we find not simply the language of high literature, but the political rhetoric of the State, the languages of legal documents, of "distinguished" journalism, academia (including the language of this paper), and so on. Official language usually literally embodies its association with the ruling forces by an adherence to the rules for speech; it is grammatically correct according to the grammars penned by those who (consciously or not) serve entrenched power.

In contrast, unofficial language as a category is composed of languages not valued (or perhaps even illegal or forced underground) by a particular society and which usually are furthermore rule-breaking in their form as well as their spirit, being ungrammatical, slangful, bastardized, and illogical. Unofficiality embraces otherness, borrowing from various aspects of unofficial culture—slang, obscenities, advertising, popular music, yellow journalism, B movies, comic books, etc. It is the speech of the marginalized majority—of rural folk or uneducated workers, of children, criminals, or minorities (to refer back to The Shining, for instance, the speech of the child Danny or the black cook, Mr. Hallorann). However, unofficial ideology is distinguished by how it behaves as well as by its vocabulary and syntax. It is internally persuasive, constantly trying to enter into dialogue, and generally does not attempt to exile others to absence or strip them of their rightful voices. The only otherness unofficiality opposes is the otherness that wants to obliterate otherness—authoritativeness.

As aggressive as unofficiality is in its demystification of officiality, it does not usually attempt to gain the position of power, to officialize itself by obliterating officiality and clambering onto the vacated throne. It seeks only to unseat, not to be coronated. When unofficiality copies officiality's distinguishing feature, hatred of the other, it rejects all language borrowings and becomes monologic. Such an unofficiality occurs in the "The Mist" in the person of the fearsome Mrs. Carmody, whose own personal religious language, churchless and therefore powerless, becomes a vehicle for death (which perhaps simply indicates the real power unofficiality does have). Languages not in power that nevertheless reject internal persuasiveness for authoritativeness are simply officiality's poorest cousins, the lumpen proletariat of language. They are always lurking on the very fringes of society but never discover the positive aspects of life on the fag end. Instead, they dream of the day when they may be allowed to enter the society's center and thence exercise their authoritativeness to the fullest extent—i.e. through the tender attentions of fascist persuasion—death, torture, and silence. And we must assume that they will be made use of, just as the lumpen proletariat has been made use of, by an authoritativeness in fear of losing the power backing its words.

In works like The Shining and The Stand, however, we see the grubby-faced mongrel of internally persuasive unofficiality meeting prim officiality with the general result that unofficial language/ideology sticks out its tongue and reveals official language/ideology as a lie.

The kind of narrative which showcases this sort of double-accentuation takes monologism as its topic, revealing its negative effects. But these texts are no one-sided depictions of the horrors of some version of dictatorship, real as those horrors are. They speak not only monologism's deadly fallout, but its slithery attractions and stinky comforts. If official language is usually the language of the author/reader, then taking monologism as a subject to be deconstructed means deconstructing monologism not just out there somewhere in the world, but in the internal world; in other words, writing (and reading, if one reads dialogically) this kind of story means attempting to demystify oneself.

King is perhaps best known precisely for those narrators whose language is torn between the unofficiality of everyday spoken speech and the officiality of literary narration. Rather than make use of the officialized orality of the epic or fairy-tale, they string sentences together with "and" and repeat phrases in the redundant stutter of conversational, and their speech is full of highly unofficial slang and obscenities. But even in terms of their unofficiality one is not allowed to forget that they are individuals negotiating a heteroglossic world. Various unofficialities interact in these characters; in their speech we encounter bits of rock songs, advertising jingles, set phrases born on TV, and idiolects. King's readers live in this unofficiality, which is, outside of the book, constantly under attack by officiality; here that same unofficiality is celebrated and accepted as a vital aspect of the narrative of readers' lives, and when officiality attacks, precisely in order to silence all this difference and to force the acceptance of its version of our lives, unofficiality strikes back and wins. This accounts for a great deal of King's popularity; he is the native son who wants to liberate the liberating mother tongues.

In most of King's novels the sensitivity to unofficiality is so great that there are attempts made to counteract the possible negative effects of literary narration on unofficial language. Some of the most dialogic moments occur when more-or-less unmediated thought penetrates the narrator's speech. It is indeed difficult to speak aloud without excessively monologizing, for these intrusive thoughts, rather than seconding or ratifying the oral narrative speech, contradict it and thereby take on the role of the unofficial, revealing the narrator's speech as inadequate to the world. It is as if orality, when given the job of narrative work normally performed by literary language, becomes officialized enough to require another sort of "spoken" speech, thought, to derail any monologic tendencies. Thought is then to spoken as spoken is to written. Thought may appear as a commentary on the speech of oneself or others, or as part of internal dialogue. It generally utilizes typeface to signify (a wonderfully curious situation given the orality we are dealing with) and often lacks punctuation (just as orality does).

It is fairly common in literature for thought to comment on the speech of others; however, in this example from The Shining we hear the internal unofficial other speaking in its own voice—not linearly, not in rule-bound sentences, but in fragments, circles:

Jack's hands were clenched tightly in his lap, working against each other, sweating. Officious little prick, officious

"I don't believe you care much for me, Mr. Torrance. I

little prick, officious

don't care. Certainly your feelings toward me play no part in my own belief that you are not right for the job."

For a somewhat more subtle usage, where one insists on one's own internal, unofficial word over the official word imposed from without, there is the story of a boy who finds a tiger in

The bathroom


Of course, the internal, unofficial other who cleaves to "basement" is proven correct—there really IS a tiger in the boys' room—just as the cage of dead, hypercorrect speech of the hotel manager in the previous excerpt is broken open both by Jack's unofficial language and by what actually happens at the Overlook Hotel.

Heteroglossia is manifested in internal dialogue as well. Notice the difference between the language inside and outside of parentheses in the following example. Both the form and the content are different. Unofficial speech, fenced in by parentheses and thus nearly literally marginalized, not only uses obscenities but rejects punctuation. Rule-abiding officiality, in contrast, is as always attempting to cover over lived life with its own lying version of things (here, the good father/murderous abuser), but its linear authority can be made to disintegrate under the stress unofficiality knows how to apply. Recalling the time he physically abused his son, Jack tells himself

It was an accident He fell down the stairs.

(o you dirty liar)

It was an accident I lost my temper.

(you fucking drunken waste god wiped snot out of his nose and that was you)

Listen, hey, come on, please, just an accident

What appears on the microlevel organizes the macrolevel of these works as well. In speech so correct it sounds affected, the hotel manager tells us the official version of the Overlook Hotel's brilliant history as the grand stopping place of presidents (center of society). But Jack, a mere caretaker (margin of society), finds a scrapbook full of newspaper articles (certainly an unofficial version of a "real" book) in the basement; the unofficial story he puts together from the scrapbook gives the lie to the official version—the fine old hotel is actually a charnel house produced by corruption in high places. Unofficiality appears likewise as the Shining itself (the clairvoyant abilities of Mr. Hallorann and Danny). A non-linear means of cognition, the Shining is considered the knowing of the mentally ill and the simple, yet has the power to unmask officiality.

Official language, the peddler of a dangerously false knowledge which pretends to know everything, to encompass the universe within itself, may appear in various guises. All of its versions buy into the system of power and thus in the final instance serve the same master; they scramble over each other's backs in an attempt to be first and best at giving voice to those who rule. Officiality knows that other official languages all recognize authority, even if that authority is other than itself; should those other official languages attempt to garner for themselves monologic power, officiality understands and can even forgive, since monologism and the urge to it is the only value in its world. Officialities thus have few difficulties in appearing side by side. A version of official language I have elsewhere called Scientific because of its use of science-peculiar buzzwords and syntax occurs in King and normally leads to lethal consequences, but official language is not limited to this incarnation. Religious language proves to be a particularly virulent strain of officiality for King, occurring again and again. A good example is "Children of the Corn," where children in the grip of religio-speak sacrifice passers-by and their own comrades to a blood-spattered god. But scientific and religious officialities may easily coexist in the same text, as in "The Mist," where blundering, know-it-all science, our present religious authority, overwhelms and destroys most of the world, and a recrudescence of old-time religion does its best to kill off the remainder. Science and religion, which appear to be completely opposed (when viewed from the rational/irrational axis), are thus revealed as identical in terms of their negative relationship to otherness: if it is other, eradicate it.

