First you have to decide whether to listen to me or not: keep in mind, kemosabes, that Stephen King has sold 350 million novels, and I have sold 11.
So you are forewarned that size matters, and forearmed with no reason to really believe a nobody novelist like me. But for a writer -- any writer -- sales are ephemeral. The only thing that counts is the words on the page. They either live on... or die horribly, the way characters often do in a Stephen King novel.
So here we go, Trojans. Teaching a writing class last week, I went to the top of the bestseller lists and did a blind taste test of Stephen King's "Mr. Mercedes." Here's the third paragraph from the new novel:
"When Augie reached the top of the wide, steep drive leading to the big auditorium, he saw a cluster of at least two dozen people already waiting outside the rank of doors, some standing, most sitting. Posts strung with yellow DO NOT CROSS tape had been set up, creating a complicated passage that doubled back on itself, mazelike."
Surprise! I used this paragraph to highlight what I consider bad writing. Only later did I realize Stephen King makes these mistakes on purpose for reasons he explains in his how-to "On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft." Give me a minute on the road with "Mr. Mercedes" and I'll explain.
Strike One: "a wide, steep drive leading to the big auditorium" is vague enough to mean almost anything and therefore means nothing. What's a big auditorium? What's a steep drive? And why bother with those generic, indistinct details to begin with on the first page of a novel?
Strike Two: what in the name of all that's scary is a "rank of doors"? Is it some kind of hierarchy or grading system or a band from the Sixties? I have no idea, and if you're honest, neither do you. It's a stinkeroo.
Strike three: "a complicated passage that doubled back on itself, mazelike." I immediately thought of Jack Nicholson in "The Shining," one of King's best concoctions, but this was not a maze at all. The "complicated passage," as King writes on, was designed "to cram as many people as possible into as small a space as possible," the way they do in "movie theaters and the bank."
In fact, the passage is not only not "mazelike" but almost exactly the opposite: a line, like the ones you see at airport security and DisneyWorld, that moves you to the front with no chance of losing yourself because you have no choice. The crammees are in a "cluster" to begin with, rendering the notion of a maze completely incoherent.
A day after the class, a student named Donna Davis gave me King's "On Writing," a book full of useful alarums and exhortations about the craft. In the memoir, King decries "lazy writing" and waxes on about "the power of compact, descriptive language."
"For me," King writes, "a good description usually consists of a few well-chosen details that will stand for everything else."
And this: "The key to good description begins with clear seeing and ends with clear writing, the kind of writing that employs fresh images and simple vocabulary."
And this: "If you want to be a successful writer, you must be able to describe it, and in a way that will cause your reader to prickle with recognition."
Wide? Steep? Big? Doors mysteriously ranked? Mazelike non-maze? They prickle me not.
"It's also important to know what to describe," King writes about writing, "and what can be left alone while you get on with your main job, which is telling a story...."
Within King's wide, steep discussion of writing there awaits an answer to the big riddle: the story is the only thing that matters. Not words--but story, story, story.
Storytelling "makes up for a great many stylistic faults, as the work of wooden-prose writers like Theodore Dreiser and Ayn Rand shows...."
In other words--and words are all we have as readers--Stephen King has decided that nothing should get in the way of the story. That means words become disposable, an inconvenience, and that throwaway lines are not always thrown away.
That's just wrong. And here's why.
Do you think the great painters didn't care about the paint in their work? Do you think they were willing to let an inferior brushstroke stand just so they could punch the time clock and go home?
Would a great director with final cut allow a bad edit--or the wrong music--to dilute his film?
Would a great composer let the wrong note stand to get on with his "main job."
No and no and absolutely not -- and we as art and movie and music lovers would see the problem immediately because these are mediums where the artist can't hide. The wrong note cries out for help.
Writers get a pass because -- I'm really not sure why writers get a pass: writing fiction is a textual, audible, and visual experience. If anything, the words matter more than paint or film or even music, because words are all we have as writers and readers. Words have many layers and levels of meaning and the writer needs to deploy them consciously. Every word matters in serious fiction.
This helps to explain why Stephen King does not always get the literary cred that he wants. He's a bestselling storyteller, but for a book to last "big auditoriums" and "mazelike" are just not going to cut it. His stories can be mind-blowing, but for me it takes movies like "The Shawshank Redemption" and "The Green Mile" to bring his ideas to life. If you're going to write a book about the craft of writing your advice can't be to skip the details.
It hurts to say this because I love everything Stephen King stands for. I love that he's everyman. I love that he has a house next to his house this is stuffed with books--a library that he owns next door. I love that he gets $400 per week walking around money and that he "banks" what he doesn't spend. I love that he drove all the way from Down East to Burlington, Vermont, to watch the University of Maine's women's basketball team tangle with the University of Vermont Catamounts, a game I was broadcasting on radio. I love that he came back from a horrible accident after he was hit by a car when walking on a road. There is nothing not to like about Stephen King.
But I've never loved his writing, and now I know why. It's at least a small comfort to know that he has a reason for writing so badly on the first page of his new novel. Who has time these days to make sure every word counts?
In a way, you can't blame Stephen King for his shortcomings as a writer. Like his audience, he just wants to find out what happens next.
