WWAC Reflections on the “King of Horror”
It’s spooky season, and that means rolling out our favorite scary stories. Stephen King, also known as the “King of Horror,” is an iconic author, impacting the horror genre with books such as The Shining, It, and Carrie. He has written over 50 novels and around 200 short stories, and his body of work continues to expand in new and interesting ways. He himself was influenced by classic horror comics like Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror. Let’s take a look at some different perspectives on Stephen King and his legacy.
Jamie Kingston: I’m not sure I have a favorite. I can tell you I have an un-favorite though–The Dark Tower books. Tried them repeatedly because of how popular they were. Could not get into them for love or money. No matter what.
Catie Coleman: Probably Carrie, because I love the way that it’s as much tragedy as horror. There are so many ways Carrie White could have had a happy ending, which makes the impact of the horror that much more powerful. Maybe because I was reading it at the same age as Carrie and the other main characters, but it felt so much more personal than a lot of his other work.
Al Rosenberg: ONE?! Sigh. The Gunslinger, which is part one of The Dark Tower series. DT is my favorite series of fiction in the world. I am absolutely obsessed with it. I love scifi and fantasy and (written) horror and this has it all.
Claire Napier: My favourite Stephen King book is the episode of Quantum Leap that has nerdy teenaged Stephen King, and also Satan, in it. Is that not allowed? No? I’m not sure I have a favourite novel either; I did like The Gunslinger a lot (so hazy, so relaxing, despite containing such nasties), but can it compare to the exciting tension & self-impressed I made it through of reading Christine & Carrie mid-puberty? Not sure. I don’t feel like I need to have a favourite, he’s that ubiquitous.
Romona Williams: It. Because it plays so much with repressed memories and the link between childhood and adulthood, a topic I am endlessly fascinated with.
Ginnis Tonik: Like Catie and Claire, I read Carrie at right around those early freaky teenage years. I tried some other Stephen King at the time, but couldn’t get into it then, but I devoured Carrie.
Jamie: It. I was way too young to have read it and remember it way differently than everyone else as a result because my brain didn’t parse a lot of the mature stuff right. Heh. I must’ve been 11 or 12.
Romona: My first Stephen King book was The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, and I was 16. That was not one of his better books. Stephen King has always been hit or miss with me, and this one was not a hit.
Catie: I think it was The Shining during one summer vacation in high school. I remember working stage crew for a community theater show and stealing away during the down moments to read it by flashlight. Nothing makes you long to be snowed in at a evil hotel than reading that book backstage in a stifling theater mid-July.
Al: I don’t remember for sure, I think I may have read some of his short stories very early on. As a child I was intensely into horror. I was that weirdo that carried around Poe’s poetry at age 9. I remember reading The Stand in middle school, so I was probably 12.
Claire: I was was too scared to read It, but the school library had a number of King books that I think I got onto at thirteen or so. Reading Carrie then felt really good. I felt like I totally got everything about it. Christine, being a book about boys and (weirder still) teenagers who owned cars, was more for the spooky thrills.
Ginnis: Carrie – I found the horror book genre around my early teen years, and I felt this obligation to read King because of it, yet the few I found at my local used bookstore like Cujo and Pet Semetary, I couldn’t connect with, but Carrie, wow, I probably read that in a day or two. The terror of puberty, dating, high school, etc. all horrifically contained in that book.
Did you like any of the movie adaptations?
Jamie: Firestarter. I wish the little girl who had been in Poltergeist had been cast as Charlie instead of Drew Barrymore but otherwise, I loved it. I especially loved its ending. The ending in the book made me throw it across the room when I read it in college. The movie ending was much more satisfying. I also adored the Cat’s Eye adaptation.
Romona: The Shining! Yes, it is a completely different story from the book, but it’s brilliant. I love it so. I also kind of love the made for tv version, too. It is…unbelievably bad. So bad that you will laugh from start to finish.