In works where the unofficial word emerges triumphant, the velvet glove that covers officiality's iron fist is, all unknown to it, slid off, and officiality's literal or figurative monstrosity is revealed; this is quite different from the situation normal to society at large. There, unofficiality is allowed a precarious validity only at the margins, yet since our lives are awash in unofficiality, its absence from the privileged sorts of communication we employ emphasizes the unofficiality of our lives. It is then with great relief we take up a horror novel of King's type. In these the monstrosity is officiality itself.

Literary language, perhaps the most invisible of all authoritative words for academics, appears in each of King's works, and as we know, there is an official space for orality within literary language as poetry and fairy tale—thus its double-voicedness as a category. Even in his use of slang King draws attention to language, and this language self-consciousness fits the classic Formalist definition of poetry. It would seem strange for an author who produces works so crammed with validated unofficiality to create anything which touts officiality, but there are works in King's corpus where unofficiality not only does not triumph but appears to be smashed. The problem is that orality's connection to poetry and the fairy tale pulls the text away from heteroglossia and possible dialogism. We find these monologic capabilities demonstrated in novels like The Eyes of the Dragon and The Dark Tower.

These official languages are necessary to (or necessarily) reproduce the monologic relations of the society depicted—generally some version of feudalism, which is wonderfully fitting. When authoritative language is used to limn a monologic world, no space is left for us to work out a compromise with that world; we must accept or reject it in its entirety. Not only are the world's imperfections carefully smoothed over by their convenient absence, but the authoritative force of that world does not allow us to look at the white space, the margin, that signifies imperfection's existence. Only Evil, which is presented as individual deformation of universally accepted morality, a big or small glitch in an otherwise smooth-running machine, may counter officiality's bland narrative. But we are not permitted to wonder if there is anything wrong with the machine itself. On the contrary, bare-faced inequity is presented as normal and good, and if we would be normal and good, we must accept it as such. These works are in fact reader-hostile—there is nowhere for us to enter into the work; what's more, the lack of dialogized heteroglossia is antagonistic to our life experience.

A novel which speaks monologue is not going to be powered by a plot that deliberately works to subvert its world. On the contrary, the plot in these novels, like their language, lauds officiality. Instead of depicting positive transformation, which can only come about in the field of dialogism (as at the end of The Shining, for instance, where a new and completely different sort of "family" is formed), the plot born of a monologized world moves towards an entrenchment of the status quo. In Eyes the rightful king (certainly a fine representation of officiality), imprisoned by a usurping magician (unofficiality in its "evil" guise), destroys the magician and re-takes his throne to the usual rejoicing of the peasants, who, as always, are there to assure us that the lives of the people are just grand under authoritarianism. This sort of story has appeared over and over both in older horror novels and other writing. Here officiality smears unofficiality by attributing to it its own crimes—murder, torture, intrigue, etc. (that is, the activities practiced openly by kings rather than magicians)—and denies unofficiality its voice by killing off its speakers. Unofficiality is presented as an ugly deviation from the beautiful order of officialized society. It is an evil way of knowing precisely because it is an other way of knowing.

Unofficiality is here not permitted to speak its own language; instead, it is ventriloquized by officiality. Often these villains are gleefully self-condemning, tooting the horn of their own evil as no real villain would. Curiously, however, many readers identify with the villains rather than the heroes of this sort of work. This is not a function of the alleged difficulty of presenting good people as interesting but of readers' deep realizations that the story being told concerns them directly; the villain is their own life experience, which speaks a language different from the official version and which therefore is called evil. Contrast this to works where what horror has historically considered evil is openly depicted as attractive and even gets away in the end, thereby subverting the entire world of officiality. This latter is a progressive trend, for it means accepting one's own unofficiality and perhaps even taking pride in it. But since novels like The Eyes of the Dragon are told from the point of view of officiality, unofficiality is represented as an evil to be snuffed out. Then officiality can resume its rule, painting itself as universal, seamless, and ahistorical.

We see the same sort of reversal of the roles normally played by officiality and unofficiality in The Dark Tower, a work both poetic and poetry-inspired. The gunslinger, a sort of traveling officiality minus the bad makeup of civilization, pursues an alternative Satan of the trickster variety who carnivalizes wherever he goes. Rather than using a mixture of spoken slang and literary language, as appears in texts like The Shining, the narrator speaks in the officialized speech of the fairy tale or epic: "He was still unbedded, but two of the younger slatterns of a West-Town merchant had cast eyes on him." Although out of context the lifelessness of this particular officiality is so apparent that it is almost humorous, it is difficult while reading to resist the power of the narrator's authoritative word—one must either accept it or pull out of the book. Thus it becomes easy for us to see the Man in Black, who kills one person and reanimates two, as demonic, whereas the gunslinger, who kills at least 38 people, including a young boy devoted to him, seems heroic. If one recalls that in The Shining as well as other of King's works a child represents unofficiality's power, the significance of the boy's sacrifice to officiality's quest in this novel is clear.

In these works heteroglossia cannot and does not give birth to dialogism. It is merely decorative (in fact, "poetic"), lending a pleasant local color rather than representing alternative worldviews. The well-crafted characterization through language that is one means of introducing heteroglossia into novels like The Shining does not occur here. Instead, these characters are, like their worlds, flat. In Eyes, for instance, individuals' speech may be class-distinct, but this language differentiation is reminiscent of a snobby British novel where flower girls drop their h's and cloddish workmen stretch out their diphthongs like taffy—in other words, otherness may aspire only to (powerless) quaintness. It is noticeable that whenever otherness appears as unofficiality in these novels it is either incomprehensible and (therefore) ridiculous or it is simply an estrangement of our own world, which makes it even more ridiculous—the Amoco pump worshipped as a thunder-god, for instance. We laugh at our own estranged unofficiality, forgetting that officiality's most damaging effect on those who must have truck with it is the loathing and fear towards the unofficial other it produces, be that other another living being or an individual within the speaker's own psyche.

Since what heteroglossia there is has no dialogic life, the rich internal dialogue that weaves together books like The Shining is missing. Thought simply does not generally disrupt the flow of speech, and when it does, no illuminating spark of difference is struck. Instead, it is much more in line with what one would expect from a traditional novel:

They [Brown and the gunslinger] looked at each other across the shadows, the moment taking on overtones of finality.

Now the questions will come.

But Brown had nothing to say.

These heroes may even, like the gunslinger, as many an outlaw before and since, be inarticulate in their native language, which is quite appropriate, for the heroes of these works are deaf to heteroglossia. It is significant that in The Drawing of the Three the gunslinger has great difficulty not only with the "foreign" words of our world but with the codes of his own; likewise, in The Dark Tower, when he tries to read the clues left behind by the Man in Black, he thinks

—Perhaps the campfires are a message, spelled out letter by letter. Take a powder. Or, the end draweth nigh. Or maybe even, Eat at Joe's. It didn't matter.

Indeed, it does not matter to one who does not prize heteroglossia; to him, all difference must be equal to inferiority. Officiality has no need to be wor(l)dly-wise; its tongue is a gun, its word a bullet. It would be difficult to find a better metaphor for officiality's attitude towards otherness.

King's works provide a paradigm illustrating the tension between official and unofficial languages/ideologies that exists not only in literature but throughout our society. In one of the sorts of novels he produces, orality appears in its official guise, as epic language, to tell the only story it is capable of telling—that of a world monologized. In such a world, heteroglossia cannot be dialogized; rather, other languages are mere surface decoration, and difference is an occasion for the expression of moral superiority and humor that excludes and objectifies otherness. Such novels are manifestations and exercises of the existing power relations. The plot of this sort of novel must be the story of officiality's triumph (there can be no other story). They are perhaps precisely those which will meet with greater acceptance from individuals taken up with officiality's literary business, for despite the fact that the far more vital works are those which turn away from literariness to make use of our own very living languages, these officialized works buy wholeheartedly into the literary system, which act therefore justifies them. In these tales, unofficiality is nowhere permitted to speak; instead, crimes, particularly those which officiality has itself committed, are attributed to unofficiality in absentia. This story and the way it works occur not only within the confines of a book but frequently out in the world.