Follow Michael Conniff on Twitter: www.twitter.com/michaelconniff
King occupies an unusual position among modern American writers. He is, first, a phenomenally successful commercial writer: His novels and short stories, in both hardcover and paperback editions, have sold many millions of copies; each new work he writes is virtually assured of best-seller status; and films, teleplays, and other spinoffs from his stories have made his name nearly an ironclad guarantee of profitability. At the same time, he can also lay claim to being a “serious” writer who treats universal themes with great originality. The vehicle he uses is often—but by no means always—the horror novel, and the question he most often addresses is that of the nature of evil. Though this theme has been central to many of the greatest works of literature, today’s secularized modern society has generally rejected traditional beliefs in absolute good and evil. King’s works do not suggest any specific moral or religious doctrines, but he does seem to assert that evil is real, absolute, and inherent in nature.
In several of his works, evil is portrayed as a supernatural force which takes over some object or human being. In the novel The Shining (1977), for example, a demoniac power has occupied the old Overlook Hotel, and it gradually possesses Jack Torrance, the hotel’s caretaker, and drives him insane. In The Stand (1978), Satan takes on the form of Randall Flagg, one of the few survivors of a biological holocaust, in an attempt to conquer what remains of the world. An automobile is evil’s habitat in Christine (1983), as the vehicle’s new teenage owner is transformed by the car into a murderer.
Though King’s heroes and heroines are frequently victims of this supernatural power, often they fall into the clutches of evil through weakness or temptation. Thus, in Pet Sematary (1983), Louis Creed allows both his curiosity and remorse at the death of his cat to draw him into a haunted Indian burial ground. A corpse buried there, it is said, will return to life. He buries his cat, and it does indeed return, but as a foul, murderous parody of its former self. Even after seeing the results, Creed again succumbs to temptation when his wife dies.
In Carrie, a young girl is obviously a victim of two kinds of evil: her mother’s religious fanaticism and the cruelty of her teenage peer group. Pushed beyond any acceptable limits of humiliation, however, she uses her telekinetic power to destroy everything and everyone around her—thus, in a sense, immersing herself in evil for revenge. Jack Torrance, the hero of The Shining, falls prey to the forces of the Overlook Hotel at least partly through guilt and weakness—he is a recovering alcoholic whose uncontrollable temper has often led him into trouble.
Occasionally, King has created terror without invoking supernatural forces. The monster of Misery (1987) is entirely human—an insane fan who holds her favorite writer captive and forces him, through torture, to write a novel especially for her. In The Running Man (1982), written by King under the pseudonym Richard Bachman, a corporate future society provides a setting of repression, deception, and brutality. The hero, Ben Richards, must himself descend to violence and murder to escape and expose the villainous rulers.
In all these situations, however, King seems to be asking the same fundamental questions that have troubled the human psyche since the days of the great Greek playwrights: Are humans the victims or the masters of their fates? Can evil possess people against their wills, or is there something deep inside each individual that connives at evil’s ultimate victory?
Yet evil does not always win. In Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, one of four novellas in Different Seasons (1982), a confessed murderer confined in Shawshank Prison is redeemed through his growing friendship with another inmate who is really innocent, and the two of them escape. All the nastiest monsters ever conceived are rolled into one in the massive It (1986), which is ultimately defeated, not once, but twice, by the same group of six people—first as children, then as adults. Most often, however, even when King allows his monsters, demons, aliens, or greedy politicians to get their comeuppance, a question is always left in the reader’s mind: Is evil truly defeated? The reader often suspects the answer is negative.
While King’s approach to the question of evil is the most profound element of his writing, his novels and short stories succeed primarily because of his craftsmanship in creating fascinating, extremely believable characters and settings. He is especially adept at portraying the unique perceptions of children. The ability of King’s youthful protagonists to believe and experience what adults usually ignore or deny renders them more open and aware of evil and, occasionally, equips them to fight it in ways their elders cannot comprehend. His adult characters generally are relatively ordinary people placed in extraordinary circumstances.
While best known for horror and as an unofficial spokesman for the state of Maine, King has also become a remarkably thoughtful voice on the demands of the writing life: its toll on one’s life, the frustrations of actually crafting a story, and the moral consequences that art brings to bear on both creator and audience. He has done this through various characters who are writers, as well as in his nonfiction autobiography and writing guide, On Writing. True to his blue-collar roots, King considers writing tough but rewarding work and believes that it should be approached as such. He has also written notable works on baseball, including the essay “Head Down” about his son’s Little League team and Faithful (2004) with Stewart O’Nan, about the Boston Red Sox’s 2004 championship season.
First published: 1974
Type of work: Novel
A telekinetic teenager wreaks vengeance on her fanatic mother and the classmates who have humiliated her.
King’s first published novel. Carrie, is also one of his most unusual efforts in its style. Only about half the story is written in traditional narrative form: The remainder uses what is called the epistolary style, meaning that the action is carried forward through the use of fictional letters, newspaper pieces, academic journal articles, and selections from books written by witnesses to the events long after their occurrence.
