SOURCE: Reino, Joseph. “Fantasies of Summer and Fall: Full of Sound and Fury.” In Stephen King: The First Decade, Carrie to Pet Sematary, pp. 117-35. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1988.
[In the following essay, Reino provides a thematic and stylistic analysis of the novellas comprising Different Seasons.]
With brief seasonal subtitles, Different Seasons (1982) attempts to bind together four unusual novellas of varying lengths and moods. Taken from the optimistic “Essay on Man” of the eighteenth-century English poet Alexander Pope, “Hope Springs Eternal” is the subtitle of the vernal season, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption—a subtitle that is, at the tag-end of the violence-ridden twentieth century, little more than a pleasant, but not quite believable, cliché. The second and longest of the novellas, the sinister Apt Pupil, is a “Summer of Corruption”—an apparent variation on the “winter of our discontent” from the oft-quoted opening line of Shakespeare's Richard III. The third and autumnal season, The Body (widely acknowledged as the most nearly autobiographical of King's works), flirts with the attractive deceptions of an American Eden and is, consequently, a “Fall from Innocence.” The fourth, The Breathing Method, easily the most fantastic of the group, is appropriately subtitled with Shakespeare's late fantasy-romance, The Winter's Tale. While this brilliant quartet of tales does not deal with the unabashed horrors and terrors of the more famous novels, nevertheless, according to King's personal observations, “elements of horror can be found in all of the tales, not just in The Breathing Method—that business with the slugs in The Body is pretty gruesome, as is much of the dream imagery in Apt Pupil” (DS, 502). Although King raised sharp objection to psychiatrist-author Janet Jeppson, when she suggested that he has been “writing about it ever since”—“it” being the train accident that killed a young playmate—he admits in his afterword to Different Seasons that, with respect to horror in general, only “God knows why,” sooner or later, “my mind always seems to turn back in that [gothic] direction” (502).
Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, the first “season,” is the most strangely titled of all King's stories, the kind of story (“with a homosexual rape scene”) that Susan Norton's mother complained that “sissy-boy” novelist Ben Mears had written. Taking place in an imaginary Maine prison called Shawshank, the story is supposedly narrated by one of the inmates (nicknamed “Red”), a clever entrepreneur who can “get it for you” for a price, that is, obtain whatever a prisoner might like, or need, from the outside world: pictures, comic books, posters, panties from a wife or girl friend, etc. Red's hundred-page story concerns a banker-prisoner, Andy Dufresne, sentenced to life imprisonment because of incriminating circumstantial evidence in the murder of his wife and her lover. Though consistently denied parole, and tragically unfortunate in attempting to prove his innocence, Andy becomes the financial wizard of the prison (“quiet, well-spoken, respectful, non-violent” ), with an unusual smile and a cool far-away look. Red is intrigued by Andy's strange requests, two in particular: a rock-hammer and a Rita Hayworth poster. What Andy is doing with these objects—the Hayworth poster changing to other shapely females as the years go by—is revealed only at the end of the novella, when the reader learns that for years and years (1949-75) Andy had been digging himself a tunnel, and successfully concealing the cellblock escape route (the “hole”) behind sexy, and inevitably distracting, pin-up posters.
Both the prolonged tunneling and the subsequent escape are as improbable as the incriminating evidence that incarcerated Andy in Shawshank State Prison in the first place (18-25). But King...
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makes the narrative plausible by having whole sections of Red's account reported as gossip, rumor, and prison talk, slowly turning Andy Dufresne into a legendary folk hero about whom (like Robert Frost's Paul Bunyon, Washington Irving's Icabod Crane, or some medieval Arthurian knight) one tends to expect the unexpected. Unlike the final section ofCarrie, which attempts to verify everything through newspaper reports, eyewitness accounts, and court transcripts, here King exercises his ingenuity by having everything sustained through sheer guesswork and speculation.
Of all the plot improbabilities in Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, however, the most hilarious is the author's success in hiding in his rectum a one-hundred-page (or more) manuscript about Andy Dufresne's life, prison escape, and detailed plans for secret life in Mexico (30, 101). On the occasion of the author-prisoner's parole, this rectal secreting is done so as to escape detection from guards during a strip-down physical examination prior to final release. Thus what the average King enthusiast has been devouring with such interest derives from the same part of the human anatomy that is naturally used to eliminate foul-smelling body wastes, but was “unnaturally” violated (and presumably also much enlarged) by the prison “sisters” during one of their many sodomitic escapades.1 Both this rectal literary joke, and the impossibles and improbables of the quasi-legendary prison career of Andy Dufresne, give the Popean subtitle, “Hope Springs Eternal,” a rather hopeless resonance indeed—implying, one supposes, that if you believe this “story,” you will believe just about anything.2 The “redemption” part of the title has various implications, not the least of which is the elimination of the Bible-quoting Warden Norton, who never so much as cracked a smile and “would have felt right at home” with those infernal New England preachers, the “Mathers, Cotton and Increase” (56).
The Breathing Method, the fourth and last “season,” and a gothic/fantasy successor to such traditional Christmas stories as the medieval romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Charles Dickens's Christmas Carol, is an out-and-out tall tale best suited to winter in which, as one editor points out in connection with Shakespeare's Winter's Tale, “no one expects any probability.”3 In folklore and legend (the Roman Saturnalia, ancient rituals surrounding the birth of Mithra, the tradition of the modrenacht among the Angles, etc.), the season of the winter solstice (21 December) is often filled with fantasy. The main incident in the fourth season is the birth of a child from an accidentally decapitated woman (Sandra Stansfield) occurring “on the eve of that birth we have celebrated for two thousand years” (462). The young woman is unmarried and wearing a false wedding ring, and this mysterious and/or magical birth thus parallels, or even parodies, the traditional Christian belief in the virgin birth recounted in the gospel of Luke. Despite the potential for blasphemous satire (which King does not elsewhere resist), the parallel is not overstressed, and at several points only gently reinforced: (1) by a quotation from a Roman Stoic that might well have come from the Pauline epistles, to the effect that “There is no comfort without pain; thus we define salvation through suffering” (461, 482-83); and (2) by having the tall tale of an impossible Christmas Eve birth told by an eighty-year-old physician, who thereby parallels the author of the gospel of Luke, traditionally believed to have been a physician, from whom the story of the virgin birth is almost exclusively derived.
Without demeaning the power of these spring and winter narratives, Rita Hayworth and Breathing Method appear as prologue and epilogue to the central tales of summer and fall that are among King's finest creations: Apt Pupil and The Body. The former concerns a thirteen year old's not-quite-accidental discovery of a Nazi war criminal living secretly in California, while the latter recounts the adventures of several twelve year olds who set out to find the dead body of a boy struck by a train, and in the process one of them (the teller of the tale) makes significant discoveries about his personal sensitivity and poetic proclivities. Taken together, Apt Pupil and The Body are youth-oriented companion pieces, offering in-depth analyses of young boys who can easily take their place among King's other preteens: Mark Petrie, Richie Boddin, Danny and Ralphie Glick, Danny Torrance, and Marty Coslaw. Interestingly, in both Apt Pupil and The Body, King again explores depth after desperate depth of feelings about father-son relationships that are central to a sympathetic understanding of much of his work—a psychological dimension too often glossed over by reviewers, who seem to harp exclusively on elements of terror, horror, and the supernatural.4
CORPSES THAT REFUSE TO STAY BURIED
The protagonist of Apt Pupil is a thirteen-year-old “innocent” in the pleasant-enough beginnings of this California revelation, but a seventeen-year-old criminal in its tragic conclusion. A stereotypical American boy of WASP background—the family was Methodist (164)—Todd Bowden has the kind of “summer” face that might easily be found advertising Kellogg's Corn Flakes: “hair the color of ripe corn, white even teeth, lightly tanned skin marred by not even the first shadow of adolescent acne” (109). Despite the gradual deterioration of Todd's personality throughout this 175-page “Summer of Corruption,” his face matures but never loses its boyish attractiveness: “young, blond, and white” (281). Even toward the end of Apt Pupil, when Todd is one of four victorious boys named to Southern Cal's All Stars, the newspaper photograph is “grinning openly out at the world from beneath the bill of his baseball cap” (254). When identified as the probable killer of local derelicts, he is remembered as having an “ain't-life-grand” air about his improbable face (282).
In addition to a happy-time television reaction to nearly everything (good or bad), several other aspects of Todd's personality—always superficially favorable—receive considerable attention: his “aptness” as a school student, his high degree of intelligence and foresight, his full-blooded teenage slang, and his outstanding athletic abilities. These apparent positives in Todd's All-American makeup, however, inevitably deteriorate. So boyishly appealing and attractive at first, showing “perfect teeth that had been fluoridated since the beginning of his life and bathed thrice a day in Crest toothpaste” (113), his smiles sour into the sardonic expression of a psychopath beaming out “rich and radiant” (131) as he eagerly absorbs Nazi stories about gas chambers, conspirators hung by piano wires, or lampshades designed of human skin. On one occasion, when the old concentration camp commander (Kurt Dussander, whom Todd all-too-willingly befriends) is forced to tell Todd about the experimental nerve gas (poetically nicknamed Pegasus) that caused its victims to scream, laugh, vomit, and helplessly defecate, the All-American Boy is happily consuming two delicious chocolate Ring Dings. Even old reprobate Dussander reacts negatively, not only in being forced to remember horrors he himself eagerly perpetrated in German concentration camps, but especially because of Todd's enthusiastic “That was a good story, Mr. Dussander” (136). Ironically, King puts in the mouth of the old Nazi, wanted by the Israelis for being “one of the greatest butchers of human beings ever to live” (262), reactions that are likely to pass through readers themselves when he says aloud to the boy, “You are a monster.” Innocent-looking Todd reminds Dussander that “according to the books I read, you're the monster, Mr. Dussander,” who sent thirty-five hundred a day into the ovens “before the Russians came and made you stop” (127). The next time Dussander (in something resembling teenage slang) is tempted to damn Todd as “putrid little monster,” he only thinks it (135), keeping to himself his disgust with Todd's behavior, even though that behavior is viciously patterned after his own (giving an inkling of King's attitude toward the relationship of postwar American behavior to the Nazis.)
The name Todd suggests “toddy,” a pleasant drink of brandy or whiskey mixed with hot water, sugar, and spices. Like the boy's blue-eyed All-American appearance, therefore, his name has sweet connotations. Winter suggests a sinister undercurrent—quite apt, one might add—to this attractive first name, since “Todd” is similar to the German word for death, Tod.5 Kurt Dussander's name derives from Peter Kurtin, Monster of Düsseldorf, a novel about an actual criminal included in Father Callahan's recollections of gothic junk in 'Salem's Lot (296). But Dussander's American pseudonym is the kinder-sounding “Arthur Denker,” the first name deriving from the mythic medieval king,6 and the patronym from yet another German word, “thinker” (Denker). The fake last name covertly suggests the octogenarian's cleverness in concealing his true identity by skillfully avoiding detection and capture by sharp Israeli authorities for so many years. Dussander's ability to “think” things through is so masterful that inexperienced Todd, who at one point had the potential of being an absolute blackmailer, comes to feel that “his skull had turned to window-glass and all things were flashing inside in large letters” (201). The living room of Dussander's house contains a neat symbol of all the false facades in Apt Pupil (Americans and ex-Nazis included): “the fake fireplace” that was “faced with fake bricks” (115).
The Jekyll/Hyde qualities of the Todd/Denker names seem—and indeed are—the exact opposite of what they pleasantly suggest, and have parallels in some unusual literary techniques. The most important of these is the series of empty-headed clichés, banalities, proverbs, and (on Todd's part) slang simplicities that are placed in plot situations in such a way as to point up their utter shallowness. As names reverse (e.g., from sweet “toddy” to grim “death”), so do the cliché-drenched conversations among the doomed older characters.
Important among these typically American pseudoprofundities are the following. Todd's parents “don't believe in spanking” because “corporal punishment causes more problems than it cures” (115). Todd's father (Dick Bowden) thinks that “kids should find out about life as soon as they can—the bad as well as the good.” His silly rationale is that “life is a tiger you have to grab by the tail, and if you don't know the nature of the beast it will eat you up” (120). Dick Bowden balances off his wife's cliché, “Waste not, want not,” with his own innocuous “Not by a long chalk” (138). Todd's teacher (the well-intentioned Mrs. Anderson) lectures the students of the California school (of which sweet-looking Todd is one) about finding “YOUR GREAT INTEREST,” hers being “collecting nineteenth-century post cards” (117). The guidance counselor (satirically nicknamed “Rubber Ed,” ‘’Sneaker Pete,” and the “Ked Man” by mocking high school students) idiotically supposes that his rubber-covered Keds gives him “real rapport” with the students. He too has an assortment of dismal colloquialisms on which he thinks he can structure educational success: that he could “get right down to it” with the kids, “get into their hangups,” knew what a “bummer” was, and understood and sympathized when “someone was doing a number on your head” (166).
The upshot of all this “right-thinking,” superficial claptrap that passes for wisdom—a parody of certain educational practices that dominated American society during the period of the 1976 bicentennial, the time-frame of the story (206)—is that Todd Bowden, one of the young people these insights were supposed to direct into proper channels of patriotic behavior, becomes a Nazi admirer and hobo murderer. King is not saying that benign and “liberating” clichés are inherently wrong or that they cause Todd's inclination toward social misbehavior. Rather, his gothic perspective is that benevolent philosophies, reduced to thoughtless aphorisms and innocuous clichés, are utterly powerless against the boy's adamantine malevolence. Todd, too, is entrapped in his own kind of verbal superficiality, mostly teenage American slang that might have been considered “cute” in something other than a California neo-Nazi context: “Gotcha,” “Right on,” “You'll go ape,” “School's cool,” “Crazy, baby,” “It blows my wheels,” “Blasts from the past,” etc. Only infrequently does Todd trot out some really humorous wit, as on the occasion when his mother brings up a matter that Todd does not want to deal with, and he leaves her with the wise crack: “I've gotta put an egg in my shoe and beat it” (134). All too frequently, unfortunately, his mind reverts to mindless banalities, as when, entrapped by Dussander, he thinks of a “cartoon character with an anvil suspended over its head” (202).
Possibly offensive to some readers—and this may explain the negative criticism of Apt Pupil by some reviewers—is the fact that the Nazi proves the more elegant and perceptive in language skills than the sentimental, cliché-ridden Americans, who—as Dussander scornfully points out—“put photographs of firemen rescuing kittens from trees on the front pages of city newspapers” (202). Thus at the dinner table with Todd's parents, when offered another glass of cognac by Todd's mother, Dussander gracefully declines with the proverb, “One must never overdo the sublime” (149). When in the office of the guidance counselor, Dussander convinces his listener by pretending he “was raised to believe that a man's family came before everything” (169)—a cliché, to be sure, but just about the only one in the entire novella known to be false at the time it is uttered. When Todd is completely entrapped by the old Nazi's psychological counterthrusts, Dussander comforts the boy by suggesting that “no situation is static” (202). When confronted with murderous hatred in Todd's eyes (“that dark, burning, speculative glance”), Dussander realizes that he had to protect himself, because “one underestimates at one's own risk” (175). At the complex business of what might be called “verbal survival,” Dussander is extremely crafty: careful to manipulate false words, while never falling victim to them, always rising above his own (and others') deceptive language to remain—desperately necessary for a former Nazi—free to survive! Adolf Hitler once asserted that “something of even the most shameless prevarication will find lodging and stick,”7 but Dussander is several notches beyond mere Nazi lies and prevarications. Whatever he does, he pulls off with considerable finesse and with an enviable command of language that makes him all the more dangerous because his basic malevolence is so difficult to detect by naive Americans—like the Bowdens and the Frenches in this novella—who are too easily satisfied with facades and superficialities. As Dussander says on the occasion of his deceptive visit to the office of the guidance counselor in the guise of Todd's grandfather: “In my time I have stayed ahead of Wiesenthal and pulled the wool over the eyes of Himmler himself,” and “if I cannot fool one American public school teacher, I will pull my winding-shroud around me and crawl down into my grave” (165).
One of the perhaps less obvious purposes of Apt Pupil is to dramatize the confrontation between an intelligent but inexperienced teenager (whose German name means “death”) and an intelligent but far more sinister, yet “extremely urbane,” ex-Nazi (whose German pseudonym means “thinker”). King engages in a skillfull balancing act, seesawing the blackmail potential of the boy over against the psychological counterthrusts of the Nazi, highlighting differences in language they both use. What to the boy is “grooving on it,” “getting off on it” (i.e., the Nazi atrocities), to language-sensitive old Dussander is the behavior of an aficionado (121). At first the boy and his American slang seem to win out. For example, every time Dussander “tried to slip into generalities” concerning the atrocities, the “gooshy stuff” that the boy liked to hear about, “Todd would frown severely and ask him specific questions to get him back on the track” (131). With “absurd American self-confidence,” and pummeled by his own knee-jerk slang, Todd never studies the “possible consequences” of the memories he has stirred up and set aswirling (198-99). He acts like the “sorcerer's apprentice, who had brought the brooms to life but who had not possessed enough wit to stop them once they got started” (141). This insensitive, damn-the-torpedoes behavior on the part of an All-American boy, who had been raised by well-meaning parents “without all those needless guilts” (181), and got an A+ on a Nazi research paper from a teacher who never gave such grades, proves fatal. Once the sleeping specters of a pitiless past have been awakened, literate Herr Dussander reverts to Nazism again. “Nostalgia” for a history of gas chambers and hideous ovens takes over his whole personality (135), and like an articulate Red Death that might please even Edgar Allan Poe himself, holds “illimitable [verbal] dominion over all.”
What distinguishes Stephen King from a mere hack writer grinding out novels for popularity and a fast buck is that, in Apt Pupil, he himself never gets self-deceived by the clichés of his own conceptions. Though the subsidiary characters of Apt Pupil (Dick and Monica Bowden, Ed French, etc.) are entrapped by clichés, they are still multidimensional, much deeper than the bromides in which they so ardently believe. Dussander himself may be “one of the greatest butchers of human beings ever to live,” but he is no pasteboard Hollywood Nazi. He may scorn American slang and wince every time young Bowden utters one of his teenage “witticisms,” but every once in a while even Dussander “marvel[s] at the American love of jargon” (159).
Especially interesting is a final exposure to American slang that occurs at the end of the novella when Dussander takes the poison pills he has always kept in clever reserve. Beginning to grow dim with death, Dussander overhears the “quavering” but “triumphant” voices of some cribbage players using typical card-game talk: “How do you like those apples” and “I'll peg out”; and for the first time in his snobbish old life, the conceited concentration camp commander acknowledges to himself that Americans do indeed have a “turn for idiom,” what he is finally and sentimentally capable of realizing is “wonderful.” In his last moments, the childless octogenerian finds himself wishing he could tell his “apt pupil”—a kind of surrogate Nazi son—that “talking to him had been better than listening to the run of his own thoughts” (266). In reading these final meanderings, one must remember that the “apt pupil's” questions and answers had been mostly slangish, and that Dussander's conversation, though conniving and degenerate, was always literate, elegant, and graceful. On his deathbed, the old Nazi inclines toward the Americanisms he had been scorning for more than a hundred pages of narrative. He enters his eternity with the idea that he is somehow—in the American slang—“pegging out.” Of course, Stephen King does not resist a final twist of the ironic knife. Criminal Dussander cannot possibly “peg out.” For hands with “hungry fingers” were “reaching eagerly up” from his deathbed to “grab him” (like the wrathful souls of the River Styx in the seventh canto of Dante's Inferno); and Dussander's death thoughts “broke up in a steepening spiral of darkness, and he rode down that spiral as if down a greased slide, down and down, to whatever dreams there are” (267). As he dies, it is as if the tongues of the “unquiet dead” (the former victims of his gas chamber atrocities) were crying out to him their own colloquialism: How do you like these apples, Dussander?—his eternity being suddenly recognized as a nightmarish place where there is absolutely no possibility of ever “pegging out.”
Dussander's desire for “rest,” while dying from a deliberate overdose of pills, is disrupted by a fear of hideous dreams that the dead and damned might have to endure. His thoughts, of course, echo Hamlet's famous soliloquy, “To be or not to be”); and this technique of literary echo is typical of King, who sometimes—though not here—goes out of his way to specifically justify a literary allusion. The glancing reference to Hamlet's famous fear (“for in that sleep of death what dreams may come”—hardly an original thought at this late date) interweaves ominously into the wise sayings, banalities, and bromides that hammer away at Apt Pupil for more than a hundred pages. Dussander may be a former Nazi, but he is the kind of sophisticated old degenerate who would have read and in part probably memorized Hamlet, a Nordic play on a revengeful Nordic subject. It is consistent with his temper and flair for the histrionic to pass away into the “dreams” of death with a graceful Shakespearean flourish.
THE TARGET WAS A DEAD BOY
Nothing in the novels of Stephen King, not even the autobiographical parts of Danse Macabre, is so intensely personal as the two-hundred-word introduction to The Body, the third novella of Different Seasons, composed immediately after the first draft of 'Salem's Lot and exploiting nonvampire aspects of masculine identity—this time in teenage boys. The Body is supposed to be narrated by protagonist-novelist Gordie Lachance, who is the presumed author of the introduction. But the mask is papery thin, and more than once—by including adaptations of previously published short stories8 and by concluding the novella with blatantly autobiographical snatches (432)—the problematic psyche of Stephen King breaks through. From time to time, there are glancing autobiographical parallels even among other characters. In 'Salem's Lot, Ben Mears, when under suspicion of combined murder and perversion, quotes Mark Twain (who significantly has the same first name as Ben's young mirror-image, Mark Petrie) as having said that a “novel was a confession to everything by a man who had never done anything” (97). While such popular stories as “Graveyard Shift” may recount the terror of an actual descent into the basement of a rat-filled factory, The Body makes deeper psychological cuts into the “everything,” the “dreadful possibilities,” the “awful … unknown”—and attempts “to look the [subconscious] Gorgon in the face” (SL, 374). As the poet Hart Crane once phrased it, the “scimitar” of self-appraisal found “more than flesh to fathom in its fall.”9
Punning on his own name, Gordon, the protagonist-novelist of The Body realizes what a “thin film there is between your rational man costume—the writer with leather elbow-patches on his corduroy jacket—and the capering, Gorgon myths of childhood” (418). Lachance (though actually King) works out his word-problems more matter-of-factly than some twentieth-century poets, but no less poignantly. In “Burnt Norton,” T. S. Eliot believes that “Words strain / Crack sometimes break, under the burden, / Under the tension, slip, slide, perish, / Decay with imprecision.” Lachance-King's repeatedly stated anguish is simply that the “most important things are the hardest things to say” because they “lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried”—interesting sensitivity on the part of one who, under his own name, elsewhere explains that the “business of creating horror is much the same as the business of paralyzing an opponent with the martial arts … finding vulnerable points and then applying pressure there” (DM, 68). The tripartite appearance of the secret-heart motif (289, 390, 395) obviously indicates its sensitive importance, but one cannot help remembering the “life of careful academicism” (i.e., Matt Burke's in 'Salem's Lot) that “refuse[d] to plant an intellectual foot on any ground until it had been footnoted in triplicate” (299). The vulnerable point for Gordie Lachance, as also for novelist Ben Mears in 'Salem's Lot, is the secret self, the creative and sensitive nature that can all too easily be cruelly misunderstood. The secret self of alcoholic Father Callahan of 'Salem's Lot, for instance, was the effeminate face of “Mr. Flip,” his imaginary boyhood companion with “thin white face and burning eyes,” the “thing that hid in the closet during the days and came out [at nights] after his mother closed the bedroom door” (352).
Assuming a poetic and almost mystical posture, Gordie recognizes that “words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they're brought out.” Tellingly, this popular twentieth-century author of horror tales—for one must remember that King more than Lachance is speaking here—reveals his personal horror: that the “most important things … are landmarks to a treasure” that “your enemies would love to steal away.” Later in the novella, a half-retarded boy (Vern Tessio) tries to retrieve a “quart jar of pennies” hidden under the front porch of his house. Unfortunately, like Lachance-King's landmarks to a treasure that one's enemies would love to steal away, Vern's treasure map was accidentally burned by his mother (an “enemy”) along with old homework papers, candy wrappers, comic magazines, and joke-books, in order to start the cook fire one morning, and Vern's map for locating his copper treasures went “right up the kitchen chimney.” Vern is half-afraid that his crafty brother (yet another “enemy”) might have found the secret penny jar, an explanation that was clear enough to all his twelve-year-old buddies (whose corpse-searching activities form the basis of the novella), but “Vern refused to believe it” (297). Toward the end of the novella, Lachance-King will wrap up his secret in a symbol, a missing blueberry bucket, perhaps imaginary, belonging to a dead boy (Ray Brower), whose train-struck body is what the morbidly curious boys are seeking.
The momentary formula in the penny-jar incident, however, is King equals Lachance equals Vern, and this ought to be apparent to perceptive readers. But as Henry James points out in his “Art of Fiction,” too often such subtle symbolic parallels are likely to be overlooked. Therefore, the protagonist-author of The Body who has—in James's phrase—“reasons of his own” for considering these sensitive parallels important, continues more explicitly in his introduction so that the reader can “see it”: “And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you have said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That's the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear.” The entire novella is balanced and counterbalanced with this need-to-reveal versus fear-to-reveal paradox, and thus the ultimate revelation turns out to be nothing more than a blue symbol (the “blue bucket” that Gordie goes groping after in the incessant pursuits of his imagination [419-20]), timeless yearnings for meaning and understanding, perhaps not entirely understood even by the author himself—imponderables that the death-haunted poet Percy Shelley, in his Prometheus Unbound, sought for in the “unascended heaven / Pinnacled deep in the intense inane” (3:203-4).
Several portions of these fearful needs are repeated on the occasion when Gordie prepares to keep nightwatch for his sleeping buddies against improbable ghosts. What Gordie Lachance sees is not a “grotesquely ambulatory bedsheet” stealing spectrelike through the trees (38), but something so delicately ambiguous that one cannot tell, for an instant or two, whether it is girl or female deer: “her eyes weren't brown but a dark, dusty black”—“she looked serenely at me”—“my stomach and genitals filled with a hot dry excitement” (389). Deliberately paraphrasing Robert Frost's poem, “Two Look at Two” (except that in this case it becomes a boy looking at a doe—as it were, “one-looking-at-one”), the four-paragraph passage sounds Gordie-depths of Frost-like feelings of delicacy and sensitivity. King even exploits the implications of Frost's name when Gordie is “frozen solid” with fear and awe and perhaps even loving expectation. For a brief and ecstatic moment, Gordie has chanced upon his American Eden.
