This year for my Stickin’ Huge Awesome Novel Winter Awesome Read (SHANWAR), I chose Stephen King’s The Stand (1978) I have never read it before and I don’t think I have ever had a conversation with someone about it. Still, it has hovered in my peripheral vision for a while. As this winter I had a period of cyclical colds and flu symptoms that slayed me in apocalyptic fashion, I thought it was time to pick up The Stand. At the very least, if I survived my illness, I would be better prepared for the world after the Plague.
The Stand is definitely worth the time. Today I want to spend some time thinking about genre; on Thursday I want to think a bit about the supernatural elements in the book.
Readers unfamiliar with Stephen King seem to want to sweep away his work with a single word: horror. I just don’t think this genre identification does justice to the great diversity of material he has produced.
King is a horror writer, and has shaped and reshaped that genre over an entire generation. Just going by the few books I know, Carrie (1974), IT (1986), and Misery (1987) are all horror, but with radically different premises and engines of terror. Spanning across the dozens of lesser known works, the Maine stories often have a horror or thriller context to them. Yet, even in these pieces, like The Dark Half (1989) or Needful Things (1991), it is the psychological haunting that stands out. And when you look at this group of books as a whole, none fit the slasher genre of horror that pops into people’s minds.
We can see that from the very beginning of his mainstream speculative, King tugs at the edge of the horror genre. Carrie (1974) is an epistolary tale, a collection of pieces of evidence about the strange case of a victim of spiritual abuse. ‘Salem’s Lot (1975) has horror elements because of its main villains, but it is a pretty standard slug-it-out vampire tale. It is mostly important because of King’s keen sense of human nature and local context, and because this kind of vampire tale becomes more common after it was joined by Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire in 1976.
Then we have The Shining (1977). It is a terrifying story, but where does the horror lie? In the end, it is a standard, though brilliant, haunted house tale, with the critical twist that the horror sits within the chest of man as much as it does in the evil that haunts without. In Stephen King’s most famous haunted house tale, the main characters bring the horror with them to the house of horrors.
Which brings us to Randall Flagg, the Dark Man of The Stand. Flagg is a brilliant character that plays on the edges of supernatural, spiritual, and mythic origins. We’ll turn to his character on Thursday, but consider for a moment the fact that Randall Flagg is featured not just in the apocalyptic supernatural thriller, The Stand, but also in The Eyes of the Dragon (court adventure tale for children, 1976), The Dark Tower Cycle (a “gunslinger” quest with diverse fantastic elements, 1982-2012), and Hearts in Atlantis (what Charles de Lint calls “the Great American Baby Boomer Novel,” 1999).
It is a stunning diversity of genres partially anchored by a single figure.
A scan at Stephen King’s CV will show that he is entirely comfortable with spinning out in new directions. Dolores Claiborne (1992) sits outside the horror pack as a kind of deconstructed sleuth book, and The Tommyknockers (1987) is pretty standard SciFi. The Green Mile (1996) diverges again from horror, and I think is an essential supernatural tale of the post-Christian world. I have not read 11/22/63 yet, but it is a radically different kind of story than Pet Sematary (1983)—a book I probably should not have picked up as a fourteen-year-old who just buried his baby brother.
And we must remember that this is the same author that wrote the novellas behind the brilliant films Stand by Me (1986) and The Shawshank Redemption (1996)—neither of which is in the horror genre and each exploring themes of mortality and identity in sophisticated ways.
There is no sense speculating as to why Stephen King still gets typecast as “merely” a horror writer. It is valuable, though, to think about his capacity in writing such diverse works of speculative fiction.
This is a difficult claim to make of the deep past because the genres of literature were fairly tight until pretty recently. However, if we think of the diversity of works from Shakespeare, Jonathan Swift, or Voltaire, we can see how genius tugs at the edges of possibility. If you will forgive the narrowness of my choices, we see that this kind of genre-bending genius carries over into the modern world.
Any reader familiar with the breadth of J.R.R Tolkien’s work will marvel at how there is a cohesive whole that spans across lyric and narrative poetry, translation, essay-writing and lectures, epic, myth, legend, fictional history, and romance—a unity that exists not just in the Legendarium but in his non-Middle Earth works as well.
C.S. Lewis, too, had a bibliography that was as wide as it was deep. Even his most well-known works span children’s fairy tale and Christian apologetics, but that is only part of the tale. He was a literary critic, literary historian, amateur philologist, cultural critic, editorialist, lecturer, mythmaker, poet, fantasist, early SF writer, editor, commentator, controversialist, memoir writer, devotional author, and (we discover recently) war propagandist. Those who only know Narnia and Mere Christianity only have a smidgeon of the possible.
