Friday essay: in praise of the 'horror master' Stephen King

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Growing up in the 1980s, the name Stephen King was synonymous with macabre, terrifying, apparently taboo (though ubiquitous) book covers. They seemed to appear everywhere: bookstores, to be sure; but also newsagents, supermarkets, cinemas, airports and libraries. They always seemed to be spinning in some library carousel, looking tattered, like they’d been borrowed 100,000 times.

Like a kid from a King novel, I was obsessed with the forbidden. I would spend hours staring at these book covers, thinking about the horrors that might lie within.

A giant, bloody salivating dog. A freakish pair of eyes looking out of a drain. A silhouette of a figure with an axe eclipsing someone in a wheelchair. Hell, they looked more like movie posters than book covers. I’d go to bed and imagine one of these figures coming alive and creeping towards the house from the backyard.

Very occasionally, this was actually scary – but mostly it was just fun.

Why we love horror

Why do we gravitate towards subject matter that, if it existed in the real world, would be at best supremely unpleasant? There are many theories regarding why people love horror film and literature.

Perhaps it’s cathartic. Maybe it reflects Freud’s “death drive,” or what Edgar Allan Poe described, in a titular short story, as the “imp of the perverse,” (suggesting we all have self-destructive tendencies). Or maybe it simply reflects our fascination with extreme experiences, a desire to be overwhelmed by the sublime, which Edmund Burke defined as a mixture of fear and excitement, terror and awe. Perhaps horror thus manifests a desire to re-enchant the world with magic in a controlled and safe context, physically activating the body and its response mechanisms in an environment that only simulates real peril.

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote about the collective pleasure of inflicting pain on others through punishment. Does our fascination for horror channel this? Or, as Julia Kristeva’s theory suggests, does art help us manage our abject horror at the breakdown between self and other – most pointedly captured in our confrontations with corpses?

Literary theorist René Girard’s ideas are equally compelling. Perhaps we’re attracted to images of violence because of its anthropological function in the earliest periods of community formation. A victim – the scapegoat – would be chosen to bear the violence that would otherwise be destructively directed towards other members of the community. This idea is beautifully rendered in Drew Godard’s The Cabin in the Woods, a horror film about the origins of horror films in ritual and sacrifice.

In a broader cultural sense, our modern interest in horror, the supernatural and the weird has grown in direct proportion to industrialisation, and the parallel shrinking of the world’s magic and mysteries (captured in the term “globalisation”).

In a post-sacred era of intense scientific rationalism and technological development, the aesthetics of the weird, supernatural and horrific – in all their wondrous irrationality – allow us to occupy an alternate, imaginary space removed from the horror of things as they really are: mass industrial wars of attrition, precarious states of living, pandemic disease and global warming.

Read more: Friday essay: scary tales for scary times

My first King

When I finally had the autonomy (and my own money) to pick the books I wanted to read, it was with mixed feelings of shame and excitement that I went to buy my first Stephen King novel.

I still remember the suburban bookstore and the sardonic frown of its middle-aged clerk as she looked down at my ten-year-old self when I placed Pet Sematary on the counter and got 12 bucks out of my wallet. I remember blushing when she intimated (or was it actually a question?) I must have been buying this for an older relative.

The novel follows what happens to a doctor and his family when they discover, in the woods, a children’s pet cemetery that reanimates whatever is buried there. It lived up to the promise of its cover, offering splashes of superlative gore, a handful of genuinely terrifying moments (the sequences involving Rachel’s sick sister Zelda still get to me) and a plethora of new words. Not swear words, mind you – any self-respecting kid knows all of these by seven or eight – but terms like “cuckold”, about which I had to consult my mum.

For the next two years, I spent most of my reading time dedicated to King. I quickly got through the pantheon – massive tomes like The Stand, Needful Things and It; more moderately sized ones like Carrie, The Shining and Salem’s Lot; and short, explosive ones like The Running Man, published under King’s pseudonym, Richard Bachman. And then I started with the new releases (there was at least one every year – like 1994’s Insomnia), generally available from Kmart in hardback.