A similar echo (this time from Frost's “After Apple-Picking”) occurs in 'Salem's Lot when novelist Ben Mears compares looking at one of the avenues of the soon-to-be-haunted town to “looking through a thin pane of ice—like the one you can pick off the top of the town cistern in November,” and everything is “wavy and misty and in some places it trails off into nothing” (SL, 13).10 The Frost allusion in 'Salem's Lot is perhaps not so subtle as that of The Body, although in both instances the quasi-quotation is intended to emphasize delicate aspects of the male psyche, a matter of considerable significance in both novel and novella. Interestingly, both Ben and Gordie, novelist-protagonists in successive and presumably entirely different stories, are delicately drawn together through an allusion to momentary Edens in Robert Frost's poetry.
It is on the tip of Gordie's tongue to tell his companions about the sudden appearance of the doe and the wonder and astonishment it caused, but he ends up keeping it to himself. In fact, “I've never spoken or written of it until just now, today.” Gordie privately acknowledges in his novella what he never would have openly acknowledged to his adventuring twelve-year-old pals: that the delicate, or should one say feminine, feelings about a beautiful doe, rather than the machismo of actually looking at the mangled and decaying body of a boy struck by a train (obviously the main thrust of the story), were the “best part of that trip, the cleanest part” (390). All this by contrast with the diminished pleasure that literary success produces in a maturer Gordie of later years, writing being once associated with “guilty masturbatory pleasure,” but later—at the time of the composition of The Body—associated with “cold clinical images of artificial insemination” (361).
Nonetheless, when trouble arose in Gordie's life—as on the first day in Vietnam, or when he thought his youngest son might be hydrocephalic—he would find himself “almost helplessly” returning to that morning, to “the scuffed suede of her ears, the white flash of her tail” (390). Similarly, in Firestarter, when Andy Magee and his daughter Charlie have been pursued by the C.I.A. to a point of total exhaustion, Andy sees a large Frost-like doe “looking at him thoughtfully,” and “then [she] was gone into the deeper woods with a flip of her white tail.” Like Gordie in the midst of his fears, Andy, too, “felt encouraged” (127). As for The Body, what Gordie half hopes for is that the reader's memory will jog back to the time when (some thirty pages earlier) friend Richie discovered Gordie's hidden stories in a carton in a closet. Gordie expressed reluctance to have his storytelling propensities revealed to the other boys. “I want it to be a secret,” Gordie said—to which friend Richie responded, “Why? It ain't pussy. You ain't no queer. I mean, it ain't poetry” (361).
The Body is constructed in a series of episodes, each emphasizing some boyish secret, until in the final paragraphs, under the not-so-subtle guise of Gordie Lachance, King tries to give symbolic expression, through the imaginary blue bucket belonging to the dead boy, to what has been bothering him throughout a lifetime. The first secret is a place, a treehouse made of scavenged planks, splintery and knotholed, the roof of corrugated tin sheets “hawked from the dump,” and built by four twelve-year-old boys: the slow-witted Teddy and Vern, the quick-witted and perceptive Chris, and the narrator Gordie. This secret place contains yet another secret place, a 12 × 10 inch compartment under the floor in which the boys hide such things as ashtrays, girlie books, Master Detective murder magazines, and playing cards “when some kid's father decided it was time to do the we're-really-good-pals routine” (290). What the boys do in this secret treehouse is normal enough boy-stuff: complain about parents, play cards, look at spicy magazines, use off-color language, share jokes—behavior so common among teenage boys one almost wonders why secrecy is necessary.
Visible from the outside, yet hiding the activities and even thoughts of the occupants, the secret treehouse is a necessary refuge from the irrationalities of Castle Rock parents, especially fathers. The most brutal was Teddy's psychopathic father, who “shoved the side of Teddy's head down against one of the cast-iron burner plates [of the stove] … yanked Teddy up by the hair of the head and did the other side,” Teddy being, as a consequence, half-deaf and half-blind (292). As the author of the novella words it, “the thick glasses and the hearing aid [Teddy] wore sometimes made him look like an old man” (291). Chris's father was not much better than Teddy's, for Chris was “marked up every two weeks or so, bruises on his cheeks and neck or one eye swelled up and as colorful as a sunset, and once he came into school with a big clumsy bandage on the back of his head” (302).
Considering the often callous behavior of these parents, it is not surprising that their twelve-year-old sons entangle everything they do, consciously or unconsciously, in a web of secrets and ignorances. In addition to those already mentioned, consider that the malevolent parents are not informed of the twenty-mile adventure to find a dead body (301), that hostile rival gangs are unaware of each other's plans for the trip (301), that Billy Tessio does not realize his whispered conversation with Charlie Hogan is overheard by his despised brother (299), that Gordie remains unwilling to expose his vicious attacker (427), and that (in Gordie's story) Chico's affair with Janet occurs without his parent's knowledge (312).
Secrets confront secrets when rival gangs meet over the dead body of the boy struck by a train. The temporary triumph of the younger gang over the older (406-11) and the subsequent revenge of the defeated older boys (425-28) climax the ever-developing theme of manliness in The Body, and are reminiscent of, though perhaps somewhat more believable than, the teenage confrontation between feminine Mark Petrie and masculine Richie Boddin in 'Salem's Lot. The tangle of boyish secrets can be summed up in Gordie's words: “The story never did get out … what I meant was that none of our parents ever found out what we'd been up to that Labor Day weekend” (424). “Nobody knew exactly what had happened … a few stories went around [in the schoolyard]; all of them wildly wrong” (428). Secrets are interlaced in interesting ways too numerous to catalog here, with author-to-be Gordie becoming like that “benevolent spider,” the town gossip Mabel Werts of 'Salem's Lot, who sat at her window with telephone and high-powered binoculars “in the center of a communications web” (72)—except that here in Castle Rock, it might be more accurate to speak of it as Gordie's non-communications web.
The deepest secrets, however, are those encircling Gordie's poetic dispositions (so shied away from in the conversation with Richie), creating imaginative enclosures of horror from which escape is impossible. These involve not so much the discovery of the body of the blueberry boy, although the details are graphic enough to keep one awake for many a night, but the insidious accuracy with which poetic Lachance reconstructs the accident. The deceased is not found mangled on the railroad tracks, as one might have expected, but rather some distance away. The body is “down here” (that is, at the bottom of a railroad embankment) and “relatively intact,” with its filthy low-topped Keds caught in tall blackberry brambles. Neatly punning on “kid” and “Keds,” as though he were a poet, Lachance explains that “I could go on all day and never get it right about the distance between his bare feet on the ground and his dirty Keds hanging in the bushes. It was thirty-plus inches, but it was a googol of light years. The kid was disconnected from his Keds beyond all hope of reconciliation. He was dead” (405). Characterizing the nonexistent future of the dead boy as “can't, don't, won't, never, shouldn't, wouldn't, couldn't,” Gordie realizes how relentlessly the train engine had “knocked him out of his Keds just as it had knocked the [kid] out of his body.” Full realization was “like a dirty punch below the belt” (404).
Readers are, of course, permitted the opinion that the train's indifference to the life of Ray Brower was less terrible than the insensitivity of Teddy's father, when he shoved the side of the boy's head against one of the cast-iron burner plates of the oven, a cruelty that turns Teddy's bleak future into a living parody of the dead boy's “can't, don't, won't, never, shouldn't, wouldn't, couldn't.” Lachance's terrifyingly plausible reconstruction of the train accident appears with a complaint about the magnetic powers of the narrator's imagination: “a little mind-movie” one can have “whenever things get dull”—the trouble being that the little mind-movie-projector “turns around and bites” with “teeth that have been filed to points like the teeth of a cannibal” (404). Five-year-old Danny Torrance in The Shining has similar unnerving mental projections when a hotel's emergency fire-hose (like an insidious snake) appears to hiss out the words: “What would I want to do to a nice little boy like you … except bite … and bite … and bite?” (173).
The cosmic entity that cruelly shapes the lives of the young preteens of The Body (their many beatings, mistreatments, and eventual early deaths [429-32]) behaves like “some sentient, malevolent force,” some Lovecraftian cosmic horror symbolized by the “big icy hailstones” that were striking Ray Brower's face “with an awful splatting sound that reminded us of … [the dead boy's] terrible and unending patience” (412). Even more frightfully, the dead Brower's eyes “filled up with round white hailstones,” that, melting, ran down his cheeks as if the dead boy were “weeping for his own grotesque position” (413). (Dante employs a similar ice-eyed scene in the lowest depths of his Inferno, the “Ptolomaea” [canto 33] where the eyes of a treacherous reprobate fill up with frozen tears, which the hell traveler callously refuses to remove.) With consummate verbal and psychological skills, King often projects such “sentient malevolent forces” into the overwrought psyches of many of his male characters—forces that in Dante's ninth circle are a “wind” from the great wings of the diabolical Dis that freezes up the infernal slush of Cocytus. High school teacher Jim Norman in “Sometimes They Come Back,” senses this force as a “black noxious beast” in the empty halls of his haunted school, senses it so deeply that he “thought it could hear it almost breathing” (NS, 147).
Concerned with problems of masculine identity and feminine creativity, both The Body and the gracefully shaped 'Salem's Lot … were composed at virtually the same time and, taken together, are extensive in-depth explorations—virtual confessions, as it were—of the deepest sort of personal/creative insecurities in literate and much-divided modern man. Horror and mysticism, crudity and sensitivity, inside and outside evil—not so mutually exclusive as one might at first imagine—overlap and intermingle, in both The Body and 'Salem's Lot, to create two of the most powerful self-analytical narratives in recent American fiction. In both novel and novella, the literary scalpel of Stephen King cuts deep into his own trembling flesh (his much-troubled psyche); and the “patient”—if one might be permitted to negate a famous line in T. S. Eliot's “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”—lies painfully [un]etherized upon the table.” As Stephen King is himself both novelist Mears (representing light) and vampire Barlow (darkness) in 'Salem's Lot; just so he is both the novelist Lachance (living) and the train-struck Brower (dead) in The Body. In a real sense, both novel and novella are self-elegies; and no “Orphean lute”—in the words of Robert Lowell's equally despairing “Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket”—can “call life back.” Considered together, these two haunting narratives of a “body” and a “lot” may eventually—without too much fuss and embarrassment—take their place beside the “succession of flights and drops,” the “little seesaw[s] of the right throbs and the wrong,” in Henry James's psychologically involuted Turn of the Screw.11
“Red” makes a passing remark indicating that he too has been brutalized by gang-rapes in prison: “Am I speaking from personal experience—I only wish I weren't” (33).
Another interpretation is given by Winter, who claims that in Rita Hayworth King worked a “theme of innocence as effectively as he considered the theme of guilt in The Shining. … Red's story tells of how the irresistible force of innocence succeeds against the seemingly immovable object of Shawshank” (Art of Darkness, 105-6).
G. B. Harrison, ed., Shakespeare: The Complete Works (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1952), 1431.
In an afterword to Different Seasons, King explains the order of the composition of the four novellas. Coming from the author himself, one would expect this information to be unimpeachable, but in a footnote to his chapter on Different Seasons, Winter explains that the sequence of compositions was not exactly as King had originally reported it (Art of Darkness, 207).
Winter, Art of Darkness, 207.
“Denker” pretends that his first name was given him by his father because of an admiration for Arthur Conan Doyle (116). This is yet another name-game: Doyle's famous Sherlock Holmes, like the crafty Dussander, is a sleuth. Ironically however, shortly after this so-called Conan Doyle explanation of the name “Arthur,” Todd reveals that his mom and dad had given him a fingerprint set for Christmas, which he promptly used to discover Dussander's Nazi identity (124).
Richard Hanser, Putsch (New York: Pyramid Books 1971), 241.
“Stud City,” Ubris, Fall 1969; “The Revenge of Lard Ass Hogan,” Main Review, 1975. As samples of Gordie Lachance's story-telling abilities, the versions that appear in The Body have been revised.
Hart Crane, Complete Poems (New York: Anchor Books, 1966), 50.
Frost's line reads: “I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight / I got from looking through a pane of glass / I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough / And held against the world of hoary grass.” “After Apple-Picking” is one of Frost's most frequently anthologized poems. Author Ben Mears would surely have known it.
From the memorable opening sentence of Henry James's Turn of the Screw.
Stephen King 1947-
(Full name Stephen Edwin King; has also written under the pseudonyms Richard Bachman and John Swithen) American short story writer, novelist, screenwriter, essayist, autobiographer, and children's author.
The following entry presents criticism of King's short fiction works from 1988 to 2000. See also Stephen King Criticism (Volume 17), and Volumes 26, 113.
King is a prolific and immensely popular author of horror fiction. In his works, King blends elements of the traditional gothic tale with those of the modern psychological thriller, detective, and science fiction genres. His short fiction features colloquial language, clinical attention to physical detail and emotional states, realistic settings, and an emphasis on contemporary problems. His wide popularity attests to his ability to tap into his reader's fear of and inability to come to terms with evil confronted in the everyday world.
King was born in Portland, Maine, on September 21, 1947. When his father abandoned the family when King was only two years old, his mother moved around with King and his brother until they settled down with relatives in Durham, Maine in 1958. King published his first short story, “I Was a Teenage Grave Robber,” in Comics Review in 1965. He also wrote his first full-length manuscript while still in high school. King received a scholarship to the University of Main at Orono, where he was very active in student politics and the antiwar movement. After his graduation in 1970, King was unable to get a teaching job; instead he got jobs pumping gas and then working in a laundry. King spent a short time teaching at the Hampden Academy in Hampden, Maine, until the success of his first novel, Carrie (1974) enabled him to focus on writing full time. In 1978 he was writer-in-residence and an instructor at the University of Maine at Orono. Several of his novels, novellas, and short stories have been adapted for the screen and television, and King has made cameo appearances in many of them. He has been given numerous awards for his fiction, and has contributed short stories, essays, and reviews to several periodicals.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Like his novels, the majority of King's horror tales are characterized by something supernatural or unnatural invading the lives of regular people. In “Night Surf,” a group of six young people in Anson Beach, Maine, gather after surviving the deadly flu virus A6. They spend their time listening to the radio and coming to terms with almost certain death. In “The Raft,” four college kids on a raft are systematically grabbed and devoured by a mysterious blob in the water. Critics note that the majority of King's horror stories explore the lives and concerns of people who are traditionally marginalized by society—the young, the old, and women—a factor that is thought to contribute to his immense popularity. Several of King's novellas and short fiction touch on the confusion, anxieties, and insecurity of childhood. For instance, The Body chronicles the story of four twelve-year-old boys who set out to find the body of a man struck by a train. On the journey, the protagonist, Gordie, begins a process of maturation and self-discovery and realizes the importance of friendship. The novella was made into a popular film, Stand by Me. Another novella, Apt Pupil, focuses on a thirteen-year-old boy's discovery of a Nazi war criminal living next door. In the process, the teenager uncovers his own dark, violent side. “The Monkey,” collected in Skeleton Crew, explores the long-repressed anxiety of Hal, represented by a toy monkey that he believes is evil and responsible for the death of his childhood friend, Johnny. As a child, a terrified Hal threw the toy into a well. Now an adult, Hal returns to his hometown for his aunt's funeral, rediscovers the toy monkey, and is forced to deal with the grief and insecurities from his childhood.
Commentators note that King's short fiction is often overshadowed by the widespread popularity of his novels. Moreover, some critics believe that his narrative style and thematic concerns are best suited to the longer form of the novel or novella, and not that of the short story. Since many of King's short stories deal with the anxieties and challenges of adolescence, critics perceive such themes as memory, innocence, child abuse, friendship, and security as central to his work. Furthermore, the representation of women and the role of sexuality in King's fiction has garnered critical attention. Stylistically, his use of repetition and flashback has also been a topic of analysis. Some reviewers contend that King's short fiction is overly sentimental, sometimes derivative, inconsistent in quality, and obsessed with violence and morbidity. Despite critical opinion on his short fiction, King's profound influence on modern horror literature cannot be denied. Reviewers regard his work as an insightful reflection of the fears, anxieties, and obsessions of the late twentieth century.
SOURCE: Magistrale, Tony. “Ship of Ghouls: Skeleton Crew.” In Stephen King: The Second Decade, Danse Macabre to The Dark Half, pp. 86-99. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992.
[In the following essay, Magistrale offers a mixed assessment of King's short fiction collection Skeleton Crew and asserts that the stories focus on the same themes as King's longer fiction.]
When rationality begins to break down, the circuits of the human brain can overload. Axons grow bright and feverish. Hallucinations turn real: the quicksilver puddle at the point where perspective makes parallel lines seem to intersect is really there; the dead walk and talk; a rose begins to sing.1
All artists have personalities and distinctions that give shape to their art; no one is equally skilled at everything. Artists who attempt to stretch beyond their innate powers command respect but frequently risk failure. The problem is compounded by the vagaries of audience expectation. Every artist who presents work for public consumption has an image, and for careerist reasons must change it only with extreme caution.
I suspect that King's greatest achievements, like those of his early mentor William Faulkner, will continue to be his novels. While loquaciousness and a tendency toward looseness in plot are major liabilities in some of his longer fiction, King nonetheless appears to require a broad venue in order to best develop characters and themes. The short story is pressed to its limits in his hands; King's are often too derivative of blood-and-guts horror fiction, overly sentimental, or just plain silly. On the other hand, several of his short tales are paragons of precision and psychological terror. When a reader finishes an exquisite example, such as “Last Rung on the Ladder” or “The Monkey,” King's failings elsewhere in the genre can be immediately forgiven.
In Stephen King, The First Decade Joseph Reino begins his examination of King's first collection of short stories, Night Shift (1978), with the assertion that the book is “a representative anthology of Stephen King's short fiction with dramatic situations so interestingly rendered that curiosity is immediately aroused” (Reino, 100). Reino's assessment is also applicable to several selections from King's second collection of short fiction, Skeleton Crew (1985). Michael Collings and David Engebretson insist that Skeleton Crew is the better collection of the two, “more consistent in quality than Night Shift, more descriptive of King's versatility as a writer.”2
Skeleton Crew contains a wide and uneven range of material. In “The Monkey,” “The Raft,” “Nona,” and “The Reach” King has never been more adroit in handling narrative pace and psychological subtexts. In “Here There Be Tygers,” “Cain Rose Up,” “The Wedding Gig,” “Mrs. Todd's Shortcut,” “Uncle Otto's Truck,” “Survivor Type,” and “Gramma” his plotting is less exacting, his themes less sophisticated, his conclusions telegraphed and predictable.
Skeleton Crew, however, offers a representation of the major themes and issues discussed elsewhere in this book and given more elaborate consideration in King's longer fiction. There is, for example, work that exposes the dangers inherent in scientific technocracy and religious zealotry (the novella The Mist); stories that are representative of the science-fiction genre (“The Jaunt,” “Beachworld,” and “Word Processor of the Gods”); simple morality fables, like many of Poe's tales, in which acts of criminal behavior return to haunt the perpetrator, suggesting that an offense against another is also an offense against oneself (“Uncle Otto's Truck” and “The Wedding Gig”); and tales that are most rewarding when their subtextual properties are pursued: “The Raft” as a study of the rite of passage from childhood freedom to the terrors of adulthood, and “The Monkey” as a psychoanalytic tale examining the deleterious consequences of self-repression and guilt.
Reino makes careful note of King's tendency to link individual stories in Night Shift through patterns of repetition: “a phrase, quotation, theme, or question repeated with dramatic effect not unlike the well-known incremental techniques of traditional ballads on tragic themes” (Reino, 100). This proclivity is likewise evident in Skeleton Crew, as several stories carry a variation of the refrain “Do you love?” Sometimes raised as a terrifying self-indictment (“Nona”), sometimes uttered in absolute certitude (“The Reach”), the phrase functions within a variety of interesting contexts, and its potential meaning shifts in a manner appropriate to the context in which it appears.
In “The Raft” the question arises as Randy, the young central consciousness in the narrative, is about to be swallowed by a gelatinous creature that floats upon the surface of Cascade Lake. When he first poses the question “Do you love?” it comes from within the warm recollection of summers past, and his answer is affirmative. But by the end of the narrative—and this is in keeping with the plot's progression from Randy's response to a naive and simplistic college dare to his serious confrontation with death and loss—Randy's query, as well as the answer he receives, have changed in tone. His final address is to the hydromonster itself, and it expresses a desperate hope for a last moment of kindness rather than a dreamy wish for personal fulfillment. The answer, however, as if in Melvillian confirmation of nature's essential indifference toward the human world, is provided by a loon's scream “somewhere, far across the empty lake” (SC, 270).
On a more affirmative note, “The Reach” concerns another variant of the same question. Stella Flanders' journey into the Reach is not the lonely death experience that Randy undertakes. In place of his “empty lake,” Stella discovers a community of souls from her past—a society of the dead, who seek her not for punishment or out of malevolence but because of the enduring power of love. In spite of the cold and snow that surround Stella, her death is neither isolated nor painful. In fact, the conclusion of the tale indicates that her last journey completes the natural cycle of life and, at the same time, begins another one.
In addition to some variant of the phrase “Do you love?” lakes are a conspicuous presence in many of the tales in Skeleton Crew. In The Mist the white cloud that carries in it the mutant results of the Arrowhead Project comes in directly over a lake, as does the terrible summer storm that appears to precipitate the mist's arrival. The lakes in “The Monkey,” “The Raft,” and “The Reach” come to represent much more than mere bodies of water; they evolve into symbols for the unknown or the unconscious mind. In each of these stories the lake serves as a barrier to the protagonist's past or future that he or she is forced eventually to traverse. The character's physical crossing of the lake—walking across the frozen ice in “The Reach,” swimming the water in “The Raft,” or using a rowboat to get to the lake's epicenter in “The Monkey”—corresponds to a psychological crossing, the symbolic welding of two distinct eras in time (usually present and past). Thoreau discovered metaphoric correspondences to himself in the mystic waters of Walden Pond; likewise, King's Skeleton Crew characters experience some sort of transformation in their water crossings or journeys. But whereas Thoreau's lake usually signified the most affirmative elements in his nature, King's waters tend to mirror the dark side of the human psyche—its secret sins and lost vision.
The short story has one great advantage over the novel: its forced concision creates an intensified effect. Because it can be read in one sitting rather than over a series of days or weeks, the short story leaves a more powerful imprint on the mind. This seems particularly true of short fiction that is ever mindful of its psychological implications, its efforts to reveal a specific condition or personality disorder. The stories analyzed in this [essay] were selected not only because of “the grace and finesse with which they are narrated and their ultimate terrors skillfully unveiled” (Reino, 103), but also for the value of their psychological complexity. “The Raft” and “The Monkey” in particular are two of the finest examples of psychological terror to be found in American literature. In this present era of “slash-and-gore” horror films and fiction, readers who lament the passing of the psychological Gothic, fully realized in the tales of Hawthorne and Poe, would do well to examine “The Monkey” and “The Raft” carefully. Like “Roger Malvin's Burial,” “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” and “The Black Cat,” these two King stories are best appreciated as allegories of the human heart. Their terrors, although couched in highly personalized contexts, actually veil subtle truths about the dark realities of the human condition. “The Raft” and “The Monkey” underscore the struggle to prevail over forces that have, finally, less to do with supernatural phenomena located outside the self than with the mind's own destructive impulses. “The Reach” endures as one of the most optimistic and certainly the gentlest tale ever narrated by Stephen King. If novels such as Pet Sematary and The Shining pose a view of the afterlife in terms of Dionysian energies aligned with evil, “The Reach” offers a positive counterpoint: that death does not signal the end of human love but rather its perpetuation. The Mist, the longest work in the collection, continues the technocratic critique King raised in the early Bachman books, The Stand, Firestarter, and, of course, The Talisman and The Tommyknockers. Like these novels, The Mist indicts the misdirected experiments of a technology that is ultimately beyond the understanding of those who created it. Often cited especially by students as a favorite King text, The Mist moves as swiftly as a summer thunderstorm from the security of familial domesticity to the nightmare of a world completely upended.
THE CLOUDING OF HUMAN MINDS
With the notable exception of an albino tentacle that is severed in battle at the loading dock behind the Federal Foods supermarket, the supernatural special effects of The Mist are not in evidence for a full two-thirds of the novella. This is a remarkable achievement in itself, given that the characters and the reader are both profoundly conscious of a supernatural presence for nearly the entire length of the narrative. King holds his reptilian and crustacean creatures in abeyance to force our attention onto the tale's real abhorrence: the behavior of human beings who suddenly find themselves confronting adversity and tragedy.
Ironically, as the pearl-white mist shrouds the market microcosm in a soupy fog, those who are trapped inside unveil their true personalities. Stripped of their social veneers as a result of the circumstances in which they find themselves, the men and women of The Mist exhibit the full emotional spectrum of human responses—from avarice and immobilizing fear to unselfish compassion toward complete strangers. In the controlled microcosm of the supermarket, which becomes the scene of slowly unfolding levels of terror and the hysteria of mass despair, King measures the courage and coping skills of his protagonist-heroes.
Some of the men, frustrated in their helplessness, decide to test themselves physically against the creatures who inhabit the mist. Norm, Jim, and Myron, the stockboys, initially respond to the situation with a blind male bravado that is unguided by reason. Others, we are informed, “had lapsed into a complete stupor without benefit of beer, wine, or pills. The hard cement of reality had come apart in some unimaginable earthquake, and these poor devils had fallen through” (SC, 96). Brent Norton, the New York lawyer, on the other hand, refuses to see the cracks in the “hard cement of reality” and clings to a desperate rationality, even as he witnesses proof of the irrationality outside. Devoid of any imaginative capacity, he and his “Flat Earther” group are unable to abandon the complacent order that has sustained their place in the world. Norton's hyperrational stance in defiance of the novella's surreal developments is shown to be no more viable a response than Mrs. Carmody's emotional ranting. Whereas Norton completely shuts out the new reality occasioned by the mist, Mrs. Carmody has no difficulty accepting the changes brought about by its arrival. However, it is her medieval interpretation that is suspect.