The novel’s main character is Carrie White, a high school senior trapped between two equally horrible kinds of existence. At home, Carrie is smothered by a mother who is a fanatical religious fundamentalist and has cut the girl off from all normal social life. To Margaret White, all women are, like Eve, egregiously sinful. Carrie is God’s punishment for her own sin of once allowing her now-dead husband to touch her. The daughter has spent her whole home life praying, asking forgiveness for her sins, or being locked up in a closet as punishment for unholy thoughts.
The other half of Carrie’s life is perhaps even worse: At school, she is a social pariah. Her quiet religious demeanor, modest clothing, clumsiness, and dull appearance have made her the perpetual target of teasing, crude practical jokes, and all the meanness that children can inflict upon one another. The novel begins, in fact, with an incident that illustrates Carrie’s terrible predicament. While showering after gym class, Carrie experiences her first menstruation. She has no idea what is happening because her mother, believing that periods are the evidence of sin, has never mentioned them. Quite logically, Carrie believes she is bleeding to death. Her classmates, however, unaware of Carrie’s ignorance, begin contemptuously laughing, chanting “PER-iod!” and throwing tampons at her. Carrie’s screams bring in her gym teacher, who begins to understand the situation and helps Carrie to recover and go home.
With the onset of her womanhood, Carrie for the first time becomes fully conscious that she possesses a tremendous telekinetic power (“telekinesis” is the purported ability to move or affect physical objects using only the power of the mind). In the locker room, in agony, Carrie had unconsciously blown out light bulbs and knocked things over. Now, in her long-pent-up resentment toward both her classmates and her mother, she will begin to take control of the power and learn to use it for an ultimate, terrible, vengeance.
The leader of the “in” group of girls at school is Chris Hargensen, the epitome of the spoiled brat. Typically, she had led the hazing of Carrie in the shower. When the gym teacher punishes all the girls, Chris refuses to accept the punishment; the principal then bans her from attendance at the senior prom. Seeing Carrie as her nemesis, Chris determines that she will get revenge. She is given her opportunity when Sue Snell, another of the “in” group, experiences so much guilt after the shower incident that, as a kind of atonement, she persuades her boyfriend to ask Carrie to the prom. When Chris learns this, she helps to ensure that Carrie and her date are elected queen and king so that they will be onstage for the ultimate humiliation that Chris and her thug boyfriend have planned: They arrange for large buckets of pig’s blood to drop on Carrie and her date just as they are being crowned.
After being drenched, Carrie’s shame and anger explode, and she unleashes her tremendous power to burn down the school and destroy much of the surrounding town. She also confronts her mother, whom she had defied to attend the prom. In a religious frenzy, Margaret White stabs her daughter, wounding her fatally, but Carrie strikes back with her mind, killing her mother. She then finds Chris and her boyfriend and kills them, too, before dying herself, in the arms of Sue Snell.
Carrie is an excellent example of King’s talent for characterization. Though by the end of the novel, Carrie has become an insane engine of destruction, the reader cannot help but sympathize with a young girl whose spirit barely escapes annihilation by forces which have sought constantly to humiliate her and make her conform. Chris and her boyfriend are portrayed as so believably evil that Carrie’s retribution, trapping them in a mangled and burning car, seems appropriate.
Like most of King’s novels, Carrie examines the nature and power of evil, which is represented by Carrie’s two tormentors, her mother’s religious mania, and teenage society’s demands that everyone conform to preconceived notions of beauty and success. As he was later to make more explicit in The Stand, King sees evil as an inevitable part of both nature and civilization. Carrie is a victim, and her telekinetic power is a curse which begins to manifest itself without her bidding. Her eventual use of it for wantonly destructive ends is simply a defensive reflex against the humiliation she has suffered. Thus, though Carrie seems on the surface to be simply a novel about a terrible supernatural power, it is also a social commentary on the consequences of religious fanaticism and the intolerance of adolescent peer groups.
First published: 1975
Type of work: Novel
A novelist returns to the small town of his youth, only to discover that it is being taken over by vampires.
King’s second published novel and first best seller was ’Salem’s Lot. It is a variation on the famous vampire novel of Bram Stoker, Dracula (1897), but is set in the modern world and, like most of King’s novels, in a remote area of rural Maine. The main character is Ben Mears, an author who has recently lost his wife in a motorcycle crash. Unable to conquer his grief after many months, he returns, after an absence of twenty-five years, to the town of Jerusalem’s Lot, known by most of its inhabitants as “’Salem’s Lot.”
As a child, Ben had spent four years in ’Salem’s Lot, which he remembers fondly with the idyllic images that most Americans have of life in a small town. He hopes to rekindle pleasant memories, regain a sense of home, and find some peace of mind. Entering the village, however, he is startled by his sight of the Marsten House, a great mansion built on a hill overlooking the town. Ben is filled with foreboding, and the reader knows that the Marsten House is going to be a central factor in the events to come. King describes the mansion as if it is alive, almost conscious, and full of evil. It had been built many decades before by a mobster named Hubie Marsten, who shotgunned his wife to death and then hanged himself. When he was nine, Ben had visited the abandoned building on a dare and had seen an apparition—Marsten’s spectral corpse swinging from a roof beam. Now, he feels almost as if the house has been waiting for his return.
