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Stephen King and That Awful Muttering Voice

If our inner demons ruled the world.

By From the December 2013 issue

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What do you do when you’re in a Stephen King novel, but you’re not a Stephen King character anymore? Or rather: What do you do when you’re Stephen King, but you’re not a Stephen King character anymore?

King has been knocking out horror stories since 1974’s Carrie; in 40 years he’s turned out 50 novels, three apiece in the bumper-crop years of 1983 (Christine, Pet Sematary, Cycle of the Werewolf) and 1987 (The Eyes of the Dragon, Misery, The Tommyknockers). He’s played around with a pseudonym, written up-all-night doorstoppers and unforgettable slim parables, and become perhaps the most obsessively filmed novelist since Graham Greene. Over the decades he’s returned again and again to certain settings and themes: New England and, later, Florida, overcoming helplessness, adolescence and the loss of childhood innocence, rage.

His two most recent novels, Joyland and Doctor Sleep—both published this year, because why not burn it if you’ve got it in the tank?—feature some of these King hallmarks. Joyland’s hero is a teen coping with his first real shocks, the loss of his mother and the breakup of his puppy-love romance. Doctor Sleep is set mostly in New England and takes a familial rage, passed down through three generations, as one of its central themes.

But the years have changed Stephen King. The author who turned his job in an industrial laundry into fodder for working-class horror stories like “The Mangler” now owns three homes. The man who was once so wasted and coked up that he can’t remember writing Cujo and The Tommyknockers, among other works, has been clean and sober for decades. At least judging from the outside, King’s own life seems to have followed an upward trajectory—and that upward movement toward hope and renewal is reflected in his two newest books.

Both of these novels feel like major departures for King. The psychological dynamics of each are essentially the reverse of those in King’s greatest work: An author who made his name chronicling his characters’ downward spirals is now trying to write upward. 

Almost all of King’s greatest writing (the only exception I can think of is “The Body,” the novella that became Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me) follows the central character down into despair. While Stanley Kubrick’s film version of The Shining shows us Jack Torrance purely from the outside—it’s Wendy Torrance’s movie more than anybody else’s—the novel embeds the reader deep inside Jack’s disintegrating mind. Pet Sematary, Carrie, and Christine all star characters who are succumbing to horror. In Cujo King even manages to wring pathos out of a large family dog’s descent into madness. He’s adept at showing how we lose our integrity, hope, and sanity; hence one of his most recognizable tics, the italicized paragraph in which a monster’s thoughts suddenly surface within the mind of a man. I still shiver when I think about the bitter, hopeless anger of the old man who owned Christine: you shitters. That awful voice, the Screwtape voice we sometimes catch muttering around the corners of our minds: Stephen King shows us what would happen if that voice ruled the world.

Lots of king’s novels are good and a few are masterworks. Cujo is one of the great nihilistic-atheist novels, a scouring book in which all sources of authority betray you and all of your most loving relationships are either deadly or powerless. The horror is blameless and meaningless; Eden is destroyed without any fault accruing to our shaggy canine Adam, who was just investigating an interesting cave when a rabid bat bit him. And against his own will, a good and loving dog became a thing out of a nightmare.

The Shining is one of my candidates for Great American Novel. It’s a murder mystery in which the murder victim is, first and foremost, Jack Torrance’s conscience. It’s filled with scenes in which, as Torrance researches the Overlook Hotel’s bloody past, he finds himself confronting his own suppressed or hazy memories. He tells us the self-serving stories he’s told everyone else, in which he’s a fun guy who’s just the victim of other people’s misjudgment. These are stories even Torrance himself has begun to believe, because accepting the truth would destroy his sense of self. And then in the snowbound depths of the Overlook Hotel, the truth begins to come back to him, all the dead memories rising and buzzing around his skull like the wasps who mysteriously resurrected themselves in the bug-bombed nest.

