I mean, it’s no question that Stephen King is a master of horror and thriller fiction. Perhaps of all time, next to the great masters such as Poe, Richard Matheson, and even HP Lovecraft. Even without reading anything written by King, do we know that his creativity is a fearsome thing to be respected and kept at a safe distance.
I must admit, that although I have been reading for years and I have a not-so-secret obsession with mystery and thriller, I have never read Stephen King. And it’s not for lack of wanting to read Stephen King. I can’t count on my fingers and toes the combined times that I’ve stared at the over-stuffed shelves at the bookstore and library that house the infamous King novels; I have even run my fingers over the covers and picked them up. But I have never taken them home with me (what if my house becomes haunted??) But alas, it’s on my reading list. And the other day I was at a coffee shop with one of those “give one, take one” book sections, and The Shining was front and center.
So with trepidation in my heart, I took it home with me. And I couldn’t put it down. Except for when I was alone that is. So what makes Stephen King novels so good? And a closely related question, what makes them so scary?
There’s no denying that he’s a great author. He can quickly hook the reader and keep us eagerly turning the pages for hours. It’s simple, really; the end of each chapter is a convenient hook or open question that leaves us wondering what will happen to the characters at the end of the story. And that’s what makes it so scary too. Is that there’s no going too far in horror.
Several months ago I watched a great movie called Tucker and Dale versus Evil. A movie about two hapless yet loving hillbillies on vacation that are in the wrong places at all the wrong times; making them appear like ruthless cold-blooded serial killers (seriously, you should watch it). It’s pegged as an outrageous comedy, but at one point of the hillbillies gets some fingers chopped off. At that moment in the movie I began to feel uncomfortable; and when the hillbillies are being chased down by a bunch of college students crying bloody murder, I was sincerely scared.
But why could I possibly be scared during a comedy? Because the movie makers crossed an unspoken line; and while I was not consciously aware of it, it was enough to make me uncomfortable for the rest of the movie. As movie watchers and book readers, we have certain expectations about what we’re going to see/read. There are particular paradigms and archetypes that we expect to be followed. For example, while it’s okay to watch someone get murdered in a movie (I won’t give an example because it’s so commonplace that I’m sure you can come up with your own examples) it’s much less common to see a rape happen on camera. One of the biggest books/movies of the past couple years is the popular Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series. For those of you who have seen/read it though, you are very aware of the extremely uncomfortable rape themes in the story. They make us uncomfortable because they are things that we would rather not talk about in society. Fifty years ago you could say the same about violent murders, but we’ve grown accustomed to that by now. But nevertheless, we dislike seeing our heroes being permanently harmed in any way. Like taking fingers. And Stephen King knows how to draw us out past that comfort zone little by little. For example, the Shining sets up by putting all the main characters in a hotel that’s hidden from the rest of civilization for a set period of time. And people have died violently in the hotel.
Already, we are on edge because we are put in a situation in which bad things have happened before. Secondly, the main character, Jack Torrance, is a recovering alcoholic with anger issues. Again, we want characters that we can wholeheartedly love and stand behind. Can we really support a character who broke his kids arm over some spilled coffee? It makes us even more uncomfortable and feel isolated in the story. And of course, the story really begins to get creepy when Danny has bruise marks on his neck. The scary images/ghosts are no longer imagination. They are real, physical things that can leave physical harm.
However much ghosts scare us, it’s even more scary to think of them as being able to touch you. And again, the most likable character in the novel is of course Danny, a child with the ability to see/feel things that others miss. But he’s a child. He’s vulnerable. He doesn’t even know what the word divorce means. And that makes us uncomfortable to an even stronger degree; we hate to see a child in a vulnerable position. Finally, we have the destruction of the family from within; Jack becoming possessed by the Overlook and turning on his family. So many social constructs and expectations are being ripped apart in this movie!
Overall, while I would never read this alone at night, I think I’m finally brave enough to face some of his other books now 🙂