By JESS PEACOCK
[NOTE: As I indicated last month, the plan was to follow up my first column with an installment discussing The Shape of Water. That article is still on its way, but until then I wanted to share some work I recently presented at the 2018 Southwest Popular/American Culture Association conference in Albuquerque, NM. Enjoy!]
Stating that popular culture is in the midst of a Stephen King renaissance is not a controversial statement by any metric. Aside from the author’s steady stream of novels and short stories – most recently co-authoring Sleeping Beauties with his son Owen King and two original novels anticipated for 2018 – both television and cinema have been overflowing with adaptations from the Master of Horror. From the recent record shattering cinematic adaptation of IT, to the critically acclaimed Netflix one-two punch of Gerald’s Game and 1922, to the upcoming JJ Abrams produced series Castle Rock, Stephen King is a pop culture touchstone once again.
But why the resurgence? On some level it could be as simple as an American institution finally receiving his due. Since the publication in 1974 of his first novel Carrie, King has been churning out books, influencing other artists and storytellers, and placing an indelible stamp on the wider culture overall. His still unique style of merging Roger Corman-esque horror exploitation tropes with intellectual and often poetic prose is just as powerful in his 2014 novel Revival as it was in the 1978 apocalyptic classic The Stand.
If, however, we simply left the enduring legacy of King to the fact that he’s an excellent writer, that would still leave many unanswered questions. Literature is awash in outstanding authors, even ones of genius, but very few have been awarded the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters or the National Medal of Arts, while also boasting book sales north of 350 million copies.
As I discussed in my last column, the human animal is unique in that not only do we craft stories for an untold number of purposes – lulling a child to sleep, writing a novel, calling off work when we’re not sick, etc. – we tend to live into the narratives we construct, as well as reflect through artistic expression the stories we live in. In other words, as a species we tend to enflesh the narratives we tell ourselves, gleaning as much from the fictional worlds we inhabit as we do the “real” world.
In Parker Palmer’s classic text To Know as We Are Known, the author writes:
“Many of us, for example, have had the experience of reading a great novel and suddenly becoming aware that it is reading us as well. That is the mark of its greatness. The writer has created a living world with words, a vital communion that cannot be taken merely as an object of study but one that draws out our meanings even as we draw its meaning out.”
Palmer’s assertion that fictional products possess the potential to transcend the machinations of simple escapism speaks to the lasting endurance of King, who understands the power of words and of the imagery of the fantastique.
In 1984 King illustrated the importance and power of stories by recalling a comment from Isaac Singer when the Nobel Prize winning writer was asked, ‘Why do you write about demons and dybbuks and all these things,’ to which he replied, ‘Because it puts me in touch with reality.’ And it is the horror genre particularly that possesses within its dark DNA a transformative essence through not only its ability to show us the world from new and revelatory angles, but in its metaphorical usage of the image of the monster. King, perhaps more than any writer of the twentieth or twenty-first century, is intimately aware of the connection between monsters and meaning, and how they, depending on the context in which they are created, possess the power to unearth cultural truths and to dismantle what social theorist Michel Foucault called pervasive power structures. Foucault wrote:
“The real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the workings of institutions that appear to be both neutral and independent, to criticize and attack them in such a manner that the political violence that has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them.”
This process of unmasking has often been the role of the monster in popular culture – a recent example being Guillermo del Toro’s numinous Amazonian god from The Shape of Water, whose brief presence in a U.S. military laboratory unearthed everything from toxic masculinity and misogyny to racism and homphobia. The monster itself can become the lamentations of our culture and history, and, as historian Scott Poole writes, “monsters draw life from ideological efforts to marginalize the weak and normalize the powerful, to suppress struggles for class, racial, and sexual liberation.”
And it is this role of serving as a contemporary form of lamentations where, I would argue, King finds his resonance. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the book of Lamentations found in the Hebrew Bible assaults the reader with the unsparing pain and suffering of the Jewish people facing oppression, displacement, and potential extinction, prompting religious historian Tod Linafelt to classify the text as survival literature. He writes in his book Surviving Lamentations:
“Lamentations may be understood as a literature of survival, in the most basic sense of having been written in the aftermath of the physical destruction of Jerusalem and the death or survival of its flesh-and-blood inhabitants. In this sense of the term ‘survival,’ the biblical book may be usefully compared with modern literature of survival. The content of the book itself calls attention to issues of survival in the face of destruction.”
Whether we’re visiting King’s fictional destinations of Haven, Desperation, Jerusalem’s Lot, or Derry, we find ourselves in a geography of oppression and destruction where, as the author writes in Pet Semetary, “The ground became sour.” This souring of the land is a constant in King’s work, perhaps reflecting a country built on a foundation of genocide and slavery often obscured and denied through hyper-Nationalism – a past buried but never dead. As the adult Mike Hanlon writes through King in the novel IT:
“I’ve begun to think, you see, that It has been here so long . . . whatever It really is . . . that It’s become a part of Derry. Only It’s not a matter of outward geography, you understand. Maybe that was true once, but now It’s . . . inside. Somehow It’s gotten inside. That’s the only way I know to understand all of the terrible things that have happened here – the nominally explicable as well as the utterly inexplicable.”
“I think this bravery in the face of horror is one of the things that people respond to in my work.”