Most of the characters in The Mist thus demonstrate a deficient understanding of, and response to, the adversity they are forced to encounter. For most, the reality of the mist highlights the failure of the human mind to interpret accurately what the senses supply it by way of empirical evidence: “Norton was imposing a mental gag order on himself. Myron and Jim had tried by turning the whole thing into a macho charade—if the generator could be fixed, the mist would blow over. This was Brown's way. He was … Protecting the Store” (SC, 73). The fact that the creatures who emerge from the mist resemble pterodactyls and other primordial life forms from the deep sea suggest a further connection to the behavior of the humans inside the food market. As Hitchcock's disruption of nature can be seen as a comment on the human world in his classic film The Birds, King implies that the bestial level of social interaction that takes place inside the supermarket is reflective of the primeval devolution occurring just outside its glass doors and windows.
Several of the characters, however, manage to face the mist without illusions or the need to deny their fears, and for them this communal tragedy presents the opportunity for personal growth. Focusing their attention and energies on the welfare of others rather than indulging their own terror, Hattie Turman, Ollie Weeks, Amanda Dumfries, and the novella's first-person narrator, Dave Drayton, cope best with the deteriorating situation around them. When Amanda and Dave decide to make love in what proves to be a final moment of quiet on the first night, it is a spontaneous act that underscores the need for human interdependency, the bond that is forfeited by the other characters who remain inside the market: “We lay down then, and she said, ‘Love me, David. Make me warm.’ When she came, she dug into my back with her nails and called me a name that wasn't mine. I didn't mind” (SC, 103).
Amanda and David, along with those who support them, rise above the self-centered arrogance that informs the attitudes of Norton, Carmody, and the Arrowhead Project, which is responsible for producing the monsters. The mist's very existence must be attributed to basic human negligence: the failure to care enough about the welfare of others and the environment we share. Near the narrative's conclusion Dave Drayton posits that “it was the mist itself that sapped the strength and robbed the will” (SC, 122). This is not exactly correct. The degree of weakness and lack of will that Drayton references is finally not caused by the fog; the real lack of will in this story concerns public failure to monitor sufficiently a technocracy that has been given too many tax dollars and not enough accountability. The culprits of the Arrowhead Project, as Douglas Winter points out, “remain as faceless and opaque as the mist itself” (Winter 1984, 100). The mist, then, is a metaphor for the clouded vision that inspired the Arrowhead Project as well as for the moral ambiguity that later engulfs those inside the market and leads to Mrs. Carmody's rise to power.
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF “THE MONKEY”
What does the little toy monkey in this story represent? This question is, of course, critical to unraveling Hal Sherburn's relationship with the monkey, much less the story's core meaning. Is the simian toy some sort of dark talismanic device that is a harbinger of death? Or does it maintain a more specifically personal connection to Hal? The tale supports both interpretations. The fish that are mysteriously killed when the monkey is entombed at the bottom of Crystal Lake would appear to indicate the randomness of evil. Yet the fact that the toy is intimately connected to Hal, linking him to his childhood and events that occurred over 20 years ago, suggests that the monkey is also some sort of psychological signifier to Hal's past. I wish to pursue this latter interpretation, not only because it is the richer but also because it stands in opposition to Douglas Winter's approach to the text as an illustration of “outside, predestinate evil” (Winter 1984, 227).
One of King's greatest skills as a writer is his ability to describe the terrors associated with childhood, particularly the shadowy guilts that frequently attend a child's initial experience with death. In It, for example, the personal guilt that is established after the murder of Bill Denbrough's younger brother becomes a motivating force in the older boy's relentless pursuit of It. And in The Body Gordie La Chance assumes the onus of his older brother's death in light of the cold indifference that characterizes his parents' state of bereavement. In these two texts King implies that for children the mystery of death is even more complicated than it is for adults, for in their confusion and innocence children often assume a measure of personal responsibility.
Drawn back to his “home place where [Hal and his brother] had finished growing up” (SC, 144) for his Aunt Ida's funeral, Hal finds himself highly susceptible to the unhappy memories of his childhood, which revolve around the deaths of loved ones. In his anger and grief after the accidental death of his best friend, Johnny, Hal had believed that a toy monkey was somehow responsible, and he had buried it in a deep well located on his aunt's property. Although the boy had had no direct influence on Johnny's fall from the treehouse, he had been both traumatized by it and, more important, filled with tremendous guilt. Hal had been both secretly relieved that “it hadn't been his turn [to die]” (SC, 147) and dimly conscious of how easily it might have been: “Johnny had been climbing the rungs up to his treehouse in the backyard. The two of them had spent many hours up there that summer” (SC, 145). Unable to articulate these feelings because of their complexity and his own desire to repress them, Hal had projected them onto the toy monkey—“it was the monkey's fault” (SC, 145)—and buried his own guilt, like the monkey thrown down the shaft, deep within the “dark well” of his psyche. This psychological nexus is supported years later when Hal finds himself drawn back to the “rock-lined throat” of the cistern, in which he sees “a drowning face, wide eyes, grimacing mouth … It was his own face in the dark water” (SC, 144).
The recent death of his mother-surrogate aunt, the journey back to his former home, and his current struggles as husband and father serve to reactivate all of Hal's submerged adolescent anxieties, which have never been adequately resolved. Thus, the monkey “resurfaces” from the well as Hal's past terrors are brought into juxtaposition with his present crises. Hal is “losing Dennis” (SC, 143), his oldest son, and his relationship with his wife is equally strained: “Just lately she took a lot of Valium. It had started around the time National Aerodyne had laid Hal off” (SC, 143). That the monkey returns at this point in his life is an indication of Hal's lingering childhood vulnerabilities. His insecurities about his career, his marriage, and his parenting are reminders of the powerlessness he knew as a child.
Hal's monkey is a psychological signifier of his repressed past. We have traced how his condition was exacerbated by Johnny's accidental fall from the treehouse, but Hal's initial level of guilt had actually been established years prior to that incident. The monkey itself had first been discovered in the back of his father's “long and narrow and somehow snug back closet” (SC, 150). Hal had felt the urge to return repeatedly to this closet, “trying, as best [he] could, to somehow make contact with [his] vanished father” (SC, 150). In an unnerving parallel to King's own personal history, Hal's father, “a merchant mariner, had simply disappeared as if from the very face of the earth when [Hal] was young” (SC, 144). As is often the case with small children whose parents divorce or die, the boy had grown up feeling as though he were somehow personally responsible for his father's disappearance, perhaps believing that his parent's actions were the result of something he had done or failed to do as a son. It is significant that Hal had discovered the monkey only after repeated visits to his father's closet and that the appearance of the toy had coincided with the deepening of Hal's sense of personal loss and guilt.
The monkey is thus linked to Hal's psychological disturbances, and each time Hal is made to experience death, his condition worsens. The sudden and terrible losses of his mother, his babysitter, his best friend, and his brother's playmate would have been difficult for any child to accept, even with the assistance of loving parents and a professionally trained counselor. Hal, however, had had no one to advise him on interpreting these tragic events, and his subsequent pain and confusion had easily been translated into guilt. Unable to sustain a barrier between himself and these dark accidents of fate (Johnny's fall and Beulah's murder) and natural conclusions to life (his mother's brain embolism and Aunt Ida's stroke), Hal had felt responsible for their occurrence. In the mind of this assaulted child, the monkey had become an extension of his hyperdeveloped conscience. His efforts to create a physical distance between himself and the toy had been symbolic of his own self-avoidance. For almost three decades Hal had repressed his guilt, channelled it into the buried monkey. As an adult, when Hal is forced to address these old, submerged feelings, the monkey resurfaces (in addicts' jargon, Hal has never gotten the monkey off his back): “There was the guilt; the certain, deadly knowledge that he had killed his mother by winding the monkey upon that sunny after-school afternoon” (SC, 159).
As an adult, Hal is in a more advantageous position to acknowledge and confront the deep psychological disturbances he misapprehended as a child. But to accomplish this he would probably need the help of a psychotherapist to bring to consciousness that which has been repressed, so that personal integration and wholeness might become a real possibility. Unfortunately, he never seeks or receives such assistance; he has only the unqualified love of his youngest son, Petey, to help him shoulder the psychic burden that the monkey represents. His commitment to Petey enables Hal to weather a tremendous storm (symbolic of his inner personal strife) in order to reinter the toy in “the deepest part of Crystal Lake” (SC, 167). Hal puts trust once again in his capacity for self-discipline. Like the well on Aunt Ida's property, the lake is another metaphor for Hal's unconscious mind, and at the end of the tale Hal's guilt is once more pushed back into its “deepest part.” Significantly, however, on this occasion the monkey (Hal's guilt) proves much more difficult to repress. Hal must risk his very life in his struggle to “get rid of the monkey for another twenty years” (SC, 169). While the story appears to imply in its optimistic conclusion that this may well be the case, any student of Freud would concur with Hal's own self-diagnosis: that unless he experiences the type of release that would be obtained by acknowledging and confronting his long history of guilty associations, the monkey and all that it signifies is “just going to come back and come back and that's all this is about. …” (SC, 161).
ALLEGORICAL RITES OF PASSAGE
King begins “The Raft” with this sentence: “It was forty miles from Horlicks University in Pittsburgh to Cascade Lake, and although dark comes early to that part of the world in October, and although they didn't get going until six o'clock, there was still a little light in the sky when they got there” (SC, 245). Thus he places the reader immediately at the heart of the story, revealing a hyperconscious awareness of time that lends a breathlessness to the narrative's pace. From the distance separating Pittsburgh and Cascade Lake, to the late hour when the journey commences, to the autumnal finalities associated with late October, the narrowing perimeters of time are made almost palpable for the reader. The syntax of the sentence itself—which contains two dependent clauses, one right after the other, that both begin with although—suggests the potential danger inherent in whatever action these characters have elected to undertake. Their motives are as yet unknown, but there is already a foreboding quality, conveyed by the opening sentence's suggestion of the deliberateness of the choice to venture out in spite of the ominous changes taking place in the landscape. This evocative opening also forms a nexus to the full symbolism of the tale's deepest meaning: we will soon learn that the characters featured in this sentence are in the “October” of their adolescence, on the verge of adulthood. Although we share in their naïveté at this point in the narrative, the opening sentence embodies the story's metaphor of chronological entrapment. These young people are about to lose touch with the great freedoms of childhood—deathless summers, irresponsibility, and personal immortality—as their futile attempt to thwart time's advance is mirrored in a growing psychological desperation.
What begins in the first few pages of “The Raft” as a whimsical salutation to summer (SC, 248) deepens into a highly allegorical indictment of the rite of passage into maturity. The tale is about nothing less than the transitional terrors associated with growing up in America. As a child Rachel recalls swimming out to the white raft, but once there she remained “for damn near two hours, scared to swim back” (SC, 247). The hydromonster partly symbolizes universal childhood fears, in particular those associated with the unknown. In this context the raft comes to represent an intangible transitional barrier that separates innocence from experience, adolescence from adulthood. Randy confirms this when he remarks that the raft “looked like a little bit of summer that someone forgot to clean up and put away in the closet until next year” (SC, 247). Just beyond the raft, however, inhabiting the deepest waters of the lake (which serves, as in “The Monkey,” as a means for visualizing the human unconscious), is the amorphous hydromonster—the manifest symbol of the imminent adulthood that each student must face.
The hydromonster, as “latent with symbolism as Melville's white whale” (Winter 1984, 172), represents the cannibalistic impulses King affiliates with the adult world throughout his canon. Moreover, the adjectives used to describe it—“circular,” “masculine,” “mute,” “purposeful,” “even-shaped,” “lithe Naugahyde,” “criss-crossing”—all suggest elements of containment and/or rigidity. I will have more to say … on the subject of how the adults who populate King's fictional world frequently oppress young people, physically and psychologically, and how evidence of this can be traced throughout King's canon, from Carrie to It.
In light of the broad definitions of negative adulthood presented in King's fiction, it is interesting that the one constant in the majority of his adult characters is their aptitude for betrayal. The young adults in “The Raft” come to exhibit some of the negative traits of adulthood in their interpersonal behavior. As the story unfolds, all of the relationships, same-sex as well as heterosexual, deteriorate. Randy and Deke have been college roommates for three years, but Randy does not trust his friend around women, and when Deke glances at Randy, “it [is with] more loving familiarity than contempt … but the contempt [is] there, too” (SC, 252). The two boy-men are similar only in terms of their mutual insensitivity toward Rachel and LaVerne. The girl-women are treated either as children to be silenced or threatened, or sexual toys who must always make themselves accessible. For most of the story the females are reduced to male fantasy objects, little more than breasts and bottoms, and they vie consistently for Deke's attention. Even in the midst of their peril, they perceive themselves solely as sexual competitors, turning exclusively to the men for any measure of comfort. Randy also discovers that his best friend and his girlfriend are lovers; they have thus betrayed both him and Rachel. Randy contemplates all this while trapped on the raft. At one point he acknowledges to himself that “the black patch on the water scared him. That was the truth” (SC, 252). Much is suggested in this double-edged association between the hydromonster and truth. Does “that was the truth” merely indicate Randy's honest acknowledgment of his fear? Or does it mean something more—that in the presence of the black patch Randy gains sudden, truthful insights?
Literally stripped of their clothes, all of the child-adults, and Randy in particular, are also stripped of their illusions. Even Randy's sole moment of comfort in LaVerne's sexual embrace proves transitory at best: she is literally swept from underneath him at the very moment when “the tactile sensations were incredible, fantastic” (SC, 266). Randy's losses seem to be orchestrated by, or at least centered in, the hydromonster itself. It lures him to study its “flaring nuclear colors,” falsely deceiving him into believing that “perhaps the thing could fix it so there was no pain; perhaps that was what the colors were for” (SC, 269). At one point or another in each of our lives we share Randy's blind faith that the world of adulthood will somehow be if not a triumphant experience, at least a manageable one. But the reality of the aging process always brings disillusionment and concludes in death, even as we try, like Randy, to believe that there must be some way to “fix it so there [will be] no pain.”
In the concluding pages of “The Raft” Randy clings to a series of kaleidoscopic memories from adolescent summers: “the feel of summer, the texture; I can root for the Yankees from the bleachers, girls in bikinis on the beach … the Beach Boys oldies” (SC, 267). These memories of boyhood, however, are no more a shield against the dark realities of adult life than is the raft an adequate barrier against the hydromonster's assault. The physical deaths that occur in this tale, albeit grotesque and graphic, pale in their capacity to evoke terror and sympathy from the reader when measured against the story's subtext of innocence betrayed. In his last hours of life, bereft of human comfort and anticipating his own demise, Randy learns what we all must in light of the harsh realities of aging: that the cocoon of innocence—symbolized appropriately in Randy's romantic urge to “say good-bye to summer, and then swim back” (SC, 248)—is lost once we have emerged from it.
DO THE DEAD SING?
Stella Flanders' 95-year-old imagination is death-haunted. From the beginning of “The Reach” to its conclusion, her life is seen in reference to those she has buried. In fact, Stella's reach has very little to do with the actual “water between the island and the mainland” (SC, 489); it is, instead, the spiritual swell that continues to link her to the men and women of Goat Island who were her family and friends: “Your blood is in the stones of this island, and I stay here because the mainland is too far to reach. Yes, I love; I have loved, anyway, or at least tried to love, but memory is so wide and so deep, and I cannot cross” (SC, 493).
Content to have spent her entire life never having journeyed across the Reach to the mainland, Stella is now an old woman whose past is more meaningful than her present; the island dead have been whispering to her long before she sees her first apparition. Although she shares an apparently warm relationship with her living son and grandchildren, for the length of the story Stella's only topic of communication with them concerns the past and those who are dead. Douglas Winter postulates that “When Stella Flanders embarks upon her journey, she understands what she is leaving behind in the ‘small world’ on this side of the Reach: ‘a way of being and a way of living; a feeling’” (Winter 1984, 10). This is not precisely accurate, for while Stella does relinquish the present and her commitment to those still alive on Goat Island, she does not abandon her past, as Winter suggests, but rather rediscovers it in her reunion with those she has lost. Indeed, although she maintains a connection with the dead that grows increasingly stronger in the course of the narrative, she indulges her recollections not out of weakness or morbidity but because they remain a conduit to love. This is why death poses no real fear for Stella; she knows that “it don't hurt … All that's before” (SC, 504). Her past is not left behind when she chooses to cross the Reach, as her “small world” is reanimated in contact with the island's dead: “He was holding his hat out to her in a gesture that appeared almost absurdly courtly, and his face was Bill's face, unmarked by the cancer that had taken him” (SC, 502).
The story's optimism is sustained by the nucleus of a small town, and this is critical to understanding Stella's attitude toward her existence: “I see enough of what goes on in cities on the TV. I guess I'll stay where I am” (SC, 492-3). Stella's perspective on her Maine home is unique in King's canon. With the possible exception of The Dead Zone, in which we see a community working in unison to capture a rapist-murderer stalking local women, King's general treatment of small-town America is neither flattering nor equivocal. In contrast to the citizens of the malefic microcosms of ‘Salem's Lot, Haven, Castle Rock, and Derry, the Goat Island inhabitants in “The Reach” take care of one another, view their neighbors as integral members of an extended family, and continually emphasize the importance of caring interpersonal relationships:
“Children,” she would tell them, “we always watched out for our own. We had to, for the Reach was wider in those days and when the wind roared and the surf pounded and the dark came early, why, we felt very small—no more than dust motes in the mind of God. So it was natural for us to join hands, one with the other.
“We joined hands, children, and if there were times when we wondered what it was all for, or if there was any such a thing as love at all, it was only because we had heard the wind and the waters on long winter nights, and we were afraid.”
Stella's appreciation that her own identity is inexorably linked to the larger social community reflects the more affirmative side of King's social self. In a conversation I had with him …, King mentioned that his choice to remain a resident of Bangor, Maine, was based partly as a result of his commitment to the community itself as a place that has nurtured both his family and his fiction. Although his novels and stories pose a rather bleak portrait of communal life in America, King's own personal feelings toward Bangor seem to closely resemble Stella's feelings about Goat Island in “The Reach.” King continues to give back to the town in which he lives: he remains an active presence in Bangor's political life, he has given numerous public lectures at the local university at Orono, he has supported benefits to raise money for Bangor's neediest, and he recently contributed funds to buy baseball uniforms for the town's Little League.3 Whenever a director seeks to film an adaptation of one of his texts, King always lobbies hard to set the film in Maine in an effort to share some of his financial success with his fellow citizens: “For years I've desperately wanted to get film crews into Maine. There are parts of Washington County where twelve weeks of shooting could generate more income than the place sees in a year.”4 In another man of King's wealth and stature, these activities might appear to be token gestures, but in his case they genuinely reflect his awareness of his responsibilities as a citizen and a human being.
In “The Reach” Stella Flanders understands that the only hope for men and women in the face of nature's awful cruelty is the degree of commitment we give to one another: “They stood in a circle in the storm, the dead of Goat Island, and the wind screamed around them, driving its packet of snow, and some kind of song burst from her” (SC, 504). Her character embodies a side of Stephen King that is seldom noted either in popular reviews of his fiction and films or in scholarly analyses. She represents the life force that sustains each of King's small-group relationships—from that of Danny, Wendy Torrance, and Hallorann in The Shining to that of the members of the Losers' Club in It. The heroes and heroines in King's fiction do not triumph as a result of their personal independence or complacent withdrawal from corruption. Their endurance is based upon the degree to which they have not sacrificed their humanity and upon their quest to find others with whom they might entrust their love. Stella Flanders never really fears a reunion with those who have died, because for her the dead wear sympathetic faces and retain the most important capacity with which human beings are endowed. As King wrote in Danse Macabre,
the horror writer is not just a writer but a human being, mortal man or woman, just another passenger in the boat, another pilgrim on the way to whatever there is. And we hope that if he sees another pilgrim fall down that he will write about it—but not before he or she has helped the fallen one off his or her feet, brushed off his or her clothes, and seen if he or she is all right, and able to go on. If such behavior is to be, it cannot be as a result of an intellectual moral stance; it is because there is such a thing as love, merely a practical fact, a practical force in human affairs.
The Mist, in Skeleton Crew (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1985), 101. All references to selections from Skeleton Crew hereafter cited in text as SC.
Michael Collings and David Engebretson, The Shorter Works of Stephen King (Mercer Island, Wash.: Starmont House, 1985), 130; hereafter cited in text.
For an insightful glance into King's relationship to Bangor's Little League, the reader should consult King's essay “Head Down” (New Yorker, 16 April 1990, 68-111). The commission King received from The New Yorker upon publication of this essay was donated to purchase new uniforms for all the baseball teams in Bangor's Little League system. Aside from being an expansive treatise on King's great love (and thorough knowledge) of baseball, the article also reveals a good deal about the author's fascination with adolescent American boyhood and the solidarity among athletes playing in team competition.
Quoted in Jeff Connor, Stephen King Goes to Hollywood (New York: New American Library, 1987), 82.
The Star Invaders [as Steve King] 1964
Night Shift 1978
Different Seasons 1982
Cycle of the Werewolf 1983
Skeleton Crew 1985
Four Past Midnight 1990
Nightmares and Dreamscapes (short stories, poem, and essay) 1993
Everything's Eventual: 14 Dark Tales 2002
Carrie: A Novel of a Girl with a Frightening Power (novel) 1974
'Salem's Lot (novel) 1975
Rage [as Richard Bachman] (novel) 1977
The Shining (novel) 1977
The Stand (novel) 1978
Another Quarter Mile: Poetry (poetry) 1979
The Dead Zone (novel) 1979
The Long Walk [as Richard Bachman] (novel) 1979
Firestarter (novel) 1980
Cujo (novel) 1981
Roadwork: A Novel of the First Energy Crisis [as Richard Bachman] (novel) 1981
Stephen King's Danse Macabre (nonfiction) 1981
The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger (novel) 1982
The Running Man [as Richard Bachman] (novel) 1982
Christine (novel) 1983
Pet Sematary (novel) 1983
Cat's Eye (screenplay) 1984
The Eyes of the Dragon (juvenile novel) 1984
The Talisman [with Peter Straub] (novel) 1984
Thinner [as Richard Bachman] (novel) 1984
It (novel) 1986
Misery (novel) 1987
The Tommyknockers (novel) 1987
The Dark Half (novel) 1989
The Dark Tower: The Drawing of Three (novel) 1989
My Pretty Pony (children's novel) 1989
Needful Things (novel) 1991
Dolores Claiborne (novel) 1992
Gerald's Game (novel) 1992
Rose Madder (novel) 1995
Desperation (novel) 1996
Green Mile: A Novel in Six Parts (novel) 1996
The Regulators [as Richard Bachman] (novel) 1996
The Two Dead Girls (novel) 1996
Bag of Bones (novel) 1997
Wizard and Glass (novel) 1998
The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (juvenilia) 1999
Hearts in Atlantis (novel) 1999
Storm of the Century (screenplay) 1999
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (nonfiction) 2000
Black House [with Peter Straub] (novel) 2001
Dreamcatcher (novel) 2001
From a Buick 8 (novel) 2002
SOURCE: Davis, Jonathan P. “Childhood and Rites of Passage.” In Stephen King's America, pp. 48-69. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1994.
[In the following essay, Davis explores King's treatment of childhood in his short fiction and novels.]
The child in adult life is defenceless And if he is grown-up, knows it, And the grown-up looks at the childish part And despises it.
—Stevie Smith “To Carry the Child”
Anyone who has read Stephen King extensively will find that he spends a large amount of time exploring childhood. Childhood to King is a magical time, a time when the world seems magnificent in its literal beauty, a time when a human being is most splendid because of ignorance of worldly evil. King recollects with fondness an age when imaginative capacities are boundless because they are not yet bogged down by the spirit-corrupting concerns of adulthood. This preoccupation with youth in his fiction becomes both significant and inspirational when seen from the light that King is writing in an America that attempts to desensitize its young by exposing it continuously to violence and sex in both the entertainment and news media, forcing it to mature at too early an age. Children to King are like lumps of clay on a potter's wheel waiting to be sculpted into the individuals they will later become; they are the most impressionable beings in the human chain.
While they begin innocent, not yet concerned with how they look or where they will get money to buy a new car, children still are forced at some point to exit the gates of purity and enter the arena of adulthood, which occurs through some initial earth-shattering discovery that causes them to recognize the imperfections of their world. For some children, the initiation may be discovering that their fathers are not the spotless, faultless men they thought they were but rather pathetic alcoholics. Others may find their untainted visions of their world clouded by a first exposure to a pornographic magazine depicting radically different images of sexuality than those which they'd been taught. King revels in both the pre-corrupted and corrupted states of youth. He feels that they are periods that people must return to in later years to complete the wheel of humanity; if people cannot remember both the magic of childhood before its corruption and the lessons learned during and after its corruption, then they will never be complete but will succumb to the evils of the adult world.
First and foremost of King's fascination with children is the imaginative capacity they have that makes them stronger at heart than the adults who claim superiority over them. While adults claim to be wise, they are ignorant to the fact that the imaginative atrophy often resulting from an inability to adapt to innocence's corruption actually limits them. Adults often can no longer discover the beauty in a sunset; they cannot remember the golden moments of childhood bonding, a period when same-sex friends seemed the most important aspect of being alive, and it is this incapacity to recollect these times that often leads to an increasingly burdensome adult life in King's fiction. Unless the adults in King's world can escape into the realm of imagination first experienced and shared with others in childhood, unless they can approach oncoming evil with a child's mentality, they are doomed to adult reasoning. Because evil in itself is intangible and cannot be reasonably rationalized, it is often both adults' adherence to their belief in reason and their insistency on literalizing reality and unreality that often result in a catastrophe in King's fiction. Only when they open themselves up to combatting evil from a child's perspective, one which believes in monsters and ghosts, can they openly battle adversities.
