Columns > Published on October 31st, 2011

LURID: Does King Deserve The Crown?

Author photo by Shane Leonard via

Horror Literature.  Is that an oxymoron?

Horror equates to trash. Horror stories cannot be considered as literature.  Whilst good books improve the mind, Horror rots it. If you read trash, you’ll end up with junk for brains.

If you read too much Horror, you’ll go blind.

Across the literary landscape, there’s a fence.  Eight feet of welded wire mesh topped with dual-tech motion detectors and robot sentries every twenty yards.  On one side of the fence are the good books.  Books to confab about in coffee shops, compare at social functions, cozy up to on the subway.  Fashionable books, chattering books, validated books.  Proper literature.   Behind the fence are piles of black-and-red jacketed paperbacks.  Bad Books, leaking danger like so much congealing blood.  KEEP OUT, TRESPASSERS WILL BE DOOMED FOR ALL ETERNITY.

If you read too much Horror, you’ll warp your fragile little mind.

One author’s name appears on the cover of an awful lot of those Bad Books.  Accurate sales figures aren’t available, but estimates suggest Stephen King has sold more than 350 million books worldwide since Carrie was first published in 1974.  Only J.K. Rowling even comes close.  He’s pumped out, on average, almost two books a year since then, ranging from short story collections, to novellas, to the 1000+ page heft of The Stand, It, and Under the Dome.  He’s personally lured millions of readers over that fence.  If Horror is an addiction, then Stephen King is the gateway drug.

Quick Hits: 5 Classic King Plots in Capsule Form

Marching Powder
The Long Walk (1979): Don’t stop, or you’ll be shot.

Lost Weekend
Misery (1987): Use those animal words round your Number One Fan and she’ll chop your Christing foot off.

Kitty Flipping
Pet Sematary (1983):  Look what dragged the cat in.

Waiting For The Man
IT (1986): The prehistoric clown in the sewer wants to eat your arm.

(un)Comfortably Numb
Gerald’s Game (1992):   “I can’t feel my fingers.  Who’s there?”

More than any writer alive, King defines the genre through the sheer force of his output.  That means he also epitomizes all that’s wrong with it.  His books can be bloated, mawkish, implausible and crude, pap fiction for readers whose need to be entertained overrides their propensity for critical thinking.  He aims low, weaving the commonest of denominators, Sex and Death, into folksy tapestries depicting the predictable triumph of Good over Evil.  He writes for readers without passports, those whose geographical limits extend no further than the next small town.  His narratives gush in torrents of consciousness, drowning the reader in the emotional and cognitive experiences of the protagonist (who inevitably changes before the end of the book), leaving no room for intellectual thought or critical distance.  Reading one of his lesser novels (Cell, Desperation, Gerald’s Game) is akin to being a rat caught in a glue trap: it feels as if you have to gnaw off one of your limbs in order to get out of there alive.

Does King even write his own books?  The Internet rumor mill suggests that since his near-fatal accident in 1999, his wife has been churning out novels on his behalf.  Or, alternatively, there’s a room full of ghostwriters scribbling away under the brand name, V.C. Andrews style. Or a zoo full of monkeys with typewriters.  According to popular legend, King himself doesn’t remember writing some of his 1980s bestsellers — those from his worst cocaine years, when he had to stuff cotton wool up his nose to stop blood from dripping on his typewriter and was frequently discovered passed out at his desk in a pool of vomit.

And yet, King also epitomizes the scope and the heart of Horror.  At his best, he is a master storyteller who knows the genre inside out.  You can’t put his Bad Books down – and that’s no mean feat for a writer of any stripe.  Simplicity of language doesn’t always equate to simplicity of thought — just ask Papa Hemingway or e.e. cummings. As well as scaring us shitless, King’s books function as elaborate allegories, fairy tales for our time.  From Carrie (the fable of The Bullied Girl Who Bit Back) to Under The Dome (a sophisticated critique of the Bush regime), King’s books throw all kinds of unexpected punches. They can be a treatise on childhood and the loss of innocence, as is The Body.  His first novel, The Long Walk, written when he was 18 and later published as a Bachman book, crystallizes more of the futility and horror of the sacrifice society demands of its young men than any amount of literary fiction that addresses war as a theme (Strange Meeting, the Regeneration trilogy, Atonement). King writes haunted house (or car or hotel or mine shaft) stories as opposed to boardroom or bedroom drama, because, like Ambrose Bierce, he believes that “the soul hath her seat in the abdomen”.  King is aiming those punches straight for your gut. In Danse Macabre (1981), he articulates his writing goals thus:

