a weekly column by
vol. 3 #15,
October 10, 1997
SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES
It is customary in literary circles to sneer at Stephen King. His style is so pop culture, so riddled with advertising slogans, so trashy. And all that gore, so lovingly described, all those walls crashing in, all that chaos and destruction. All those monsters, for heaven's sake. This is not the stuff of LITERATURE. The critics can't understand why people read this crap, when they could be reading John Updike or Joyce Carol Oates.
But monsters are what literature SHOULD be telling us about. Literature should be explaining the unexplainable to us. WHY did Ted Bundy murder all those nice girls who were so willing to help the man with a cast on his arm? WHY are children raped and tortured by the very people whose duty is to protect them? HOW can drunk drivers wipe out entire families and walk away without a pang of guilt ("Jeez, get off my case, it was just an accident!")? Why do people LET the bad guys win?
If Stephen King is popular, it is, in part, because he tells a jolly good story. But those jolly good stories are about people who come face to face with evil. You see, Stephen King understands that evil exists. It is real. It is palpable. It comes in degrees, starting with the mindless casual cruelties of children taunting the hapless rejects and bullying those too weak to fight back, and working up toward adult-strength evil like mass murder and tyranny.
More to the point, though, King understands that evil too often triumphs not because most people are villains, but because they choose not to recognize evil. Or they resign themselves to it because they feel too weak to resist. Or they convince themselves that fighting it is someone else's job. So King's stories are full of people who are in fact too puny, too weak, but who thrust all their powers against the monsters anyway. And they triumph, although triumph over evil is always temporary.
Granted he started out on a somewhat smaller scale. His first book, Carrie, is about the unexpected consequences of thoughtless cruelty, teenagers making sport of a strange, barely pubescent girl who commits the sin of differentness and naivete. The popular girls tease her and terrify her. When one of the popular boys understands what they are doing to Carrie, and tells them they are being mean, he shames them and makes them actively vindictive against her. Thus begins a prank that leads to disaster, because Carrie has powers she does not understand and cannot control. When they humiliate her during an evening of Cinderella-like fantasy fulfillment, making her realize the whole lovely evening was a cruel joke, like blind, enraged Samson, she brings the house down.
If there is evil here, it is the evil of mindlessness, of the failure of empathy. The message here is that you cannot predict or control the consequences of what you do to someone. It may just come back at you tenfold.
It's in King's later works that you begin to see his characters confronting evil. And many of his heroes are children. This is, incidentally, another reason why King is so widely read--he has never forgotten what it is to be a bullied child the adult world refuses to protect. We enter wholeheartedly into that child's consciousness because it takes us back to our own childhood victimization, our own disappointments with adults who failed us.
In two of his novels, The Talisman (jointly written with Peter Straub), and It, King explicitly takes the theme "and a little child shall lead them." In both novels, the adults are incapable of understanding the evil that is about to envelop and destroy their world. They see the signs, but choose not to understand them. Only the children know what is happening, and know that it is up to them to save the people they care about. In The Talisman, a 12 year old boy enters into an alternate universe in which his mother, the queen, is held captive, and he must rescue her in order to rescue her in the real world--in the process, preventing the destruction of both universes. In It, a monster that has lived beneath Derry for centuries, emerging periodically to feed, is challenged and nearly defeated by a band of children, outcasts one and all.
It scares the hell out of them. They feel weak and overwhelmed by the power of the forces of darkness. They all wonder, "Why me?" They would all prefer to let this cup pass from them to someone stronger. But nobody stronger is willing to see what is needed, let alone do it. Their only power is the force of their own indignation--this is just one more bully to fight, in a life that has been nothing but bullies. It's a much bigger bully, and their slingshot seems an even more pathetic weapon against It, but with it, they follow the monster to its lair and wound it badly. They are still only kids, after all, with limited power. They have to come back as adults to kill It.
In The Stand, King draws a world decimated by disease. The survivors are drawn toward two communities by two distinct visions. One is of an old old black woman in Nebraska, a clear stand-in for God. The other is Randall Flagg, the Dark Man. The old woman's recruits, our heroes, include a philosophical professor, a Texan can-do sort of man, a pregnant young woman and her rejected pimply would-be lover. The Dark Man's recruits are vicious thugs and the demented Trash Can Man (one of the great literary creations, a walking landmine just waiting to be triggered).
King clearly believes that most people are neither very good nor very bad, but morally neutral. They will follow the path of least resistance, behaving well if goodness is rewarded and admired, badly if evil is neither discouraged nor punished. Therefore, it matters what kind of government and morality the survivors create. In the old black woman's domain, Boulder, the good guys set up a democratic government, enlisting people's reasoned cooperation in getting the place cleaned up and safe to live in. Flagg, in his den of iniquity, Las Vegas, encourages cooperation by publicly crucifying non-cooperators.
The good guys have created a comfortable life in Boulder. They could simply stay there and enjoy their lives. But they know Flagg is determined to wipe them out, so they have no other moral choice but to seek him out, risking their own lives to fight him. And they win, though not without great loss.
This is the stuff of myth, the sacrifice of the innocent for the salvation of the world. It is, I think, what most explains Stephen King's hold on our imagination. His characters acknowledge evil, AND acknowledge their personal obligation to fight against it. What's more, they triumph--a blessed note of optimism in a world that contains the inexplicable madness of Bosnia and Cambodia.
Stephen King's heroes shame us all. Adults comes off so poorly in his books, so deliberately obtuse and pusillanimous, I am reminded of the lines by Shriekback:
We are blind
we hear nothing
we know nothing
so we can live without blame
Which of our literary writers give us this compelling a moral vision? In fact, where in our entire psychological society do we see a recognition that evil is something to be contended with? Not understood, not explained away by unfortunate childhoods, but resisted? Where else in our society do we see ourselves shamed because we are not heroes?
I'm not embarrassed about reading and re-reading Stephen King. Each time, I am gripped by the story, contemptuous of the morally inert adults, fearful for the overmatched but intrepid heroes, exultant over their success. These are stories of undaunted courage, as are the best fairy tales. Show me serious novels that do this as well (Margaret Atwood, for example), and I will read them. But critics need not sneer at us for preferring Stephen King to elegant experiments in literary form, or refined psychological dramas of sensitive and neurotic little egos. If our literary authors tiptoe around the issues that truly matter, they need not be surprised when we go elsewhere for nourishment.
NOTE: My thinking is always a work in progress. You could mentally insert all my columns in between these two sentences: "This is something I've been thinking about," and "Does this make any sense to you?" I welcome your thoughts. Please send your comments about these columns to: marylaine at netexpress.net. Since I've written a lot of these, some of them many years ago, help me out by telling me which column you're referring to.
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