Despite his memories and fears, Ben settles comfortably into ’Salem’s Lot. He soon meets a young woman, Susan Norton, and a romance begins. A cast of interesting characters who live in ’Salem’s Lot appears, and the reader is lulled into believing that this is simply a nice little town like a hundred others. Yet something is wrong; there is an undercurrent of dissatisfaction, a sense that nothing and no one are going anywhere in ’Salem’s Lot, a kind of “deadness.” These feelings seem to be prophetic, for two young boys, Danny and Ralphie Glick, become the first victims of the vampire Barlow, who has occupied Marsten House and is served by his oily assistant Richard Straker. Converted by Barlow into undead zombies, the Glicks begin attacking others, including young Mark Petrie, a former playmate. Though Petrie drives the Glicks away with a cross-shaped toy tombstone, Barlow’s flock of vampires begins to grow as spouses, friends, and relatives spread the plague.
On an impulse, Susan Norton goes to Marsten House, where she meets Mark, who has figured out that the house is the source of the evil. Susan and Mark discover Barlow and attempt to kill him, but they are captured by Straker. Mark escapes to tell Ben what has happened, and Ben teams up with Mark and two friends, Dr. Jim Cody and the alcoholic priest Father Callahan, to raid Marsten House. There they find Straker, hanged and drained of blood by Susan, who is now a vampire. Ben is forced to kill her; Barlow, however, is nowhere to be seen.
The following evening, Barlow attacks and kills Mark’s parents and confronts Father Callahan. The priest brandishes a cross at Barlow, but it fails to drive the vampire away because Father Callahan had long before lost his faith in its power. Callahan leaves the town in shame, but Ben, Mark, and other friends yet untouched by the vampire go throughout the town, driving stakes through the hearts of every vampire they can find. Though Dr. Cody is killed by Barlow, Mark and Ben succeed, in a violently bloody scene, in killing the chief vampire.
This is not the end, though, for Mark and Ben cannot be sure that all the vampires have been eliminated. They flee across the country, winding up in Mexico, where they hope they will be able to rebuild their lives. Ben, however, keeps up on events in Maine by getting old copies of a Portland newspaper. When he reads a report of strange goings-on in the area of ’Salem’s Lot, he decides he must once more return to finish the job of destroying the vampires. He and Mark burn the town, yet the reader is left with the uneasy feeling that the vampires may yet come again.
’Salem’s Lot is a relatively straightforward horror story that succeeds primarily because it is well crafted and very frightening. King’s carefully wrought descriptions of physical details, as well as his fascinating, often humorous, outsider’s view of small-town characters, bring the village to life and render the horrors of its creeping vampirism all the more gripping and terrible in their irony. Especially poignant is the agonizing necessity Ben faces of having to destroy Susan, who had begun to repair the damage caused by his wife’s death. In the end, Ben’s fury at Barlow as the chief vampire is compounded by the fact that Barlow has stolen his love and second chance at happiness. As with any good scary story, at its conclusion King leaves the reader in doubt about whether evil has really been vanquished.
’Salem’s Lot is also one of the grimmest of King’s novels. Though most of King’s works involve horrific violence, copious quantities of blood, and human weakness in the face of almost overwhelming evil, ’Salem’s Lot is one of the few that do not offer the reader some kind of catharsis through the redemption or victory of the hero. In interviews, King attributed the novel’s dark tone to the background of what he felt were frightening political events occurring at the time he was writing. His own fears about the future of the country are supposedly reflected in ’Salem’s Lot. The degree to which a writer’s psychological moods are related to his writing is debatable, but the effectiveness of ’Salem’s Lot as an outstanding horror novel is not.
First published: 1977
Type of work: Novel
The caretaker of a haunted hotel is driven insane by its demons and tries to murder his family.
As ’Salem’s Lot is dominated by the brooding presence of Marsten House, The Shining is similarly occupied with the evil possessing the Overlook Hotel, an elegant old resort on a remote Colorado mountain. Built early in the twentieth century, the Overlook has passed from owner to owner, unprofitable and unlucky for all of them. It has frequently been the scene of murders, suicides, and other unspeakable crimes. Within the hotel lives a demoniac spirit that has corrupted nearly everyone who has spent time there.
When the hotel prepares to close down for the winter, as it does every year, Jack Torrance is hired to maintain the building and grounds through the off-season. Jack is a writer and former English teacher trying to recover from alcoholism. He has also inherited a volcanic temper from his father. Though he loves his son, Danny, deeply, Jack once broke Danny’s arm in a fit of anger. He lost his last job when he beat a rebellious student, and he has frequently abused his fragile wife, Wendy, who has borne her own cross of a hateful mother. Through a friend’s help, however, Jack has gotten a last chance to knit his life and family back together by working for the Overlook Hotel as the winter caretaker.
Upon the family’s arrival at the hotel, Danny senses that something is terribly wrong; He is haunted by visions of “REDRUM” (“murder” spelled backward) and a monster trying to kill him. As they tour the hotel, the Torrances meet Dick Hallorann, a hotel cook, who has “the shine”—psychic perception. Dick recognizes that Danny, too, has this ability, and to a much greater degree than himself. Before he leaves for his winter home in Florida, Dick warns Danny to stay away from room 217. He also tells Danny to call him telepathically if he gets into serious trouble.