The authoritativeness of such narratives draws us in, making us into exactly the sort of reader they demand—one who may easily stomach oppression because she laughs at her own (unofficial) self with a laugh emanating from self-hatred rather than demystification. But smothering difference means ultimately becoming inarticulate oneself, as the gunslinger illustrates, and likewise is apparent in society as a whole, where officiality, able to use only itself as reference, has less and less to say about the world we live in. This lack of substance is perceived by many and accounts for the popularity of texts which speak another language, another world, as some works of King do.

These texts are precisely the other side of orality, the other story, which likewise takes monologue as its subject, but this time depicts it from without rather than within, thus exposing the cracks in the deadly mechanism. The power of "simple," "ordinary," "everyday" speech is revealed as a force non-linear, fragmentary, and circular and thus peculiarly fitted to debunking rigid, straight-line officiality. Again the plot is related to what is going on in the work's language, but here heteroglossia leads to a real interaction of languages that produces something other than the same old story from which we must be excluded unless we mutilate ourselves and others. Unofficialized texts, in contrast, point to the power of our own unofficial languages in a society overdetermined by officiality, a power simply waiting to be wielded. These stories tell us to speak in our own true voices, all of them, to exploit multiplicity and fragmentation, to realize the lesson incorporated in the Babel myth. The tower to heaven is always being built again by officiality, but the real might of Babel was not the tower. It was the languages which are, since officiality tells the tale, presented as a curse. We see that other versions of Babel, such as those told by King, reveal this curse to be in fact the possibility of liberation.

Michael Wood (review date 19 October 1995)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4477

SOURCE: "Horror of Horrors," in New York Review of Books, Vol. 42, No. 16, October 19, 1995, p. 54.

[In the following review, Wood discusses the mythological allusions of King's Rose Madder and asserts, "The magical picture of Rose Madder … reminds us through fantasy how fantastic the unimagined everyday world can be."]

Stephen King has become a household name in at least three senses. He is a writer pretty much everyone in the English-speaking world has heard of, if they have heard of writers at all. He is regularly read by many people who don't read many other writers. And, along with Danielle Steel and a few others, he is taken to represent everything that is wrong with contemporary publishing, that engine of junk pushing serious literature out of our minds and our bookstores. The English writer Clive Barker has said, "There are apparently two books in every American household—one of them is the Bible and the other one is probably by Stephen King." I don't know what Barker's source is for this claim, but I wonder about the Bible.

Do we know what popular literature is? When is it not junk? Is it ever (just) junk? Who is to say? What is the alternative to popular literature? Serious, highbrow, literary, or merely … unpopular literature? Stephen King responded with eloquent anger in an argument over these issues conducted in the PEN newsletter in 1991. He thought best-selling authors came in all kinds. He said he found James Michener, Robert Ludlum, John le Carré, and Frederick Forsyth "unreadable," but enjoyed (among others) Elmore Leonard, Sara Paretsky, Jonathan Kellerman, and Joyce Carol Oates. This seems sound enough to me, although I have to confess to liking Ludlum and le Carré as well. "Some of these," King continued, "are writers whose work I think of as sometimes or often literary, and all are writers who can be counted on to tell a good story, one that takes me away from the humdrum passages of life … and enriches my leisure time as well. Such work has always seemed honorable to me, even noble."

What had made King angry was the term "better" fiction, which Ursula Perrin had used in an open letter to PEN ("I am a writer of 'better' fiction, by which I mean that I don't write romance or horror or mystery") complaining about the profusion of worse fiction in the bookstores—"this rising sea of trash" were her words. "Ursula Perrin's prissy use of the word 'better,'" King says, "which she keeps putting in quotation marks, makes me feel like baying at the moon." Perrin's examples of writers of "better" fiction were John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and Alice Hoffman.

But King was wrong, I think, to assume that Perrin's argument could rest only on snobbery, and he himself owes his success not to some all-purpose skill in entertainment but to his skill in a particular genre, and to his reader's expectations of that genre. There is a real difficulty with the rigidity and exclusivity of our literary categories; but it is no solution to say that exclusivity is the problem. What happens perhaps is that the tricky task of deciding whether a piece of writing (of any kind) is any good is repeatedly replaced by the easier habit of deciding which slabs or modes of writing we can ignore. Even King, who not only should but does know better, confuses fiction that is popular with popular fiction, best sellers with genres, and his line about the humdrum passages of life and the enrichment of leisure time is as condescending in its mock-demotic way as the idea of "better" fiction. No one would read Stephen King if that was all he managed to do.

Genres do exist, however we name them, and the work they do is honorable, even noble. When we say writers have transcended their genre, we often mean they have abandoned or betrayed it. Genres have long and complicated histories, richer and poorer, better and worse. They may be in touch with ancient and unresolved imaginative energies, or whatever haunts the back of a culture's mind; and they permit and occasionally insist on allusions the writer may have no thought of making. Stephen King, however, has thought of making allusions, and thought of it more and more, as the excursions into classical mythology of Rose Madder make very clear.

What's interesting about Carrie, King's first novel, published in 1974, is the way it sustains and complicates its problems, gives us grounds for judgment and then takes them away. The genre here (within the horror genre) is the mutant-disaster story, which in more recent years has become the virus novel or movie. Sixteen-year-old Carietta White has inherited awe-inspiring telekinetic powers, and in a fit of fury wipes out whole portions of the Maine town where she lives, causing a death toll of well over four hundred. Carrie has always been awkward and strange, cruelly mocked by her companions at school, and liked by no one. Her mother is a morbid fundamentalist Christian who thinks that sex even within marriage is evil. The town itself is full of rancor and hypocrisy and pretension—the sort of place where the prettiest girl is also the meanest, the local hoodlums have everyone terrorized, and the assistant principal of the school has a ceramic ashtray in the form of Rodin's Thinker on his desk—so that without any supernatural intervention at all there's plenty to go wrong, and plenty of people to blame. Carrie's terrible gift for willing physical destruction is an accident, the result of a recessive gene that could come up in anyone, and the novel makes much play with the idea of little Carries quietly multiplying all over the United States like bombs rather than children. The last image in the novel is of a two-year-old in Tennessee who is able to move marbles around without touching them, and this is the portentous question the novel pretends to address: "What happens if there are others like her? What happens to the world?"

This is a big question, but it's not as important as it looks, because apart from being unanswerable in the absence of any knowledge of the characters and lives of the "others like her," it mainly serves to mask another question, which is the most urgent question of the horror genre as Stephen King practices it: What difference does the supernatural or fanciful element make, whether it's telekinesis or death-in-life? What if it's only a lurid metaphor for what's already there? Carrie White is not a monster, even if her mother is. Carrie has been baited endlessly, and when someone is finally nice to her and takes her to the high-school prom, the evening ends in nightmare: pig's blood is poured all over her and her partner, a sickening echo and travesty of the opening scene in the novel, where Carrie discovers in the shower room that she is menstruating and doesn't know what's happening to her. Human folly and nastiness take care of this entire region of the plot, and Carrie's distress and rage are what anyone but a saint would feel. But then she has her powers. The difference is not in the rage but in what she can do about it, and this is where contemporary horror stories, like old tales of magic, speak most clearly to our fears and desires.

