The King of death

Horrormeister Stephen King has turned mankind's oldest fear into an excruciatingly addictive body of work. For those new to the master's nightmare world, Andrew O'Hehir recommends five books.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published September 24, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Stephen King's hour of reappraisal, one the world's bestselling novelist has craved for years, has come around at last. In his new book, "Bag of Bones," the protagonist is a middle-aged popular novelist, living in Maine, who is tormented by his lack of literary credibility. (This is far from the first time such themes have appeared in King's work.) Publishing insiders and general readers alike have been eagerly anticipating "Bag of Bones," which is both one of King's most ambitious novels and his first for Scribner after his much-publicized split with Viking, his longtime publisher. All the fanfare has focused the literary world's attention, gradually and groggily, on what should have been obvious all along: King is one of the most important writers of our age.

Come on, you know it's true. If you want to say that King is not as good a writer as all sorts of people who sell fewer books and end up on more course syllabuses, I won't argue. I will, however, point out that such judgments depend on your idea of what "good" literature is, and what it's good for. And that no one I know has ever stayed up until 4 a.m., knuckles white and breath coming in shallow gulps, because they had to finish "Gravity's Rainbow."

King's great talent is to keep you reading. His books will suck you out of your regular life and dangle you over the darkest unexplored abysses of your mind, while your flesh crawls around your skeleton as if trying to escape; they're nobody's idea of glittering literary style. I've been a fan since I read "The Shining" as a teenager, and yet there are things in every one of his books that make me wince. His sense of humor is crude at best and frequently runs to juvenile scatology. His minor characters are often clumsily rendered "colorful" types who speak in a mixture of hackneyed folk witticisms and implausibly detailed expository passages (when crucial plot points are to be divulged). And as nobly and mightily as King has wrestled with his greatest weakness -- his difficulty in creating convincing female characters -- he has never, to my taste, quite conquered it. (Though the predominantly female book-buying public, it should be noted, hasn't seemed to mind.)

Comparing King to, say, Henry James is a bit like comparing a potato to a chrysanthemum. One of them is undeniably more beautiful, but which one do you want by the fire on a cold winter night? As King would be eager to point out, there is a kinship of sorts between James and himself -- they inhabit different wings in the great, rambling mansion of the Gothic tradition. But King's real literary grandfather is not Henry James but Charles Dickens, another shameless yarn spinner who captured the middlebrow popular imagination, who shares King's sentimentality, didacticism and love of the grotesque, and against whom all the criticisms of the previous paragraph (save perhaps the scatology) could be leveled.

It's impossible to know whether King's work will ever acquire the aura of respectability that Dickens' has. While Dickens was probably just as big a celebrity, in 19th century terms, as King is today, he was never stigmatized as a back-of-the-store genre novelist in quite the same way (nor was the disjunction between popular and elite taste quite so exaggerated). One thing we can be sure of is that the enormous audience for horror literature that King has helped to create and solidify ensures that his books will be read for a long time to come. He has taken the moldering tradition of supernatural literature -- the tradition of Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft -- and brought it into the late 20th century as a vibrant, polemic social chronicle. Playing shamelessly on our fear of death, and on our half-delighted suspicion that all the rational Enlightenment thinking of the last 300 years has utterly failed to comprehend the true chaos and disorder of the universe, King argues, perversely enough, for a politics of love.

Although the monsters, ghosts and madnesses that lurk beneath the bucolic landscape of King's territory in central and western Maine -- an imaginative terrain as vivid to his readers as Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County or William Kennedy's Albany are to theirs -- may be diabolical or extraterrestrial in origin, King's central themes are strikingly contemporary, and all too human. His greatest concern, stated in its most positive light, is with the survival, vindication and ultimate triumph of the weak and vulnerable. The tangible results of the evil in King's universe include bullying, racism, wife-beating, rape and, above all else, the abuse and murder of children. Few authors in any genre have ever captured the unique fragility and terror of childhood with such precision, and King's instinctive sympathy for the plight of the nerd, the fat kid, the scapegoat, the queer, is a great source of his appeal.