After everyone else leaves, the Torrances begin to settle into a routine, and Jack repairs the hotel roof and tends the Overlook’s dangerously unreliable boiler. The evil spirit, however, has decided it wants Danny, and it begins to work through his father. Soon, the snows isolate the hotel from the outside world. In the boiler room, Jack discovers an old scrapbook filled with items about the hotel’s scandalous past, and he becomes obsessed with the history of the hotel. He soon begins to exhibit his old temper and all the characteristics of a drunk, even though he has not had a drop of alcohol.
In the meantime, Danny, drawn by nightmares and visions, has begun to explore the hotel, led by an imaginary friend, Tony, who is actually an older version of Danny himself. The boy cannot resist going into room 217, where he is nearly strangled by the ghost of an old woman who had committed suicide there. In the manager’s office, over a CB radio, Jack hears the voice of his long-dead, drunken and abusive father telling him to kill Wendy and Danny. Terrified, Jack smashes the set, cutting the snowed-in hotel’s last link to the outside. The hotel’s demon now takes nearly complete possession of Jack, and, when Wendy insists that they leave by the hotel’s snowmobile, Jack sabotages it. Drawn by ghostly revels to the Overlook’s bar, Jack gets drunk on imaginary booze, and the specter of Delbert Grady, a former caretaker who had murdered his family and then killed himself, urges Jack toward similar actions.
Wendy and Danny are now thoroughly frightened by Jack’s behavior, and with his mind Danny calls out for help to Dick Hallorann, who eventually arrives by snowmobile. Jack attacks both Wendy and Hallorann and corners Danny. The son now knows that it is not his father, but an evil spirit occupying Jack’s body, and he refuses to bend to its will. The real Jack surfaces long enough to express his love for Danny and to tell him to run away. As Danny, Wendy, and Dick Hallorann escape, the hotel boiler, which the possessed Jack has neglected to watch, blows up, consuming both Jack and the hotel. The spirit, however, is not destroyed but only dispersed.
The Shining is one of King’s most thematically potent novels. On the surface, the demoniac possessor of the Overlook Hotel seems to be a force independent of the human beings it uses and consumes. Yet, as the scrapbook Jack finds makes clear, many of the people who have been associated with the hotel’s destructive power were already evil long before they had any contact with the Overlook. Those the hotel has destroyed also seem always to have had some kind of weakness that the spirit could manipulate. Jack, too, has been “marked” by inheriting his father’s alcoholism and abusive temper. Thus, King appears to be suggesting that evil cannot operate without some sort of cooperation from, or at least weakness in, its human tools.
Another interesting element in The Shining is Danny’s psychic power. King has frequently employed children as the conduits for supernatural powers, both for good and for evil. The openness of children and their willingness to believe—what is often called their “innocence”—make them especially appropriate for this role. Though Danny is a precocious child, he is nevertheless only five years old, and his telepathy and precognition are limited and distorted by his youthful inability to read the messages he receives clearly. In the end, it is the stubbornness of Danny’s love for his father as much as his psychic powers that allows him to cheat the grasp of the demon. While love may not be able to conquer all (death, for example), it may ultimately provide the only redemption from the power of evil.
First published: 1978 (unabridged edition, 1990)
Type of work: Novel
Most of the world’s population is destroyed in a biological holocaust, and good and evil fight for possession of the souls of the survivors.
The Stand almost defies classification. While it is certainly a horror story in the sense that frightening events and supernatural powers are depicted, it also qualifies clearly as science fiction or epic fantasy and even as a political allegory. This last aspect is immediately apparent in the events which open the novel: Nearly all of the world’s population (99.4 percent) is killed in only three weeks after a superflu virus escapes from a U.S. Army biological warfare installation. The world as all have known it is destroyed.
A few people inexplicably survive to pick up the pieces. Stu Redman, a laconic Texan, is taken to a disease laboratory in Maine, where the few remaining government scientists hope to discover what has given him immunity. Realizing that the government plans to use him as a guinea pig, Redman flees the laboratory and soon meets Glen Bateman, formerly a New Hampshire sociology professor. Other survivors throughout the country also appear: Nick Andros, a deaf-mute genius, is wandering around rural Oklahoma, where he meets the retarded but amiable Tom Cullen. Larry Underwood, a rock singer on his way to New York, finds the city devastated. Soon, they and other characters begin having disjointed, prophetic dreams of a “dark man,” Randall Flagg, the personification of evil, and of Abigail Freemantle, a black woman more than a hundred years old who serves as God’s instrument and prophet. Each character is drawn toward one of the two: Some find Freemantle in her old cabin in a Nebraska cornfield; others follow Flagg in what appears to be the beginnings of a reborn American society in Las Vegas.
Flagg gathers to himself a large number of average-citizen types, who are deceived by his cunning into believing that they are salvaging civilization. He has also claimed many of the dregs of surviving humanity, such as Donald Elbert, a mad pyromaniac, and Lloyd Henreid, a mass murderer. Together, they help Flagg assemble a massive arsenal of destruction. As his technological power grows, Flagg begins to display supernatural powers: He can transform himself into animals and control minds.