I found in King an interlocutor who spoke with gusto and enthusiasm about all kinds of things – old age, domestic abuse, natural and supernatural horrors of the mind and closet. But, more than anything else, he seemed not only to write stories that often featured young characters, but to accurately dramatise what it actually felt like to be a kid.

Short stories like The Sun Dog, novels like Cycle of the Werewolf and the monumental It – not to mention more obvious outings like The Body, the basis of the massively successful nostalgia film Stand By Me – captured the peculiar melancholic excitement, both intense and slightly wistful, of being near the beginning of life in that delirious halcyon era just before puberty sets in.

Then I grew up – and stopped reading King. Through writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jane Austen, I was introduced to prose worlds that seemed to be richer: both more concentrated and more expansive, certainly more nuanced. King gradually disappeared from my field of vision.

I forgot about the “gypsy” curse on Billy Halleck (the basis of Thinner) and about Arnie and Dennis from Christine, as they struggle to overcome the eponymous evil car. Like one of the children of It – who forget their childhoods, until they reunite as adults to confront them – I forgot about my horror master, erasing my childhood experiences from memory. When I was 15, as a gag, I tried reading Firestarter and found it garish, gross, infantile. A few years earlier, King’s novel about a pyrokinetic child being hunted by a government who want to weaponise her would have seemed thrilling, maybe even insightful.

But the King was dead.

Read more: 'Supp'd full with horrors': 400 years of Shakespearean supernaturalism

Literary snobs and good writers

Perhaps the only thing worse than the literary snob who looks down on everyone who doesn’t read Joyce’s Ulysses on loop is the literary snob of the populist variety, the one who scowls at everyone who doesn’t read the kind of fiction that ord’nary folks like.

When outspoken literary critic and professor Harold Bloom described the 2003 awarding of the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters to Stephen King as “another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life,” it was easy to dislike Bloom as an example of the former. Listening to King discuss his writing, it is almost as easy to dismiss him as the latter.

What makes a good writer? According to King,

If you wrote something for which someone sent you a check, if you cashed the check and it didn’t bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented.

So is King, as Bloom writes, “an immensely inadequate writer on a sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph, book-by-book basis”? King does, after all, describe his own work as “the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and a large fries from McDonald’s”. And there are numerous passages throughout his work – probably most pronouncedly in the words of writer Bill Denbrough in It – in which King expresses a serious disdain for academic knowledge and scholarship.

As Bloom would probably argue, consistency in style and tone, and complexity of form, are key elements underpinning any kind of aesthetic mastery. And it’s undeniable that King has produced a not-inconsiderable volume of poorly written and inconsistent work. Sometimes his novels warrant criticisms of pretentiousness, hackneyed style and tediously repetitive prose.

King may or may not be a great, or even good, writer. His more self-consciously serious stuff sometimes seems intolerable to me: kitsch is only fun if the attitude is fun. And some of his work (Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption and Dolores Claiborne, for example) feels heavy-handed to the point of being virtually unreadable. Never mind – these works are frequently adapted into incredibly popular and incredibly dull films.

In any case, the debate continues to play out, with critics intermittently arguing for and against King’s writing. Dwight Allen, for example, wrote in the Los Angeles Review of Books that King creates one-dimensional characters in dull prose. In the same publication, Sarah Langan responded:

All of [King’s] novels, even the stinkers, have resonance. […] his fiction isn’t just reflective of the current culture, it casts judgement. […] No one except King challenges [Americans] so relentlessly, to be brave. To kill our monsters.

King is, undeniably, a juggernaut of commercial literary production – an industry unto himself, a literary and cinematic brand – who has written a handful of genuine horror genre masterpieces throughout his career.

Perhaps it’s in part this combination of prolific volume and intermittent brilliance that keeps me, like an addict, coming back for more.

Ultimately, though, I would suggest I like reading King for the same reason so many others do, a reason that accounts for his enduring popularity when better horror stylists (King’s contemporaries Clive Barker and Peter Straub, for example) have fallen by the wayside. And that’s his unprecedented capacity to tap into nostalgia.

Returning to King-world

Nearly 20 years after I gave up on Stephen King, in one of those random nostalgic moments that seem to populate his fictional world, my brother gave me Revival for Christmas.