Catie: Tim Curry as Pennywise the Clown from It is iconic horror, even if I don’t actually love the rest of that too-long TV movie adaptation. I also really love The Mist movie they made a few years back, even though I’m not as big a fan of the changed ending as most people. Kubrick’s The Shining is so eerie and magnificent that I don’t even care if it’s not actually a good adaptation of the book.
Al: I LOVE The Shining. And the documentary about said movie. I also enjoy the TV Rose Red adaptation (and ever so secretly the TV adaptation of The Stand).
Claire: I don’t believe I’ve seen any. But I freakin’ love the Dead Zone TV series. It is SO strange. It has no panache at all! It’s about a crime solving psychic but the main thrust of the series is “okay, so maybe the apocalypse will come. But more importantly! Will this average white suburban male in his thirties re-receive the love of the flicky-haired, pastel hoodie-and-jeans, be-sensible-now white suburban mom??” Also, Creepshow is pretty great.
Ginnis: I think a lot of Stephen King inspired movies and television influenced me more than the books, especially since horror/supernatural/gothic stories were something I had a fondness for at a very early age, in large part due to my mom’s influence, so there’s a special place in my heart for a lot of Stephen King film adaptations, good or bad. First though–Carrie, again, Sissy Spacek is perfect in that role, and the new adaption just misses the mark. Frankly, Chloe Mortez is too pretty to be Carrie. Like you get Sissy Spacek as the terrified and awkward Carrie.
As for some others, I have fond memories of watching Sleepwalkers and Silver Bullet with my mom because we have always liked werewolves and shapeshifters. We also liked Firestarter, though I am so on board with Jamie’s recasting!
I remember It being such a big deal with my friends, and I was horribly disappointed by it. The giant spider in the end has six legs which was a total dealbreaker for me, it checked me out of the fantasy. I was very offended by this as a child.
I refused to watch The Shining for a very long time because, hello, so I finally watched it a few years ago, during the day. I made sure to watch it during the day, and I missed out on some of the frights that way. I want to watch it now like on Halloween night, or in a movie theatre. So fun!
What was the scariest moment you remember from a Stephen King book?
Romona: In The Shining there is a part that gave me a shiver down the spine: the family hears the elevator moving and Jack goes to investigate. He turns and tells Wendy and Danny that there’s nothing there and tries to block them from looking, but Wendy forces her way past him and sees the New Year’s Eve decorations spread across the floor. Right then you realize there is no trusting Jack and that Wendy is all that stands between the hotel and Danny, and she is completely alone.
Catie: The opening scene of It with Pennywise in the drain was so creepy that I still don’t like being near street drains, even though there’s never any clowns hiding inside them. I also don’t like those topiaries from The Shining but that’s because in general I find topiary animals to be extremely unsettling.
Al: The crazed train in the DT series. I find malicious madness much more terrifying than anything else.
Claire: Everything in Rose Madder. The last King novel I read as an adult, and the only one to actually give me nightmares and tension headaches. It’s about a woman realising she’s a prisoner of domestic violence and her terrified decision & actions to escape it; the supernatural elements are very important window dressing, but they have less of an impact on the core of the narrative than I think is usual. I spent the whole book incredibly worried for everybody other than the abusive husband (a cop, by the by), and the post-tension sequences are so purposefully limp I was half-grateful, half-resentful.
Have you read any of his comics?
Jamie: No. My love for comics has run to adventure, fantasy, and superheroes. I’ve never been a big fan of horror comics, so I’m not sure I even knew he had any until now.
Romona: Once. I couldn’t get into the Dark Tower series but friends with good taste have said it’s cool, and I tried reading The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger Born adapted by Robin Furth. It still couldn’t hold my attention.
Catie: I read a bit of the Dark Tower comics after finishing the books, which I liked even if the last few books were pretty rough. They weren’t bad but I just didn’t need to have any more backstory, which was what the comics all were. I heard he co-wrote the first arc of American Vampire with Scott Snyder and have been meaning to pick that up.
Al: I have read everything that King has ever written. (Not sure if that’s a point of pride.)