King's interest in children's imagination could be linked directly to his feelings on moral choice discussed previously. Adults are unable to see their shortcomings because they are too enveloped in a subjectively egocentric universe based on the rules of rationality. A child, who is ever open to the threats of vampires, killer cars, haunted hotels, and killer clowns, is not yet able to reject the thought of entering the world of the irrational. Clive Barker, one of King's leading contemporaries in horror fiction, says of King, “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” (63). Often in King's books, it takes the imagination of a child to cast away the evil that reduces adults to whimpering fools: It's The Loser's Club, a group of socially outcast children who possess the imaginative capacities to recognize the evil plundering Derry and therefore acquire the power to stop it; 'Salem's Lot's Mark Petrie, whose belief in the world of monsters allows protagonist Ben Mears to return to his own childhood fears which upon retrospection provide him with the power to combat the vampires quenching their thirsts on the small town; The Shining's Danny Torrance, whose childish imagination provides a welcome birthplace for supernatural powers capable of turning back the all-consuming evil of the hotel that has claimed his father; and The Talisman's Jack Sawyer, who because of his youth and separation from the adult world of reasoning becomes his ailing mother's savior while an evil adult society led by his malicious Uncle Morgan tries to destroy them both. The child heroes in King's fiction continue to increase, merely because of King's awareness that their innocence is the only hope for survival in an unimaginative adult world that is swallowing itself.
King often highlights the plight of American children by portraying an adult society that is trying to soil its young by stealing their purity. The sad truth lies in the fact that while children are stronger than their elders in their ability to utilize their imaginations in the face of adversities, they are incapacitated by their dependency on adults. As a result, adults possess the power to make lasting impressions—often negative ones—on their young simply because of both their physical superiority and worldly mentality, something Bernadette Lynn Bosky points out:
Children do not resist their impressions partly because they have not learned adult standards of sanity and already exist in a shocking and primal world that adults can barely recall or comprehend. It is a sad irony, exampled in books like The Shining,Cujo, and Pet Sematary, that children, who often understand the intrinsics of evil best, have the least power to change it.
While children basically possess the true weapons for survival—a productive imagination, a love for simple things, a gentle nature—they are often made vulnerable by an adult society that teaches them violence, hostility, and greed. In their vulnerability, children become sponges that absorb the impressions their adult society gives them, which King himself explains:
What is it about kids that they can look at the most outrageous thing and just see it and, unless there's a reaction they can play off, just deal with it? If a kid sees a guy that's dead in the street, who's been hit by a car, if he's by himself he'll just look at the dead guy and then maybe run off to find somebody—after he'd had a good look to see what it was like. But if a lot of people are standing around crying, then the kid will cry too, because he's got a mirror reaction. Kids by themselves sort of interest me that way; they seem to me to be the place where you should start to explore wherever people come from.
As King suggests, children learn from the adult reactions to which they are exposed. King's fiction which deals with the gap between young and old tends to argue that the negative responses children register from adults are those that are most often recollected later in adult life, serving as a basis for chronic human flaws. In The Library Policeman, a novella in Four Past Midnight, King speaks this observation through Dirty Dave Duncan's mouth:
I don't think kids know monsters so well at first glance. It's their folks that tell em how to recognize the monsters. … And when they went home [from Ardelia Lortz's terrifying renditions of fairy tales], they didn't remember, in the top part of their minds, anyways, about the stories or the posters. Down underneath, I think they remembered plenty, just like down underneath Sam knows who his Library Policeman is. I think they still remember today—the bankers and lawyers and big-time farmers who were once Ardelia's Good Babies. I can still see em, wearin pinafores and short pants, sittin in those little chairs, lookin at Ardelia in the middle of the circle, their eyes so big and round they looked like pie-plates. And I think that when it gets dark and the storms come, or when they are sleepin and the nightmares come, they go back to bein kids. I think the doors open and they see the Three Bears—Ardelia's Three Bears—eatin the brains out of Goldilock's head with their wooden porridge-spoons, and Baby Bear wearin Goldilock's scalp on his head like a long golden wig. I think they wake up sweaty, feelin sick and afraid. I think that's what she left this town. I think she left a legacy of secret nightmares.
The Ardelia Lortz that Dirty Dave speaks of is a stain on his memories. She is the embodiment of the adult world that strives to swallow its young. In the past, she had run the public library in town where children's readings took place. Once the doors were shut and the parents had gone, Ardelia perverted all of the children's favorite fairy tales into her own gory versions where the protagonists are killed and maimed because they are naughty little children. When the listeners showed fear, she took them into another room and turned into a monster with a funnel-shaped mouth that sucked the tears of fear right from their eyes; she sucked them dry of all the imaginative capabilities that kept them young, staining their youth with her corrupted adult vision.
Ardelia is central to the story because it is she who comes back as a ghost to feed on protagonist Sam Peebles' fear, one which was never resolved as a child. Sam's fear is of libraries; what once were places of limitless possibilities, places of magical learning, are now to Sam the manifestations of a dark memory from past years—the memory of being raped by a homosexual child molester when Sam was returning an overdue book to the public library. The child molester had claimed that he was punishing Sam for being a naughty boy who did not return his book on time. The young Sam, who, like children everywhere, was impressionable in his youth, took the molester's accusation to heart, and from that point on, had his childish fascination with libraries reduced to repulsion. Dirty Dave, who had followed Ardelia's persecution of the young when she was living primarily because of an adult lust for her, also admits that corrupting children was appealing to his adult mind:
There's a part of me, even now, that wants to sugarcoat it, make my part in it better than it was. I'd like to tell you that I fought with her, argued, told her I didn't want nothin to do with scarin a bunch of kids … but it wouldn't be true. I went right along with what she wanted me to do. God help me, I did. Partly it was because I was scared of her by then. But mostly it was because I was still besotted with her. And there was something else, too. There was a mean, nasty part of me—I don't think it's in everyone, but I think it's in a lot of us—that liked what she was up to. Liked it.
The combination of supplicating himself for Ardelia's body and secretly enjoying the corruption of youth alienates Dirty Dave from the children whom he had respected and admired prior to meeting Ardelia. His feelings about the role he played in Ardelia's perversion of Junction City's children is significant when put together with the other adults in the story who thrive on eradicating the magic of youth, a tendency in adults that Sam has difficulty understanding, keeping him from being whole. Because Sam Peebles had never been able to come to terms with the reality of his perversion, he cannot defeat Ardelia and the Library Policeman of his past until he can return to his childhood and retrieve the golden moments that were stolen from him.
Prior to being raped, Sam had purchased a pack of red licorice. The red licorice, like the library, had become a negative memory, one that prior to his manipulation by the molester had been a meaningful token of his youth. Sam defeats Ardelia and the Library Policeman by buying several packs of the same red licorice and jamming them into the mouth of the monster—which ultimately becomes a union of Ardelia, his molester, and all the negative memories those adults represent—that is trying to swallow him the same way it did his innocence. Because he is finally able to return to the magic of his childhood, using those memories to oppose his enemies, the adult Sam is able to reclaim a portion of the innocence that the adult world had taken from him.
King's stories that depict a conflict between children and adults may be seen as having their foundations built in the portrayal of the age gap as presented by the American media. Television and movies often portray the young as threatening to the adult world, something easily identified in films such as The Exorcist, a story about a young girl who, after being possessed by the devil, strikes out at the adults surrounding her; The Omen, which uses a child as the vehicle through which the coming of the Beast as promised in the book of Revelations is realized; The Class of 1984, a film that tells the story of a man's battle against a group of delinquent high school students who represent all of the destructive impulses in humankind; and the number of movies that portray youths and adolescents as wanting nothing but a good time void of responsibility—drinking, getting high, playing rock music, wanting constant sex (Porky's, Friday the 13th, Fast Times at Ridgemont High). The media has indeed tended to condition society into believing that the young are a threat to the adult world's standards of living. By presenting youths in such a fashion, the media has succeeded in stereotyping them. While these presentations may be seen on one side as reactions by youths who are fighting against their elders who are suppressing them, most often they are viewed as the mirror opposite: the young lack respect for the old and therefore suffer in failing to adhere to adult precepts. The sad truth lies in the fact that the media, which is run by adults, often does not look back on adolescence as a meaningful time but rather focuses on the tragedies that occur during youth: a painful loss of virginity, illicit experimentation with controlled substances resulting in negative consequences, painful pranks on vulnerable peers. Instead of portraying children and adolescents as having the strength and imaginative capacities to combat their adversities, American media has often presented them as weak, disturbed individuals with ambiguous identities who perish because of their helplessness and lack of moral direction.
King seems to be aware of the misinterpretation of the young in the media, and he tries to provide an alternative viewpoint by portraying his young people as being stronger than the corrupt adult world. Often in his books, the initial coming of age occurs when children first become wise to the several rites of initiation into adulthood offered by their elders. The optimism King has for American youth shines through in his belief that children have the capacity to achieve mature growth when passing through these rites of passage; more often than not, King's young people are able to leave their states of innocence with their heads held high and are strong enough to recognize the significance of the step in human development they are taking. In The Sun Dog, Kevin Delevan, the young owner of the Polaroid Sun 660 that so captivates Pop Merrill's attention, has the strength to determine when he will be ready to cross the line separating purity from experience, an ability to discriminate that shines clear in his recollection of a hunting trip with his father:
Bet you wish it'd been your turn in the puckies, don't you, son? the game-warden had asked, ruffling Kevin's hair. Kevin had nodded, keeping his secret to himself: he was glad it hadn't been his turn in the puckies, his rifle which must be responsible for throwing the slug or not throwing it … and, if he had turned out to have the courage to do the shooting, his reward would have been only another troublesome responsibility: to shoot the buck clean. He didn't know if he could have mustered the courage to put another bullet in the thing if the kill wasn't clean, or the strength to chase the trail of its blood and steaming, startled droppings and finish what he started if it ran. He had smiled up at the game-warden and nodded and his dad had snapped a picture of that, and there had never been any need to tell his dad that the thought going on behind that upturned brow and under the game-warden's ruffling hand had been No. I don't wish it. The world is full of tests, but twelve's too young to go hunting them. I'm glad it was Mr. Roberson. I'm not ready yet to try a man's tests.
These reflections take place when Kevin is facing the dog that Pop Merrill had released from the camera because of his greedy adult anxiety. This is a turning point in the story because it is this moment when Kevin must decide whether to turn the camera that will be used to combat the dog over to his father or whether to take on the task himself, a man's task that he had not yet been prepared to face while hunting at the age of twelve. Kevin recognizes that the present moment is the time to make that step, for where before crossing into manhood would have been done in vain (shooting a deer), he is now in a position to save both his and his father's lives:
The thought of turning the Polaroid over to his father crossed his mind, but only momentarily. Something deep inside himself knew the truth: to pass the camera would be tantamount to murdering his father and committing suicide himself. His father believed something, but that wasn't specific enough. The camera wouldn't work for his father even if his father managed to break out of his current stunned condition and press the shutter. It would only work for him.
After recalling the time when he was tempted to enter the adult world, a transition that could have been accomplished by aiming his rifle at the deer and mortally wounding it, Kevin remembers that he had in his heart resisted the temptation, knowing truly well he was not yet ready. The coming of age into adulthood occurs when he realizes that he is in a position to react like an adult, yet the magic of the transition rests in the fact that Kevin also understands that he is not stained because of this awareness but rather is in close enough contact with his youth to have the imaginative capacity to defeat the inexplicable atrocity bearing down on him and his father. While recognizing that his father is slightly aware of what is going on as the dog prepares to strike, Kevin has the inner strength to speculate that his father is still too out of touch with such phenomena because of the imaginative atrophy of adulthood. The combined abilities to walk through his rite of passage with confidence and utilize his childish capacities result in Kevin's life-saving effort.
The Body, King's tour de force of coming of age stories, also portrays young people as having the inner strength to make the transition from innocence to experience. After hearing of a boy from town who had disappeared after venturing out to pick berries, a group of four young boys embark on a journey through miles of railroad tracks and vegetation to find the boy, who they believe is surely dead. Along the trip, the four begin to realize the significance of their union in their search and are able to grasp the splendor of childhood bonding, which provides the catapult to accomplishing their task. Gordie Lachance, the story's narrator, acts as spokesperson for the group when he explicates his growing realization that both he and his friends are taking a significant step toward maturity in searching a first exposure to death:
Unspoken—maybe it was too fundamental to be spoken—was the idea that this was a big thing. It wasn't screwing around with firecrackers or trying to look through the knothole in the back of the girls' privy at Harrison State Park. This was something on a par with getting laid for the first time, or going into the Army, or buying your first bottle of legal liquor.
There's a high ritual to all fundamental events, the rites of passage, the magic corridor where the change happens. Buying the condoms. Standing before the minister. Raising your hand and taking the oath. Or, if you please, walking down the railroad tracks to meet a fellow your own age halfway, the same as I'd walk half-way over to Pine Street to meet Chris if he was coming over to my house, or the way Teddy would walk halfway down Gates Street to meet me if I was going to his. It seemed right to do it this way, because the rite of passage is a magic corridor and so we always provide an aisle—it's what you walk down when you get married, what they carry you down when you get buried. Our corridor was those twin rails, and we walked between them, just bopping along toward whatever this was supposed to mean.
Gordie's passage suggests that he and his friends have reached a point where they are prepared to traverse into the world of experience, leaving their innocence behind. The passage is inspirational in that it does not portray youth teetering on the “unstable legs of adolescence” but rather suggests that the boys are indeed ready to make the transition confidently. In the end, they are able to complete their rite of passage with authority. After they discover the dead body, a group of older boys wanting media exposure burst in to claim the body for themselves. The younger ones, realizing the trials they had to endure in achieving their end goal, use their accumulated strength to turn the interlopers back. Once again, King has presented a vision of youth that has the capacity to grow from change and heed the lessons it provides.
King also attempts to show in his fiction that children and adolescents are not always the blank slates that adults believe them to be. While King's adults boast a knowledge of the world, they are often ignorant of the fact that their intimate relationship with rational explanation gives them less an understanding of the line separating reality from unreality that youths in their imaginative splendor can access. King's young people, while still innocent, are indeed often aware that there are some things that they can comprehend that their elders could not even if they tried. In effect, it is the imaginative capacities that King's children possess that ultimately alienate them from adults. A scene from 'Salem's Lot that supports this idea: upon arriving home after visiting the Marsten house, where he hears the voice of head-vampire Barlow in the cellar, young Mark Petrie is greeted with dismay by his parents, who have been worried sick over his extended absence:
“Where have you been?” She caught his shoulders and shook them.
“Out,” he said wanly. “I fell down running home.”
There was nothing else to say. The essential and defining characteristic of childhood is not the effortless merging of dream and reality, but only alienation. There are no words for childhood's dark turns and exhalations. A wise child recognizes it and submits to the necessary consequences. A child who counts the cost is a child no longer.
He added: “The time got away from me. It—”
Then his father, descending upon him.
Mark Petrie comes home looking like he'd just been run over by a car, an appearance caused by his stumbling and falling while running from the Marsten house. But he cannot tell his parents the truth, because in their adult tendency to adhere to reason, they could not possibly understand or believe him. Mark understands and endures the ensuing interrogation.
Other examples of a child's interpretation of the world as opposed to an adult's can be found throughout King's canon. In The Library Policeman, Sam Peebles begins to make the distinction after observing a grim poster Ardelia Lortz had put up on the door to the children's reading room in the public library:
The door was closed. On it was a picture of Little Red Riding Hood, looking down at the wolf in grandma's bed. The wolf was wearing Grandma's nightgown and Grandma's nightcap. It was snarling. Foam dripped from between its bared fangs. An expression of almost exquisite horror had transfixed Little Red Riding Hood's face, and the poster seemed not just to suggest but to actually proclaim that the happy ending of this story—of all fairy tales—was a convenient lie. Parents might believe such guff, Red Riding Hood's ghastly-sick face said, but the little ones knew better, didn't they?
Peebles recognizes during a retrospect on childhood that there are some things that children can see in their vivid imaginations that adults, members of the “Reasonable tribe” never could. Likewise, in the short story “The Boogeyman” (Night Shift), protagonist Lester Billings begins to grasp his own lack of childish imagination that, had it been present, may have saved his children from the monster preying on them from their closets:
I started to think, maybe if you think of a thing long enough, believe in it, it gets real. Maybe all the monsters we were scared of when we were kids, Frankenstein and Wolfman and Mummy, maybe they were real. Real enough to kill the kids they said fell in gravel pits or drowned in lakes or were just never found. Maybe grownups unmake that world because we're so sure of the world's normalcy.
(“The Boogeyman,” Fogler Special Collections 6)
Up until this point, Billings had reprimanded his children for dreaming up the monster in their closets. Because of the separation between what his children believed and what he was not able to believe, Billing's ignorance ends in their deaths. The children who were able to understand the world of monsters were completely helpless to stop the one living among them; their only savior, their father, did not have the imaginative capacity to heed their call of distress. (Note: “The Boogeyman” is also interesting in its implications of an adult world persecuting its young. Billing's disbelief of the monster in his house also arises from his hostility toward his children, who, rather than being seen as a blessing, are seen as extra baggage. Prior to his children's deaths, Billings had come to think of his children as unwanted responsibilities. In effect, what Billings denies to be the cause of his children's deaths also arises from his subconscious desire to see himself rid of them.)
Although King often attempts to explain the imaginative capacities that separate the young from the old, thereby making children better prepared in the shadow of oncoming danger, he does not make children completely spotless in their understandings of the human condition. On the contrary, while King writes to show the differences between the imaginations of the young and old, he also explicates that there are certain awarenesses to which adults have access while children do not. From this perspective, while a child is often aware of an adult's misunderstanding of the supernatural and imaginable realm, an adult is cognizant of a child's inability to estimate human nature. This concept would tend to argue that a child, who has not yet been exposed enough to the evil ways in which the world operates, is vulnerable in his or her ignorance of adult human behavior. The following exchange between Andy McGee and his daughter, Charlie, in Firestarter suggests this important differential between an adult's understanding of the world as compared to a child's:
[at a Best Western hotel after Andy has rescued Charlie from The Shop agents who have just executed his wife]
“I want Mommy,” she sobbed.
He nodded. He wanted her, too. He held Charlie tightly to him and smelled ozone and porcelain and cooked Best Western towels. She had almost flashfried them both.
“It's gonna be all right,” he told her, and rocked her, not really believing it, but it was the litany, the Psalter, the voice of the adult calling down the black well of years into the miserable pit of terrorized childhood; it was what you said when things went wrong; it was the nightlight that could not banish the monster from the closet but perhaps only keep it at bay for a little while; it was the voice without power that must speak nevertheless.
“It's gonna be all right,” he told her, not really believing it, knowing as every adult knows in his secret heart that nothing is really all right, ever. “It's gonna be all right.”
He was crying. He couldn't help it now. His tears came in a flood and he held her to his chest as tightly as he could.
“Charlie, I swear to you, somehow it's gonna be all right.”
The difference in worldly knowledge between children and adults is apparent in the novel. Charlie possesses the talent of pyrokinesis, which enables her to set fires at will. Her understanding of her talent is representative of a young child's: she does not yet understand the power she holds within her, and she is often left in a state of disorientation after she uses it. Too young to understand controlling it, Charlie only uses the power, much as any young child would, spontaneously; she only uses it when either she or her father is in danger. The adult world, on the other hand, wants to use her as a secret governmental weapon. Because they recognize the massive destruction Charlie's power can inflict, the adult world (represented as The Shop and the U.S. government) tries to apprehend her and harness her wild talent. In her youth, Charlie is too young to understand that adults wish to manipulate her, much as she is too young to realize that things are not “all right”—a consolation that her father must prevericate to ease her tension. Only Andy, a grown-up member of the adult society, possesses this understanding that will take years for his daughter to comprehend.
King's analysis of youth does not end with pre-adolescent childhood. On the contrary, he spends an equal amount of text exploring life after the initial coming of age, which takes place after children have lost their innocence through an initiation to worldliness. He is just as concerned with the next stage of human development, adolescence, which actually serves as the void between the extremities of childhood innocence and adult experience. Adolescence to King may be the most turbulent period of people's lives because it is a time when they must develop their personalities without any firm ground to stand on; no longer wearing the pure skin of childhood, yet also not bearing the experienced colors of adulthood, adolescents are often trapped in identity crises. The development that takes place during this period carries tremendous implications concerning what people will become as adults. Susceptible to confusion about themselves, King's adolescents are vulnerable to adversity. Douglas Winter, quoting author Charles L. Grant, indicates King's preoccupation with adolescence by arguing, “In King's view, ‘the struggle toward adolescence and adulthood is as fraught with terror as the worst possible nightmare, and as meaningful as anything a grown-up has to contend with’” (SK 32). Critic Tom Newhouse provides what is perhaps the most accurate description of the dilemma facing King's adolescents when he writes that “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” (49). While a student at the University of Maine at Orono, King wrote a weekly column titled “King's Garbage Truck,” which appeared in the campus newspaper, The Maine Campus. In his May 21, 1970, column, the last “Garbage Truck” column he wrote, King said this about his own transition into the adult world after completing his required studies:
This boy has shown evidences of some talent, although at this point it is impossible to tell if he is just a flash in the pan or if he has real possibilities. It seems obvious that he has learned a great deal at the University of Maine at Orono, although a great deal has contributed to a lessening of idealistic fervor rather than a heightening of that characteristic. If a speaker at his birth into the real world mentions “changing the world with the bright-eyed vigor of youth” this young man is apt to flip him the bird and walk out, as he does not feel very bright-eyed by this time; in fact, he feels about two thousand years old.
It is implicit in this statement that even King, who when he wrote this was writing non-fiction, was weary of the tasks that lay ahead of him in making the complete transition to adulthood. Perhaps it is a realization such as this one that has been the motivating factor behind devoting a large portion of his literature to the uphill battle young people must endure when struggling through the crises brought about by fighting to understand who they are.
Finding a meaningful identity is perhaps the most pervasive conflict facing King's fictitious adolescents. The vulnerability arising from having no sound identity often opens them up to the constant fire of adversities being cast at them by adults and peers alike. No better example can be found than in King's first published novel, Carrie. Carrie is the story of an ugly-duckling with an extraordinary gift, telekinesis, which enables her to move stationary objects by merely using her will. She is simultaneously persecuted by her peers, who take advantage of her humble docility, and her religious fundamentalist mother, who interprets everything Carrie does as being sinful. While trying to discover her identity, Carrie's view of herself is continuously distorted by the ways in which her immediate associates react to her. Winter argues that “she is at the center of an ever-tightening circle of control, of a society laden with traps that demand conformity and the loss of identity” (35). Her significant others seem intent on dictating to Carrie exactly how she is to view herself. Yet while she is discouraged from asserting herself as an autonomous individual, she carries on with the human desire to persevere. She is granted the opportunity to grasp her femininity when a classmate, Sue Snell, takes pity on her after succumbing to the guilt from her involvement in taunting Carrie and forfeits her prom date, Tommy Ross, whom she persuades to escort Carrie to the dance. Carrie reacts to the invitation by making herself up, allowing her natural beauty hidden beneath her humble exterior to shine through, which stuns her adversaries. The peers most preoccupied with making Carrie's life a living hell respond by dumping pig blood on her when she is mockingly elected prom queen. When she returns home after wreaking destruction on those who shamed her, she walks into the second trap, her mother, who, believing Carrie had been out behaving immorally, rebukes her. Like Carrie's peers, her mother ultimately dies at the hand of Carrie's wrath. The results of prom night are catastrophic, and the tragedy lies in the fact that Carrie had finally summoned the courage to exercise her autonomy only to have her peers and her mother deny her that opportunity.
Carrie is metamorphasized into a monster by the society that tried to repress her. But all the while, the reader never truly views Carrie as an atrocity; on the contrary, she demands the reader's sympathy. She does not willfully conduct evil against others but rather is forced to lash back at those who try consistently to eradicate the one thing that has any significant meaning in Carrie's adolescence: her self-worth. Critic Ben Indick explains King's treatment of Carrie as a victim rather than as an aggressor when he says that “the heroine of Carrie, no more mature than most of her fellow teenagers, nevertheless tries to understand herself and particularly her mother. Her destructive acts come only because she has no way to respond emotionally and intellectually” (160).
Another prime example of a King adolescent who is pushed into mayhem is Arnie Cunningham in Christine. Arnie is the male counterpart of Carrie. While he does not possess any wild talent, he is similar to Carrie in his awkwardness and forced humility because of his lack of physical prowess. Like Carrie's peers, Arnie's never accept him but insist on keeping him humble. Girls will have nothing to do with him, thinking he is a greek with zits. Boys intimidate him because he is weak. Arnie even feels alienated from his parents, who expect him to follow the blueprint of his life they have drawn for him. When Arnie finds and purchases Christine, a '57 Plymouth Fury in which he takes great pride, his feelings of persecution are reinforced from all sides: his parents reject the car because they think it will keep him from his studies, and his peers react with distaste because they realize his fixation with it has made him bolder in his stand against them. His parents discourage his involvement with the car by prohibiting him from parking it in front of the house, and his teenage adversaries at one point pulverize it. Aside from Dennis Guilder, Arnie's one true friend, Arnie is under constant pressure to refrain from establishing any meaningful identity of his own—an identity he feels the car could provide. Dennis summarizes Arnie's plight and that of any other high school outcast when he says that:
he was a loser, you know. Every high school has to have at least two; it's like a national law. One male, one female. Everyone's dumping ground. Having a bad day? Flunked a big test? Had an argument with your folks and got grounded for the weekend? No problem. Just find one of those poor sad sacks that go scurrying around the halls like criminals before the home-room bell and walk it right to him.
In effect, Arnie comes to believe that his only purposes in life are to play both the punching bag on which his peers take out their frustrations and the obedient son who must respect his parents' wishes, even if those wishes conflict with his own.
As Arnie's attachment to Christine grows stronger, so do the lines separating Arnie from his significant others grow clearer. In an exchange with Dennis, Arnie discloses his unhappiness with his parents, a feeling not unfamiliar to many adolescents:
“Has it ever occurred to you,” he said abruptly, “that parents are nothing but overgrown kids until their children drag them into adulthood? Usually kicking and screaming?”
I shook my head.
“Tell you what I think,” he said “I think that part of being a parent is trying to kill your kids. I know it sounds a little crazy at first … but there are lots of things that sound nuts until you really consider them. Penis envy. Oedpial conflicts. The Shroud of Turin … I really believe it, though … not that they know what they're doing; I don't believe that at all. And do you know why? … Because as soon as you have a kid, you know for sure that you're going to die. When you have a kid, you see your own gravestone.”