But King is after all a horror novelist, and thus there is a darker side to his obsession with childhood. Again and again he suggests that every adult -- or, to be specific, every man -- is a potential vector for evil, that with the wrong stars overhead and the wrong demons clawing at his ankles, he will channel a primordial bloodlust and become a wife-killer, a child-killer, a monster. Whatever this may or may not say about the psychology of Stephen King (who has been married to the same woman for 27 years and has three grown children), the truly frightening thing is just how difficult -- on the evidence of the society around us -- this proposition is to disprove.

Selecting five of King's 32 novels (including the ones he has written as Richard Bachman) to serve as an introductory reading list is a necessarily arbitrary exercise. I have chosen books that I think illustrate his central themes most clearly, books I think are his most terrifying and two books ("Carrie" and "The Green Mile") that even those readers who can't abide the roller-coaster torment of the horror novel should be able to appreciate. King fans may be outraged by my omission of "The Stand," the immense apocalyptic saga that may be his most popular book. All I can say is that new readers have a right to know what they're in for before undertaking that journey (which has inflated to more than 1,100 pages in King's 1990 revised edition). I have also steered clear of King's obsessive meditations on the relationship of the popular novelist to his public (although both "Misery" and "The Dark Half" are excellent thrillers), and his earnest fables of abused women questing for redemption ("Gerald's Game," "Dolores Claiborne" and "Rose Madder"). As the master himself would say in one of his self-consciously Dickensian prologues: Constant Reader, I beg your forgiveness. Now come with me into the dark.

Carrie (1974)
"Carrie" is a crucial hors d'oeuvre to King's body of work. It was his first successful novel, and it stands apart from the others in several ways, especially its relative brevity, its intensely negative depiction of religious faith -- which otherwise does not play a major role in King's universe -- and its highly compelling portrayal of a female central character. (King has said that his wife, writer Tabitha King, played a significant role in Carrie's creation.) Yet this tale of a gawky high-school pariah -- she uses her
telekinetic abilities to destroy not only her teenage tormentors but an entire
New England town -- is also one of the clearest statements of King's conception that those who are abused can often transmute their victimization into an awful and unpredictable power.

Along with William Peter Blatty's "The Exorcist" and Thomas Tryon's "The Other," "Carrie" greatly expanded the market -- and the sense of narrative possibilities -- for horror literature in the 1970s. Ironically, of the three books, "Carrie," although by turns pathetic, gruesome and tragic, is perhaps the least suspenseful. King reveals what Carrie has done almost immediately, then builds toward a description of the climactic events with an air of almost Athenian gravity and inevitability. Hence, while the book remains compulsively readable and features ample mayhem and destruction, one remembers it not as a gore-drenched nightmare but as a heartbreakingly tender portrait of a girl who really just wanted to go to the prom, get kissed by a cute boy and be home by midnight.

The Shining (1977)
Although it has been somewhat overshadowed by Stanley Kubrick's undeniably powerful (if incoherent) film version, "The Shining" remains, for me, King's most haunting and memorable achievement. In the Overlook Hotel, the sprawling, empty Colorado resort where young Danny Torrance and his parents must spend the winter entirely alone, King has created one of the Gothic tradition's truly unforgettable settings. Danny, who has a psychic sensibility one observer dubs "the shining," rapidly becomes aware that the Overlook is a veritable hive of malevolent energy, and that many of its previous occupants have ended their stays unpleasantly. The Torrance family's weak spot is, of course, Danny's father Jack, a recovering alcoholic and struggling writer who hopes to use his stint as the Overlook's caretaker to finish a novel. Jack's losing battle against the Overlook's destructive forces, whatever they are -- demons? Vengeful Native American spirits? Plain old mental illness? -- is a chilling depiction of the descent into bestial male madness, and taught King readers a cruel lesson we would never forget: You can't ever really trust Dad.

"The Shining" sustains an almost unbearable level of narrative tension as Danny and his mother come to grips with the fact that Jack has made new friends (even though there's no one else in the hotel), and that his novel has taken a disturbing turn. Like all King's best works, this is a supernatural novel and a deeply realistic one, a masterful evocation of a diabolical genius loci and a grim meditation on the weakness and vulnerability of the human imagination.