In what ways do you see Stephen King’s works contributing to feminism?
Romona: I think his earlier work (I’m looking at you, Salem’s Lot and The Stand) had one-dimensional, boring female characters. However, since then the women in his books have become more complex and are major players in the plot. Under the Dome, Mr. Mercedes, Doctor Sleep, and 11/22/63 all have dynamic, strong women characters. Additionally, many of the villains in his stories are people that murder, degrade, ignore, or condescend to women. Stephen King evolved from working through the male gaze to constructing intriguing, unique women that are the backbone of his stories.
Catie: Hmmmmm, that’s not something I’ve really thought about before? I think I’d have had to read more of his work to really parse it, especially his more recent stuff. I appreciate the variety of female characters he writes, they’re not just villains or virgins or caricatures of what a Strong Female Character should be. I’m not exactly sure if I’d call Carrie a feminist work, but I kinda love it as a story about teenage girlhood that appreciates how complicated and cruel it can be without reducing any of the characters to bad stereotypes.
Al: Last year Lana reviewed Mr. Mercedes, which is about the perils of not listening to women. I think King has made mistakes. I find Susannah (O)Detta questionable at times. He seems to delve into “magic minorities” more than I am comfortable with. BUT Susannah, a double amputee with severe mental illness, is one of the most badass characters I’ve ever read.
Claire: If a person can read Rose Madder expecting cool King horror and come out of it failing to find bottomless depths of compassion for women living with or after abuse, they have only themselves to blame. This compassion should be a given, but much of media conspires to hide that truth. At least in this way, King brushes the debris aside. Carrie’s tampon throwing scene lanced a boil for me that hadn’t even fully filled with pus yet, for which I am grateful.
Ginnis: I think Carrie, like a lot of horror out there that centers on women, is really about how terrifying puberty can be for girls. I don’t know if I would call that feminist, but it certainly brought to light how some religions view and treat women for me, and that was a good thing to see dealt with in the horror genre. Carrie made sense to me as a way sexism is institutionalized and internalized.
In what ways do they perpetuate sexism?
Jamie: The Stand comes to mind. Most of the “phase two” deaths of everybody who survived Captain Trips: stupid old woman afraid of rapists. Young rich woman who committed suicide with drugs. We get it: women are just too weak to cope with the world, huh, Stephen?
And then he gives us that girl who “saved herself” to be Randall Flagg’s virgin bride, but was okay with anything but vaginal sex? The woman who slept with Flagg’s right hand man to get information for the Free Zone? And I seem to remember two guys rivaling over the attentions of one woman, too. And pregnancy as hope for the future of humanity with what’s-her-face’s baby. I can’t remember her name from the book even though I’ve read it twice. i can only remember Molly Ringwald playing her in the miniseries for TV.
It–the one girl in the group being the first sexual experience of all the boys–something I didn’t realize until much later? Ew.
Oh, and Carrie? Her mother being so religious and repressed that she called her own daughter’s breasts “dirty pillows”? And the girls in school being so hateful that they threw tampons at her? (Of course this is my memory of the movie–I never read the book).
Don’t get me started about the racism in his books either.
Romona: Many of his earlier titles had flimsy depictions of women where their characters are described primarily in terms of their physical appearance. In The Shining, Wendy’s strength is communicated by her actions, but her appearance is repeatedly emphasized to the reader. But when it comes to Jack and Danny, their hobbies, interests, and intelligence are described. You rarely read physical descriptions of them outside of being reminded that they resemble each other. In the scene where Jack begins to seduce Wendy to distract her from trying to leave the hotel her body is described in detail while Jack does not undergo the same depiction. That is just one example among many. But like I said, he’s really come around since his earlier writings.
Catie: Susannah Dean’s magical pregnancy plot in the latter half of the Dark Tower series was a SERIOUS disappointment to me. It’s a dumb trope in general and the way King handled it was a hot mess from beginning to end, even though in general I really like Susannah as a character. Just……so so dumb, to me it’s way worse than the author self-insertion that people complain about in the series. I didn’t love the fact that the whole big flashback story in the series ended with Roland’s first love being fridged either.