Edward Ingebretsen, S.J., in an interestingly argued book whose subtitle confirms King's status even in the academic household, speaks of religion where I am speaking of magic. "Once-religious imperatives," he says, "can be traced across a variety of American genres, modes, and texts." "The deflective energies of a largely forgotten metaphysical history live on, not only in churches, but in a myriad other centers of displaced worship." Ingebretsen has a nice sense of irony—I hope it's irony—dark and oblique like his subject: "A major comfort of the Christian tradition is the terror it generates and presupposes …" He certainly understands how King, while seeming to offer escape from the humdrum passages of life, shows us the weird bestiary lurking in those apparently anodyne places. "Change the focus slightly and King's horror novel [in this case Salem's Lot] reintroduces the horrific, although the horrific as it routinely exists in the real and the probable." "Routinely" is excellent.

It's true that religious hauntings are everywhere in American life, but because they are everywhere, they don't really help us to see the edge in modern horror stories, the way these stories suggest that we have returned, on some not entirely serious, not entirely playful level, to the notion that superstitions are right after all, that they offer us a more plausible picture of the world than any organized religion or any of our secular promises. It's not only that the old religion is still with us, but that even older ideas have returned to currency. This is a very complicated question, but the notion of magic will allow us to make a start on it.

Magic is the power to convert wishes into deeds without passing through the cumbersome procedures of material reality: taking planes, hiring assassins, waiting for the news, going to jail. It bypasses physics, connects the mind directly to the world. All of Stephen King's novels that I have read involve magic in this sense, even where nothing supernatural occurs, where the only magic is the freedom of fiction to move when it wants to from thought to act. Would you, if you could, immediately and violently get rid of anyone and anything you dislike? If you were provoked enough? And could be sure of getting away with it? The quick response, of course, is that you know you shouldn't, and probably wouldn't. The slow response is the same, but meanwhile, if you're not really thinking about it, you probably let it all happen in your head, which is a way of saying yes to the fantasy of immense violence while feeling scared about it.

This must be a large part of the delight of this kind of horror fiction. Is this really all right, even in a novel? There's a relish in the thought of Carrie's destroying her miserable town; we can't wait for another gas station to blow up. But there's also an ugly comfort in feeling Carrie's an alien and a freak, not one of us, and above all in knowing, at the end, that she's dead. At the heart of Carrie is a conversation between Susan, the one girl in town who worries about Carrie, and Susan's amiable boyfriend, who dies for his attempt at niceness. They have no idea of what's going to happen; they know only that everyone's always been mean to Carrie.

"You were kids," he said. "Kids don't know what they're doing. Kids don't even know their reactions really, actually, hurt other people…."

She found herself struggling to express the thought this called up in her, for it suddenly seemed basic, bulking over the shower-room incident the way sky bulks over mountains.

"But hardly anybody ever finds out that their actions really, actually, hurt other people! People don't get better, they just get smarter. When you get smarter you don't stop pulling the wings off flies, you just think of better reasons for doing it."

And what if, the question about magic continues, you grant to these people, without improving their moral awareness in any significant degree, inconceivable powers to hurt? To wipe out cities or abuse their wives? It wouldn't matter whether you called these powers telekinesis or Mephistopheles. Carrie's relative innocence—she's not smart and she doesn't pull the wings off flies—helps to focus the question but makes the powers all the scarier. Fortunately it's only a fantasy.

If we want to see what a genre novel looks like when it's barely in touch with any imaginative energies, either ancient or modern, we can look at King's The Langoliers, a short work published in Four Past Midnight, and recently adapted as a lumbering mini-series for ABC. The genre here is the end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it story, combined with a disaster in technology (airplane, ocean liner, skyscraper). A plane leaves Los Angeles and flies through a fold in time into the past—or rather into an alternative world which the present has abandoned, into the past as it would be if it vanished the moment we turned our backs on it. The plane lands at Bangor, Maine, which turns out to be deserted, nothing but stale air and tasteless food. The plane manages miraculously to refuel and to fly back through the time fold. There is a nasty moment when it arrives in Los Angeles too early—this is the future, and just as deserted as the past, but not as dead and tasteless. The good news is that you only have to wait a while for the present to get here.

There are possibilities here, and the hint of a genuine anxiety about the fading past, a sort of mixture of disbeliefs about it: that it's still there, that it's actually gone. King writes engagingly in his introduction of "the essential conundrum of time"—"so perfect that even such jejune observations as the one I have just made retain an odd, plangent resonance"—but he hasn't worked all that hard at this version of it, and obviously felt his novel needed something more, which he provided in the shape of huge bouncing balls which are eating away at the earth—well, not just the earth, but reality itself. The balls are black and red, they have faces and mouths and teeth; they are "sort of like beachballs, but balls which rippled and contracted and then expanded again…." "Reality peeled away in narrow strips beneath them, peeled away wherever and whatever they touched…." Apart from telekinesis, King has written about vampires, rabid dogs, cats back from the dead, zombies, a demon automobile, and a whole barrage of ghosties and ghoulies. But sort of like beachballs?

The novel and the movie called Dolores Claiborne are good illustrations of the way in which the same story can be told twice and mean different things each time. The novel is all about what people do when there's nowhere to go. The movie is about doing what you can but still having nowhere to go, and every image in it—the sea and the sky, the bare landscape, the half-abandoned houses—reinforces this feeling. I don't think the movie intends to be depressing. It intends to be beautiful and uplifting, all about courage and coming through, and Kathy Bates, as Dolores Claiborne, is full of fight and dignity. But she can't compete with all those images, which in another context might well suggest freedom or an unspoiled world.

Still, it is the same story, in spite of the different tilts of meaning and of obvious and extensive changes in the development of characters and their part in the plot. Dolores Claiborne, accused of two murders, has committed one but not the other. In the second case, where she is innocent, the evidence is damning. She was seen with a rolling pin raised above the head of the aged and now dead woman whose housekeeper she was, and she has inherited a fortune through the woman's death.

In the first case, when she killed her husband nearly thirty years ago, the evidence was sparse because she took care to get rid of most of it—of all of it that she could find. She killed him, not just because he was a drunk and because he beat her, and not just to be free of him, but because he was molesting their daughter, and she could see no future for any of them in the world as long as he was alive. Obliquely but unmistakably instructed by her employer ("'An accident,' she says in a clear voice almost like a schoolteacher's, 'is sometimes an unhappy woman's best friend.'"), Dolores arranges for her drunken husband to fall down an old well he can't get out of. Like all bad characters in good horror stories, he takes a long time dying, indeed seems virtually unkillable. The same trope animates the battered and dying bad guy in The Langoliers; "There was something monstrous and unkillable and insectile about his horrible vitality."

This may remind us that murder in fiction is always too easy or too hard—that it is a fiction, a picture not of killing but of the way we feel about killing. Will Dolores, guilty the first time, get convicted the second time? Will her daughter, who suspects her of murder, ever trust her again? Would her daughter understand if she heard the whole story? Both the novel and the movie answer these questions, and both use the total eclipse of the sun in 1963 as their dominant visual image. This is the day of the murder of the husband, ostensibly a good time to get away with it, but really (that is, figuratively) a time of strange darkness when all bets are off and all rules suspended: this is the magic of the story, the moral telekinesis. Dolores doesn't need supernatural aid to kill her husband, she just needs, magically, for a few hours, to be someone else.

We are back in the world of Carrie, where rage is both understandable and terrifying. Carrie can read minds as well as move objects, and a phrase used about her helps us to see something else these novels are about: "the awful totality of perfect knowledge." The novels don't have perfect knowledge, or imagine anyone has it, except by magic. But then the magic, as well as giving anger a field day, would also give us a glimpse of the inside of anger, as if we could read it, as if it could be perfectly known. We might then want to say, not that to understand everything is to forgive everything, but that to understand everything is unbearable.

Stephen King is still asking his question about magic in Rose Madder, his most recent novel. It takes two forms here, or finds two instances. One involves a psychopathic cop, Norman Daniels, addicted to torturing his wife but shrewd enough to stop before she dies or before the evidence points only to him. He is also a killer, but even his wife doesn't know how crazy he is until she leaves him. Yet he's thought to be a good guy down at the station, recently promoted for his role in a big drug bust. His wife thinks every policeman is probably on his side, if not actually like him. Until King introduces a good cop around page 300, it looks as if the police force itself is the psychopath's version of telekinesis, what moves the world for him. There is a disturbing moment at the beginning of the novel, borrowed from Hitchcock but subtly and swiftly used, when Norman, having beaten his wife badly enough to cause a miscarriage, decides to call the hospital. "Her first thought is that he's calling the police. Ridiculous, of course—he is the police."