Arnie's feelings of no way out—his despair in establishing a positive meaningful identity while under fire from significant others—combined with his lack of faith in people willing to form substantial relationships with him lead to his fall from humanity and susceptibility to evil. As Bernadette Lynn Bosky brings to light, “Arnie's feelings of great potential hidden by ugliness, of being unappreciated and socially excluded, pave the way for his seduction by Christine” (227). While Arnie does begin to understand Christine's evil late in the book, he still rejects the option to do the right thing—to destroy her—because he is unwilling to surrender the feelings of self-worth she has given him. Though he makes a severe lapse in moral judgment, it could be argued that he has been conditioned by the society persecuting him to dismiss any notion of brotherhood. In the end, Arnie, like Carrie White, can be observed as a sympathetic character even in the shadow of the mass destruction he causes because his downfall is the result of being denied his autonomy.
While King often expresses his sympathies for children and adolescents who are persecuted by a suppressive society comprised chiefly of adults, readers must not overlook that King is also making a call to adults that they may redeem themselves by thoughtfully looking back on their own youth and remembering the magic of those times and the lessons learned. What King is most concerned with in adults is their ability to complete a wheel: to begin life as innocent beings who are eventually corrupted by worldly evil who may then circle back to the period of innocence so that they may not lose touch with beauty of the human experience. Says King, “I'm interested in the notion of finishing off one's childhood as one completes making a wheel. The idea is to go back and confront your childhood, in a sense relive it if you can, so that you can be whole” (Winter, AOD 185). King fears that too often adults become so enveloped in the trials and tribulations of adult life that they drown themselves in the pools of logic and reason; in doing so, they forget the wonder of viewing the splendor and mysticism of life as seen through a child's eyes, an experience they must return to time and time again if they want to avoid being swallowed by the world:
Rather than indulge in a spurious attempt to recapture a social milieu, King's fiction often looks to our youth as the earlier way of life whose “swan song” must be sung. His stories are songs of innocence and experience, juxtaposing childhood and adulthood—effectively completing the wheel whose turn began in childhood by reexperiencing those days from a mature perspective.
(Winter, AOD 10)
Often in King's fiction, the dilemma facing the adult characters stems directly from two inabilities. The first is the inability to return to childhood and remember the magic of those moments. The second is the failure to understand the significance of an event that happened during that time period—an event that is repressed rather than resolved as one grows older. King attempts to point out that there must be a synthesis between childhood and adult experiences—that one must be able to interpret life by merging the sensory and emotional input that occurs throughout the cycle of one's life. In The Library Policeman, the main conflict arises from Sam Peebles' initial inability to return to his childhood and face the atrocity (a homosexual rape) that was dealt to him then. Until the end of the story, instead of going back and facing what happened to him from a mature perspective, Sam hides the memory far back in his mind. But without the synthesis between childhood and adulthood, he is never really whole. Rather, he finds himself trapped solely in one period or the other, as adults can tend to do:
[after the Library Policeman has stormed into Sam's house]
Sam felt a triple-locked door far back in his mind straining to burst open. He never thought of running. The idea of flight was beyond his capacity to imagine. He was a child again, a child who has been caught red-handed
(the book isn't The Speaker's Companion) doing some awful bad thing. Instead of running (the book isn't Best Loved Poems of the American People)
he folded slowly over his own wet crotch and collapsed between the two stools which stood at the counter, holding his hands up blindly above his head.
The reason the Library Policeman has come after Sam again is because Sam had recently failed to return two library books. Yet while Sam is cowering in the corner of his kitchen under the shadow of his intruder, the emotional salad being tossed in his brain tries to remind him that it is not only those two books for which his intruder has come back; to Sam, the Library Policeman is also asking once again for the Robert Louis Stevenson book he'd not returned as a child on the day the man raped him. Sam is bounced back and forth between the two time periods because he has not yet been able to complete the wheel and understand what had happened to him. Only when he is able to accomplish that circling back to his younger days can Sam efficiently battle his adversary. As Naomi Higgins, Sam's girlfriend, acknowledges when observing Sam's revival of spirit in confronting his enemy, “he looks like a man who has been granted the opportunity to return to his worst nightmares … with some powerful weapon in his hands” (576).
A similar situation can be found in 'Salem's Lot, where protagonist Ben Mears has returned to the town of his childhood carrying some heavy emotional baggage. When a youth, Ben had entered the Marsten house on a dare, and, after entering, had found the house's owner hanging by his neck from a support beam in an upstairs bedroom. Mears had fled from the house then and has returned to the present with that trauma still unresolved. This lack of resolve in understanding death is intensified by the recent death of his wife, who was killed in a fatal motorcycle accident in which Ben had been driving. Ben's predicament exists until he benefits from the aid of a child, Mark Petrie, who becomes the connection with childhood Ben needs in returning back to his own youth to understand death and dying. Ben then becomes emotionally equipped to combat the league of vampires presently spreading death throughout 'Salem's Lot once he is able to complete the wheel joining youth and adulthood.
What both Sam and Ben do in the end of their stories—complete the wheel—is elemental to King's understanding of the life cycle:
None of us adults remember childhood. We think we remember it, which is even more dangerous. Colors are brighter. The sky looks bigger. It's impossible to remember exactly how it was. Kids live in a constant state of shock. The input is so fresh and so strong that it's bound to be frightening.
As King points out, because the input is so powerful when perceived as a child, it becomes all the more difficult to recollect it as years separate adults from that experience. By making a mental effort to return to those days and recognizing the distance from them created by time, adults can capitalize on magical childhood moments by synthesizing the memory with an adult's perspective of life. King revealed this belief years before his first published novel in the March 27, 1969, “King's Garbage Truck,” written at age 21: “Somehow everything seems to get just a little dirtier and more selfish as we get older. It's good to remember other times, once in a while. We'll have to do it again some time.” Once adults can accomplish the synthesis, they will have taken a giant step toward becoming whole.
The need for adults to access their childhood and adolescent memories and observations resonates throughout King's fiction, published and unpublished. Blaze, an unpublished King novel held by the Raymond H. Fogler Library Special Collections Department at UMO, is a fine example. The story is about the life of Claiborne Blaisdell, Jr., an oversized man who has a history of criminal behavior in his adult years. Once a promising student as a youngster, his intellectual capacities were destroyed after a brain injury resulting from being thrown down a flight of stairs by his father. The injury caused Blaze's brain to slow, keeping his mind perpetually adolescent. His actions as an adult are correlative to a young person's for he is not cursed with the adult tendency to cheat and deceive. However, his limited intellect often leads to his manipulation and persecution. In order to console himself about the evil of the adult world, he reflects on memories such as the following, a time when he and a friend from the orphanage where he'd been raised played hookie to travel to Boston:
and they began to laugh with each other, laughing into each other's faces in a rare moment of triumph that comes only once or twice in the richest of lifetimes, a time that seems wholly natural and right when it occurs, but is golden and soft in retrospect, too beautiful to be looked at often. It is a time that is usually recalled in future circumstances that are bitter, a time that is wholly childhood, often painful in late-remembered truth. Blaze never forgot it.
The story creates a valid argument that Blaze's slowed mental growth is a blessing in disguise. It allows him to see life continuously from a child's perspective which enables him to view simple things with wonder and imagination. The best example of this can be found in Blaze's attachment to Joe Gerard III, a baby Blaze kidnaps at the prompting of the voice of his dead partner in crime, George Rockley. Although Rockley is dead, his spirit is recreated in Blaze's mind to ease Blaze's utter isolation and feelings of loneliness that occur once his only friend is deceased. Blaze kidnaps the baby with the intent of ransoming it, but soon falls in love with it in a way that no rational adult could:
The dawning of the child's possibilities stole over him anew, and he shivered with the urge to snatch it up and cradle it to himself, to see Joe open his eyes and goggle around with his usual expression of perpetual wonder. With no knowledge of Wordsworth or Rousseau, he grasped the essential attraction infants have for adults; their cleanliness, their blankness, their portentious idiocy. And with Blaze, this feeling existed in a pureness that is rarely common to parents. He was not bright enough or motivated enough to have ambitions for the child or to want to mould its direction. Like a naturalist with a new species of plant, he wanted only to watch it grow.
The story of Blaze is a prime indication of what King is trying to tell his readers: that it is important to synthesize child and adult perspectives. For while Blaze is a lovable character in his grownup state of innocence who can appreciate life in the way only a child can, it is his ignorance of adult behavior that culminates in his demise. His constant slip-ups, typical of inexperienced individuals, lead the law directly to him, and he is shot down in the woods where he has taken refuge with the baby. Blaze is merely an example of one extreme: the individual who can recall and perceive life through a child's eyes, and the one who avoids taking life too seriously. Yet, as has been explained, because Blaze cannot blend child experiences with adult experiences, he remains a helpless victim of a hostile world.
By thoroughly exploring the significance of youth in the chain of human development, King has succeeded in both continuing the theme as presented by his literary predecessors and commenting on the condition of young people in America. The concern for childhood and rites of passage can be linked directly to those American writers who made it a significant part of their fiction: Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Sherwood Anderson, Willa Cather, Flannery O'Connor, Joyce Carol Oates. The themes that pervade stories such as Twain's Huckleberry Finn, Oates' “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?”, and Faulkner's “Barn Burning” are the same ones that have had a profound influence on King's writing. Twain's Huck Finn embarks on a journey down the Mississippi River where his childhood innocence is constantly threatened by the adult world; likewise, King's Jack Sawyer in The Talisman ventures west across the expanse of America, a physical journey that correlates his evolution from innocence to experience. Oates' protagonist, Connie, is escorted away by evil incarnate, Arnold Friend, when she selfishly alienates herself and succumbs to worldly desires; King's Arnie Cunningham in Christine makes a similar departure after isolating himself from society while searching for an identity. Faulkner's Sarty comes of age when he turns in his father for having burned a neighbor's farm after Sarty had repressed the truth of his father's evil acts for many years; in a similar situation, King's Danny Torrance (The Shining) confronts his father after deciding he is too enveloped in his own selfishly evil impulses to save himself. While these may be crude synopses, the themes concerning youth that King explores with such careful detail are the same that have helped earn his literary predecessors their greatness.
Because King is able to present an image of youth that is both optimistic and sympathetic, he provides a meaningful counterpoint to the tendencies of the American media to stereotype youth as troublesome. In a modernized America where young people are regularly exposed to input that consistently threatens to corrupt their innocence, King's portrayal of youth should be hailed as nothing less than splendid. By writing about youth as a time to be cherished, King assures his readers that they are not too far away from avoiding the self-destruction that can arise from failing to grasp the memories and lessons of being young. Closer scrutiny of King's fiction should convince readers that youth need not be observed as a strenuous period of development but rather one of significant meaning; by returning to younger days and rejoicing in their wonders and steps toward growth from a mature perspective, Americans can save themselves from being devoured by the moral, social, and economic pressures that so often dilute the magic of the human experience with age.
The material covered thus far does not do King proper justice. If one were to accumulate an adequate amount of critical interpretation on the political, social, and moral subtexts of King's works, one would easily fill up rows of library shelves much like those that are weighted with critical interpretations on Faulkner and Shakespeare. The material discussed up to this point is an attempt to provide the reader with the knowledge that King is not just an entertainer—that there is more to acquire from a Stephen King book than just scares and thrills. As the ensuing sections aim to prove, King does not limit himself to any one area but rather attempts to address all spectres of the human condition in his canon, a feat that lesser writers of today's popular culture have been unable to achieve.
Bosky, Bernadette Lynn Bosky. “The Mind's a Monkey: Character and Psychology in Stephen King's Recent Fiction.” In Kingdom of Fear: The World of Stephen King, edited by Tim Underwood and Chuck Miller, pp. 209-40. San Francisco: Underwood-Miller, 1986.
Discusses King's more recent fiction.
Collings, Michael R. and David Engebretson. The Shorter Works of Stephen King. Mercer Island, Wash.: Starmont House, Inc., 1985, p.
Comprehensive appraisal of King's short fiction from early uncollected tales, through Skeleton Crew, and including later uncollected stories.
Davis, Jonathan P. Stephen King's America. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1994, 183 p.
Surveys the major thematic concerns in King's short fiction and novels and includes several interviews with King.
Elliott, Stuart. “Stephen King's New Collection of Short Stories is On the Beam, Literally, to Would-Be Buyers.” New York Times (19 March 2002): C6.
Addresses the unique marketing strategies of the collection Everything's Eventual: 14 Dark Tales.
Review of Everything's Eventual: 14 Dark Tales, by Stephen King. Kirkus Reviews 70, no. 5 (1 March 2002): 281.
Claims “King remains strong in the short form.”
Kirn, Walter. “The Horror! Etc.: A Collection of Short Fiction by Stephen King.” New York Times (14 April 2002): section 7, p. 6.
Comments on the literary status of King through the publication of Everything's Eventual: 14 Dark Tales.
Leayman, Charles. “Another King Movie Mistake: Graveyard Shift.” Cinefantastique 21, no. 4 (February 1991): 50.
Negative review of the movie version of “Graveyard Shift.”
Maslin, Janet. “Storytelling Mogul Decides to Sweep Out Odds and Ends.” New York Times (18 March 2002): E7.
Prefers the “sleepers” of Everything's Eventual: 14 Dark Tales to those published in the New Yorker.
McNicol, Nancy. Review of Everything's Eventual: 14 Dark Tales, by Stephen King. Library Journal 127 no. 6 (1 April 2002): 144.
Cites Everything's Eventual: 14 Dark Tales as “a milestone in compilations of King's shorter works.”
“H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King: A Pair of New Englanders.” Niekas 45 (July 1998): 14-17.
Outlines the New England regionalism of King and Lovecraft.
“Analysis of the Fear Factor in Stephen King's ‘The Man Who Loved Flowers.’” Niekas 45 (July 1998): 18-19, 32.
Centers on the role of fear in a King story.
Nolan, William F. “The Good Fabric: Of Night Shifts and Skeleton Crews.” In Kingdom of Fear: The World of Stephen King, edited by Tim Underwood and Chuck Miller, pp. 99-108. San Francisco: Underwood-Miller, 1986.
Assesses the short fiction collections Night Shift and Skeleton Crew.
Peterson, Thane. “Why Stephen King Rules.” Business Week Online (23 April 2002).
Praises Everything's Eventual: 14 Dark Tales.
Punter, David. Stephen King: “Problems of Recollection and Construction.” LIT 5, no. 1 (1994): 67-82.
Discusses King's exploration of childhood anxieties.
Review of Everything's Eventual: 14 Dark Tales, by Stephen King. Publishers Weekly 249, no. 11 (18 March 2002): 73.
Positive review of Everything's Eventual: 14 Dark Tales.
Scapperotti, Dan. “The Twilight Zone Revisited: Stephen King's ‘The Langoliers’.” Cinefantastique 26, no. 5 (August 1995): 51, 53-4.
Describes the adaptation of The Langoliers to television.
Skal, David J. “The Dance of Dearth: Horror in the Eighties.” The New York Review of Science Fiction, no. 52 (December 1992): 1, 10-16.
Reprinted chapter from Skal's book The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horrors discussing King in terms of popular culture.
“Morality in the Horror Fiction of Stephen King.” Studies in Weird Fiction 22 (winter 1998): 29-33.
Details the ethical principals of King's fiction.
Wood, Gary. “Stephen King's Graveyard Shift: Halloween Kicks Off King Triple Bill Shocks.” Cinefantastique 21, no. 3 (December 1990): 8.
Discusses the film adaptation of “Graveyard Shift,” a story from King's Night Shift.
Wood, Gary. “Whatever Happened to Apt Pupil?” Cinefantastique 21, no. 4 (February 1991): 35-7.
Chronicles the unsuccessful initial attempt to bring Apt Pupil to the screen.
Additional coverage of King's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 5; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vols. 1, 17; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 2; Bestsellers, Vol. 90:1; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61-64; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 1, 30, 52, 76; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 12, 26, 37, 61, 113; Contemporary Popular Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 143; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1980; DISCovering Authors Modules: Novelists and Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Junior DISCovering Authors; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 5; Major Twentieth Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers;St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers;Short Story Criticism, Vol. 17; and Something About the Author, Vols. 9, 55.
SOURCE: Cassuto, Leonard. “Repulsive Attractions: ‘The Raft,’ the Vagina Dentata, and the Slasher Formula.” In Imagining the Worst: Stephen King and the Representation of Women, edited by Kathleen Margaret Lant and Theresa Thompson, pp. 61-78. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.
[In the following essay, Cassuto finds parallels between “The Raft” and the slasher-film genre, and views the mysterious monster in the story as an embodiment of the vagina dentata.]
“Twice-told tales” occupy a time-honored place in American literature, but Stephen King's “The Raft” deserves attention as a twice-written one. King himself was so haunted by his own creation that he rewrote the story from memory in 1981, thirteen years after first devising it. (He had published it in an obscure skin magazine in 1968 as “The Float,” but he never located a copy and later discovered that he had lost the original typescript.) From his brief account of the story's composition, it's clear that King rewrote it because he wanted to read it himself, presumably because—to use his own phrase—it pushed his “horror-button” as hard as it does those of his readers (Danse Macabre, 273).1
I want to consider the lingering power of “The Raft” in terms of its genre conventions and central symbol. The story is a simple one: Four reckless college students (two men and two women) decide to defy the onset of autumn by driving out to an isolated lake forty miles from campus and swimming out to the raft anchored there. They are followed in the water by a mysterious, floating black spot that lurks alongside the raft. The spot tracks their movements, lures them with flashing colors, and takes advantage of their carelessness to pull them into the water one by one and devour them with gory rapacity. The story ends with the last character, Randy, standing cold and alone on the raft, unable to sit or lie down (if he does, the spot will slide underneath the raft and grab him through the cracks between the boards). Exhausted and despairing, Randy is about to give up and allow himself to be drawn into the water to be absorbed. The black spot is never explained.
The plot and setting of “The Raft” closely follow those of the slasher film, an unsubtle genre of horror, very popular in recent years, that typically features a killer who punishes adolescent sexuality with hideous, unconscious-driven aggression (drills, knives, axes, chain saws). But unlike the invariably phallic killers of Halloween, Friday the 13th and their ilk, the punishing monster in this case has a distinctly female quality, and the final character it stalks is a young man rather than the woman who survives in countless movies. The black spot that mesmerizes Randy—and that will shortly kill him as it has killed everyone else in the story—is a potent, archetypal female symbol. It is the vagina dentata: the womb that devours. In the pages that follow, I consider “The Raft” as a slasher narrative with an unusual hero (a male), an unusual monster (a “female”), and an unusual outcome (everybody dies). In the end, I will argue that the story stands as Stephen King's obliquely self-conscious, unusually deep and honest commentary on the attraction of formula-driven horror.
“THE RAFT” AND THE VAGINA DENTATA
When asked in a 1982 interview about his greatest sexual fear, Stephen King replied, “The vagina dentata, the vagina with teeth. The story where you were making love to a woman and it just slammed shut and cut your penis off. That'd do it” (Bare Bones, 189). King's fear has a lot of precedent, for the toothed vagina is an image that is found in numerous myths across cultures. It appears in various accounts as a “barred and dangerous entrance” that nonetheless holds great allure for the men who seek to enter it. Defanging the toothed vagina has generally been depicted in myth as an heroic act of male courage, a brave risk taken to bring safe reproduction to society. Akin to the vagina dentata is the so-called “bottomless lake,” the womb that swallows men and makes them disappear. This image too is a staple of myth and folklore; its connection to castration anxiety is clear if only from the fact that its victims are always male.2
The black spot in “The Raft” is a voracious vagina dentata that engulfs its victims and rips them apart. The death of Randy's roommate Deke, for example, is rife with sexual connotation. Literally pulled “into the crack” between the boards of the raft, his body becomes “hard as Carrara marble,” a “big tree,” that is “purple” and “bulging” as it “disappear[s]” (259-60). Deke's “swelled” face is that of “a man being clutched in a bear hug of monstrous and unknowable force” (260, 261). He screams with pain at first, but his final utterances are “thick, syrupy grunts” (260) that might, in another setting, signify orgasm. They are followed by an ejaculation of sorts: “a great jet of blood, so thick it was almost solid” that forces itself from his mouth (260). Deke dies after that, and his body “collapse[s] forward,” as the spot makes “sucking sounds” from under the raft (261). Finally, as his dead torso is slowly forced through the crack, there comes “a sound like strong teeth crunching up a mouthful of candy jawbreakers” (262).
Freudian psychoanalysis is strangely silent about the vagina dentata and the fear of the castrating woman generally. Among the work of later psychoanalysts, Karen Horney's important 1932 essay, “The Dread of Woman,” has provided a useful starting point for modern theorists to analyze the image. Horney argues that masculine desire of woman is intertwined with a deep fear of her, a fear that the man seeks to expunge by objectifying it. Horney suggests that even the male “glorification of women has its source not only in his cravings for love, but also in his desire to conceal his dread” (136). This dread, says Horney, does not lie solely in the fact that woman has been castrated (which is the basis for Freud's explanation). Instead, “there must be a further dread, the object of which is the woman or the female genital” (137).
Horney sees a key link between sexual desire and a desire to return to the womb: “Does the man feel, side by side with his desire to conquer, a secret longing for extinction in the act of reunion with the woman (mother)?” (139). In diagram form, her argument would look something like this:
sex = death = reincorporation/reunion with mother
In Horney's developmental equation, early castration anxiety (exemplified by the vagina dentata) can lead in adulthood to an uncanny fear of the mystery of motherhood.3 This latter sense of mystery encompasses a desire to return to the womb (here, the bottomless lake), a re-union that necessarily implies a loss of individuation, or death. Horney suggests that this desire may provide the basis for Freud's death-instinct, the subject's desire for the ultimate unity to be found in self-extinction.
Horney's two central postulates, that the male dread of woman can spring from early fear of castration and then later from fear of motherhood, form the conceptual basis for Barbara Creed's interesting recent work, The Monstrous-Feminine. Building on Horney's work and applying it specifically to horror cinema, Creed describes the vagina dentata as the “mouth of hell” (106), an image of woman as castrator that embodies unconscious male fears and fantasies about the female genitals. She argues that Freud represses the possibility of the castrating female as a fearful object because of his desire to promote the phallocentric view of woman as frightening because she is castrated. To Creed, “woman also terrifies because man endows her with imaginary powers of castration” (87). She sees the castrating woman as playing a powerfully ambivalent role in the Oedipal equation, expressing the conflicting unconscious feelings that accompany the child's breaking away from the mother. Following Horney, Creed sees this conflict reflected in the simultaneous fear of castration by the mother and the desire for sexual union with her.4 This combination of unconscious fear and desire is expressed in the consumption of horror, an urge that reflects a “morbid desire to see as much as possible of the unimaginable” (29). The nature of horror (that is, its traffic in death and dismemberment) “allow[s] for an explicit representation of man's castration anxieties” (155).
The vagina dentata powerfully embodies these anxieties, and “The Raft” gives affecting expression to them in a generic setting. The black spot is variously described as “humped up” and “stuffing the cracks” (263, 265). Its abundantly bloody killings support the mythical and psychological arguments for the uncanniness of menstrual blood. Yet for all of its gruesome appetites, the spot also allures; its colors reduce Rachel to “trembling wonder” before she succumbs to them, and they make Randy “loopy” (258).
On its most basic level, “The Raft” is an Oedipal nightmare of the castrating mother. The story enacts an elemental struggle between child and parent, with the spot representing the mother who reasserts parental authority over her children who have strayed from the correct path. On campus (where the story opens), the young people pursue their wanton and slovenly ways away from parental influence by drinking, having sex, and acting in otherwise undisciplined fashion. (The narrator comments on the poor housekeeping by the men, Randy and Deke, who let food fester in their refrigerator ; the women, Rachel and LaVerne, come over on a Tuesday afternoon to lie around and drink beer.) But when they leave their own surroundings and go to the “Terrible Place,” the ancient order (the Parental Law) takes control and punishes all misbehavior.5
“The Raft” makes undisciplined sexuality into a capital crime. This notion is not new; in particular, there is important precedent in fairy tales for imagining it as one. “Little Red Riding Hood,” for example, has been read by Bruno Bettelheim as a parable whose message is caution: Good children shouldn't leave the path before they're able to take care of themselves in the dark, sexual woods.6 If they do, they'll get eaten. To Bettelheim, the tale enacts a “‘deathly’ fascination with sex” (176); he gives particular emphasis to the redness of the girl's hood and the hair of the wolf. (The cover illustration by Gustave Dore that adorns Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment is of a young girl—Little Red—in bed with a mean-looking wolf in a bonnet. The girl is apparently naked under the covers, wearing an equivocal expression.) Bettelheim's broad thesis is that fairy tales offer children a chance to work through their unconscious fears and desires in an imaginative setting that always leaves them “happily ever after” at the end. In the case of “Little Red Riding Hood,” these unconscious thoughts center on the alluring menace of sexual awakening. Like virtually all fairy tales, “Little Red Riding Hood” can easily be framed as a horror story, and in fact has recently been filmed as one.7 Moreover, Creed cites “Little Red Riding Hood” as a story that invokes the vagina dentata.8 And finally, “The Raft” bears a strong structural resemblance to “Little Red Riding Hood”: The characters go literally off the path (eight miles down a back road) in order to indulge their sexual urges, and as a result, they get swallowed up.
Bettelheim says that “Premature sexuality is a regressive experience” that causes the immature subject to fall back on Oedipal coping mechanisms (173). The ultimate Oedipal regression is a return to mother, a reunion fraught with mingled fear and desire. King puts this uneasy mixture of unconscious feelings on full display out on the raft. When Randy stands alone facing the black spot after all of his friends have died, he hears the spot whispering mother-love to him in a voice he hears in his mind, amidst his own wandering memories of cars and baseball games. It is the voice of (re)incorporation: “I love do you love” (269). Randy responds to the voice as a child, weeping and begging, “Go away, please, go anywhere, but leave me alone. I don't love you” (269).