And, I mean, the fact that after defeating the giant spider in It there’s a pubescent gang bang in the sewers where all the boys fuck the one girl because of…I don’t even remember the flimsy reason for it. It’s so weird and pointless that it casts a gross pall over the whole book for me. The fact that the scene made it into the final draft makes me seriously question the editing process.
Claire: The tweet about “bitchery” re: Mia Farrow and Dylan Farrow’s commentary on Woody Allen’s abuses, though since apologised for, was a severe blow. A tweet is a short work, but it is a work.
Many of Stephen King’s books revolve around children, and familiar scares from your childhood. What were some of your childhood terrors?
Jamie: I was like that kid in The Stand who was terrified of being abandoned. Clowns don’t bother me. Giant freaking spiders? Oh, yes. Horrifying. Yes, in spite of my love of Spider-Man. I can’t explain it either.
Romona: I was very scared of there being ghosts in the house. We had a lot of little nooks and crannies that ghosts could easily hide in, and I was convinced they were always just around the corner. Also, clowns.
Catie: The basement of my house constantly terrified me, though I’m not exactly sure what I thought was lurking down there. I used to walk back up the steps backwards so nothing could sneak up on me and drag me back down.
Al: Honestly, my parents. This was part of the desire for King. Often the scariest things King writes are about the terrible relationships between people.
Claire: Looking at dead people and things. Bodies coming apart. People seeing your humiliation. A clown with a scary face. Something “getting” you.
Ginnis: Fucking aliens, hell, my own body, abandonment, rejection. Yeah, but mostly aliens.
What’s your overall opinion on Stephen King and his writings?
Jamie: When he’s on, he’s on. When he’s not, it’s like he gets paid by the word, and rambles on tangents that make no sense just to get those extra words on the page. There was this one scene in Misery where the writer is delirious from his crazed stalker fangirl depriving him of water. I get that, but he goes on for like 50 pages about Africa, and I’m like… “Um, Mr. King, I, the reader? I’m not delirious. Can we please get back to the story?”
Romona: What Jamie said. Sometimes he writes something so good and I LOVE it. Other times his writing seems formulaic and tired. Does he have a new book coming out? Let me guess. It’s set in a small town, a man and a woman will fall in love, something evil will pay them a visit, the town will begin to crumble, the narrative will hop from townsperson to townsperson, a few people will die, but in the end the good guys will drive out the baddy. When he doesn’t follow that formula, it’s usually great. But when he does follow that formula, it is dull as all hell.
Catie: He’s not one of my Must Read authors, but you can’t ignore his huge contributions to the horror genre. For me, King’s awesome at both really weird high concepts and down to earth character work. His best stories manage to combine both in exciting yet authentic ways, either in stand-alone work or the sprawling weird Dark Tower series. But he does have his own tropes that can feel tired, and doesn’t always manage to wrap up those high concepts in very satisfying ways. Still, he’s ambitious and I like that he chases these weird big stories, even if they don’t always work perfectly.
Al: I am OBSESSED. I believe that he has two kinds of books, those that serve the Tower, and those that do not. And the ones that do are all great because they’re written from this place of creativity and honesty. Then there are those commercial pieces of garbage written for just the cash (I see you, Cell).
Claire: I think he’s muscular. I like his solid confidence in using horror and supernatural elements as tools to tell stories based in realism and real sadness, fear or pain. I like that he’ll have a woman piss right on a man’s face in vengeance, if that’s what the story needs. I like that he made his cowboy kind of scared of sex. I think without his sense of humour, his stories would be awful — both bad and hard to bear. But he has it, so on the whole, it’s good.
Ginnis: Like I said before, I never really got into his books outside of Carrie though I have certainly reaped the benefit of influence he has had many other creators working in the horror genre. I have actually probably read more of his writing about the horror genre which I find very compelling. I tend to think of King of more in terms of influence rather than directly because that is largely how I have experienced his work.