Stephen King, Social Awkwardness, and the Horror of Prejudice

Let’s just get this out of the way. Stephen King is more successful and prolific than I’ll ever be. His work welcomes critique, but nobody can say that he isn’t an author and that he doesn’t deserve recognition for his work. Anyone who doubts his devotion to the craft need only pick up a copy of “On Writing.” King didn’t piss his name in the snow like any number of published authors who are fads today and forgotten tomorrow. King’s name is etched in stone as part of the American landscape. That said . . .

stephenking1
Boo! Social awkwardness! Booooo!

King rarely writes horror. Although he sometimes strays into the Lovecraftian territory of unspeakable tentacles, the bulk of his fiction focuses on the outsider, society’s strays that normal folk don’t want to face head-on. His work unsettles because it places his readers face-to-face with the social awkwardness and anxieties that they shy away from in everyday life. The monsters don’t so much creep out from under the bed as they do ooze out from between the wide gaps in social context.

The horror genre is a hard sell in a market saturated with escapism and narcissism thinly veiled as empowerment. People don’t want the “Do you read Sutter Kane?” experience of going irrevocably insane by the eighth chapter of their paperback novel (if only). They generally don’t want to be reminded of their own certain and impending mortality, which is why we all share that inborn relief valve of knowing that we’d all be far more clever and resourceful than the protagonist of any published horror scenario. To this day, most people look forward to the same “pleasurable shudder” as readers in the 19th and late 18th centuries.

King’s strength as an author is that he can so evocatively exorcise his own demons onto the page. He conveys his own phobias and social anxieties openly enough that the actual novel may as well be transparent, because really, you are just looking at his photograph on the dust jacket. What’s truly unsettling though is how the language of anxiety disorders becomes so unspeakably horrific when read by a general audience.

The inherent problem is that King fails to expand his reader’s perception of normality. If anything, he reinforces the sense of unease that people feel when confronting abnormality in real life. Let’s start with an easy parallel. Stephen King wrote Cujo. People read Cujo, and it made them more afraid of dogs on some level. King attached the stigma of danger to something inherently innocent. Now, consider that just about every King book features a human being with a social stigma, be it mental illness, disability, or even the color of their skin. The “horror” element of his books hinges on the reader recoiling from the Other on some level, which is chicken soup for the bigot.

King has a longstanding record of perpetuating the unfortunate tropes of the Magical Negro and the Inspirationally Disadvantaged, which puts him in the same camp as writers of “Amish Romance,” who so ably perpetuate the concept of the Noble Savage in a fresh bonnet. These characterizations become blatantly apparent when they are translated into film. But his stereotypes are often good guys, so that makes it okay, right? It’s not just a novelty that King is penning these quaint modern day minstrel shows, researchers have found that “superhumanization” is a mask for “dehumanization.” Racist whites really do associate blacks with the magical powers that Stephen King writes about. King’s novels feed that myth, just as “The Art of the Deal” feeds the myth that Donald Trump is a good businessman.

Prejudice isn’t just angry and hateful, it is eerie and unsettling. The thoughts and philosophies that drive it are alien to human decency. Working that into a horror novel is reaching for the low hanging fruit. It puts readers in the position of embracing the worst part of themselves to feel safe in confronting the ghost, killer clown, or whatever other placeholder is masquerading as an antagonist. Stephen King has the authority at this point in his career to ask his readers to step outside of themselves and grow as people . . . or maybe he’ll just write more stories about a magical black house maid eating a white man’s ejaculate off the bed sheets so that her kid can have talent.

M – O – O – N, that spells, “you’re a bigot.”

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