The discovery and removal of that nest is one of the most blunt and brilliant metaphors for the life-and-death struggle between Jack Torrance and his own conscience. Torrance finds the nest under the roof of the hotel. As he’s inspecting it and preparing to remove it, his mind is somewhere else, working over old grudges the way we do. More than once now we’ve heard a story about a debate timer: When Torrance was a teacher he ran the debate team, and one kid on the team stuttered. Timing is everything in debate. There was an incident in which Torrance and the stuttering kid disagreed about how much time was left on the clock, Torrance caught the kid slashing his tires, and in attempting to get the kid away from his car he somehow hurt him. That’s how he lost his teaching job; that’s the reason he’s working as the winter caretaker at the Overlook.

This story has always sounded like a lie. When we finally learn the truth, the shock isn’t in what really happened—we’ve already guessed most of that. The shock is in how briefly Torrance allows himself to glimpse a tiny, sharp sliver of the truth (“he would swear that he had set the timer ahead no more than a minute”) and how swiftly he turns his mind away from it. In the time it takes to get down from the roof and out to the shed with the insecticide, Torrance has already shut down the part of his mind which is still capable of honesty. 

I don’t think any alcoholic can read the discovery of the wasp’s nest without recoiling in recognition of the sudden onslaught and ruthless suppression of memory, insight, self-knowledge. If you can read this scene and remain unshaken, well, wait a few years and try it again, and see if it hasn’t grown sharper teeth. Everybody has a debate timer somewhere in the recesses of memory; the mind is its own place, and some of us reach a point where the mind is the Overlook Hotel, with sordid little hells behind the clean closed doors.

Still, of the novels I’ve read—and I admit that I haven’t read The Dark Tower or anything between Gerald’s Game (which I couldn’t finish) and Joyland—the greatest is Pet Sematary. A sickly-sweet fog of pure dread hangs over every page of this book. In a sense it’s a love story. It’s the story of what happens to love when it’s replaced by will and need: I won’t let you go. It’s so powerful because the “hero” here is driven by his paternal love into a place far beyond love, where he doesn’t care anymore whether getting his beloved back will be good for the beloved. He only knows that it’s what he wants. 

This tragic reverse alchemy, in which grief transmutes a devoted husband and father into a howling black hole of anguish and self-will, is accompanied by some of King’s most terrifying and well-timed imagery. The image of bereaved father Louis Creed’s mind as a tree toppling under the accumulated weight of ice, coming at the opening of a late section of the novel, shocks the reader with its vertigo-inducing promise that things are somehow about to get much worse. Even in his less devastating novels, King’s pacing is perfect, like a waltz into perdition.

This writerly skill, plus King’s sheer tenacity, means that his more self-consciously literary readers are finally starting to throw around terms like Great American Novel. He deserves it; several of his novels are great in themselves, but especially great as portraits of a particular culture and time. It’s amazing that he’s managed to work so much Americana into his books with only an occasional lapse into hokeyness. Think of everything his cold fingers have touched: the prom, the classic car, the hot dog, The Wizard of Oz, the Winnebago, “Hey ho—let’s go!”

In Joyland, a novel that in most ways could not be more different from Pet Sematary, King takes on the grand American institution of the amusement park. It’s 1973, and college kid Devin Jones takes a summer job at a small funfair in North Carolina. He’s trying to get over a tough breakup with his first love. When the story starts, he’s obsessively listening to his Doors records and even fantasizing about suicide. As the summer wears on, he begins to pull up from this slough of despond—and gets pulled into investigating a series of murders which culminated in a killing in the funfair’s haunted Horror House ride. It’s a ghost tale written with the propulsive rhythm of a thriller; I stayed up all night for it. 

You can tell Joyland was written by an experienced author. King slathers on the foreshadowing, always promising another twist around the corner—and always delivering. The sections often close with a kicker, and while there are too many of these kickers and they’re often too cute (“That’s called being young”; “Love leaves scars”), there’s a comforting assurance to King’s use of formula. You feel you’re in good hands.