The other, more elaborate form of the question concerns Norman's wife, Rose. She finally finds the nerve to run away, after fourteen years of what King describes as sleep:

The concept of dreaming is known to the waking mind but to the dreamer there is no waking, no real world, no sanity; there is only the screaming bedlam of sleep. Rose McClendon Daniels slept within her husband's madness for nine more years.

Rose starts a new life in a distant city; makes new friends, gets a job reading thrillers for a radio station. You will have guessed that Norman goes after her and catches up with her at the climax of the novel, and that there is much maiming and murder and fright along the way, and you will have guessed right. The violence is inventive and nasty, and Norman is as truly scary a fictional character as you could wish to keep you awake at nights. He owes a certain amount to the Robert De Niro character in Taxi Driver, but when King himself refers to the actor and the movie—he pays his dues—the gesture isn't merely cute, it's amusing and polite, a casual tip of the hat. Norman is madder than the De Niro figure, his murder score is much higher, and—this is really distressing—he is often funny. Norman glances at a picture of Lincoln, for example, and thinks he looks "quite a bit like a man he had once arrested for strangling his wife and all four of his children."

What you won't have guessed is that the novel has a classical streak, and that King is quite consciously connecting his own modern mythology to a well-known ancient one. Rose buys a painting—it's called Rose Madder, after the color of the dress of the woman who is the chief figure in it, but the title, for us, also plays on the double meaning of "mad," on Rose's need to get angry and the craziness that may result—and discovers that she can step into it, become part of its world and have adventures there. The picture appears to be a rather banal classical landscape, with a ruined temple, and vines, and thunderheads in the sky. What's going on there, as Rose learns when she visits, is a mixture of the myths of the Minotaur in the maze and of Demeter looking for Persephone, her daughter by Zeus, after Persephone as been abducted into the underworld.

The creature in the maze isn't exactly the Minotaur, since it's all bull, and it's called Erinyes, a name which means fury, and is one of Demeter's epithets. Later the bull becomes Norman, or Norman becomes the bull: the monster is a metaphor for the less-than-human male. It's an engaging feature of King's play with these images that he doesn't forget the risks he's taking, and when Rose sees a pile of creaturely crap in the mythological maze she knows what it is: "After fourteen years of listening to Norman and Harley and all their friends, you'd have to be pretty stupid not to know bullshit when you see it."

The mother seeking her child is not exactly Demeter either, since Rose is told the mother is "not quite a goddess," and Demeter was undoubtedly the real thing. The mother is also decaying, having "drunk of the waters of youth" without getting immortality to go with it; and she is not exactly, or not always, a woman. She is a feminine principle, Carrie's rage in a calm disguise, telekinesis in a classical garb, and sometimes she looks like a spider or a fox. A literal vixen and cubs introduced in another part of the novel—in the world which is not that of the painting—set up the idea of rabies, whose name means rage, and whose name is rage in several European languages. "It's a kind of rabies," Rose thinks, picturing some mythological equivalent of the disease, a consuming anger which could destroy a near goddess. "She's being eaten up with it, all her shapes and magics and glamours trembling at the outer edge of her control now, soon it's all going to crumble…."

This woman is a figure for the anger Rose may not be able to control or return from. The last pages of the novel are like an afterward to Carrie. Rose knows the power of her anger, but her anger also knows her, and won't let her go. In a trivial quarrel in her happy new life, after the gruesome and entirely satisfactory mangling of Norman in the spooky world of the painting—not only in that world, though, Norman's not coming back—Rose has to make "an almost frantic effort" not to throw a pot of boiling water at her harmless second husband's head. She finds peace in an encounter, not with the near goddess of the picture, but with the vixen of the American countryside, with the puzzle of rabies in that clever female face. "Rosie looks for madness or sanity in those eyes … and sees both." But only sanity is actually there—a matter of luck, no doubt, of the way the disease ran among the local wildlife—and when she sees the vixen much later, Rose has become confident of her own resistance to the power to hurt, knows the madness (or the magic) has faded. These are the last words of the book: "Her black eyes as she stands there communicate no clear thought to Rosie, but it is impossible to mistake the essential sanity of the old and clever brain behind them."

King writes very well at times: "Her shadow stretched across the stoop and the pale new grass like something cut from black construction paper with a sharp pair of scissors," "Huge sunflowers with yellowy, fibrous stalks, brown centers, and curling, faded petals towered over everything else, like diseased turnkeys in a prison where all the inmates have died." The second example is a bit ripe maybe, but it's effective. But then we also get "riding through a dream lined with cotton"; "shards of glass twinkling beside a country road"; "the unforgiving light of an alien sun"; "she … was fearfully enchanted"; and "what she felt like was tiny speck of flotsam in the middle of a trackless ocean." This is not popular writing, it's yesterday's posh writing, and it's consistent with Rosie's thinking of Madame Bovary and Norman's muttering a line from Hamlet. Perhaps this is "better" fiction after all.

But of course what we are looking for in this novel is not felicity of phrase but invention and dispatch, and racking fictional anxiety, and King supplies them in good measure. He also gives us a pretty generous clue to what he is up to with his mythology. Within the world of the painting the bull gets out of the maze, and Rose worries that this may mean not only that the bull is loose but that the world has become his maze. The world of the painting, at least. A voice in her head, eager to help King out, takes her thought further. "This world, all worlds. And many bulls in each one. These myths hum with truth, Rosie. That's their power. That's why they survive." This is heavy-handed as explanation, but doesn't really hamper the functioning of the myth. The magical picture of Rose Madder does what the beachballs of The Langoliers just won't do: reminds us through fantasy how fantastic the unimagined everyday world can be. The trouble, in such a scenario, is not that dreams don't come true but that we could scarcely live with them if they did. Or that we are already living with them.

Edwin F. Casebeer (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5429

SOURCE: "Stephen King's Canon: The Art of Balance," in A Dark Night's Dreaming: Contemporary American Horror Fiction, edited by Tony Magistrale and Michael A. Morrison, University of South Carolina Press, 1996, pp. 42-54.

[In the following essay, Casebeer traces influences from King's life that have affected his writing and delineates different stages and common elements in his fiction.]

Stephen King is the most popular horror novelist today (and also the most popular novelist). He is the only writer ever to have made the Forbes 500; his annual income exceeds that of some third-world countries. His works are a significant percentage of the book industry's annual inventory. The average American recognizes his name and face. Yet, paradoxically, his novels also top the lists of censored authors. Perhaps that is because he creates fiction and cinema about that which we would rather avoid: modern meaninglessness, physical corruptibility, and death. Do the fictional situations he presents argue for a decline in our culture's energy for life, a descending depression and despair that lends enchantment to the graveyard, the kind of apocalyptic view that often ends centuries and heralds new human hells? Or is his appeal understandable in a way that affirms our culture and its willingness to deal with its dilemmas?

If we begin with Stephen King's status among his immediate peers—the horror novelists—the reasons for his broad appeal are clear. He has taken command of the field by writing representative masterworks: the vampire novel ('Salem's Lot), the monster novel (The Dark Half), wild talent fiction (Carrie), zombie fiction (Pet Sematary), diabolic possession fiction (Christine), and realistic horror fiction (Misery). His presence in the field extends to its very boundaries.