But predictably, Randy's fear and aversion are interlaced with curiosity and desire. The spot hypnotizes with blending colors and “rich, inward-turning spirals” on its surface (253) that lure Rachel to her death, and which Randy resists only by literally punching himself in the face (258). Even after watching his friends die, when Randy looks at the spot squeezing up between the cracks between the boards of the raft, reaching for him, he “wonder[s] what the stuff would feel like when it flowed over his feet, when it hooked into him” (263). And when, at the story's end, Randy is near to giving in to the lures and long siege by the black spot, he hears the voice in his head welcoming him into an ultimate, fearful union: “you do you do love me” (269). A few moments later, Randy asks, “Sing with me,” and he sings a child's song about the end of school. Then he allows himself to be drawn to the spot, letting his eyes follow the spirals that invite him into its depths: The fear of castration and extinction become one with the desire for sexual union.
Randy sees the world with the eyes of a child living in a safe, protected world, an updated version of 1950s family sitcom existence. Such a world is bounded and guarded by nurturing parents. Throughout “The Raft,” King has Randy inwardly describe what he sees in terms of benign cultural icons and kiddie commercialism, a diverse collection of images that spans a couple of decades, including Sandy Duncan (as Peter Pan), Arthur Godfrey, PacMan, Rialto movie shows, Richard Nixon's “V for victory sign,” the Yankees, the Beach Boys, and the Ramones. These emblems are part of Randy's emotional lexicon of assuring images of family life. Accordingly, he wishes for family safety when he gets in trouble. When he first suspects that the spot may be dangerous, for example, his immediate thought is that there is no one to look out for himself and his friends: “No one knows we're here. No one at all.” No one to take care of them, that is—no one to be a parent to them. When he looks in vain for lights in the windows of the vacated summer cottages surrounding the lake, he imagines a family on vacation: “[S]omebody's got to be staying the week in his place, fall foliage, shouldn't miss it, bring your Nikon, folks back home are going to love the slides” (262). What is happening to Randy needs to be understood in terms of his all-American family view. The happenings on the raft expose the deep fears that hold up this family idyll in his mind.
Seen thus, the black spot is not simply a monster that somehow appears in the summer setting when fall comes—it is an ancient presence that has been lurking behind Randy's Leave It to Beaver worldview all the time, a menace for all seasons that has necessitated the construction of that ideal family order to hide its own uncanny presence in his mind. Though the origins of the spots remain a mystery, we might consider it as a projection of Randy's own unconscious fear and desire—an expression of the complicated urges that led him to suggest the fatal swim in the first place. These mixed feelings include his wish to break away from parental authority even as he desires to live under its continuing protection (a conflict that college life helps to keep in suspension). Randy longs to impress the women and win their attraction away from Deke, his football hero roommate; he fights his mingled desire for and “jealousy” of Deke's virile vitality (which he admires even as Deke dies ); he desires LaVerne but resents her attraction to Deke enough to want to hit her (251); later, he wants to protect LaVerne after Rachel and Deke die, even as he wants to be protected himself. The lure of the spot is, among other things, the promise to resolve these conflicts by returning everything to primal, undifferentiated oneness. At the bottom of the desire for mother is a desire for reincorporation.
If horror is essentially about the return of repressed or surpassed childhood fears—as Freud says in “The Uncanny” and King in Danse Macabre—then “The Raft” argues that one can literally never escape these fears. All four characters in “The Raft” are clearly familiar with Cascade Lake, where the story takes place; Rachel and Randy have clear memories of childhood summer days spent there.9 Rachel voices a common childhood fear attached to such places, recalling that the first time she swam out to the raft as a child, she was afraid to swim back (247). Rachel's fear returns to Randy, Rachel, LaVerne, and Deke as adults in this childhood setting. It comes back in familiar, but crucially changed and newly mysterious, form. This is Freud's uncanny: the return of repressed early fear, the familiar become unfamiliar.
The outcome of the opposition between child and castrating mother in “The Raft” is one that broadly denies the possibility of passage from childhood to adulthood. “The Raft” suggests that it's impossible to escape one's youth and move on, that the attempt to break the parent-child bond will end in death.10 The characters in King's story move away from home and find themselves returning in search of it anyway—and the return leads to the end of them. They can never escape their childhood origin. It literally sucks them back in—but it has the opportunity to do so only because they have gone to meet it at the isolated place (isolated in geography, and also in memory) where it lies. The raft is “a little bit of summer” (247) that the four young adults try to claim in October, after summer is gone. They can't go back to the childhood past, but neither can they get away from it in their present. “The Raft” is in this sense a story about impotence writ large, symbolized by the inability to escape from the most powerful ruler of the child's early life: the mother. But at the same time, it's also about the wish not to get away at all.11
“THE RAFT” AS SLASHER
“The Raft” resembles Halloween and other movies like it in that the story is propelled by a killer's terrible retribution for illicit teenage sexuality.12 The slasher setting is always empty of other people and usually isolated, but it is also typically American, and recognizably middle class, as Vera Dika points out in her 1990 study of the genre (58-59). The point is that the killer and the victims meet on ground familiar to both. Dika presents a lengthy descriptive plot analysis of the slasher film that begins with a past event that triggers present retribution: “[T]he killer's destructive force is reactivated … [t]he young community takes no heed … [t]he killer stalks [and] kills members of the young community … the heroine does battle with the killer … [she] kills or subdues the killer” and survives (though she is “not free”) (59-60, 136). This summary is perhaps too elaborately patterned, with the definition of “past event” particularly needing to be questioned.
“The Raft” offers no direct clue to any notable past happening that would awaken the monster, but as I suggested in my earlier discussion of Randy's desires, the past need not include a public drama in order to leave the unconscious residue that makes the present danger possible—in horror, all unconscious desires are potentially dangerous. In practice, slashers are categorized according to Creed's more basic paradigm, the presence of a group of teenagers looking for someplace to have sex, and paying the highest price for their immature, headstrong behavior (124). Carol J. Clover describes the slasher's victims as “sexual transgressors [who] are scheduled for early destruction” (33). In the standard scenario, the monster, gendered male and equipped with a phallic weapon, does them in, one by one. They are punished until there's only one left, leading to a staple of the genre: the face-off between the last survivor (almost always a woman who, unlike her friends, is not sexually active) and the killer.
“The Raft” contains clear elements of the formula-driven slasher film. The supporting characters in the story fit the standard types seen in most genre entries. Deke is the typical he-man recognizable to all who are familiar with these stories. He's a football player with “sniper's eyes” (245), and he drives a Camaro (which one of my female friends once called a “penis car”). As his name suggests, Deke is defiantly male and unabashedly sexual: He can take his pants off in a fluid motion that Randy admires, and even when swimming, “the muscles in his back and buttocks worked gorgeously” (246). Moreover, Deke flashes the assaultive, possessive sexual gaze that Laura Mulvey has identified as a pervasive and pernicious form of cinematic expression: “He was talking to Randy but he was looking at LaVerne. LaVerne's panties were almost as transparent as her bra, the delta of her sex sculpted neatly in silk, each buttock a taut crescent” (250). Deke's eye is overcome by a stronger one, for the spot possesses its own controlling gaze. He literally disappears into the “‘insatiable organ hole’ of the feminine.”13 Before he suffers this fittingly sexual death, Deke seeks, receives, and revels in the sexual attention of both women in the story. He laughs off Randy's fear in a way designed to impress them (at the expense of the more cautious Randy). According to slasher convention, Deke is doomed. Characters like him—Rachel calls him “Macho City” (249)—are among the earliest victims of sexually motivated killers in slasher stories. Following formula, Deke is the second to go.
The two women in the story are also stock victims. Rachel, Deke's girlfriend and the first to die, is a “sloe-eyed” sufferer who Randy compares to petite, vulnerable Sandy Duncan (254). LaVerne, “a big girl” (261), is less sympathetic. She comes on to Deke in front of Rachel; her triumph over her rival sounds like “the arid cackle of a witch” (253). When the black spot first shows what it can do by messily consuming Rachel, LaVerne dissolves into “mewling,” self-absorbed hysteria, and Deke fulfills Randy's unvoiced wish to hit her. By assigning her such marked lack of appeal, even in extremis, King sets LaVerne up to die in a fairly standard way. She is the third to go.
The basic slasher plot is immediately recognizable in “The Raft”: Four promiscuous, pleasure-driven college students go off by themselves and three of them get theirs, leaving a confrontation between the last one and the killer. But the positions of the two main characters (the killer and the survivor) are off-center. Just as the killer is gendered female rather than male, the survivor is male rather than female. And in an unusual ending, the survivor is clearly doomed. In the most comprehensive and nuanced analysis of gender and modern horror to date, Clover connects gender in the slasher film with the pain and suffering that is ritually imposed by the genre as part of a “masochistic aesthetic” that “dominates horror cinema” (222). She notes that slasher movies kill boys quickly and girls much more slowly and painfully (35); she argues, moreover, that this happens because males in the audience will be more comfortable identifying with suffering if they do so through a female character (the protagonist, whom she terms “the Final Girl”).14 Slasher films, she says, promote identification with suffering by linking it to women, who are at greater social liberty than men to express fear and pain. But the death of Deke in “The Raft” is a clear violation of formula: Pulled down through a crack between the boards of the raft and eaten alive from his feet up, he suffers at gruesome length. Furthermore, his death, by far the longest of the three in the story, gives way to the protracted suffering of another male, Randy.
Randy's status as final survivor merits special consideration of his suffering. The Final Girl, says Clover, is an androgynous figure whose lack of sexual activity contributes to her boyishness (40). Her femaleness is further qualified by the bravery (behavior gendered male, argues Clover) that she calls upon to defeat the killer at the end. This reversal finally makes the Final Girl into “a congenial double for the adolescent male” (51), a “male surrogate in things oedipal” (53), and in sum, a “characterological androgyne” (63).15
King makes Randy different from the array of slasher survivors. His maleness is not a major issue in this context; boys as well as girls can be androgynous, and the slasher genre has proved flexible enough to accommodate them in the exceptional cases in which they appear in the survivor's role.16 At first, Randy seems to fit right into Clover's unisex mold. “A shy boy” (252), he appears as a stereotypical college nerd: When we see him for the first time he is “resetting his glasses on his nose” (244). To Deke, he's a “brain-ball” who takes “all the fucking science courses” (255). Randy is socially weaker than Deke; he accepts subordinate status as “Pancho” to Deke's “Cisco Kid.” He is also more uncertain than Deke about his masculinity (significantly, his name is ungendered), and he is sexually insecure—and not without reason. He sees that his attraction to LaVerne is endangered from the start: “He liked her, but Deke was stronger” (246).
Essentially unsexed and feminized to the point that he possesses uncertain gender status, Randy fits the androgynous type that Clover would expect for a Final Boy (63). It is therefore highly significant that Randy understands pain. Looking at Rachel after Deke spurns her and accepts LaVerne's attentions, “Randy saw dull hurt on her face. … [H]e knew that expression … how that expression felt inside” (251). This sensitivity sets up Randy to suffer, basically because he knows how to do it. He knows pain because he's not so rigidly male as Deke, and because he's lost what he calls “his fear cherry” (257). This link between fear and sex is worth dwelling on in conjunction with the vagina dentata. Deke is sexually experienced, but in matters of fear, he's still a virgin until the spot changes that. Randy has less sexual experience, but he knows pain when he sees it—and significantly, he fears and avoids the spot even before it kills anyone.
Although Randy shows an affinity for the culturally feminized role of sufferer, he violates the qualifications for Clover's Final Androgyne in two important ways. First, going to the raft is his idea, not Deke's. Though “he never expected Deke to take it seriously” (245) and he feels guilty and regretful about putting the women on the spot as a result of it, the bold initiative is his own and the dangerous situation of his own making.
Second and most crucially, Randy has sex while he is on the raft. When he and LaVerne are the last two remaining, fear and desire combine to draw them together in a coital embrace that ends in her death when the spot seizes her hair trailing in the water. The sex “had never been like this” for Randy, and it touches off a succession of images in his mind just before the spot intervenes: “firm breasts fragrant with Coppertone oil, and if the bottom of the bikini was small enough you might see some (hair her hair HER HAIR IS IN THE OH GOD IN THE WATER HER HAIR)” (266, 267). The sequence of thoughts connects pubic hair to the suddenly vulnerable hair on LaVerne's head; following the associations, we see that LaVerne is ensnared by her own sexuality. The spot prevents sexual climax (“He pulled back suddenly” ), substituting the big death (loss of life) for the little one (orgasm). Randy's name takes on added significance in light of this grisly sexual interlude: It's a pun. And as a result of his action, he definitively masculinizes himself—at the cost of the death of a woman.
In Clover's slasher typology, the standard narrative feminizes the Final Girl through her suffering, and then masculinizes her by her courageous heroism (59). “The Raft” moves through these gender changes in sexually explicit fashion but with an important added regression at the end. Randy starts out sexually uncertain (the unsexed Brain in the shadow of the virile Jock ) and then proves his masculinity not by bravery, but more directly by copulation (specifically, by comforting and then seducing the Jock's would-be girlfriend after the Jock dies). But then Randy regresses to childhood, ending in a position of lonely, hopeless, terrified suffering at the hands of the castrating mother. The Final Girl is always chaste in slasher films, but Randy has sex at a time when the standard plot calls for him to start saving himself. The Final Girl “looks death in the face” and finds the strength to survive and resist (Clover, 35), but “The Raft” ends with Randy's capitulation to the seductive gaze of the black spot. In effect, Randy finds his masculinity rather than his wits in time of stress, and his emergent sexuality does him in.
The nature of the black spot also runs counter to generic expectations. Whereas the killer is almost always gendered male in slasher films, Clover notes that like the Final Girl, he too is unsexed, substituting phallic weapons for actual sexual function and thereby strongly qualifying his masculinity. (Rape doesn't happen in slasher films—dismemberment takes its place.) Sexually ambiguous, the monster makes up a matched pair with the Final Girl, supporting Clover's general contention that the slasher film “at every level presents us with hermaphroditic constructions” (55). But “The Raft” has a female-type monster that is all-powerful, ultimately victorious, distinctly nonphallic. Unlike the usual slasher, whose face is covered by a mask, the spot is naked and undisguised, open in its castrating depths.
It seems clear that Stephen King wants us to read “The Raft” as a slasher narrative. The story feels like a slasher—that is, the plot and setting evoke the kinds of narrative expectations that a slasher does. But it's just as clear that King flouts the conventions of the formula. Though a sexual killer, the black spot is a highly atypical slasher monster, and the character of Randy is a kind of red herring: The author appears to draw him along the familiar unsexed lines of the Final Androgyne, but then he sharply and unexpectedly shifts Randy's behavior towards the male side of the sexual spectrum. In effect, King invites us to read “The Raft” in a certain way, and then deliberately counters our expectations. Why?
“THE RAFT” AND THE ATTRACTION OF FORMULA-DRIVEN HORROR
King's pointed violation of certain slasher conventions does not simply unmask the killer—his manipulation of the formula effectively pulls the cover off the workings of the entire slasher genre. If (as Clover argues) the slasher film refracts the male experience of fear, vulnerability, and pain through the socially reassuring lens of femininity and femaleness, then “The Raft” removes the looking glass and forces the reader to face the light directly. That is, ‘“The Raft” offers no illusion of comfortable distance afforded by the conventional image of a screaming, crying woman who just manages to save herself; instead, King presents us with an immediate, culturally disturbing sight: a crying man (one who nevertheless leaves no doubt about his maleness) who cries and suffers right up to the moment of his death. By placing a female monster and a fully masculinized final character in the two key roles in his slasher story, King parts the curtain to reveal the writer at the controls, openly ordering the steps that make up the slasher ritual—and reordering the roles to remove the gender diversions. Beneath the “identificatory buffer” of the female protagonist, Clover says that the slasher is a growing-up story of “sex and parents,” with the killer as “a materialized projection of the viewer's own incestuous fears and desires” (51, 49). This omnibus interpretation fits “The Raft” compellingly closely, further legitimating the story's position in the slasher category. In Clover's dissection of the slasher's gender-identity strategies, she argues that the genre elides sex difference so that “[t]he same female body does for both” male and female (59), allowing males to identify with suffering in an act of voyeuristic masochism that takes place during the consumption of horror. But in “The Raft,” King decisively rearranges this anatomy. Males and females are fully distinct, and the role of sufferer is occupied by a fully masculinized character. There is no buffer, no relief, no getting away from confronting the masochistic attraction of the story. The reader identifies with Randy in order to suffer through a man.
Just as King moves Randy away from androgyny by definitively asserting his masculinity, so does he position the monster (also an uncertainly sexed character in the standard slasher) clearly within the category of the feminine. Again, King offers no prism to partially deflect unpleasant psychic realities. The monster is no masked man who substitutes killing for sex.17 Instead, the black spot in “The Raft” is unalterably, potently female, with no masks to disguise its nature. It is a force that combines killing with sex and makes them equally dangerous. When the spot clutches Deke, the narrator calls it an act of “unbelievable reversal” (261). King presents us with this “reversed” monster, and then he stages a violent Oedipal drama in the most elemental form: Four young adults face the primal abyss from whence they came.
By using an unequivocally male character to dramatize male suffering at the hands of a female terror, King makes a minor departure from formula into a deliberately uncomfortable, highly charged exposé of the fears whose exploitation drives the slasher genre, and the narrowly gender-based expectations that frame the characters in horror narratives generally. Clover says that the sexually ambiguous quality of the hero and killer in the standard slasher represents an attempt to shield the male viewer from the nature of the masochistic identification that he undergoes. King exposes the cultural politics of this need for weakness by placing these characters at gendered poles and thereby calling attention to the uncomfortable desire in between. Randy's behavior thus becomes a trenchant commentary on the cultural expectations of male heroism. Clover argues with some justification that modern horror is very direct about its gender politics (calling attention to its own “feint” ), but King is even more direct in “The Raft,” exposing male masochism where it lies—at the center of things—and in the process showing the feelings of fear and weakness that widespread cultural conventions of male heroism continue to hide.
It may be that “The Raft” must be seen first as a boy's nightmare, if only because of the way that King strips away the gender trickery to reveal the cold sexual truth: that it all comes down to a terrified, (almost) naked boy and his menacing mother. But even if this is so, one might ask why a story of literalized castration anxiety should attract women. More generally, if the horror genre is driven by male fears, then why would women be drawn to it at all?
I want to approach this set of questions elliptically, by first looking into a specific question of plot that bothered me when I read “The Raft”: Why doesn't Randy get away from the black spot when he can? He has two clear opportunities: the deaths of Deke and LaVerne, during which the black spot is busy enough with its victim to allow for a quick swim to the shore. King even has Randy notice this odd blind spot in himself—he doesn't realize until “much later” that he could have escaped while Deke died (260). In between the two deaths, Randy wonders whether he should put down the unconscious LaVerne and swim for it. What stops him is “an awful guilt” (261).
George Romero, screenwriting for director Michael Gornick, provides an answer to my question in the short film they made of “The Raft.”18 In the movie, Randy actually does escape while the spot consumes LaVerne. Watching the film, I realized that Randy doesn't escape in King's story because if he does, then he can't suffer the way he's meant to, the way that the ritual of slasher consumption demands.
Romero, himself a noted director of horror films (including Night of the Living Dead), understands that “The Raft” corresponds to the slasher formula, and he makes subtle changes in plot and character that allow it to conform more obviously to the genre conventions in its screen version. He enhances the transgression imagery, for example: The young people smoke marijuana on the way to the lake, and the film's last image is a shot of a “No Swimming” sign that makes little sense in light of the raft's presence on the lake, but which is entirely consistent with the crime-and-punishment logic of the slasher film. The most important changes, though, are in the character of Randy. In particular, Randy's guilt and hesitation are gone, leaving only his desperate longing to be a stud. He acts as much like one as he can, and looks more like one too: He doesn't wear glasses in the movie. Even so, he's less successful in his romantic endeavors than in King's original story; when he and LaVerne are alone on the raft, he tries to seduce her as she sleeps. She partially rouses herself to refuse him, but the distraction leads to the black spot grabbing her hair and pulling her into its depths. In the movie then, LaVerne's death is entirely Randy's fault: He tries to have sex with her when he should be watching the spot according to their agreement to take turns. His self-centered sexual greed makes him a standard issue slasher male, not a Final Androgyne type.
In Romero's version, Randy finds his resourcefulness when LaVerne dies and tries to escape while the spot quickly devours her and then sets off after him. He races the spot to shore, and narrowly wins the race. He then taunts the spot from the edge of the shore (“I beat you!”) instead of moving out of range, and is abruptly engulfed, done in by his own attempt to ascend to the vacant alpha male slot instead of feminizing himself (as sufferer instead of warrior) and getting away. As this climactic episode shows especially clearly, the film version of “The Raft” makes Randy more stereotypically male than the story does. Most important, the changes in his character keep him from being coded feminine at any time. In contrast to his portrayal in the story, his groping for sex and subsequent escape are consistent with a male slasher victim, not a survivor. Not surprisingly, the film lacks the segment in which Randy stands tortured and terrified, alone with the spot. In effect, the movie version of Randy lacks the understanding of pain or the capacity to suffer, so the movie ends without delivering much emotional impact, with only a surprise (Randy's quick and sudden death at the moment when we believe that he has delivered himself) that doesn't adequately substitute for what has been excised from the story.
Paradoxically, even though the “Raft” movie accentuates the standard slasher plot inherent within the story by adding the escape segment (a more predictable form of confrontation between the killer and the survivor than King's lonely conclusion to the story), the film's mechanical adherence to conventional sex roles (making sure that boys don't suffer the way that girls are supposed to) keeps the movie from feeling like a slasher. The loss in feeling is a loss of suffering: The shift in Randy's character short-circuits the masochistic component of the viewing mechanism that Clover identifies as so central to the horror genre—Randy doesn't suffer, and there's no Final Girl to do the honors in his place. The movie thus changes certain parts of the story to make it superficially more slasherlike, but in making these changes, Romero eliminates Randy's pain, precluding the particular form of viewer identification that needs to take place with the slasher protagonist.
So the problem is not that Randy escapes—it's that by having him do so, Romero's rewrite of King's story prevents the character from enduring the pain and fear that a slasher narrative conditions its audience to expect. Consequently, the film can't deliver its emotional payoff, despite its careful adherence to genre conventions. The difference between story and movie can thus be summed up in broad terms: The movie is conservative (arguably too conservative), whereas King's story is experimental (within a conservative genre). Whatever the film's entertainment value, it lacks the story's depth because it takes away the story's pain. Randy's role in the narrative can be filled by a boy or a girl, but whoever occupies it is required to suffer, irrespective of gender. King's story, especially when compared to the film, shows that the needs of the slasher ritual transcend the gender conventions that have grown around them.
All of which brings us back to the question of female attraction to slasher narratives. That gender is an issue in the reception of horror is scarcely disputed by those who have considered the subject, but there is no consensus about its role or effect. In her influential 1975 essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey says that the cinematic gaze is gendered male, with woman as its object, and women can participate in the viewing only by adopting the male perspective (which is either sadistic or fetishistic). Although Mulvey's model may account for some female attraction to horror, the image of the castrating woman complicates her thesis. Writing partially in response to Mulvey's view, Creed argues that “The slasher film actively seeks to arouse castration anxiety in relation to the issue of whether or not woman is castrated” by presenting her as both castrated and castrator (127).19 It is worth noting that the castrating black spot in “The Raft” has an appetite for males and females alike. Randy says twice that “It went for the girls” (250), and its first victim is in fact female.
The existence of female horror fans is beyond dispute, so horror—even slashers—must have something to offer them. Creed persuasively defines horror on a fundamental level as the artistically expressed desire for the liminal and disruptive (Kristeva's “abject”), a desire constructed according to primal paradigms that are neither restricted to nor defined by the male experience. These include birth, seduction, and castration—with only the last of these routing female identification through male-defined channels (153-54). In essence, the mystery of the “archaic mother” is not an exclusively male preserve, and the return to the womb not necessarily a purely male desire or an exclusively male fear. Indeed, Creed disputes the idea that the unconscious is socialized male or female, theorizing that horror addresses the unconscious fears and desires of “both the human subject … and the gendered subject” (156). Slashers clearly implicate universal fears (pain, death) with gendered ones (female fear of violation or—especially in the case of “The Raft”—male castration anxiety).
Lots of horror stories are about regressive sexuality (one need only look to the enduring vampire and werewolf film cycles for confirmation), and it follows that a fundamental component of the experience of horror is the desire to experience such fantasies, again and again. The slasher film cycle (which varies strikingly little from film to film) is one of the more obvious manifestations of this desire to repeat. Accordingly, Clover identifies the consumption of horror as a cultural repetition-compulsion, a ritual play with ancient fears that King alludes to in “The Raft” when he has Randy describe the black spot as being like something out of the “Halloween Shock-Show down at the Rialto” (255). In their reenactment of their early experience and confrontation with their early fear, the characters in “The Raft” are no different from the horror consumers who encounter them in King's pages: Like the readers and moviegoers with whom Randy groups himself and his friends, the characters use a ritual—swimming out to the raft to “say good-bye to summer” (248)—to re-experience their old fears and desires. For the characters, for King's readers, and doubtless for the writer himself as well, these feelings are a defining part of the self that needs regular indulgence.
Randy's memory of his trips to the horror movies is part of a series of self-references and formula twists that set “The Raft” apart from the other slashers with which it claims kinship. Though Romero may have overlooked the viewing dynamic of the slasher film when he scripted “The Raft,” he, like Stephen King, has no illusions about what the black spot represents. As the film ends with the spot moving back to the center of the lake (after overwhelming Randy at the water's edge), the camera pulls back, taking in Deke's abandoned Camaro parked further up the shore. The doors are open and the car radio is playing a raucous heavy metal song with these lyrics, which we hear as the film ends:
Tryin' To get her out of my mind All my friends said, “You better watch that girl She's a taker, a knife edge woman She's a dream breaker”
This “knife edge woman” is an unexpected, archetypally female monster who sets her sights on a likewise unexpected victim: a young man. King uses the spot's inevitable victory to show us why we choose to suffer through Randy's ordeal, and what we are buying into when we do so. “The Raft” thus stands as a slasher that deconstructs the slasher formula.
Since becoming famous, King has frequently written brief compositional histories to accompany his shorter works, generally publishing them as headnotes or appendices. For his account of his unusual loss and recovery of “The Raft,” see Skeleton Crew (509-10).