King’s Frankensteinian novel, published in 2014, is about the aftermath of an encounter between a young boy and a Methodist minister fascinated by electricity. After years of mainly reading what is sometimes pretentiously called “literary” fiction, and mostly avoiding anything written after the 19th or very early 20th centuries, I returned to King-world.

And I was dazzled by what I found there, realising what I must have known as a kid: King is a superb storyteller. Much of his work is characterised by an infectiously energetic prose style, governed by a flair for simple but satisfying plotting and a supremely inventive imagination.

And – yep – I was stunned by his capacity to precisely render in prose, perhaps more acutely than any other contemporary writer, the confusing, often hokey and melodramatic, but always exciting images, emotions, and sensibilities of youth.

I realised there’s something brilliant, and totally inimitable, about King. Despite his work’s sometimes kitsch silliness (a hazard of the horror genre), despite the not uncommon misfires – and despite the absurdly voluminous output - King is able to authentically generate an atmosphere of nostalgia that taps into something at the very core of the pleasure of reading.

Read more: Frankenstein: how Mary Shelley's sci-fi classic offers lessons for us today about the dangers of playing God

It: a masterpiece of nostalgia

His novel It is a case in point: a masterclass in narrative development through a nostalgic structure.

It – for anyone who hasn’t read it, or seen one of the three film adaptations – cuts between the adult lives and childhoods of a group of misfits, the “Losers Club”, who collectively band together to fight the evil of their town, Derry. That evil takes the form of a shape-shifting clown, Pennywise.

The Losers Club battled and banished Pennywise as kids, but now “it” has come back. The club members return from around the world to live up to their childhood promise: that if “it” ever returns, they, too, will return to fight “it”. The narrative cuts between characters, en route to Derry, as they recall forgotten passages from their childhood “it’s” return has forced them to remember.

So, the novel is structured around a nostalgic trope: adults literally remembering and reconstructing their childhood in the present. At the same time, the town Derry is developed by King according to a quintessentially nostalgic image of the American small town, recalling peak 1950s Americana. Think Grease: soda fountains, switchblades and quiffs. But behind closed doors, fathers abuse daughters, mothers keep their children sick, and a monster that assumes the form of whatever demon most terrifies you stalks the streets, killing and eating children.

The narrative architecture is starkly simple, sustaining a profound sense of dread in the reader. The characters remember a dreadful past, in a present-future they wish had never materialised. Perhaps nostalgia always contains shades of the dreadful, given its suggestion that one’s future is foreclosed, that all we have are memories of a better time: memories that only exist as memories.

In some of King’s work – Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, for example – nostalgia acts mainly as window dressing, functioning primarily as an aesthetic. But in It, nostalgia is neither incidental nor benign: it’s a way of exploring the impossibility of having to remember trauma.

Memory appears inevitably nostalgic, because it involves, for the characters, narrative reconstruction of childhood in the present. In the Derry library, for town librarian Mike Hanlon – the only Loser to remain in Derry as an adult (and the only one who didn’t battle It in the sewers as a child) - for example. Or for Ben Hanscom, an internationally successful architect, once the fat kid of the group, who flies back to Derry, drunk and asleep in first-class.

In this way, the novel functions as a kind of treatise on narrative itself. A grab bag of clichés from the horror playbook become legitimately terrifying for the children in the novel - they’re kids after all, and the cultural worlds of kids are often constructed around clichés – from mass-produced popular figures like the Wolf Man, to figures associated with the characters’ nightmarish personal traumas.

It’s a “coming of age” story with a vengeance - a metatext on the horrors of youth, of fitting in, metamorphosing into adulthood, and breaking free of one’s parents - and it inherently explores the ways we use horror stories (like fairytales) to come to terms with this.