But King is actually a genre novelist; that is, he writes in all of the major popular genres now marketed to the country's largest reading population: horror, fantasy, science fiction, the western, the mystery, and the romance. While he works in pure forms ('Salem's Lot as a vampire novel, Cycle of the Werewolf as a werewolf novel, The Talisman as a quest fantasy, and The Running Man as science fiction), he often mixes genres. An early example is The Stand, particularly its first published edition, which begins as one form of the science fiction novel (the apocalyptic), evolves into a second form (the utopian), and concludes as a fantasy which blends elements of the quest like Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy with Christian apocalyptic fantasy like The Omen trilogy. Similarly, his Dark Tower trilogy combines apocalyptic science fiction with Arthurian quest fantasy, itself subordinated to the western, and then introduces science fiction's alternate worlds concept. The standard detective mystery does much to shape The Dark Half, Needful Things, and Dolores Claiborne, while the Gothic romance and the feminist novel are essential features of Misery, Gerald's Game, and Dolores Claiborne. The resulting breadth gives his fiction a much wider appeal than might come to a "pure" horror writer.

But King's appeal is even broader than that of a genre writer. From the beginning of his career, he was responsive to those horror writers of his decade, like Ira Levin, who moved from the traditional confines of the fantastique to establish analogies between the world that we all occupy and the horror novel's traditional settings, situations, plots, and characters. King, too, grounds fantasy in realism. In fact, his earliest published work, Rage (published under the Richard Bachman pseudonym), is a capable realistic novel. Motivated by his own boyhood and his involvement with his children, King's early novels demonstrate strong characterizations of preadolescent boys and small children. In the ensuing years, he has added to his palette, and now is taking up the challenge of realistic female protagonists.

King's appeal thus broadens even further: this realism opens up a subtext that addresses urgent contemporary concerns. From his youth, he has been a man of his generation; a man with deep political awareness and involvement. As has been elaborated critically by such works as Tony Magistrale's Landscape of Fear and Douglas Winter's The Art of Darkness, King has created many novels which allegorically address current social dilemmas: the corruption of school and church (Rage, Carrie, Christine), the government (The Long Walk, Firestarter, The Running Man, The Stand, The Dead Zone), the small town ('Salem's Lot, It, Needful Things, Tommyknockers), the family (The Shining, Cujo, It, Christine), and heterosexual relationships (Gerald's Game, Dolores Claiborne). Thus, King's work offers more than mere escape fiction or "adrenaline" fiction; it urges readers to confront squarely and disturbingly the horror in their own lives. The resulting depth connects him to an audience drawn to literature more "serious" than horror or genre fiction. His model has inspired enough followers to cause horror fiction to move to the front of bookstores and the top of the New York Times' bestseller list. It is not so much that the reading public has developed a perverse taste for horror as it is that, emulating King, horror writers have broadened and deepened their art enough to address us all on issues of consequence.

Paramount among these issues is death. As James Hillman pointed out in Revisioning Psychology, contemporary Western culture is the first extensive culture which has had to consider death as an ending, rather than as a transformation. Instead of believing in a transformation into an angel or devil, animal, or star, today's rationalists regard being as matter and unanimated being as refuse. Founded upon such materialism, the contemporary state and school have reinterpreted reality so as to provide for the here and now, and have maintained a polite skepticism about other realities. King repeatedly dramatizes, from an evolving perspective, the dilemma in which we find ourselves: we are without resources before the imminence of our own deaths and the catastrophe of the deaths of those we love. Adopting (such as in Carrie) a contemporary existentialist attitude (where the only constants are isolation, decay, and death), King explores such values (acts, creations, children) as may survive death or those entertained by other cultures (as in The Stand). In other novels (such as The Talisman and The Dark Tower series) King will entertain the possibilities suggested by post-Einsteinian physicists (the multiverse, the reality of process and the nonexistence of time, space, and matter). As in It, King looks at possibilities suggested by the psychoanalytic architects of reality, particularly the Jungian theory of an archetypal dimension underlying matter—a dimension that can be apprehended and molded by the artistic imagination. Although King sometimes ends his novels in nausea (Pet Sematary) or nothingness (Carrie), normally he views the human condition in terms of possibilities and affirmations. Again representative of his generation—and his American community (small-town New England)—those affirmations are based upon what is possible for the individual, particularly the individual not blinded by rationalism. He displays deep distrust for any human configuration larger than the family.

Although King's thematic reach is wide and deep, ascertaining his position on any given issue is not simple. This ambiguity also underlies his broad appeal, for vastly different readers may arrive at vastly different conclusions about his agenda. King seems, in a novel like The Stand, to be able to appreciate the validity of the opposed positions of a small-town Christian, Republican American with a high school education and a sophisticated, liberal, and urban existentialist. In a way, like Shakespeare, he does not conclusively resolve a plot or commit irrevocably to the agenda of a specific character or group of characters involved in the conflict. But his noncommitment is so submerged that readers normally assume (as they have with Shakespeare for centuries) that he agrees with them; he economically gestures toward the possibility of gestalt, not a specific gestalt. On the contrary, his chief artistic talent—the talent that has kept all of his work in print throughout his career and is likely to keep it in print—is his ability to balance opposing realities. The reader must resolve the issues. If we supinely regard King as simply a popular artist and expect a canned resolution, we often will find his resolutions unsatisfying. If we invest the energy in tipping his balance toward ourselves, we will behold in the artistic experience an affirming and illuminating mirror of our problems and our solutions.

Such a mirror develops not only from King's choice of situations of great concern to us, but by his technique of characterization. Here again, he achieves balance, gains breadth and depth of appeal. In one sense, King is a highly accomplished realist with a keen eye for the nuances of image and voice; but, in another, his characters are archetypal with origins in myth and folktale. Characters fall into two large groups—the sketch and the multidimensional. One of his true talents is the sketch: he is able to populate novels like 'Salem's Lot, The Stand, and The Tommyknockers with hundreds of briefly executed, vivid characters—each efficiently caught in a telling and representative moment that is often grotesque and generally memorable. King can make credible, as in The Stand, a plot that quite literally involves a whole country. He sketches characters from the South, New York, New England, the West, from the rural and urban blue-collar class, the middle class, the criminal and indigent, the police, the army, the entertainment world, and the clerks and functionaries of cities and small towns from all over America. These characters, placed in highly detailed topographies, create for us the realistic element of his fantasies so central in enabling us to accept their supernatural premises. As King said in an interview with Magistrale: "The work underlines again and again that I am not merely dealing with the surreal and the fantastic but, more important, using the surreal and the fantastic to examine the motivations of people and the society and the institutions they create."

King's realistic techniques for creating the primary multidimensional characters significantly differs from those producing the sketch. Generally speaking, he avoids the customary expository visual portrait of a primary character; he prefers to develop the character internally. Thus, by beginning in the character's sensorium, we can project more quickly and directly into it than we might if the objectification of a physical description was between us and it: existing as the bound Jessie Burlingame in Gerald's Game, we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell her experience of her world; and from these physical experiences we enter into and share her psychological presence. Generally, we find that psychological presence to be archetypal—the anima. Like any popular artist working with the stereotypical, King is always on the border of creating Jungian personae and plots emanating from the cultural unconscious. Therefore, however individually a multidimensional character may be textured, it feels very familiar as we settle into it.

But King goes a step further, particularly in his more epic novels, by exemplifying the theories of such neo-Jungian thinkers as Hillman: (1) the human psyche is basically a location for a cast of personae in dynamic relationship with one another; (2) the one-persona psyche—humanity's current and dominant commitment to unity, integration, and control—is pathological (the excesses of the rationalistic materialist); and (3) the universe and its inhabitants can only be seen clearly through multiple and dynamic perspectives. Thus, except in novellas and short stories, King generally prefers multiple points of view. Here he is influenced by modernists (such as Faulkner) and by cinema: perspective follows setting—and if the setting contains different characters, he still develops multiple points of view. In the larger novels, typically King pits a group of comrades against a common threat, a dynamic for which he found precedent in both Tolkien's The Ring trilogy and Stoker's Dracula. Though the details produced by setting and sensorium conceal the fact, each comrade is a persona—a specialized and archetypal figure such as the child, the old man, the lover, the teacher, the healer, etc. As the plot progresses and each persona contributes its vision, the remaining personae subsume these perspectives and evolve into a single (hero or heroine) or dyadic (lovers or parent/child) protagonist with the capacity to defeat or stalemate the antagonist, which itself is often a persona embodying death, decay, or meaninglessness.