The most interesting feature of Joyland is the guileless humility of its protagonist. There’s a gentleness to Jones, and a winsome quality which allows the novel to show us several other characters praising him without the reader starting to find him insufferable. The key to his character is that he actually likes “wearing the fur,” donning the stifling Howie the Happy Hound costume, because it does makes little kids so happy. He doesn’t fall very far down—he’s just a melodramatic teen—but you root for him as he climbs back up.

Dan torrance, the hero of Doctor Sleep, has a much harder climb. King added a defensive author’s note to the end of the book, basically saying, I know you didn’t want a sequel to The Shining but here it is. And Doctor Sleep does feel like a curiosity, not an essential part of the King legacy. Little Danny Torrance, who barely escaped the ruins of the Overlook, grew up to become an alcoholic lowlife like his father. Unlike his father, he recognizes the nature of his problem—King says in the afterword that he’d always wondered, “What would have happened to Danny’s troubled father if he had found Alcoholics Anonymous instead of trying to get by with what people in AA call ‘white-knuckle sobriety’?” The book has a plot about vampires who want to capture and torture a little girl who has “the shining,” but the underlying structure of the book is Dan Torrance’s recovery through AA.

Stylistically, King has always relied on the Hitchcockian close-up, the sudden zoom of the narrative camera. He uses this trick in that glinting first sentence of IT: “The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years—if it ever did end—began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.” A thing which recurs, and gathers horror around itself with each recurrence, like a snowball. The Dead Zone has its refrain of the bad hot dog, the Wheel of Fortune: these little irrelevancies which create a moral catastrophe for the hero. The very littleness of the objects underlines our helplessness—it takes only a bad hot dog to bring us to anguish.

There are fewer of these unforgettable motifs in the two new novels. Doctor Sleep does have a beautiful, subtle set of images which position Dan as the fulcrum of a turning wheel. The novel’s supernatural mechanics set up this imagery; those supernatural images, in which one character can see through another’s eyes, are quietly echoed with complex psychological resonance in a scene in which Dan manages to feel pity for a child-killing vampire who’s dying at his feet. Looking at the vampire, he remembers a young boy he abandoned in the depths of his drinking. He’s able to see the helpless boy in the tortured vampire because he can see himself in both of them; he’s the fulcrum, the door that swings both ways.

This image is one of the few places where King gets the most out of the addiction-recovery subject matter. The novel clearly wants to say something about anger, its uses and its evil, but that theme never quite coalesces. The AA scenes feel predictable—they could come from any of the countless contemporary recovery narratives.

But AA does expand King’s moral imagination in a way that I, at least, found fascinating.

Conscience is one of King’s great subjects: the choice to follow the light or douse it. The “shining” itself, the psychic gift which tells little Danny Torrance that something is very wrong in the Overlook Hotel, can serve as a symbol of the conscience which allows him to see what the adults in his world deny. 

King writes passionately and beautifully about the seemingly powerless individual—the abused child, the battered wife—standing up against recognized authority. Before now, I’m not sure he’s written a story in which knuckling under is heroic. 

Acceptance, submission, doing as you’re told: These are concepts open to abuse, as is individual conscience, of course, which easily becomes self-justifying narcissism—but everybody’s got to knuckle under sometime. Helen Rittelmeyer has observed that contemporary writers use addiction and 12-step programs to smuggle moral language past audiences who would balk at religious context—even though the two have simliar aspects: “the admission of powerlessness, the submission to authority, skepticism about the value of thinking for yourself, the rote repetition of phrases that to an outsider seem vapid, sentimental, or silly.” 

Neither Joyland nor Doctor Sleep is a Great American Novel. But Joyland is a good autumnal read, and Doctor Sleep is worth a try if you want to see how tough it is to write—and therefore to imagine—the long hard climb to hope. This upward crawl can be unintelligible even when you’ve actually done it; so think how hard it must be to imagine when you haven’t. 

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About the Author

Eve Tushnet blogs on the Catholic channel of Patheos.com.