For a useful historical and ethnographic overview of the vagina dentata and related imagery, see Erich Neumann's Jungian study The Great Mother: An Analysis of the Archetype and especially Wolfgang Lederer's The Fear of Women (quotation at 47; “bottomless lake” is also Lederer's phrase). For a survey of vagina dentata jokes and castration humor generally, see G. Legman, No Laughing Matter: An Analysis of Sexual Humor. Monte Gulzow and Carol Mitchell provide an interesting specific case of the way that the vagina dentata became a repository for unexpressable anxiety among Vietnam war soldiers in “‘Vagina dentata’ and ‘Incurable Venereal Disease’ Legends from the Viet Nam War.” (I am grateful to my former student Jane Hogan for bringing the latter two sources to my attention.)
Horney says that the dread of the vagina and the dread of the father are not mutually exclusive; instead, the former “often conceals itself behind” the latter, despite the fact that “it is more deep-seated, weighs more heavily, and is usually more energetically repressed than the dread of the man (father)” (138). Her project includes bringing the dread of the woman into view and into the debate over the child's developmental stages. Accordingly, she traces the dread of women to the early, instinctive realization on the boy's part that “his penis is much too small for his mother's genital” (142). If “the grown man continues to regard woman as the great mystery,” says Horney, “the mystery of motherhood” is the root cause of it (141). Horney's hypothesis suggests that Freud's admittedly incomplete list of categories of uncanny fear should be expanded to include the return of childhood fears of woman (see Freud's “The Uncanny”).
Creed argues that in films like Psycho, Carrie, and others, monstrosity—in the form of castrating woman—is constructed out of the failure to make the break between mother and child (38).
Carol J. Clover uses this phrase to describe the killer's lair in slasher films; its feminine characteristics (enclosure, dampness, darkness) are striking in their consistency from film to film (30, 48). In the case of “The Raft,” the watery scene fulfills the formula's apparent requirement of a female setting. For King's own discussion of the “Bad Place” (which he identifies more directly with monstrosity itself), see Danse Macabre, 263-94.
See The Uses of Enchantment, 167-83.
Neil Jordan's stylized, elegant The Company of Wolves (1985) is an adult version of “Little Red Riding Hood” that realizes the story's unconscious theme of sexual awakening through the overtly sexualized use of the werewolf transformation.
Creed notes “the reference to the red riding hood/clitoris and its emphasis on the devouring jaws of the wolf/grandmother” (108).
Rachel says, “It seems like I spent my life out at Cascade lake” (246).
Clover argues that the slasher heroine's defeat of the monster and passage to safety represents an ascent to phallicized maturity (Men, Women, and Chain Saws, Chapter 1, especially 49-50). One might argue that Randy matures when he chooses to care for the prostrate LaVerne rather than save himself (261), but his regression at the end of the story calls any such gains into doubt.
King's understanding of (and fascination with) the magnetic power (both attractive and repulsive) of the castrating mother is evident from his positioning of “The Raft” within the Skeleton Crew collection. The story is followed by “Word Processor of the Gods,” in which an uxorious man, Richard Hagstrom, uses a magic word processor (a modern genie-in-the-machine, designed by his precocious nephew, that makes any typed command come true) to first render his virago wife childless (by making their bratty son disappear), and then to make his wife herself disappear. He replaces the two with his sweet-natured sister-in-law and his gifted nephew (both of whom had been killed in a car crash along with Richard's selfish brother shortly before the narrative begins). The magic word processor effectively allows Richard to reposition the branches of his family tree, rewriting the past to retroactively install his unthreatening relatives as his nuclear family. King's segue thus places a meditation on powerlessness (“The Raft”) next to a fantasy of ultimate power (“Word Processor of the Gods”). The latter story grants dominion not simply over life and death, but also over the past. The castrating mother figure, Richard's shrewish wife, is not simply neutralized; instead, Richard is able to nullify her by “deleting” all evidence of her existence. This Oedipal fairy tale is the psychic opposite of “The Raft.” The two stories form a matched pair, two different answers to the same “What if?” question.
The slasher genre is a modern cinematic development that most critics agree is a narrow offshoot from Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) that suddenly began to sprout vigorously a generation later, starting with John Carpenter's influential Halloween (1978). Scores of slasher films were made during the 1980s, with the pace beginning to taper off of late.
See Clover (188), quoting Michele Montrelay in part; Clover surveys the ways in which the gazer in horror films is frequently sucked into a vaginal vacuum, emphasizing the consistency with which “horror presents us with scenarios in which assaultive gazing is not just thwarted and punished, but actually reversed in such a way that those who thought to penetrate end up themselves penetrated” (192). This is exactly what happens to Deke.
Clover argues on the basis of her own (admittedly informal) survey that young males make up the majority of the audience for slasher films (6-7), but this claim is disputed by Dika (142).
Clover points to the unisex names of many Final Girls (Stevie, Joey, Stretch, etc.) as further evidence for the character's sexually ambiguous status (40). Her contention that the Final Girl is an androgynous figure who enables the viewer to identify with suffering has touched off some interesting arguments with other theorists working on the slasher film (including Creed and Dika, the authors of the most detailed studies), but her list of the defining characteristics of the Final Girl has encountered no like opposition; Creed, for example, sees the Final Girl thus: “[I]ntelligent, resourceful and usually not sexually active, she tends to stand apart from the others” (124).
Clover says in a note that “we may expect horror films of the future to feature Final Boys as well as Final Girls (Pauls as well as Paulines).” Among the incipient examples she cites is Stephen King's Misery (novel 1987; film 1990), in which a broken-legged novelist takes the … ‘feminine’ or masochistic position” (63). See also her note on The Burning (1981), in which a “nerdish male” plays the part normally taken by the Final Girl (52).
Clover: “[S]lasher killers are by generic definition sexually inadequate—men who kill precisely because they cannot fuck” (186).
“The Raft” is one of three segments, all scripted by Romero and directed by Gornick, that make up Creepshow 2 (1987).
In a brief analysis of the attraction of horror to the female spectator, Creed allows that it is “complex” (155).
Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Vintage, 1989.
Clover, Carol J. Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender and the Modern Horror Film. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.
Creed, Barbara. The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge, 1993.
Dika, Vera. Games of Terror. “Halloween,” “Friday the 13th,” and the Films of the Stalker Cycle. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press; London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1990.
Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny.” Translated by James Strachey. Vol. 17 of The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. 24 Vols. London: Hogarth, 1986, 219-52.
Gulzow, Monte, and Carol Mitchell. “‘Vagina Dentata’ and ‘Incurable Venereal Disease’ Legends from the Viet Nam War.” Western Folklore, 39 (1980): 306-16.
Horney, Karen. “The Dread of Woman.” Feminine Psychology. New York: Norton, 1967, 133-46.
King, Stephen. Bare Bones: Conversations on Terror with Stephen King. Edited by Tim Underwood and Chuck Miller. New York: McGraw, 1988.
———. Danse Macabre. New York: Everest, 1981.
———. Misery. New York: Viking, 1987.
———. “The Raft.” Skeleton Crew. New York: Putnam's, 1985, 245-70.
———. Skeleton Crew. New York: Putnam's, 1985.
Lederer, Wolfgang. The Fear of Women. New York: Grune, 1968.
Legman, G. No Laughing Matter. An Analysis of Sexual Humor. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, Vol. 1, 1968; Vol. 2, 1975.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16 (1975): 6-18.
Neumann, Erich. The Great Mother: An Analysis of the Archetype. Translated by Ralph Manheim. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963.
SOURCE: DeCuir, André L. “The Power of the Feminine and the Gendered Construction of Horror in Stephen King's ‘The Reach’.” In Imagining the Worst: Stephen King and the Representation of Women, edited by Kathleen Margaret Lant and Theresa Thompson, pp. 79-89. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.
[In the following essay, DeCuir examines the themes of childbirth and horror in King's “The Reach.”]
In “A Dream of New Life: Stephen King's Pet Sematary as a Variant of Frankenstein,” Mary Ferguson Pharr attempts to draw parallels between Mary Shelley's great work and Stephen King's reworking of “the dream of new life … a dream both seductive and malefic, the stuff finally of nightmares made flesh” (116). Pharr seeks to show that “what King has done in Pet Sematary is not to copy Mary Shelley, but rather to amplify the cultural echo she set in motion so that its resonance is clearer to the somewhat jaded, not always intellectual reader of Gothic fantasy today” (118).
Needless to say, gallons upon gallons of scholarly ink have been spilled over Shelley's multi-layered text, but all critics of the novel seem to be indebted to Ellen Moers's discussion of Frankenstein as a “woman's mythmaking on the subject of birth” (93), “a hideous thing” (95). According to Moers, when Victor “runs away and abandons the newborn monster,” Shelley, because of the “hideous intermingling of death and life in her own life” (96), is expressing a “revulsion against newborn life, and the drama of guilt, dread, and flight surrounding birth and its consequences” (93).
With Moers's ideas in mind, framing the biographical and textual similarities Pharr points out in Shelley's novel and King's Pet Sematary, I wish to show that the deep-rooted, intermingled themes of childbirth and horror in Frankenstein are more directly presented and the horror more specified by King in a little-known short story called “The Reach” (originally published as “Do the Dead Sing”) than in Pet Sematary. Not only does the story feature a woman as the main character, but it also contains King's attempt to represent a self-suppressed feminine consciousness. Through the main character of the ninety-five-year-old Stella Flanders and the imagined conversations she has with her great-grandchildren, King maps out the cultural suppression of the female voice, but also the subsequent and inevitable resurfacing of the feminine, when the voice is rendered inaudible, through the female body and its functions, mainly childbirth. David G. Hartwell correctly writes that in “The Reach” “the horror is distanced but underpins the whole [story]” (15). I wish to show that King specifies this horror as a horror experienced by the male when female power is manifested through the female body which, despite constant efforts, cannot be totally known, experienced, or controlled. For the female, King implies that horror stems from witnessing and experiencing the measures taken by the male, who deems his authority threatened by an overt demonstration of female “otherness.”
Briefly, “the reach” in the title of King's story refers to the body of water between an island and the mainland and becomes the story's controlling symbol. The story begins in the summer before the death of Stella Flanders, who has never left her island home, Goat Island, even to visit the mainland, moves through the fall and winter with occasional flashbacks to the summer, and concludes in the summer after the winter of Stella's death. Though the story is related by a third-person narrator, this narrator, in the summer flashbacks, “turns the story over” to Stella in a sense, for it is in these flashbacks that Stella's consciousness is more pervasive and reveals her thoughts about her family, their lives, and those of the people of Goat Island. After her 95th birthday, Stella begins to see the ghost of her husband, Bill, who keeps asking her “when you comin' across to the mainland?” (17). In March, while the reach is still frozen, Stella realizes that the cancer which she had always suspected of growing inside her is getting worse and decides to cross the reach to the mainland. The drifting snow causes her to lose her way until she encounters Bill and ghosts of their friends. They lovingly take her hands and lead her across the reach where she dies.
Such a bare-bones plot summary, of course, ignores a complex narrative structure that implicates long-standing codes in the cultural suppression and even in the self-censorship of women's voices. A close examination of the summer flashbacks, which are italicized in the text1 and which contain more of Stella's “voice” than the fall and winter sections, reveals a tremendous silence as apparently, Stella speaks only once during the visit of her great-grandchildren in the summer before her death: “The Reach was wider in those days” (15). When the children ask her to explain, the narrator replies: “She only sat in her rocker by the cold stove, her slippers bumping placidly on the floor” (15). The subsequent flashbacks consist of Stella's thoughts, framed by the narrator's implication that these thoughts are what Stella would express verbally “if she could”: “‘Gram, what's the Reach?’ Lona might have asked … although she never had. And she would have given them the answer any fisherman knew by rote: a Reach is a body of water between two bodies of land, a body of water which is open at either end” (16-17; bold emphasis added).
Twice, the narrator interjects that Stella does not cry (16, 20), and perhaps the most graphic example of self-suppression, which also seems to serve as an indictment of male-centered heterosexual sex as repressive, occurs when Stella is addressed by the ghost of her late husband, Bill: “She could say nothing. Her fist was crammed deep into her mouth” (22). Stella's silence, however, has subversive potential because her nonverbal recollections of herself and the women of Goat Island and their various experiences with marriage and childbirth in particular serve to “feminize” Goat Island as a primal, nurturing environment while they indict the mainland as a masculine sphere of industrialization that fosters greed and exploitation, and ultimately, spiritual death.
The mainland, Raccoon Head, is simply referred to by the residents of Goat Island as “the Head,” and is surrounded by phallic, “split and fissured rock” (29). While Stella imagines that her great-granddaughter, Lona, will complain that Goat Island is “so small” and that “We live in Portland. There's buses, Gram!” and even catches herself in “real wonder” after contemplating how “cars passing to and fro on the Head's main street … can go as far as they want … Portland … Boston … New York City” (26), she more frequently recalls tragedies that have befallen Goat Island residents while on the mainland. For example, Stella remembers that George Havelock “had died a nasty death over on the mainland in 1967, the year there was no fishing. An ax had slipped in Big George's hand, there had been blood—too much of it!—and an island funeral three days later” (16). Goat Island is not immune to death, however, as Stella recalls that Bull Symes had a heart attack “while he was out dragging traps” (17), but for Stella and her neighbors, misfortune on the mainland can be exacerbated by practices arising from an existence based on cash nexus (e.g., lawsuits, foreclosures, liens).
When Goat Island resident George Dinsmore takes a job on the mainland “driving plow for the town of Raccoon Head,” and gets “smashed on rye whiskey” and drives the plow through three power poles during a storm, Raccoon Head loses power for five days, and as George's “punishment,” the electric company “slap[s] a lien on his home.” (24). Stella's recollection of George's rescue from his financial straits by his Goat Island neighbors portrays the collective action of the Goat Island residents as directly opposed to that of mainland individuals who are in danger of becoming absorbed into a corporate machine as suggested by Stella's use of the third person plural possessive pronoun in reference to the company threatening George, “the Hydro”: “[I]t was seen to it that the Hydro had their money” (24). Stella would like to emphasize to her great-grandchildren that “‘we always watched out for our own’” (24) and her consciousness shapes this “we,” the collective body of Goat Island residents, not as a corporate force but as a sentient parental entity, willing to take its prodigal son back into the fold while recognizing his faults but also praising his attributes. Stella would like to point out that George was “good for nothing when his workday was done” but also to emphasize quickly that “when he was on the clock he would work like a dray-horse” (24). Like a desperate parent resorting to “He is a good boy,” “This is his first offense,” “He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time” arguments in order to defend a child facing a judge, Stella, through her consciousness, adds, “That one time he got into trouble was because it was at night, and night was always George's drinking time” (24). The more protective and nurturing environment of Goat Island is suggested by Stella's addendum that since George “now … worked on the island … he didn't get into much hurt” and that quality of life on the island results, not from being well paid, but from being “kept … fed” (24).
The “daughters” of Goat Island apparently would fare worse than its “sons” if they should attempt to exist on the mainland independently. According to Stella “If you [a woman] had business on the Head, your man took you in the lobster boat” (16-17), for if a woman should venture to the mainland on her own, she runs the risk not only of being exploited in the Head's economic system, but she is also in danger of being robbed of something innately and exclusively feminine:
[I]f she stays [on Goat Island], she may be able to keep something of this small world with the little Reach on one side and the big Reach on the other, something it would be too easy to lose hustling hash in Lewiston or donuts in Portland or drinks at the Nashville North in Bangor. Am I old enough not to beat around the bush about what that something might be: a way of living—a feeling.
I would suggest that the cryptic nature of this segment of Stella's consciousness, which falls within a contemplation of the seven-month-pregnant Missy Bowie and her future on Goat Island as opposed to a future on the mainland, when examined within the context of the story's references to the bodily processes culminating in childbirth and when further magnified by contemporary feminist criticism, becomes an attempt to define what French feminist critics posit as a powerful difference stemming from and sustained by female sexuality. While the thought attempts to disclose a bleak picture of women's loss of dignity in an exploitative economic system, it also warns about the possible loss of something that cannot be defined by the dominant system of signifiers. Stella's concern for its loss if removed from Goat Island suggests that this quality she would like to explain has the potential to empower and to develop, perhaps into something “explosive” and “utterly destructive” (italicized in text; Cixous, 886), if nurtured within the environment of Goat Island and not on the mainland where it is subject to repression and perhaps obliteration “by the [Lacanian] Law of the Father” (Jones, 362).2
The “gender” of the parental force made up of the collective efforts of the Goat Island residents is suggested by its spokesperson, Stella, who happens to be the oldest person on the island, but who also takes pride in being the oldest woman on the island: “They were talking about Freddy Dinsmore, the oldest man on the island (two years younger'n me, though, Stella thought with some satisfaction)” (18). Incidentally, Freddy dies of the flu in February “before anyone could take him across to the mainland and hook him up to all those machines they have for guys like Freddy” (21). Stella's lack of contact with the mainland and her reiteration in different phraseology that Goat Island “is my place and I love it” establish her as the island's matriarch. “Most of the village” turns out for Stella's 95th birthday with a “tremendous birthday cake” (16), and she is still able to make the younger residents of Goat Island stare in wonder, “wide-eyed” (19), with her tales of unusual occurrences that transpired on Goat Island before her listeners were born. For example, in January, when Stella is asked if she “had ever seen such a winter,” Stella relates that in February of 1938, the reach froze, allowing her husband, Bill, and his friend, Bull Symes, to walk across the reach to the mainland and back again (18).
Although she holds no political office that legislates the behavior of the island community, her unobtrusive authority, which undoubtedly stems at least partially from her longevity, also seems anchored in female sexuality as her silent reminiscences are punctuated by references to menstruation, conception, pregnancy, midwifery, deliveries and births, a miscarriage, and deaths of ill newborns. She recalls, for example, how her own mother “conceived four times but one of her babies had miscarried and another had died a week after birth” (20). At a post-memorial service reception, Stella notices that the widow, Missy Bowie, is “seven months big with child—it would be her fifth” (18). Even Stella's condensed version of her family history, which she would like to relate to her great-grandchildren, emphasizes not official titles, heroic, or even infamous deeds, but propagation:
She would say: “Louis and Margaret Godlin begat Stella Godlin, who became Stella Flanders; Bill and Stella Flanders begat Jane and Alden Flanders and Jane Flanders became Jane Wakefield; Richard and Jane Wakefield begat Lois Wakefield, who became Lois Perrault; David and Lois Perrault begat Lona and Hal. These are your names, children: you are Godlin-Flanders-Wakefield-Perrault.”
King does not overtly define Goat Island as a feminist utopia “ruled by women” (Showalter, 191).3 Curiously, however, he structures Stella's mental and therefore “silent” account of her family history without reference to formal marriage, thus demonstrating how Stella, at least in her mind, has ostensibly always minimized the importance society places on an institution in which women are often relegated to an inferior position. Also, we learn through Stella's memories that the only male child in her family to reach adulthood is her son Alden, whose “slow brain” and lifelong bachelorhood (20-21) conflate into a suggestion of male sexual impotence. Stella's consciousness does not reveal, however, a desire for more potent male progeny to carry on the family name, and nowhere does she express hope that her great-grandson Hal will grow up to sire more Perraults. A particular observation about Hal actually adds to Stella's silent disregard for prescribed gender-based behavior. To Stella, not Lona, but Hal, her male great-grandchild, is “somehow more intuitive” (20).
Whereas the “gender” of Goat Island has been suggested by that of its oldest-living resident, Stella, King more definitely sketches out the environment of Goat Island as a feminine realm by linking the Reach itself to the womb through Stella's explanation of the birth of the deformed Wilson infant:
There was Norman and Ettie Wilson's baby that was born a mongoloid, its poor dear little feet turned in, its bald skull lumpy and cratered, its fingers webbed together as if it had dreamed too long and too deep while swimming that interior Reach.
At the outset of this essay, I suggested that for King, horror, as experienced by the male in “The Reach,” is generated by a confrontation with the changes undergone by the female body culminating in actual reproduction, changes he can never experience in a body he thought he controlled. In his terror, the male is “unmanned,” pushed to drastic measures, or utterly destroyed. Stella recalls, for example, that after her husband, Bill, delivered their daughter himself, he went “into the bathroom and first puked and then wept like a hysterical woman who had her monthlies p'ticularly bad” (20). The images of Victor Frankenstein rushing out of his chambers after gazing upon his creation with “horror and disgust” and his later destruction of the unfinished female creature after contemplating how, if it should couple with his male creation, “a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth, who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror” (Shelley, 163), converge, in “The Reach,” into an example of drastic measures taken by the male when a female bodily process does not transpire according to societal expectations and produces a terrible result.
Just as Victor destroys in order to protect the condition “of the species of man,” Norman Wilson, the infant's father, takes drastic measures to eradicate any evidence of the “hideous progeny” (Shelley, 229) of that “interior Reach,” which could “unman” him as confrontation with this “unknown” did Bill Flanders:
Reverend McCracken had come and baptized the baby, and a day later Mary Dodge, who even at that time had midwived over a hundred babies, and Norman took Ettie down the hill to see Frank Child's new boat and although she could barely walk, Ettie went with no complaint, although she had stopped in the door to look back at Mary Dodge, who was sitting calmly by the idiot baby's crib and knitting. Mary had looked up at her and when their eyes met, Ettie burst into tears. “Come on,” Norman had said, upset. “Come on, Ettie come on.” And when they came back an hour later the baby was dead, one of those crib-deaths, wasn't it merciful he didn't suffer.
The infant's mother seems to be privy to the plan for her tearful outburst occurs when her eyes meet those of Mary Dodge who she knows is present to carry out her designated part, the actual killing of the infant, while she and her husband are out. Norman's urgings of “come on” would seem to indicate a creeping sense of remorse, but his choice of Mary Dodge to actually carry out the deed, a woman “who had midwived over a hundred babies” and who could probably make the baby's death look “natural,” serves as his acknowledgment that this woman's “feminine knowledge” of the bodily processes surrounding childbirth and her experience in assisting in this process somehow empower her enough to take the life of the infant. Just as Victor runs away in revulsion from his “newborn,” Norman “runs away” to Frank Child's boat, perhaps fearing that directly confronting the “hideous” product of a female bodily process himself would unman and weaken him.
By positing the reach as a metaphorical body of amniotic fluid produced by the feminine entity, Goat Island, King sets the stage for a demonstration of the “explosive, utterly destructive” return of the repressed or “silenced” power of the feminine that is particularly horrifying and devastating to the male who seeks to subdue this “female” body. The characters Stewie McClelland and Russell Bowie “trust the ice” of the presently frozen reach and take “Stewie's Bombardier Skiddoo” out onto the ice while “drinking Apple Zapple Wine, and sure enough, the skiddoo went into the Reach. Stewie managed to crawl out (although he lost one foot to frostbite). The Reach took Russell Bowie and carried him away” (18). The loss of Stewie's foot can be viewed as a symbolic castration, a “punishment,” initiated by the Reach. Stella's later vision of the body of Russell Bowie, twisting and dancing beneath the ice covering the Reach, looks forward to her memory of the Wilson baby, “swimming that interior Reach,” thus further establishing the reach as a metaphorical womb, that center of an exclusive feminine power, but also dramatizes what Gilbert and Gubar allude to as an historical male fear of the womb as a dark, suffocating, annihilating prison (93-95).4
The only example of a female character's experience of horror resulting in a reaction comparable to the responses of Bill Flanders and Norman Wilson is that of Ettie Wilson who bursts into tears at the understanding that, according to her husband's plan, her baby will no longer be alive when she returns from a diversionary outing. Though her reaction is certainly justified, if we are to understand King's gendered polarization of the constitution of the “horrible” and responses to it in “The Reach,” we must recognize Ettie's intensely personal tragedy as an integral part of the story's paradigm of a female recognition of horror. If horror for the male is generated by a confrontation with female bodily processes altered through sexuality, then it follows that horror for the female is brought on by the extreme measures taken by the male when faced with this female “otherness.”
As presented earlier, Stella alludes to a “being and a way of living—a feeling,” a quality that she seems to ascribe exclusively to women. It apparently stems from and is sustained by female sexuality, but this essence can be drained by an existence on the masculinely-structured mainland that seeks to harness it. The events surrounding her own death not only further gender-identify the mainland but also characterize it as a haven for death itself. In Stella's consciousness, crossing to the mainland seems to be a euphemism for dying as the apparition of Bill asks her, “When you comin [sic] across to the mainland?” (17). When the reach is still frozen, Stella decides to cross over to the mainland where “she had never once in her life been” (16), but only after realizing that the cancer she had always suspected of growing inside her has “finally gotten around to … the ‘pièce de resistance’ (23). She reasons that perhaps on the mainland, death will finally overtake her, thus ending “the griping pain in her stomach” and the spitting up of “bright red blood into the toilet bowl,” “foul-tasting stuff, coppery and shuddersome” (23).
Sure enough, as Stella nears the mainland, she weakens and is supported by the ghosts of the Goat Island dead until “it is time”:
They stood in a circle in the storm, the dead of Goat Island, and the wind screamed around them, driving its packet of snow, and some kind of song burst from her [Stella]. It went up into the wind and the wind carried it away. They all sang then, as children will sing in their high, sweet voices as a summer evening draws down to summer night. They sang, and Stella felt herself going to them and with them, finally across the Reach. There was a bit of pain, but not much; losing her maidenhead had been worse. They stood in a circle in the night. The snow blew around them and they sang.
Despite the wholeness and wholesomeness suggested by the image of children standing in a circle, the narrator's revelation of Stella's final thoughts discloses her continuing effort to gender-identify the mainland and death itself that she associates with the mainland. The sensation Stella uses as a standard by which to measure the “bit of pain” experienced at the moment of death is not the pain of childbirth, a phenomenon that she recalled can unsettle the menfolk more than the women actually experiencing its accompanying pain, but that resulting from male-female penetration.
Throughout “The Reach,” Stella's consciousness is rendered in italics, a method of representation that lessens as the story concludes, perhaps suggesting Stella's impending loss of consciousness and death. The last seven paragraphs, which carry the reader to the summer after Stella's death, curiously, are printed in italics, and the consciousness of Alden, Stella's son, who has now assumed the “matriarchal” position of entertaining Stella's great-grandchildren during their summer visits to Goat Island, is at the center of the story's conclusion. The focus on Alden, shaped in the same manner as Stella's silent acknowledgments of female empowerment, however, does not suggest that, with the death of Stella, Goat Island, will become “masculinized” as the mainland. Like Stella and other women, Alden, even though a biological male, is still a marginalized figure due to his “mental slowness” a condition that also presumes a sexual slowness or impotency or at least a lack of sexual knowledge, either of which would displace Alden from socially sanctioned masculine behavior (i.e., the wielding of phallic power). Whereas women may choose silence to avoid the sapping of their essences by an inimical socioeconomic system,5 Alden, due to his disability, cannot coherently articulate, and thus exists in a deeper silence imposed by forces beyond his control. King's linking of Alden's and Stella's “silences” via narrative structure, however, suggests that what Alden keeps hidden can be just as subversive, namely a knowledge that the dead have the power to make themselves known in the realm of the living.