Just as often, however, the antagonist is the monstrous. King has a particularly complex attitude toward such a persona. Like Clive Barker, King is able to see the positive side of the monstrous—its incredible energy and commitment, its individuality, and its ability to function in the unknown. Unlike Barker, he is not ready to embrace the monstrous and let it transform him. Again, balance prevails. In Danse Macabre, King analyzes the function of author and antagonist in novels. For him, the authorial is not the autobiographical; the "King" is another persona—the folksy, small-town Maine citizen of the commercials, of the prefaces, and of the authorial asides. The persona of the author agrees with the norms of the community. But the antagonist (as monster) is that shadow aspect of us which finds its reality in the individual, the bizarre, and the grotesque. This antagonist seeks to tyrannically control or to destroy rather than to belong, which is dynamic rather than centered and driven rather than ordered. We contain both and we come to the novel to experience both. Their conflict will never be settled, for it is the essence of what they are: opposites that define one another. Although Thad Beaumont, the protagonist of The Dark Half, wins his conflict with George Stark (the monster within him) we learn in Needful Things that he has lost his love, his art, and his family—he has settled back into alcoholism. In summary, the traditional horror novel, such as Bram Stoker's Dracula, excises or conquers the antagonist; the postmodernist horror novel, such as Clive Barker's works, transforms the protagonist into the antagonist, or vice versa; and King's novels balance these processes.

The end result of such a dynamic perception of character and structure is that the novel becomes psyche: that is, it is the location of archetypal personae and their dynamics. It is the interface between the psyches of writer and reader, a template of the soul, a mirror in which we see ourselves most clearly in terrain we least care to explore, the nightworld of death and monstrosity. Seen from the above perspectives, King becomes a modern shaman employing magic (the fantasy image, childhood imagination) to lead his culture into self-discovery where it most needs to look while maintaining commitment to love, family, and community—for King is also a husband, father, and highly visible "social" presence. Again he balances: he is of the tribe and he directs the tribe. No wonder we read him; no wonder we approach him with caution.

Because of his inclination to balance consecutive novels by opposing them to one another, these propositions apply more to the broad characteristics and processes of the canon rather than to individual novels. But his novels also fall into categories in which the same striving toward the balancing of opposing forces is evident: the community, the child, the writer, the woman, and the quest. These categories not only provide a more useful way of approaching King's fiction specifically than would a chronological or genre discussion, but they also focus the preceding theoretical discussion. Each category is a broad, shared foundation with the reader upon which and through which King can consistently design and redesign his social allegories and the psyche's archetypal templates that so consistently and profoundly link him with his audience.

King's writings about the community establish him as one of the country's major regionalist writers whose influences can be traced to the New England Gothic writers, Thornton Wilder's Our Town, and the novels of William Faulkner. The community which King most often chooses to present is one inspired by the town of his childhood—Durham, Maine. Sometimes the town is Jerusalem's Lot of the 'Salem's Lot stories, Haven of The Tommyknockers, or Castle Rock—the setting of such works as The Body, Cujo, The Dead Zone, The Dark Half, and Needful Things. A citizen of his region, King believes that the most politically viable unit is one small enough to hear and respond to individual opinion; as in The Stand, cities like New York regularly appear in an advanced state of disruption and the federal government responds only to the reality of its paper and its power.

Although community is more feasible in a small town than in a large city, in King's small towns it is rare. More frequently, their citizens (as in 'Salem's Lot, The Tommyknockers, and Needful Things) are caught up in materialistic pursuits that lead them into conflict with their neighbors. This conflict results in a community held together by conformity rather than cooperation, with narcissism and the closed door, fealty to no code but self-gratification, and apocalypse simmering beneath the surface. Yet—to stress King's seeking of balance in this category—there appears the option of a better way of life. The Boulder Free Zone of The Stand comes closest to such a utopia: it is small, it accords a place to each according to need and talent, and it attends to the individual. But King is ambivalent about such a grassroots democracy; the true reason for the survival of the Free Zone is the emergence of an elite presiding coterie composed of exceptional individuals with exceptional social conscience. When events demand the sacrifice of most of these people and the Free Zone becomes too large for rule by their dialogue, Stu Redman and Fran Goldsmith (the surviving hero and heroine) conclude that their community now is simply recycling the former decadent and materialist world. They opt for a more viable social unit: the family. And they leave the Free Zone for the locale of King's own family, Maine.

To understand King's strong focus on the family and the child requires recognition that during his career he has been a husband and father of two boys and a girl. During their childhood, he generally worked at home, but brought his family with him on the rare occasions when he left Maine. Thus, his family is often major material; he need only look up from the word processor to find grist. And as his own children have aged, so has the presence of the child diminished in his novels. The category of the child arises for a second reason: in his own development, King has had to reencounter himself as child and boy in order to remove the blocks to his becoming a man: "The idea is to go back and confront your childhood, in a sense relive it if you can, so that you can be whole." Also in this category are early novels such as Rage (begun while he was in high school), The Long Walk, and Carrie (written by a young man dealing with problems posed by family and organized adult society).

Among King's most endearing characters are small children such as Danny Torrance of The Shining and Charlie McGee of Firestarter. In their characterization, he avoids the potential sentimentality that often sinks such efforts by manipulating sentences that seamlessly weave together the diction and phrasing of both child and adult, thus conveying the being of the one and the perspective of the other. The second paragraph introducing Danny provides an example: "Now it was five o'clock, and although he didn't have a watch and couldn't tell time too well yet anyway, he was aware of passing time by the lengthening of the shadows, and by the golden cast that now tinged the afternoon light." The first subordinate clause is childishly run-on in structure and uses Danny's diction, while the second main clause is complex-compound within itself—its subordinate elements are parallel and its diction is the polysyllabic format typical of the narrator in King's lyric mode. Such a combination of styles and perspectives works so well because King adheres to the romantic belief that the child is the father of the man. It may be that children are superior in wisdom and psychological talents to adults simply because the latter are corrupted by psyches shrunken by materialism and rationalism—but they are superior. Thus, Danny is one with time and space, almost godlike in his perception of those dimensions in the haunted Hotel Overlook, while Charlie's power over the material world establishes her as an angel of apocalypse when she incinerates the Shop (King's version of the CIA).

King's adolescents can also be superior to his adults. In fact, the major reason for grouping the adolescent with the child is that, normally, King's adolescents are prepubescent: they have no explicit sexual identity and are still more child than adult. It is in such adolescents that we see his attempt to achieve yet another kind of balance—between the two stages of life. While the child has intimations of immortality, the adult has knowledge of death. Thus, the Castle Rock novella The Body (made into the excellent film by Rob Reiner entitled Stand By Me) initiates its four boys by leading them not into a sexual encounter, but into another rite of passage: their first encounter with death as the corpse of a fifth boy. Similarly, in It, a group of boys encounters and prevails over the protean incarnation of every human's deepest fear; and in The Talisman, co-written with Peter Straub, a trio of boys (an archetypal id, ego, and superego) transcend the force of this reality to enter a reality in which death is unempowered. Sometimes, as in Carrie, The Stand, and Christine, death and sexuality are negatively related: as Carrie becomes sexual, she becomes monstrous and an angel of the apocalypse. The sexual foreplay of Nadine and Harold in The Stand is a clear symptom of their degenerate state. As Arnie becomes sexual, Christine corrupts him—even Arnie's benevolent alter ego, Dennis, discovers that his first love turns to ashes. In his most recent novels, King demonstrates a mature and central sexuality; but in the novels of this earlier period, in which he is reencountering his boyhood, sexuality leads to adulthood which leads to diminished psychological resources and death.

Coincidental with King's emphasis on the child and the boy is his emphasis on the family (often in a pathological phase). One of the earliest and most powerful of these novels is The Shining, which, long before systems theory, dramatized the point that the pathological individual is a symptom of the pathological family and that both must undergo treatment. Jack Torrance's obsessions and his wife's posture as victim are inheritances from their parents which bind them together and threaten Danny. In Christine, Arnie's pathological family environment leads to his destruction and theirs, while Dennis's family supports and creates him in its image. It provides the reader with a wide range of family dynamics, both successful and unsuccessful, and relates such to the girl and boys who are the protagonists. The most powerful of the numerous family novels is the tragic Pet Sematary, which develops for the reader a realistically ideal family which is demolished by its own estimable values when its child is senselessly killed. The question posed by the novel is whether the family can survive the death of a child. The answer is no. In this system, the death of a child kills the family.