– Stephen King
Through such a lens, King, and thus the reader, might then interrogate the consequence of the violence and cruelty dyed into the very fabric of the United States, the external violence of native American genocide and slavery manifesting itself internally today at the intersection of the cultural captivity and hegemony of racism, classism, ethnic discrimination, sexism, and heterosexism just to name a few.
While speaking with an audience in 1983, King said:
“A lot of the frights, a lot of the nightmares that we get in books and in movies really are symbolic…Underneath or between the lines, in the tension, where the fear is, there’s something else going on altogether…All the time I was writing [‘salem’s Lot], the Watergate hearings were pouring out of the TV… During that time I was thinking about secrets, things that have been hidden and were being dragged out into the light.”
King’s story about vampires systematically consuming a small town in Maine reflects an existential mistrust that had been metastasizing within the United States in the mid-1970s. The monsters within the novel served as the embodiment of that mistrust, making palpable an encroaching sense of dread within the culture, a fear that, despite the appearance of a society filled with vitality and life, in actuality reeked of rot and death just beneath the surface. One only has to briefly read or watch the news today to see that the political implications of ‘salem’s Lot resonate as powerfully now as they did forty years ago.
The monsters that King conjures are filled with dark meaning and dire admonitions, shambling or slithering out of our fretful collective political, social, and religious psyche, portents or warnings to the characters within his books – as well as the reader – to venture no further for fear of losing one’s grip on reality. These monsters are hegemonic, symbols of the oppressive forces throughout American history that coalesce into a common theme throughout King’s oeuvre; the past is never dead…and the past is hungry.
In the novel IT, the eldritch monster Pennywise stalks and brutally kills the children of Derry approximately every twenty-seven years. The townspeople seem to accept this without question, the horrors regularly explained away with contorted logic or simply forgotten, a mysterious amnesia that afflicts most of the inhabitants. This lack of communal solidarity has enabled the despotic monstrousness of Pennywise to return again and again, making the oppressed community of Derry conspirators in maintaining their own oppression.
Interestingly, the young protagonists of IT, collectively known as the Losers’ Club, include Beverly, labeled by other kids as a slut and who lives under the thumb of a tyrannical and incestuous misogyny at the hands of her father; Bill, who lives with a physical disability; Stan, who is Jewish; as well as Mike, a young African American facing aggressive and violent racism from outside the group, and sometimes “friendly” racism from within.
It’s not difficult to see, then, how the terror bubbling up from the sewers of Derry and the themes within the narrative might come to embody our own current national landscape. Whether it be the return of consequence free public lynchings of Black bodies under the guise of law and order, or the resurgence of white nationalism and anti-Semitism following the election of Donald Trump, or the often-hidden systems of ableism found across the social spectrum, or the renewed assaults on women’s access to family planning and the ACA overall, the rallying cry of “Make America great again” and its nationalistic implications could just easily be read as “They all float down here!”
In the novel IT, the Losers’ Club survive a battle with Pennywise as kids and make a promise to return if the monster comes back, slicing their palms with a broken glass bottle in a binding blood oath. As an adult who receives a fateful phone call, Bill Denbrow is shocked to discover that the scars from that day, scars that had vanished, have become clearly visible again. “Scars can’t come back,” he says, speaking to our uncanny collective ability within the United States to forget our own disfigurements, our trespasses, and the sins of our elders. It is that denial which allows the monsters to feed.
I do not believe it to be a coincidence that King’s two greatest periods of cultural success were during the Reagan era as well as the current reign of Trump – two presidencies separated by nearly twenty-seven years, no doubt making Pennywise proud. Despite the mythology surrounding Ronald Reagan as one of our most cherished national leaders, the former and late POTUS initiated the dismantling of labor unions, oversaw an unprecedented gap between the rich and working families, and turned his back on the horror of the AIDS epidemic. While comparing the two terms of Reagan to the comparatively small one year of Trump is not necessarily fair, the repressive similarities are eerie nonetheless.
In many of King’s narratives, whether it be It, ‘salem’s Lot, Desperation, or any number of his dark fables, there is a theme of constructing solidarity within an oppressed community. This may be why King’s narratives, as well as his characters, resonate with the culture so deeply. They are oppressed, afraid, and in pain – yet they don’t give in. They find meaning and value together. They struggle, they resist, and they do so with no promise of success. I do not believe that Desperation is simply the name of a town in a King novel by the same name. Desperation is the trait that comes to define King’s various ka-tets, his characters fighting for survival.
Theologian Miguel De La Torre writes:
“When a people are desperate, they will do whatever it takes to change the situation because nothing is left to lose. The Latin root for ‘desperate’ suggests a hopelessness that leads to action, at times reckless action, brought about by great urgency and anxiety. Desperation becomes the means by which we work out our liberation, our salvation, in fear and trembling.”
The monsters from King’s id possess the metaphorical power to unearth cultural truths and to dismantle Foucault’s pervasive power structures, invisible monstrosities that have been feeding off society in much the same way Barlow fed off the townspeople of ‘salem’s Lot or the True Knot fed off those with the shine. King shows us that these monsters can be defeated, but often only through de la Torre’s reckless action and always at great cost to those fighting. King stated in 1979, “I think this bravery in the face of horror is one of the things that people respond to in my work.” The Master of Horror’s dark yet confident narratives challenge us to remember the scars of our violent and repressive history, to venture into the sewers of our cultural captivity together, and to confront the very monsters that seek to devour us all.
“In many of King’s narratives…there is a theme of constructing solidarity within an oppressed community.”