We see this breadth in authors like G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers, H.G. Wells, Roald Dahl, E.B. White, George Orwell, Anne Rice, Neil Gaiman, George MacDonald, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Margaret Atwood. Even highly focussed geniuses like Jane Austen or L.M. Montgomery betray a playfulness with the novel genre. Stephen King is in the company of great authors who are reflexive in the creative process, finding the right form for the story they are trying to tell.
Great Writers Read Broadly
Part of King’s literary breadth comes from the fact that he reads broadly—a point he drives home in his brilliant part-bio/part-guide On Writing (2001). Reading the echoes in his novels and the books he mentions in On Writing and interviews, we know that King didn’t just Richard Matheson, Bram Stoker, and H.P. Lovecraft—and even there, these are authors who produce a diverse corpus (even Stoker: in 1879 he wrote a book called The Duties of Clerks of Petty Sessions in Ireland—how terrifyingly non-vampirical). In his formative period, King read broadly in classic literature, modern novels, fantasy, and early science fiction. Stephen King was the graduate of an English program that heavily featured poetry, and could probably have been a good literary critic if he didn’t swear so much.
This reading is supplemented by a voracious appetite for great (and awful) film and a love of golden-era rock music. Reading deeply in a large variety of types of literature has given King the ability to express a relatively core voice in a vast number of ways. King’s encouragement to writers in On Writing is to expand their reading. Here is how he puts it:
I usually listen to [a book] in the car (always unabridged; I think abridged audiobooks are the pits), and carry another wherever I go. You just never know when you’ll want an escape hatch: mile-long lines at tollbooth plazas, the fifteen minutes you have to spend in the hall of some boring college building waiting for your advisor (who’s got some yank-off in there threatening to commit suicide because he/she is flunking Custom Kurmfurling 101) to come out so you can get his signature on a drop-card, airport boarding lounges, laundromats on rainy afternoons, and the absolute worst, which is the doctor’s office when the guy is running late and you have to wait half an hour in order to have something sensitive mauled. At such times I find a book vital. If I have to spend time in purgatory before going to one place or the other, I guess I’ll be all right as long as there’s a lending library (if there is it’s probably stocked with nothing but novels by Danielle Steel and Chicken Soup books, ha-ha, joke’s on you, Steve).
Stephen King has had his naysayers. Our über-critical friend, Harold Bloom, responded to Stephen King’s National Book Award lifetime achievement honour (the Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters) with these words:
The decision to give the National Book Foundation’s annual award for “distinguished contribution” to Stephen King is extraordinary, another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life. I’ve described King in the past as a writer of penny dreadfuls, but perhaps even that is too kind. He shares nothing with Edgar Allan Poe. What he is is an immensely inadequate writer on a sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph, book-by-book basis.
You should see what Bloom goes on to say about J.K. Rowling! Bloom is just one of the most highly credentialed of critics to write King off as popular fluff. The re-emergence of the term “speculative fiction” is partly a way of adapting genre fiction into the literary fiction world. No small part of this is because of greats like Margaret Atwood who have avoided terms like “science fiction” and “fantasy,” even though must of her work fits in those genre categories.
While “speculative fiction” is the truly best description of the wide variety of stories he tells, Stephen King has embraced the label of a horror hack. The result is that he has lived on a kind of popular fiction side road. Until his On Writing he typically had to buy tickets for literary events, while the “real authors” received gilded invitations.
Perhaps this outsiderness has sometimes gotten to King. When I see a quotation like the following, I wonder if this has sometimes had an effect on his self-conception:
King aimed to “…build a bridge between wide popularity and a critical acceptance. But my taste is too low, there is a broad streak of the i, not the ‘vulgar,’ in my stuff. But that is the limitation of my background, and one of my limitations as a writer. I’ve got a lot of great things out of a small amount of talent.”
In the end, though, Stephen King has kept writing genre-busting stories out of the great depth of reading that has fed his wonderfully perverse imagination. His productivity is testament to the fact that he has ignored the haters, read deeply and broadly, and entered the diverse generic hallways of the great writers before him.
Genre-wise, The Stand is post-apocalyptic science fiction with an entirely supernatural construct. Crazily, the supernatural construct does not appear until more than 150,000 words are read. It is one of King’s longest books, and fans scrambled to get the original text of 450,000+ words when it was released as the “uncut” version in 1990. King was made for SHANWAR, and I am so grateful The Stand was my choice for this year.
Few have the skill build worlds like Stephen King, and it is the oft-unrecognized spiritual nature of his fiction that I want to turn to on Thursday.