“That was when he felt his entire structure of organized thought begin to slide slowly toward some dark abyss.”
—Stephen King, The Langoliers
Stephen King has become a household name in at least three senses. He is a writer pretty much everyone in the English-speaking world has heard of, if they have heard of writers at all. He is regularly read by many people who don’t read many other writers. And, along with Danielle Steel and a few others, he is taken to represent everything that is wrong with contemporary publishing, that engine of junk pushing serious literature out of our minds and our bookstores. The English writer Clive Barker has said, “There are apparently two books in every American household—one of them is the Bible and the other one is probably by Stephen King.” I don’t know what Barker’s source is for this claim, but I wonder about the Bible.
Do we know what popular literature is? When is it not junk? Is it ever (just) junk? Who is to say? What is the alternative to popular literature? Serious, highbrow, literary, or merely…unpopular literature? Stephen King responded with eloquent anger in an argument over these issues conducted in the PEN newsletter in 1991. He thought best-selling authors came in all kinds. He said he found James Michener, Robert Ludlum, John le Carré, and Frederick Forsyth “unreadable,” but enjoyed (among others) Elmore Leonard, Sara Paretsky, Jonathan Kellerman, and Joyce Carol Oates. This seems sound enough to me, although I have to confess to liking Ludlum and le Carré as well. “Some of these,” King continued, “are writers whose work I think of as sometimes or often literary, and all are writers who can be counted on to tell a good story, one that takes me away from the humdrum passages of life…and enriches my leisure time as well. Such work has always seemed honorable to me, even noble.”
What had made King angry was the term “better” fiction, which Ursula Perrin had used in an open letter to PEN (“I am a writer of ‘better’ fiction, by which I mean that I don’t write romance or horror or mystery”) complaining about the profusion of worse fiction in the bookstores—“this rising sea of trash” were her words. “Ursula Perrin’s prissy use of the word ‘better,’ ” King says, “which she keeps putting in quotation marks, makes me feel like baying at the moon.” Perrin’s examples of writers of “better” fiction were John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and Alice Hoffman.
But King was wrong, I think, to assume that Perrin’s argument could rest only on snobbery, and he himself owes his success not to some all-purpose skill in entertainment but to his skill in a particular genre, and to his readers’ expectations of that genre. There is a real difficulty with the rigidity and exclusivity of our literary categories; but it is no solution to say that exclusivity is the problem. What happens perhaps is that the tricky task of deciding whether a piece of writing (of any kind) is any good is repeatedly replaced by the easier habit of deciding which slabs or modes of writing we can ignore. Even King, who not only should but does know better, confuses fiction that is popular with popular fiction, best sellers with genres, and his line about the humdrum passages of life and the enrichment of leisure time is as condescending in its mock-demotic way as the idea of “better” fiction. No one would read Stephen King if that was all he managed to do.
Genres do exist, however we name them, and the work they do is honorable, even noble. When we say writers have transcended their genre, we often mean they have abandoned or betrayed it. Genres have long and complicated histories, richer and poorer, better and worse. They may be in touch with ancient and unresolved imaginative energies, or whatever haunts the back of a culture’s mind; and they permit and occasionally insist on allusions the writer may have no thought of making. Stephen King, however, has thought of making allusions, and thought of it more and more, as the excursions into classical mythology of Rose Madder make very clear.
What’s interesting about Carrie,1 King’s first novel, published in 1974, is the way it sustains and complicates its problems, gives us grounds for judgment and then takes them away. The genre here (within the horror genre) is the mutant-disaster story, which in more recent years has become the virus novel or movie. Sixteen-year-old Carietta White has inherited aweinspiring telekinetic powers, and in a fit of fury wipes out whole portions of the Maine town where she lives, causing a death toll of well over four hundred. Carrie has always been awkward and strange, cruelly mocked by her companions at school, and liked by no one. Her mother is a morbid fundamentalist Christian who thinks that sex even within marriage is evil. The town itself is full of rancor and hypocrisy and pretension—the sort of place where the prettiest girl is also the meanest, the local hoodlums have everyone terrorized, and the assistant principal of the school has a ceramic ashtray in the form of Rodin’s Thinker on his desk—so that without any supernatural intervention at all there’s plenty to go wrong, and plenty of people to blame. Carrie’s terrible gift for willing physical destruction is an accident, the result of a recessive gene that could come up in anyone, and the novel makes much play with the idea of little Carries quietly multiplying all over the United States like bombs rather than children. The last image in the novel is of a two-year-old in Tennessee who is able to move marbles around without touching them, and this is the portentous question the novel pretends to address: “What happens if there are others like her? What happens to the world?”