The perfect reaction, the one every writer of horror fiction or director who has worked in the field hopes for when he or she uncaps a pen or lens: total emotional involvement, pretty much undiluted by any real thinking process.[1]

Total emotional involvement? Visceral, immediate?  Can we expect that from a mere book, especially a Bad Book?  Usually that kind of thrill only comes from a rollercoaster ride.  King continues:

…only people who have worked in this field for some time understand how fragile this stuff really is, and what an amazing commitment it imposes on the reader of intellect or maturity …Disbelief isn’t light, it’s heavy… it takes a sophisticated and muscular intellectual act to believe, even for a little while, in Nyarlathotep, the Blind Faceless One, the Howler in the Night.  And whenever I run into someone who expresses a feeling along the lines of ‘I don’t read fantasy or go to any of those movies; none of it’s real,’ I feel a kind of sympathy.  They simply can’t lift the weight of fantasy.  The muscles of the imagination have grown too weak.[2]

He nails it: Bad Books require Good Readers, ones with strong stomachs and well-developed imaginative muscles.  When you hop that fence, you already have to have the Other in you, a psyche capable of groping into the shadows and meeting King’s prose halfway.  Instead of being savored, considered, deliberated, King’s novels (and other Horror) should be a fast read, thin-sliced, interpreted through rapid cognition, not reasoned thought. King’s not so much writing as inciting, and the global sales of his work suggest this technique has a significant cross-cultural impact.  There are definite, if guilty, pleasures in these texts, but Bad Books are like the juvenile delinquents they so often feature — they have to be handled right.

King has never been more popular.  He has two books out this Fall (Mile 81 and 11/22/63) and Jonathan Demme has already signed up to direct a film of the latter.  Despite some horrible screen adaptations, Hollywood keeps calling: Spielberg is producing a mini-series of Under The Dome for Showtime, the television portion of Ron Howard's epic Dark Tower adaptation is under consideration by HBO, and Warner Brothers are interested in getting Ben Affleck to direct The Stand. King must be doing something right to attract this kind of attention.  Unfortunately, he’s also blocking the view.

King’s dominance over the Horror genre means that other, subtler, thinner, better writers struggle to get heard.  His prodigious output never leaves a gap in the market, never leaves the casual reader hungering for more, in a different flavor. The moralistic, first person, bush-league style he’s made his own has spawned a slew of imitators because that’s what publishers want.  Little else gets shelf space.  And what happens when he stops writing? Will this aspect of pop culture claw out its own entrails and eat itself?

Bad Books aren’t going away any time soon, despite the efforts of parents, teachers, librarians and critics to keep us on the right side of the fence.  We have a deep, unsettling need for tales of mystery and imagination, but we don’t need them all to stem from the same source.  Stephen King is the gateway drug — cheap, plentiful, easy to obtain, ultimately unsatisfying — but there is so much else out there for the connoisseur, even the casual browser; popular fiction that thinks, challenges, provokes. Literary works that have languished in obscurity thanks to the dismissive ‘genre’ tag.

Readers, will you cling to King, or, over the next few months, will you allow me to get you hooked on the hard stuff?

[1] Danse Macabre (1981) p.120
[2] Ibid, p.121

Get the latest by Stephen King at Bookshop or Amazon

About the author

Karina Wilson is a British writer based in Los Angeles. As a screenwriter and story consultant she tends to specialize in horror movies and romcoms (it's all genre, right?) but has also made her mark on countless, diverse feature films over the past decade, from indies to the A-list. She is currently polishing off her first novel, Exeme, and you can read more about that endeavor here .

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