A subject as close to King as the child and the family is that of the writer—a character who dominates as either protagonist or antagonist in a wide range of short stories, novellas, and novels (most significantly 'Salem's Lot, The Shining, It, Misery, The Tommyknockers, and The Dark Half). The novelist-protagonist who dominates 'Salem's Lot is more a product of King's youthful ideals than his experience. Like King, Ben Mears (a "mirror") undertakes a novel which will allow him to productively relive his childhood. But Ben's conflict with the vampire Barlow enlarges him to mythic proportions: as the personae about him converge and provide him understanding, faith, wisdom, and imagination, he develops a godlike perception and power. Metaphorically, when he encounters and conquers the vampire that is feeding on the town, he becomes the archetype of an elemental "good … whatever moved the greatest wheels of the universe." The following novel, The Shining, establishes balance by becoming an exact opposite to its predecessor: the alcoholic Torrance (a playwright this time) is the monster. King sees this particular writer as a failure because he stops writing—Torrance's writing block leads to psychosis. Among the complex communities of The Stand, a similar opposition is in the contrast between Larry (the successful musician) with Harold (the unsuccessful writer): although his success nearly destroys him, Larry literally enacts a second crucifixion that saves the world; abnegating art for dark vision, Harold still manages some dignity before succumbing to demonic forces. Both figures physically resemble King: Larry has King's height and current physique and Harold has the height and King's adolescent physique. Although the hero is blond and the villain dark-haired, both have hair the quality of King's. In It, where the child's imagination is the only weapon of the adult against the death and meaninglessness of the eponymous evil, the novelist Bill Denbrough (who this time resembles Peter Straub) regains this state most easily and thus is a vital element of the protagonistic band.

Balancing again, King writes two novels—Misery and The Tommyknockers—which countervail such optimistic authorial characterizations. In Misery the primary subject is the negative relationship of the reader and the writer: the reader is the writer's enemy. Readers regularly read the genre writer rather than the literary artist—in Misery, this is the Gothic novelist. Since the readers' choice enforces conventions and confines the writer's creative talent, in a sense the audience "writes" the genre novel. Apparently tiring of these limitations, King personifies his tyrannical audience in the archetypal figure of Annie, who literally limits the aspiring literary artist, Paul Sheldon, to genre fiction by drugs, bondage, and torture. Despite such a negative response to whether readers are the motivation for writing, King gives the issue a serious and detailed treatment: his writing of a Gothic romance novel within a realistic novel and his exploration of the psychological processes of writers and their relationship with those of readers is a fascinating and original effort. And, again, he negates his own negation by undercutting Paul's distaste for genre fiction by his admiration for this bloodily extracted romance, even though its creation mutilated him.

While Misery suggests that the literary artist's social influence is more negligible than that of a genre novelist by creating a character with a conflicting literary agenda, The Tommyknockers approaches the same issue by creating two authors: (1) the genre novelist, Bobbi Anderson, whose dark vision unleashes an alien presence which enslaves her community; and (2) the literary artist, poet Jim Gardener, whose self-sacrifice saves that community. Both are competent and dedicated writers who hold one another's work in esteem. But both are fatally flawed. Bobbi's kind of writing leaves her psychologically open to outside control (from audience and alien): she becomes the conduit which unearths and directs a cosmic darkness to the human community. Jim is armed against such possession, but isolated from the community by an art aspiring to the ideal. He has the vision to see through the darkness—he can and does die for the community, but it will never buy his books. As in Misery, King's final position on the writer's value is extremely pessimistic.

After writing Misery and The Tommyknockers, King entered a hiatus. For him, writing had become an existential act. He had the money but he felt controlled and depleted by the audience that he did have and despaired of the existence of any other kind of audience. Why continue to write? Developmental theory, such as Gail Sheehy's Passages, suggests that other processes were affecting King. He was passing through a chronological period from the age of 38 to 42 in which a man or woman working in the public area generally experiences extreme conflict as life takes a new direction: he or she reaches the end of a horizontal direction in which new territory and material are claimed through a process of conflict (a masculine direction), and a vertical direction where depth rather than width is sought through the development of nurturance and personal relationships (a feminine direction).

King emerged from his hiatus with an ambitious contract for four books—he wrote five (the last two of which were novels solely about women). But before he undertook this feminine direction, he closed the canon to children, Castle Rock, and writers. Children had by this time become lesser characters. The people of Castle Rock, given a slight nudge by a minor demon, destroyed themselves in the apocalyptic cataclysm ending Needful Things. The resolution of the issue of the writer in The Dark Half was more complex. The opposition of popular writer and artist in Misery and The Tommyknockers is here internalized in The Dark Half: warring for the soul of a writer are his personae as literary artist (Thad Beaumont) and as genre novelist (George Stark). The artist wins, but the victory is pyrrhic. Closer examination reveals that Beaumont's friends, wife, and children are psychologically akin to his nemesis. We find out in the sequel, Needful Things, that not only has the artist lost friends and family, but also the will to write. He is an alcoholic and the circle is closed. King leaves the issue behind him unresolved: it is what it is.

In Gerald's Game and Dolores Claiborne, King picks up a gauntlet. Long criticized for unidimensional female characters in such articles as Mary Pharr's "Partners in the Danse: Women in Stephen King's Fiction," he apparently decided that a new direction for growth both as human and as artist would be appropriate in accepting the challenge to create convincing women. Written simultaneously, the novels are most productively regarded as two poles in a meta-narrative process. At the one pole is the heroine of Gerald, Jessie Burlingame—economically and socially privileged, childless, and in her own eyes significant only as her husband's sexual object. At the other pole is Dolores, a figure apparently based on King's mother (to whom he dedicates the novel)—economically and socially underprivileged, a mother, and in her own eyes significant in herself. Through their telepathic awareness of one another and through their experience of the same eclipse as a central incident in their lives, King establishes the commonality of these two very different women: it lies in the fact that they are whole only in those years before and after men entered their lives—the period of the eclipse. In Gerald, King dramatizes the entry of Jessie into an eclipse through the seduction and domination by her father; she exits the eclipse by killing her dominating husband, Gerald. The subsequent fragmenting of her victim persona into a community of sustaining female personae provides her with the resources to free herself from a literal bondage. In Dolores, the titular figure is a mother and wife who exits the eclipse by murdering a husband who also seeks to sexually exploit his daughter. In either case, the women experience one horror in common: the entry of men and sexuality into their lives. By erecting such contrasting poles as Jessie and Dolores, and yet maintaining both as sympathetic characters with a shared dilemma, King writes paired novels sympathetic to a wide spectrum of women and evades an easy condemnation of his women characters as unidimensional.

Overall, King's canon is a quest. But his battle cry is not "excelsior!" The direction is downwards and the path is a spiral. Many of King's characters experience life as a quest: Ben Mears of 'Salem's Lot questing for self and conquering the vampire; The Tommyknockers' Gardener questing for death and finding self; the comrades of The Stand marching against the Dark One and founding the New Jerusalem; the boys of It killing fear; and the boys of The Talisman killing death. The gunslinger of The Dark Tower series is, however, probably most typical of King: he seeks to understand what the quest itself is. His enemies become his friends, his guides his traitors, his victims those he has saved, and his now a then. Paradox; transformation; balancing the dualities, an emergent, tenuous, ever-fading, and ever-appearing balance—these are the duplicitous landmarks in the terrain of King's work and his life. Both are open enough and fluent enough to mirror us and ours as we seek to make our own accommodations with modern monsters, personal meaninglessness, social chaos, physical decay, and death.


King, Stephen (1947 -)


King, Stephen (Vol. 12)