Pet Sematary (1983)
I don't know what visions or nightmares inspired this book, and I don't want to know. Consider yourself warned -- "Pet Sematary," I think, is King's darkest hour, and even inveterate horror consumers will lose a night or two of sleep with it. Once you recover from this mind-bending yarn about a sinister Indian burial ground with the power to return animals -- and ultimately humans -- from the dead, you may notice that once again King has crafted an insidious fable about how a dark secret, a family-destroying evil, can be passed along across the generations.

Another of King's tricks -- and I'm not sure this one is conscious -- is to make his central characters so irritatingly square that you almost feel they deserve whatever horrors they stumble into. (Then, when they suffer the torments of Job, you have a reason to feel guilty as well as horrified.) But as dippy as Dr. Louis Creed and his wife, Rachel, are, nobody deserves what happens to them. Lured by a "friendly" older neighbor in their rural Maine town into burying his daughter's truck-squashed cat on sacred Micmac ground behind the pet cemetery, Louis finds himself seduced by the intoxicating power of the place. It's bad enough that the cat who returns the next day is a bit different from its original incarnation; the Creeds' 2-year-old son then wanders in front of a passing truck, and Louis finds his grief intolerable. If you can stand it (and many readers can't), "Pet Sematary" brings one of the hoariest of metaphysical morality lessons -- that those who try to cheat or deny death will suffer horrible consequences -- into a contemporary context, to shattering effect.

It (1986)
A sweeping, multi-character drama of childhood trauma and adult transcendence, "It" contains all of King's major themes and concerns -- along with one of his most horrific portrayals of evil -- in one hefty volume. The eponymous It is a demon, or alien entity, or perhaps psychological manifestation (King's spooks can almost always be understood allegorically) that inhabits the sewer system of Derry, Maine, reappearing every 27 years to claim a succession of child victims. In 1958, a collection of preadolescent Derry outcasts, banding together as the Losers' Club, courageously ventured into the sewers to defeat It, vowing that they would return if the monster ever resurfaced. Now, in 1985, the former Losers are scattered around the globe -- most of them having repressed the memory of their childhood horror and forgotten their promise -- and the one who remains in Derry must call the others to tell them that a new series of grisly child-killings has begun.

Even more than most of King's novels, "It" reflects the tenor of its time. Child abuse, and the controversial idea that it could be forgotten or repressed for years, were fresh and painful subjects in the mid-1980s. The monster in "It" appears to children as a seductive, sadistic clown, clearly echoing real-world serial killer John Wayne Gacy. But despite its serious undertones, "It," with its large cast and impressively messy flashback/flash-forward structure, is primarily a great adventure novel and a testament to the fact that adults who retain some connection to their childhood idealism are the only ones who really grow up.

The Green Mile (1996)
Perhaps sensing that some of the fun had drained out of his work during his dutiful, pro-feminist experimentation of the early '90s, King published this death-row thriller in monthly paperback installments from March to August 1996. The result is an artless, old-fashioned storytelling style that's deeply gratifying, yielding a gripping prison yarn whose grisly and supernatural elements never overwhelm its basic humanity. "The Green Mile" is narrated by a retired prison guard named Paul Edgecombe, now confined to a nursing home, who has decided that before he dies he must recount the extraordinary events he witnessed along the green-tiled corridor of a Southern death row in 1932. That was the year an incompetent and sadistic guard named Percy, a homicidal maniac named Billy the Kid, a preternaturally intelligent mouse and a gentle giant (convicted of a terrible killing) who seems to have healing powers came together just yards from the electric chair.

There's no question that King hopes to shock readers (pun intended) into opposing capital punishment, and his almost biblical conviction that the trials of the abused will ultimately make them stronger than their abusers is once again very much in evidence. But King himself would tell you that good pulp is almost always moralistic, and "The Green Mile" unashamedly tries to create a '90s adult version of the Weird Tales comic books King grew up on, thrill rides whose every cliffhanging installment left readers agonizingly longing for the next. Check out the first volume from the library tonight, and, an hour or so later, you'll be checking your watch to see if you might just make it back to the branch before it closes.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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