With little more than Freemantle’s goodness and visions to guide and inspire them, Redman, Bateman, Underwood, and Ralph Brentner (a good-hearted farmer) undertake a long and torturous journey on foot to Las Vegas, where they plan to battle Flagg face-to-face. Redman breaks his leg in the desert and must be left behind, but the other three are eventually picked up by police cars under Flagg’s authority. In a tense encounter with Bateman, Flagg forces Henreid to shoot and kill the sociologist. Despite his superiority in numbers and weapons, Flagg has begun to fear the power of goodness. He stages a melodramatic public trial, accusing Underwood and Brentner, held captive in steel cages, of trying to sabotage his new society. The crowd of ordinary people, beginning to be aware of Flagg’s deception and evil, starts to protest, but Flagg silences them with a display of supernatural malevolence, burning a protester down with a fireball.
Suddenly, Elbert, who had been sent by Flagg to find an atomic bomb, returns with it in tow on a cart. The bomb’s radioactivity has sickened him and driven him insane, but he has persisted in his mission. Flagg becomes nearly hysterical with fear, for the fireball he had launched has grown in the sky and assumed the shape of a great blue-fire hand—the hand of God—headed for the bomb. Flagg disappears, and in his place for only a moment is a half-seen vision of a horrible being, perhaps Satan. The hand of God reaches out and ignites the bomb, destroying all.
Back in the community started by Freemantle and her followers, called the Free Zone, Redman, who was rescued and has recovered, is disturbed by the way in which all the flaws of pre-superflu America seem to be reappearing: creeping red tape bureaucracy, and even authoritarianism. He senses that the victory over Flagg’s forces may not, after all, be complete. In the final scene, Redman and a few others decide to leave the Free Zone and head for Maine, where, perhaps, they can live without the evils which seem inevitably to arise from civilized society.
The Stand is an extremely complex work. King has intricately interwoven his fears about the political direction in which he believed the United States was moving with a more universal story of the clash between good and evil. Yet the question recurs: How are good and evil to be defined? Many, perhaps most, of Flagg’s followers are average people simply seeking to re-create the life they had known before the superflu destroyed almost everything. They are used, manipulated, and deceived by Flagg for his own purposes, yet King seems to be saying that they are somehow responsible, too—that evil is inherent in the order and rules necessary for any society’s continued existence. Even the Free Zone is not immune.
For the first time in King’s novels, The Stand takes an explicitly theological position: While Satan is never specifically named or portrayed, it is clear that God is the force behind Freemantle and that faith in God is what sustains and gives power to her followers. Clearly, then, God is the source of goodness, but what, exactly, does that mean? Redman, Underwood, and the others who work for the Free Zone are certainly not saints, and their faith is often weak, yet they remain the representatives of what King sees as good. The critical point appears to be that they also have faith and trust in one another and humanity in general, and they simply wish to avoid harming anyone. While this may be a simple message, King shows that translating it into action is supremely difficult.
First published: 1987
Type of work: Novel
A novelist is held captive and tortured by an insane fan.
Misery is the darkest of Stephen King’s novels. Not only is it frightening, it is also depressing. Part of the explanation lies in the fact that, unlike most of King’s works, it contains nothing of the supernatural but is a story of psychological terror. The villain in Misery is all too human and all too believable. She is Annie Wilkes, a very hefty and very insane former nurse who had murdered scores of patients but always managed, cleverly, to escape being caught. Finally, though, she came under sufficient suspicion to be tried for killing several infants. The prosecution failed to get a conviction, but Annie found it prudent to retire to a farm in the remote mountains of Colorado.
Into her life comes Paul Sheldon, a writer of historical romances. In a blinding snowstorm, his car has careened off the road, and his legs are crushed in the ensuing crash. Wilkes finds him, pulls him out, and takes him home. She goes through his wallet, only to discover that she has rescued her favorite writer. She is Sheldon’s “number one fan” and has read all of his books. Unfortunately, Sheldon had tired of the main character of these romances, Misery Chastain, and, at the end of the latest one, Misery’s Child, he contrived her death. Wilkes is outraged at Misery’s death, and she now insists that Sheldon write a new book and bring Misery back. To be sure he does so, she keeps him locked in a back room, supplying him with a wheelchair, paper, a typewriter, and a painkilling drug to which he becomes addicted.
A frightening battle of wits ensues as Sheldon desperately seeks a way of escape while working on the new novel, Misery’s Return. Each time he tries to leave or to fool Wilkes in some way, he is foiled by her paranoiac cleverness. Each time, too, she punishes him horribly. At first, in the power of this immense, crazy woman, he is angered and tries to resist, but, as she terrorizes him, his will begins to break down. Finally, when she slices off one of his feet and a thumb, his spirit is nearly crushed.
In the meantime, under such immense pressure, Sheldon has been writing the greatest novel of his career. His missing car is finally discovered, and a state patrolman visits to question Wilkes. Sheldon throws an ashtray out the window and begins shouting, but Wilkes attacks and disables the trooper; she then runs over his head with her riding lawnmower. Despite carefully concealing the evidence, she realizes that the police will return and suspect her—after all, she has a history of scandal. She indicates to Sheldon that Misery’s Return must be finished very soon. Sheldon infers, correctly, that she plans to murder him and commit suicide as soon as she reads it.