Alden recalls the looks in the eyes of two male characters, Larry McKeen and John Bensohn, when they recognize that the cap found on Stella's frozen body is not Alden's, but that of Bill, his dead father. This oddity has the potential to subvert any male-induced normalcy, just like childbirth in Stella's recollections (I use “male” because the only witnesses Alden remembers are male), and as a result of this “horror,” the incident is stigmatized as one of those “things that can never be told,” something “not exactly secret, that [is] not discussed” (30). For Alden, however, it is something not to be completely obliterated from memory but “made for thinking on slowly” and “at length, while the hands do their work and the coffee sits in a solid china mug nearby” (30). His recognition of “his dead father's cap, the look of its bill or the places where the visor had been broken” (30) found on his mother's body allows him, in his own mind at least, and his consciousness is the prevailing one at the end of the story, to revise the finality of death feared by his mother in her narrative into death as the ultimate liberator from repression (Stella herself may have experienced this sense of release as, just before crossing the Reach, “she burst into tears suddenly—all the tears she had never wept”). He is able to comfort himself in his loneliness with an affirmation that the dead, who may have been verbally, intellectually, sexually, and spiritually repressed all their lives, do inevitably make their voices heard.
Throughout this chapter, selected italicized passages from “The Reach” will be quoted without notation (for example, “italicized in text”), but any italicization utilized from other sources will be noted as such.
Critics such as Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous, and Luce Irigaray seem to have based their ideas on the psychoanalytic theories of Jacques Lacan, who suggests that the individual experiences two “systems” of language, the “imaginary” and the “symbolic.” The former is a prelinguistic phase in which the individual is unaware of signs that express “difference,” such as the signifiers “male” and “female.” The latter is the present system of language that illustrates difference.
Kristeva translates the “imaginary” into the “semiotic” and associates this phase with the female body and the sensations experienced by both woman and child during pregnancy, birth, and infancy. The symbolic is associated with the father as the child is indoctrinated into a system in which the imaginary or semiotic is suppressed in favor of polarities and implied inferiorities. Cixous and Irigaray argue that if women are to express themselves completely, they must fracture, revise, or replace the present system of language with one stemming from “jouissance,” a reclaiming of the female body and a rediscovery of its eroticism. I contend that what Stella may mean by “something” is like the concept of “jouissance.”
For more complete summaries of these theories, see Ann Rosalind Jones's “Writing the Body: Toward an Understanding of l'Écriture feminine” and Raman Selden's A Reader's Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory.
Showalter, in a discussion of feminist novelists, refers to a group of nineteenth-century women writers who expressed some “very peculiar fantasies.” Works by writers such as Lady Florence Dixie, “Ellis Ethelmer,” and Charlotte Perkins Gilman portrayed “imagined worlds ruled by women, feminist revolutions, and virgin births” (191). Showalter attributes this tradition to a “horror” similar to the one experienced by Mary Shelley in Frankenstein. According to Showalter, these novels reflected some women's “repugnance for the actual process of intercourse and childbirth” that perhaps stemmed from the increasing awareness of the “dangers in pregnancy, venereal disease and childbearing,” but also the simultaneous need to share in the Victorian “veneration of motherhood and maternal love” (191).
In Chapter 3 of The Madwoman in the Attic, “The Parables of the Cave,” Gilbert and Gubar assert that the womb is “the place of female power … one of the great antechambers of the mysteries of transformation” (95). Stella's mental image of what Russell Bowie might have experienced, writhing beneath a translucent barrier, frantically trying to break through its surface (which he may have tried to do before drowning), echoes and illustrates Gilbert and Gubar's premise of the Victorian (male) fear of the womb and association of it with the tomb, “the cavern confrontations and the evils they might reveal—the suffocation, the ‘black bat airs,’ the vampirism, the chaos of what Victor Frankenstein calls ‘filthy creation’” (93-94).
Joyce Zonana, in a discussion as to why Safie's letters are not reproduced in the text of Frankenstein, concludes that their absence sends a strong “feminist message of resistance, rebellion” (181) as the letters cannot be appropriated and possessed by the male characters. Victor, Walton, and the creature “seek to ‘know’ or possess something outside of themselves” (181). Zonana supports her argument with Cixous's “The Laugh of the Medusa” and writes that women's self-silencing “actually asserts the integrity of female experience. Such silence resists and baffles the act of appropriation” and interpretation according to “patriarchal conventions” (Zonana, 180-81).
Cixous, Hélène. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Translated by Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 1 (1976): 875-93.
Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979.
Hartwell, David G., ed. The Dark Descent. New York: Doherty, 1987.
Jones, Ann Rosalind. “Writing the Body: Toward an Understanding of l'Écriture feminine.” The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory. Edited by Elaine Showalter. New York: Pantheon, 1985, 361-77.
King, Stephen. “The Reach.” The Dark Descent. Edited by David G. Hartwell. New York: Doherty, 1987, 15-30.
Moers, Ellen. Literary Women. New York: Doubleday, 1976.
Pharr, Mary Ferguson. “A Dream of New Life: Stephen King's Pet Sematary as a Variant of Frankenstein.” The Gothic World of Stephen King: Landscape of Nightmares. Edited by Gary Hoppenstand and Ray B. Browne. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1987, 115-25.
Selden, Raman. A Reader's Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1989.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus. 1818. Edited by James Rieger. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1974.
Showalter, Elaine. A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists From Brontë to Lessing. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977.
Zonana, Joyce. “‘They Will Prove the Truth of My Tale’: Safie's Letters as the Feminist Core of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.” The Journal of Narrative Technique 21 (1991): 170-84.
SOURCE: Sanders, Joe. “‘Monsters from the Id!’ in Stephen King's ‘The Monkey.’” Extrapolation 41, no. 3 (fall 2000): 257-65.
[In the following essay, Sanders relates King's story “The Monkey” to the film Forbidden Planet, in its psychic personification of the human id or subconscious.]
Considering how much more effective Stephen King's horrific images are on the page than on the screen, it probably is just as well that no movie has been made of “The Monkey,” in which a scruffy child's toy seems to be the source of all supernatural menace. What could be frightening about a broken clockwork monkey that can't even bang its little cymbals together when someone turns its wind-up key? Yet King somehow does involve readers in a distraught father's memories of a series of violent deaths during his youth that seem to portend the destruction of his present family. The toy monkey is featured on the cover of King's second collection, Skeleton Crew, and the story somehow is genuinely disturbing.
Critics have recognized the effectiveness of “The Monkey” but have had trouble identifying the source of its power. The major critical issue appears to be whether the little doll embodies a threat from outside, something that intrudes into the small circle of ordinary human experience from the surrounding darkness, or whether the toy monkey reflects something already present in Hal Shelburn, the story's protagonist. Douglas Winter, in Stephen King: The Art of Darkness, stresses the former; for Winter, the monkey represents “external evil, symbolized by the wheel for fortune” and acting purely by chance “without apparent logic or motivation” (70, 71). Tony Magistrale draws a much closer connection between monkey and man, reminding us that the toy is “associated with the violent events and subsequent guilt of Hal Shelburn's adolescence” (74). Magistrale also relates that guilt to “part of his [Hal's] subconscious mind which is unable to overcome the events of his tragic youth,” though this does not fully explain how Hal's youth became tragic (74). Other critics have tried to pull these extremes together. In The Many Facets of Stephen King, Michael R. Collings sees the monkey as a “child's toy that delights in mayhem for the sake of mayhem” (95) but adds that King is “capitalizing on a childhood fear” (96). In another study, written with David Engebretson, Collings also suggests that “The Monkey” “occupies the middle ground” between stories about “creatures” and those centered on “psychological intuition” (Shorter 137). Finally, in the most detailed analysis of the story thus far, Gene Doty describes “a strong but ambiguous link between Hal and the monkey” (130) but concludes that the story “presents a world in which evil constantly threatens human beings, who do not even have the comfort of being afflicted by a personal evil, which they might at least be able to understand” (135).
Actually, of course, it is not especially comforting even to glimpse one's personal evil, let alone admit that evil impulses should be acknowledged so that they may be understood and controlled. This may be a major reason King's story is so difficult to get a grip on. As protagonist, Hal Shelburn is the window through which readers must observe what is happening when the adult Hal confronts the monkey and also what happened when the child Hal first made the thing's acquaintance. In fact, though, Hal-at-any-age is a lot more slippery than he first appears. Especially when recounting the past, the adult Hal interprets and improves his memories. Here is the story's description of young Hal's first sight of the monkey, followed almost immediately by his adult critical commentary: “Delighted, Hal and turned it this way and that, feeling the crinkle of its nappy fur. Its funny grin pleased him. Yet hadn't there been something else? An almost instinctive feeling of disgust that had come and gone almost before he was aware of it? Perhaps it was so, but with an old, old memory like this one, you had to be careful not to believe too much. Old memories could lie”(151). If the first two sentences represent Hal as a child, the next two represent Hal as an adult looking back and censoring his younger self, and the last two show Hal-the-critical-adult questioning his desire now to have felt more than delight then. The passage also permits Stephen King to suggest, without lowering the mask of Hal Shelburn, that what the character says is not quite to be trusted. Not even if it's something he deeply believes—especially not then.
Hal's trustworthiness is important to an understanding of the story. William F. Nolan, for example, is dissatisfied with “The Monkey” because he believes it “lacks internal logic”: “Why didn't the protagonist simply destroy the monkey?” (103). This is not a foolish question. As Hal remembers it, when he was a small child he was too overwrought throughout the succession of deaths caused by the monkey to take decisive action against it. What he does attempt to do, though—hiding it back where he found it, throwing it out with the trash, or dropping it down a dry well—couldn't actually destroy the monkey, just get it away from immediate contact with him.
Keeping the monkey away somehow feels more important to Hal than actually disposing of it physically. He wants to stop thinking about it: out of sight, out of mind. But he can't succeed in separating himself from the monkey. It stays close to him. It wants to chat. When Hal discovers that it has followed him to Maine, he imagines it cheerfully informing him, “Thought you got rid of me, didn't you? But I'm not that easy to get rid of, Hal. I like you, Hal. We were made for each other, just a boy and his pet monkey, a couple of good old buddies” (165). Even more suggestively, when Hal looks down the mouth of the abandoned well where he remembers throwing the monkey years before, “a drowned face stared up at him, wide eyes, grimacing mouth. A moan escaped him. It was not loud, except in his heart. There it had been very loud. It was his own face in the dark water. Not the monkey's. For moment he had thought it was the monkey's” (144-45). To confuse a human and a simian face—or to mistake the anguished dread Hal is supposed to be feeling with the monkey's fixed expression of mindless, murderous glee, for that matter—means that Hal is not nearly as distant from the monkey as he consciously insists.
Perhaps we can reveal “The Monkey”'s internal logic by examining what happens in the story and by speculating on why Hal has such difficulty getting rid of something that, he realizes as an adult, ought to disgust and horrify him. Let's return to Hal's first sight of the toy, focusing this time on the circumstances of the encounter. Hal is only four when he first discovers the monkey. As King describes it, the important facts of Hal's life are the mysterious absence of his father and the consequence that his mother has had to go to work to support her sons. Hal's older brother Bill is in first grade, but Hal is stuck at home with a succession of uncaring babysitters: “Most were stupid girls who seemed only to want to eat or sleep. None of them wanted to read to Hal as his mother would do” (150). His current sitter is Beulah, a black teenager with an “admirable bosom,” who “fawned over when Hal when Hal's mother was around and sometimes pinched him when she wasn't,” but who at least shares stories with him from her own choice of magazine reading, such as “Death Came for the Voluptuous Redhead” (150). While she is asleep on the couch one day—not reading to him or otherwise giving him attention—Hal explores in the back closet where his father's things are stored. That's where he finds the monkey grinning “its ageless, toothy grin” (151). Even though the story repeatedly describes it as “broken,” Hal thinks the thing is “neat” and brings it back to his bedroom. That night, Hal awakens “from some uneasy dream” (151) to hear the monkey clanging its cymbals in the dark. Rather than being pleased that the toy works after all, Hal first of all is afraid that his brother or mother will hear. Before he even imagines anything else happening as a result of the monkey's action, Hal's guilty impulse is to reject the monkey (along with memory of his dream) and put it back where he found it. “But the next morning,” the story continues, “he forgot all about putting the monkey back because his mother didn't go to work” (152). Beulah and a friend have been murdered; Death has come for the voluptuous babysitter: “It was like Beulah just disappeared into one of her own detective magazines” (152). When he makes a cause and effect connection between the monkey's banging its cymbals and Beulah's being shot, Hal consciously is horrified. On the other hand, his mother stays home with him, so even if two other people are dead somewhere else Hal himself has a pretty nice day.
It's difficult to find fault with something that brings pleasure. Young Hal can connect the monkey's cymbal pounding with the first violent death and the others that follow, but he has trouble holding that connection clearly in his consciousness. Awareness keeps fading so that he even forgets what happened until he has “a bad dream about the monkey and Beulah—he couldn't remember exactly what—and had awakened screaming, thinking for a moment that the soft weight on his chest was the monkey, that he would open his eyes and see it grinning down at him” (154). The nightmare attracts his mother's attention again, so Hal almost succeeds in putting this reminder out of his thoughts too. Thus the real answer to Nolan's question about why Hal doesn't destroy the monkey seems to be not so much that the boy is too frightened to act as that he can “barely remember” (154) that he needs to do something as long as his own life is generally satisfactory. In fact, not long after this, even after all he has seen and dreamed, “Hal had forgotten all about the monkey” (155). If Hal can't remember there is a monkey, how could he remember that he should destroy it? And how could he seriously consider how thoroughly the “delight” he feels upon seeing the monkey should be qualified by “disgust”? How, in other words, can Hal even approach recognition of what Doty calls a “personal evil”? To understand the internal logic of “The Monkey,” we need to imagine an “evil” that is too deeply personal to be admitted. To avoid notice, this evil cannot consciously be connected with one's own feelings or actions. The closest a person dares approach it is acceptance, however frightened and unwilling, of the horrible acts that someone or something else has committed. This unrecognized—and unrecognizable—part of a person is free from conscious limitations. It is selfishly “personal” because it acts for immediate gratification of intimate desires without regard for the feelings or even the genuine existence of other humans. It envies, resents, and kills for personal satisfaction. Harboring such monstrous impulses is not unusual. As Doty comments, “Hal, like any normal child, must experience resentments toward the other people in his life, and, consequently, must also fantasize about their deaths” (132).
No one wants to admit to desiring such acts: Hal consciously semi-liked Beulah, so that “The liking made what happened worse” (150). But the deaths during Hal's youth do contribute to his physical and emotional comfort. Even his mother's death, after Hal has turned the monkey's key with what “years later he would think” was a kind of “drugged fascination” (158), lets him move into a more secure family setting with his aunt and uncle in Maine, which he later calls “the home place” (161). True, each violent death is so shocking that it's hard for readers to relate it to Hal's unadmitted needs. Also, not all the deaths benefit Hal as directly as the ones discussed here, or at least it's difficult to be sure since Hal has forgotten so much of the circumstances. Each death, however, is at least a display of power, of the ability to act rather than be acted upon. The main fact of Hal's childhood, remember, is insecurity. Being a small child means that he must depend on other people who are larger and more powerful but often also arbitrary or unresponsive. Hal is old enough to recognize his vulnerability and to want to at least begin asserting himself against the competitors or dominant individuals around him. At the same time, he must realize that he shouldn't. It's not right or safe to resent the people who have power over him. Not yet, at least not openly.
Although the supernatural power the monkey gives Hal is unique, his situation isn't. In fact, Hal's involvement with the monkey illustrates Freud's familiar concept of the id, a fundamental part of a three-level picture of the human mind that has been so widely popularized that by 1956 it could be used as the basis for the SF film Forbidden Planet. The film has what King's story lacks: skeptical observers to question the supposedly innocent bystander who has witnessed a series of violent deaths. These outsiders can articulate ideas that never reach the surface of Hal's consciousness in “The Monkey.” At the beginning of Forbidden Planet, when the United Planets Cruiser C-57-D arrives on Altair 4 to check up on a “prospecting party of scientists,” the sole survivor warns Captain Adams and his crew to leave at once. Dr. Morbius insists that he himself is perfectly safe, but cautions the newcomers that all the other scientists were killed by some unseen force just after they voted to return home, against Morbius's wishes, “like rag dolls ripped to bloody shreds by a malignant child” (Stuart 44). The mysterious creature has not been active since then, though Morbius's nightmares indicate that it still is lurking nearby. Despite this, Morbius is perfectly happy devoting his life to understanding the intricate machinery built by the planet's original inhabitants, the Krel, just before they were mysteriously wiped out. The Earthmen are suspicious and intrigued—especially after they meet Altaira, the nubile daughter Morbius has tried to keep away from them, and they begin making plans that might force Morbius to leave with them. Almost immediately, they are attacked each night by an invisible, unstoppable monster. The earthmen are suspicious of Morbius but can't imagine how he could be responsible until the ship's doctor solves the riddle by subjecting himself to the same Krel intelligence-enlarging device that Morbius himself used shortly after arriving on the planet. Overwhelmed, dying, but intent on warning the others, the doctor gasps “Monsters from the id!” When Morbius identifies “id” as “the elementary basis of the subconscious mind,” Captain Adams intuits that the Krels' final technological development allowed the manipulation of matter by their minds—subconscious as well as conscious—so that their primitive, murderous impulses took form and killed them. Morbius agrees, pitying the exquisitely refined beings who “could hardly have understood what power was destroying them.” Yet even as he dazedly asks “Why haven't I seen this all along?” he objects that the monster attacking them now cannot be a residue of the long-extinct Krel. “Your mind refuses to face the conclusion,” Adams replies, identifying Morbius's own id as the threat. “We're all part monsters in our subconscious,” he adds. “Even in you, the loving father, there still exists the mindless primitive.” Eventually, as the monster is about to enter their last refuge to kill Adams along with Altaira, Morbius accepts the truth: “Guilty! Guilty! My evil self is at that door, and I have no power to stop it!” He shields the others with his own body, shouting at the unseen monster “I deny you! I give you up!” Whereupon he collapses, dying. Film critics have been puzzled by this conclusion (Warren 266; Brosnan 124), but it should be obvious from the doctor's death that if merely facing the id is unbearably traumatic, then truly denying it would negate “the basis of the subconscious mind” and bring consciousness crashing down in ruins too.
Whether or not Stephen King has seen Forbidden Planet, it's extremely unlikely that he hasn't at least heard about the film.1 In any case, the point is that Freud's theories permeate our culture so thoroughly that even a mass movie audience was assumed to have at least a vague picture of the primitive, utterly selfish and ruthless id, asserting itself without being glimpsed as a part of oneself, always attributed to some exterior source. Even Hal Shelburn, as Doty paraphrases him, reflects that “‘most bad things’ are not conscious of their badness” (134).
For the most part, thus far, we've been considering Hal's sometimes-dubious memories of events that happened when he was a child just beginning to assert himself so that he'd be able to replace the controlling adults around him. In the story's “now,” however, the situation has changed. Now Hal is an adult himself, with his own position as a controller to protect. He has a family of his own to look after. His own childhood has given him no realistic male role model to refer to when it comes to raising sons—all his plans to bond with his boys refer to how his uncle took him fishing, but he's determined to be the perfect husband and father (149). As Hal sees it, being head of a family means making its members feel secure. Like Dr. Morbius, all Hal seems to expect in return is sincere respect and unquestioning acceptance of his benevolent authority. Unfortunately, he isn't able to guarantee financial security. He's lost a good job and been relegated to an inferior one, however he rationalizes that fact when he's talking to the others; despite verbal quibbling, he is intensely aware that the rest of the family knows they're living in reduced circumstances (148). Even though his wife verbally agrees with him that they're doing just fine, Hal is sure that the reason she stuffs herself with Valium is to muffle her discontent (143). His two sons, meanwhile, are growing up to the point where they might naturally begin challenging his control. Petey is only nine and apparently safe for the moment, but Dennis is twelve and beginning to act independently, “achieving a premature escape velocity” (143).
Hal is, in short, severely stressed, torn between an unchangeable ideal and a changing reality. At this point, when he needs to reassert his authority but lacks justification for doing so, the monkey reappears. Hal is consciously horrified. However, his sons are fascinated by this monster from the id, and the incipiently rebellious Dennis reacts with the same comment young Hal made: “neat” (141). He says this, moreover, “respectfully … a tone Hal rarely got from the boy anymore himself” (141). The struggle for possession of the monkey illustrates the contest for power between Hal and his sons. In the monkey's presence, Hal becomes more aggressively dominant. While the monkey grins “as if in approbation” (148), he manhandles Dennis until his son at least temporarily stops challenging his father's authority and cries “with a young boy's loud, braying, healthy sobs” (149-50). Though his wife objects, “You're not like this,” he verbally slaps her back to where she belongs too (153). Earlier, Hal had rather guiltily tried to analyze his feelings toward Dennis. As Captain Adams reminds Morbius, “even in … the loving father, there still exists the mindless primitive,” and Hal admits to himself that “he felt this uncontrollable hostility toward Dennis more and more often, but in the aftermath he felt demeaned and tacky … helpless” (148). Now, with the monkey present, he has an excuse for feeling helpless; he can tell himself that he's too upset to control his feelings. And anyway, the others deserved what they got.
Such victories are shortlived, and Hal's actions reveal his own divided feelings more and more openly. Hal's conscious purpose is to keep the monkey from hurting his family, so he manages to get it away from the boys. Evidently not remembering how difficult it is to keep the thing out of reach, he locks it in his suitcase and lies down for a nap. When he wakes up from a deep, deep sleep, the bag still is locked and the key still in his pocket. The monkey, though, is loose. In fact, Hal had been hugging it while he slept. Petey helpfully reports, “Dennis saw. He laughed, too. He said you looked like a baby with a teddy bear” (159). Dennis's laughter at a grownup's childishness probably counterbalances the “healthy sobs” Hal drew from him earlier, especially considering how the boy now probably resents having been slammed around. So what's a father to do? It is unlikely that Hal will be able to restore, let alone maintain, the authority he enjoyed a few years ago when he was satisfying his wife financially and when the boys were younger and more naive. He can shove them back in place, but they almost certainly won't stay there. Now, the only way Hal could keep the other family members from disturbing his sense of himself, making him feel like a failure, is by letting the monkey dispose of them. That's literally unthinkable. Besides, he needs them too much.
Despite the clues King provides throughout the story, Hal will never be able to see himself as the source of this monstrous disruption of his loving, well-regulated family. He must deny responsibility for what happens. Therefore, he must get rid of the monkey, the embodiment of unthinkable impulses, in order to protect the people who are dependent on him whether they know and appreciate it or not. The moment is right. His drug-saturated wife and disrespectful preteen son have gone out, but Petey is still there because he wanted to stay and “hang out” with his father (159). Unlike Dennis, Petey is emphatically a child. He is absolutely non-threatening and non-assertive. He still calls his father “Daddy” (141) and clings to him at a hint of danger; in response to his transparent dependency, Hal feels “simple love for the boy” (144), “an emotion that was bright and strong and uncomplicated” (159), not at all like the anguish caused by the older, complicated Dennis. Hal recognizes a kindred soul in Petey, especially when Petey tells how he rejected the invitation the monkey made while Hal was asleep: “Wind me up, Petey, we'll play, your father isn't going to wake up, he's never going to wake up at all” (160). And so Petey becomes his father's trusty aide when Hal sets out to sink the monkey in the deepest part of a nearby lake. By doing so, Hal vindicates himself as his loved ones' necessary protector, as he visualizes Petey physically shrinking: “Petey was magically eight, six, a four-year-old standing at the edge of the water. He shaded his eyes with one infant hand” (169). After Hal returns to the shore, the two go through a delicate, semi-verbalized negotiation and/or reaffirmation of their respective roles. Petey sounds and acts like a small child as he takes shelter in his father's arms and asks if the “nastybad monkey” is gone; ‘“You were brave, Daddy,” he says (172). In reply, Hal accepts his son as a potentially maturing individual and as a partner in dealing with the others; when Petey asks what they'll tell his mother, Hal replies, “I dunno, big guy. We'll think of something” (172).
At the end of the story, Hal and Petey walk back toward “the home place” and everything is over—except for a newspaper story that reports hundreds of dead fish floating in the lake where the monkey waits for some other father and son to rescue it (172). As Hal has suspected throughout, although he appears to forget in the glow of Petey's approval, the monkey represents a deadly force that cannot be denied for long in this world. Science fiction, Forbidden Planet, for example, is more confident of humans' ability to understand and control ourselves; the ship's doctor and Morbius eventually see and do the right thing even if it costs their lives. Fantasy is less confident, and horror is sure of the reverse. As the critics of King's story who have grappled with the nature of the monkey's power have sensed, the force menaces Hal from outside but carries out his own desires; at the same time, normal desires that he might otherwise have tried to cope with are twisted beyond recognition by the supernatural instrument. Rather than diminishing the power of King's story, identifying the monkey as a monster from the id clarifies Doty's point that it is an especially disturbing, constant threat because it is never quite in focus, always lurking barely beyond apprehension. For the monkey simultaneously reveals and conceals an inescapable, dreadful human process. As children become aware of themselves and parents become aware of their own mortality, threats of physical and psychic destruction do erupt, unrecognizable and uncontrollable. It is too late for Hal to think of truly getting rid of the monkey now, as he walks back home with his innocent little son. It always was too late. It always will be.
In a recent novel, however, King's narrator comments, “Perhaps sometimes ghosts were alive—minds and desires divorced from their bodies. … Ghosts from the id” (Bag of Bones 227).
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———. “The Monkey.” Skeleton Crew. New York: Putnam, 1985. 141-73.
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