This is a big question, but it’s not as important as it looks, because apart from being unanswerable in the absence of any knowledge of the characters and lives of the “others like her,” it mainly serves to mask another question, which is the most urgent question of the horror genre as Stephen King practices it: What difference does the supernatural or fanciful element make, whether it’s telekinesis or death-in-life? What if it’s only a lurid metaphor for what’s already there? Carrie White is not a monster, even if her mother is. Carrie has been baited endlessly, and when someone is finally nice to her and takes her to the high-school prom, the evening ends in nightmare: pig’s blood is poured all over her and her partner, a sickening echo and travesty of the opening scene in the novel, where Carrie discovers in the shower room that she is menstruating and doesn’t know what’s happening to her. Human folly and nastiness take care of this entire region of the plot, and Carrie’s distress and rage are what anyone but a saint would feel. But then she has her powers. The difference is not in the rage but in what she can do about it, and this is where contemporary horror stories, like old tales of magic, speak most clearly to our fears and desires.
Edward Ingebretsen, S.J., in an interestingly argued book whose subtitle confirms King’s status even in the academic household,2 speaks of religion where I am speaking of magic. “Once-religious imperatives,” he says, “can be traced across a variety of American genres, modes, and texts.” “The deflective energies of a largely forgotten metaphysical history live on, not only in churches, but in a myriad other centers of displaced worship.” Ingebretsen has a nice sense of irony—I hope it’s irony—dark and oblique like his subject: “A major comfort of the Christian tradition is the terror it generates and presupposes….” He certainly understands how King, while seeming to offer escape from the humdrum passages of life, shows us the weird bestiary lurking in those apparently anodyne places. “Change the focus slightly and King’s horror novel [in this case Salem’s Lot] reintroduces the horrific, although the horrific as it routinely exists in the real and the probable.” “Routinely” is excellent.
It’s true that religious hauntings are everywhere in American life, but because they are everywhere, they don’t really help us to see the edge in modern horror stories, the way these stories suggest that we have returned, on some not entirely serious, not entirely playful level, to the notion that superstitions are right after all, that they offer us a more plausible picture of the world than any organized religion or any of our secular promises. It’s not only that the old religion is still with us, but that even older ideas have returned to currency. This is a very complicated question, but the notion of magic will allow us to make a start on it.
Magic is the power to convert wishes into deeds without passing through the cumbersome procedures of material reality: taking planes, hiring assassins, waiting for the news, going to jail. It bypasses physics, connects the mind directly to the world. All of Stephen King’s novels that I have read involve magic in this sense, even where nothing supernatural occurs, where the only magic is the freedom of fiction to move when it wants to from thought to act. Would you, if you could, immediately and violently get rid of anyone and anything you dislike? If you were provoked enough? And could be sure of getting away with it? The quick response, of course, is that you know you shouldn’t, and probably wouldn’t. The slow response is the same, but meanwhile, if you’re not really thinking about it, you probably let it all happen in your head, which is a way of saying yes to the fantasy of immense violence while feeling scared about it.
This must be a large part of the delight of this kind of horror fiction. Is this really all right, even in a novel? There’s a relish in the thought of Carrie’s destroying her miserable town; we can’t wait for another gas station to blow up. But there’s also an ugly comfort in feeling Carrie’s an alien and a freak, not one of us, and above all in knowing, at the end, that she’s dead. At the heart of Carrie is a conversation between Susan, the one girl in town who worries about Carrie, and Susan’s amiable boyfriend, who dies for his attempt at niceness. They have no idea of what’s going to happen; they know only that everyone’s always been mean to Carrie.
“You were kids,” he said. “Kids don’t know what they’re doing. Kids don’t even know their reactions really, actually, hurt other people….”
She found herself struggling to express the thought this called up in her, for it suddenly seemed basic, bulking over the shower-room incident the way sky bulks over mountains.
“But hardly anybody ever finds out that their actions really, actually, hurt other people! People don’t get better, they just get smarter. When you get smarter you don’t stop pulling the wings off flies, you just think of better reasons for doing it.”
Doubleday, 1974; Signet, 1975.↩
Maps of Heaven, Maps of Hell: Religious Terror as Memory from the Puritans to Stephen King (Paragon House, 1995).↩