Though by this time he has often hoped simply to die, Sheldon now conceives a plan for revenge: As soon as he finishes the novel, he will burn it in front of Wilkes. He manages to find a can of lighter fluid and hide it. When the completion is announced, he soaks the manuscript in lighter fluid and ignites it before her. She explodes in rage and agony and tries to grab the burning pages, catching fire herself. Sheldon throws the typewriter, an ancient and very heavy office model, at her, and she collapses. In a dramatic struggle with the writer, Wilkes finally expires.
Sheldon is rescued by the police, who have returned to investigate the disappearance of the state trooper. He rescues much of Misery’s Return, and it is immediately a best seller. Despite this success and much physical recovery, however, Sheldon cannot seem to shake almost constant terrifying nightmares and a sense that he somehow lost his manhood during the terrible humiliations of his captivity. He is drinking heavily and believes that he will never write again. Then, as he limps down a New York street, he sees a little boy leading what at first appears to be a cat, but on closer examination is obviously a skunk. Struck by this image, he returns to his apartment, and an idea begins to coalesce. He begins, once more, to write.
The growing terror and suspense of Misery make it one of King’s most effective page-turners, but it is also an interesting discussion of mental illness, the vicissitudes of the novelist’s creative process, and the way in which personality and dignity can break down under tremendous stress and threats. Wilkes is frightening but also fascinating in her manic depression and paranoia, and she exhibits a bewildering variety of moods, amounting almost to multiple personalities. In his initial responses to her, Sheldon mistakenly assumes that he can outsmart her, but he is constantly amazed and beaten by her craftiness. Throughout Misery, King also gives the reader an inside look at some of the pains and pressures a novelist endures by sharing portions of the novel-within-a-novel Sheldon is writing and discussing, through Sheldon, many of the techniques of the novelist’s craft.
The most depressing aspect of Misery is the graphically illustrated disintegration of Sheldon’s will and personality under Wilkes’s awful terrorism. His nightmares of captivity merge with the terrible pain of his injuries as he becomes both addicted to and shamefully aware of his dependence on the drugs she brings him. He cajoles, flatters, lies, and totally humbles himself to gain her good will, only to learn later that she has seen through him. He grimly watches himself become accustomed to, then almost comfortable with, his confinement. In the moments before she mutilates his body, he begs incoherently, screaming for mercy, promising her anything she wants if only she will stop, but she is inexorable, and his pleas turn into howls of pain.
In King’s depiction of Sheldon’s deterioration and the almost symbiotic relationship that develops between himself and Wilkes, the reader begins to share Sheldon’s desperate belief that he will never escape and that even if he does survive, he will always be haunted by his humiliation. In the end, Sheldon can only release his pent-up shame in tears as he begins to write again. Though for the reader this is a kind of catharsis, the reader is nevertheless left depressed and is relieved only that Misery has finally ended.
First published: 1993
Type of work: Novel
A woman confesses to murdering her husband decades earlier to explain why she did not murder her employer in the present day.
An extended monologue told in a rural Maine dialect, Dolores Claiborne is a departure for King stylistically, though thematically it travels familiar ground: the secrets hidden by communities, the bonds formed by extreme circumstances, and the unexpected faces that evil assumes. Dolores had worked for the recently deceased Vera Donovan since 1949 and had a long, tempestuous relationship with her employer. Speaking to the police, Dolores explains the difficulties of working for Vera as they grew older: Though confined to a wheelchair and often senile, Vera on her “good days” had a vicious streak resulting in battles over her bowel movements. However, Dolores did not murder Vera in the present day of 1992; explaining why, she confesses to murdering her husband, Joe, during a 1963 eclipse, something that the denizens of Little Tall had believed for three decades.
Joe was a physically abusive drunk, stopping only when Dolores threatened him with an ax. He began making sexual advances to their teenage daughter Selena, which Dolores discovered and halted; however, her plan to leave Little Tall with her three children became impossible when she discovered that their college fund savings had been stolen by Joe. She broke down one day at the Donovan home, which had suffered its own tragedies: Vera’s husband died in a car accident, and her two children stopped coming to Little Tall, leaving Vera alone in the house. Vera provided resolve and later some advice: “Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hold on to.” Dolores planned to murder Joe, having him fall into an empty well during the eclipse, thus ensuring that no one would witness the event. Joe fell, lived, and almost climbed out, only to have Dolores knock him out permanently with a stone. Though she was never charged, the town believed her to be guilty.
Dolores continued to work for Vera, moving in when Vera required a full-time caretaker. As time passed, Dolores became aware of Vera’s terrors in her dementia, a fear of wires and dust bunnies mirroring Dolores’s own continued fears about Joe. When Vera suffered an attack by dust bunnies during a lucid day, however, she bolted out of her wheelchair and fell down the stairs. Asked by Vera to be put out of her misery, Dolores agreed, but Vera died naturally before Dolores could do so. Dolores was discovered by the postman, however, in this compromising position.
Soon after, Dolores received a call from Vera’s lawyer and was told that the Donovan children were not estranged all these years but instead died in a car accident soon after their father. Dolores inherited most of Vera’s estate, thirty million dollars, which placed her in a panic as it provided a motive for murder. After thinking over her situation and the life that she lived, she came to police headquarters to give her account.
In a postscript of news clippings, readers discover that Dolores was cleared of Vera’s murder and anonymously donated the money willed to her. The emotional estrangement between Dolores and Selena may be mending, as Selena will visit Dolores for Christmas.