As Adrian Daub, revisiting the novel on its 30-year anniversary, wrote in the Los Angeles Review of Books in 2016:

Anamnesis — remembering — is the central structuring device of It’s parallel plots: characters have to find out what they once did, and confront what on some level they already know. […] Perhaps all the kids who devoured It in the ’80s sensed that King had made their pre-adolescent mode of experiencing the world — that unique combination of vivid clarity and forgetfulness — its formal principle. […] All the friends, events, images, and feelings that we ever-so-gently cover in sand as we stumble into adulthood can startle us when we come face to face with them again, and these are the true source of It’s terror. What else have we hidden back there, we wonder uneasily?“

In It’s truly weird (over)length, in It’s oscillating moments of genius and stupidity, in It’s ambition – as King’s horror book about horror, the horror book to end all horror books – it is an American masterpiece. It captures everything incisive, deluded, cruel and sentimental about the popular American literary imagination.

Read more: Why do we find it so hard to move on from the 80s?

Reading as escape and connection

So why is nostalgia such a powerful affect in It, and in King’s work in general?

I think it taps into something at the heart of the process of reading novels. We sit with a novel and retreat from the world: an intensely solipsistic act. A novel sweeps us up into a fantasy image of things (no matter how distant or close to reality) and makes us feel, in our solitude, excitement about what’s to come – but also a faint melancholy in remembering we will soon have to leave this world.

It’s no surprise many people cry at the end of novels: we’ve made such a personal investment, then that world simply disappears, and all we’re left with are our memories of it. In our desire to return to this pleasurable state, we may feel compelled to borrow – or buy – another book.

But while reading a novel feels like a private act (as opposed to going to a movie or concert), there’s also always a sense we are connected to (and connecting with) some kind of cultural and historical continuum.

We read Dickens in our solitude, yet imagine we’re in Victorian England, connected across 150-odd years. Time and space seem collapsed into a vibrant, active present. Dickens speaks to us, but more significantly, the zeitgeist addresses us in a moving presence – perhaps we can cheat death, after all?

The structure of It (and much of King’s other work) reproduces what attracts many of us to reading fiction in the first place – an escape into a present that is at the same time a kind of memory-fantasy, governed by lingering nostalgia.

For Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch, literature offers a utopian space in which we can transcend and transform the past and future, captured in the figure of heimat (meaning homeland – and appropriated in opposition to the term’s German nationalist use). Literature allows us to return to a mythic-nostalgic image of "home” – which we know has never actually existed. This nostalgic space opens the possibility of a better collective present and future.

Read more: The psychology behind why clowns creep us out

Long live the King!

There are definitely better, more controlled stylists than King in popular horror fiction. But their work is somehow more forgettable. King’s perpetual presence - as ringmaster, as media conglomerate, as relentless worker – is always in performance in his work.

You may find his style annoying, or his narratives hokey, but you will always recognise them as Stephen King. He has a flavour, and it ties his work together, good and bad. Much of it emanates from the man himself and his sheer love of writing and reading – dare I say it, of “literature”.

This is evident in his publishing history, but also in the forewords and reviews, and endorsements, he writes for writers he loves. The revival of interest in noir master Jim Thompson, for example, who had vanished into obscurity, seems to be at least in part down to King’s forewords to several of his books. And one wonders how much the Hard Case Crime imprint, which publishes hard-boiled crime novels in the flavour of those of the 1950s and 60s, relies on the success of King’s original crime novels written for them. How many forgotten masterpieces of noir literature have been brought back into print because King publishes with Hard Case? How many books have moved because a line from King is featured on the cover?

No other living horror writer has enjoyed King’s longevity. There’s no one whose monsters have lingered quite as long in the popular imagination, and in the imaginations of countless readers like me.

The literature we read as children and adolescents has a profound effect on our cultural and personal formation, shaping our becoming as adults. King’s worlds, where children struggle to shape their futures, draw upon our own, personal nostalgia. But they also tap into a kind of nostalgia that lies at the heart of novelistic pleasure itself.

Horror films and novels situate us in precarious situations - we identify with victims, sense their isolation as monsters attack, and feel their glory when and if the monsters are defeated.

We creep through the worlds of horror, watchful, alert, before returning to the safety of our bedrooms, but we’re always a little sad when we come back: that world may have been dominated by killer birds, or by hellish blood-sucking fiends, but it was an exciting, atmospheric - and beautifully solitary – place.

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Ari Mattes, University of Notre Dame Australia.

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Ari Mattes does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.