Bag of Bones
First published: 1998
Type of work: Novel
A writer deals with the death of his wife and a haunted house, revealing secrets from both his and the house’s past.
Several years after his wife, Jo, died suddenly, best-selling author Mike Noonan returns to Sara Laughs, their summer home in Maine, to try to defeat the writer’s block that he suffered soon after this tragedy. However, Sara Laughs seems to be haunted, as refrigerator magnets are mysteriously used to communicate to Noonan. The house is named after Sara Tidwell, a blues singer in a family of African American musicians from the turn of the twentieth century; the Tidwells had lived in the local community, known as the TR, but left under mysterious circumstances.
Noonan becomes involved with young widow Mattie Devore and her daughter, Kyra. Kyra’s paternal grandfather is millionaire Max Devore, who wishes to take her away from his poor daughter-in-law. Secrets unfold and connections are intimated, as a larger picture of the TR, Sara Laughs, and the Devore family emerges. After Max dies, Mattie is murdered by men still under the employ of Max’s personal assistant and daughter, Rogette Whitmore. Noonan discovers through Jo’s ghost the truth of the situation: A century earlier, Sara Tidwell was brutally raped and murdered by the young men of the TR, including Max Devore’s ancestor Jared. When Sara’s son, Kito, stumbled upon the scene, he was murdered as well. Since then, Sara has sought revenge on the men who raped and murdered her and her son, as well as on the families that followed. Sara was trying to use Noonan to murder Kyra; with Jo’s help, Noonan confronts both Sara’s murderers and Sara herself, saving Kyra.
As with many other King novels, evil may be a specific entity, but responsibility for that evil spreads across the community where it manifests. Thus, the evil done on Sara becomes a generational concern; lives are claimed long after the reasons are forgotten—or hidden by an unspoken community consensus.
The demands of the writing life, including the problems of writer’s block, is a theme that King has explored before. In Bag of Bones, Noonan decides to give up writing at the end—perhaps mirroring King’s own desire to slow down or even end his public writing career—and to care for Kyra instead, as he is in the midst of adopting her. Noonan is concerned with the consequences of writing, especially of the kind of violent, horrible stories for which he (and his author) are best known. Sara Tidwell’s ghostly revenge showed how violence begets violence, and Noonan is unsure if his own work is different. If this is not a repudiation of his career, King at least makes clear that he believes art should have a conscience, no matter how it chooses to manifest itself. The novel closes with an explicit reference to Herman Melville’s story “Bartleby the Scrivener”: “I’ve put down my scrivener’s pen. These days I prefer not to.”
Hearts in Atlantis
First published: 1999
Type of work: Short stories
A series of connected stories explores how the generation of Americans that came of age in the 1960’s were influenced by the Vietnam War.
The stories of Hearts in Atlantis revolve around the Vietnam War and its impact on Stephen King’s generation, covering a wide range of that generation’s experiences.
“Low Men in Yellow Coats” sets the tone for all that follows. With his friends Sully-John and Carol, Bobby Garfield enjoys the summer of 1960. He befriends the new tenant in the third floor of his building, Ted Brautigan, who hires Bobby to keep an eye out for mysterious strangers. Bobby at first does not believe Ted about these “low men,” but that summer his innocence is taken away on many levels: He rescues Carol after she is beaten and her shoulder dislocated, discovers the truth about his mother and the hatred that she long harbored, and finds Ted is indeed on the run from a fantastic other world, tying intimately into King’s fantasy series the Dark Tower.
In “Hearts in Atlantis,” Pete Riley becomes involved with Carol at the University of Maine in Orono in 1966; the story of her beating influences his later decision to become active in the antiwar movement, symbolized by growing awareness of the peace symbol. The title not only is a metaphor for the romance that briefly blossoms but also refers to a manic ongoing card game tournament that threatens to overwhelm Pete and his dormmates during that time. Readers also discover that Carol later became involved with radicals and was involved in a bombing of a chemical laboratory that killed several people; Carol is thought dead from a shooting during the ensuing manhunt.
“Blind Willie,” set in 1983, focuses on Willie Shearman, the boy who befriended Carol but held her down while she was beaten in 1960. Shearman had fought in Vietnam and remains haunted by both his actions toward Carol and what he witnessed during the war. He does penance for both by begging as a blind Vietnam veteran in New York City, an act that is both oddly accurate (he grows blind in the afternoon) and enormously lucrative.
The year 1999 is setting for the last two stories, “Why We’re in Vietnam” and “Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling.” In the former, Sully-John, who fought in Vietnam with Shearman, attends the funeral of another veteran and dies after one last meeting with a Vietnamese woman who has haunted him since the war. “Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling” takes place on the day of Sully-John’s funeral, as Bobby and Carol reunite and reminisce about their past.
King manages to write about the impact of the Vietnam War on his generation in a heartfelt and resonant manner yet at the same time cast a cold eye on the ironies that occur when a nation loses its alleged innocence and also provide his trademark thrills in an unexpected manner. This approach is in keeping with King’s view of the 1960’s and the boomer generation: He contends that the reality of that time was weirder and more strange than anyone who has not lived through it can imagine.