In November 2003, Stephen King received a lifetime achievement medal from the National Book Foundation for his “distinguished contribution to American letters.” The foundation’s notion of “distinguished contribution” is a fairly broad one: The medal has been awarded to Oprah Winfrey as well as to Eudora Welty. Still, America’s most famous horror writer made the most of it. His acceptance speech commended the judges for having the courage to honor “a man many people see as a rich hack”—and then attacked the whole world of literary prize-giving for its snobbery, its willful ignorance of popular and genre fiction, and its tendency to grant itself “social or academic brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch” with American culture.
It was a characteristic performance for King, who has always been at once hungry for literary prestige and scornful of it, self-deprecating about his writing and combative when criticized. He gives the impression of being acutely conscious of his peculiar position in American letters, where he occupies a gray zone between the pulpy authors who can match his sales figures—the Dan Browns and Danielle Steeles—and the literary writers whose company he obviously craves, the writers who stand a chance of winning, not a lifetime achievement medal, but the National Book Award itself.
The ambiguity has dogged King for decades, and it’s unlikely to be resolved soon, not least because his best work as a writer is well behind him. There will doubtless be many more books to come: He’s only fifty-nine; he seems fully recovered from the 2001 hit-and-run accident that nearly killed him; and, although he has murmured unconvincingly about giving up writing, the novels and short stories keep on coming. (Last fall’s Lisey’s Story was the second book King published in 2006 alone.) But in spite of his astonishing output and none-too-subtle campaign for literary respectability—the National Book Foundation speech, the blurbs on his books from upper-middlebrow novelists such as Michael Chabon, the publication of his ruminative quasi-memoir On Writing—most of the novels he’s written since the early 1990s feel like reruns of his greatest hits, afterthoughts to the titles that still haunt our pop culture’s consciousness like the unquiet ghosts in the Overlook Hotel.
Carrie, The Shining, Salem’s Lot, and The Stand in the 1970s, together with Pet Sematary and It the following decade—these books are the best of Stephen King, the heart of his dark territory, and their persistence in the popular imagination ought, at the very least, to give the lie to Harold Bloom’s dyspeptic claim that King is a writer of “penny dreadfuls” whose books do “little more for humanity than keep the publishing industry afloat.” A thousand potboilers have been bought, devoured, discarded, and pulped in the thirty years since Carrie was published, and only King, out of all his million-selling peers, has managed to maneuver his way out of the mass-market ghetto and into a kind of quasi-respectability. You won’t find many critics eager to champion him, exactly, but there’s a sense that he needs to be at least grappled with, a courtesy that’s extended to few other members of the rich-hack club.
In part, King has pulled off this unlikely feat by his steady work as a genre writer, where the relative dimness of the competition makes his talents shine brighter than they otherwise would. Indeed, there’s a sense in which he invented the modern horror novel, doing for the form what Agatha Christie did for the murder mystery: taking a genre that was defined by the short story and pulling it off at novel length—not once or twice, a Dracula here and a Frankenstein there, but over and over again.
He may not at first have realized what he was doing. Just as Christie spent her early years as an author alternating between murder mysteries and mediocre international thrillers, so King has recalled telling an editor, early in the 1970s, that his “horror novelist” reputation was only temporary: “‘Bill,’ I said, amused, ‘no one can make a living writing just horror stories in America. [H.P.] Lovecraft starved in Providence. [Robert] Bloch gave it up for suspense novels and Unknown-type spoofs. The Exorcist was a one-shot. You’ll see.’” Last spring, thirty-two years after making this prediction, King published Cell, a novel about a mysterious pulse that turns cell-phone users into murderous zombies. (“Stephen King lives in Maine,” the author’s page noted. “He does not own a cell phone.”) It reached number one on the New York Times bestseller list.
This achievement alone would probably earn King a certain kind of literary immortality, the sort reserved for such genre pioneers as Arthur Conan Doyle and Jules Verne, authors whose historical significance may outstrip their creative gifts. But King has the rare distinction of being both a pioneer and a perfecter; he has both created the modern horror novel and imbued it with an unexpected literary respectability.
In this regard, he is to horror what both Louis L’Amour and Larry McMurtry are to westerns, or C. S. Forester and Patrick O’Brian are to Napoleonic-era sea novels, or James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler are to hard-boiled detective fiction—the breakthrough author who defines a form for huge popular audiences and simultaneously the elite author who pushes it up toward literature. That’s not because he has the artistic gifts of McMurtry or O’Brian or Chandler, necessarily, but because, like them, he’s made popular genre books seem more than just the fulfillment of their genre.
This helps explain why his readership is so vast—rivaling those of Agatha Christie and Erle Stanley Gardner at their peak—and why his cultural footprint is much more significant than you would expect even from the emperor of horror. The ghosts and vampires (and the sex and violence) may lure book buyers in, but what keeps them coming back is something else entirely: namely, King’s ability to imbue his tales of the uncanny with a realism, a cultural relevance, and a theological heft that’s missing in even the highest of contemporary American fiction.
When Tom Wolfe in his 1989 Harper's essay “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast” urged a revival of literary realism and called for novelists to abandon their introspection and produce for America “a literature worthy of her vastness,” he primarily had himself in mind. His manifesto reads, in retrospect, like a long advertisement for his then recently published novel Bonfire of the Vanities.
But King’s vision of contemporary America is billion-footed enough to make Wolfe’s look provincial by comparison. In forty-odd novels and an endless stream of short stories, Stephen King—the bard of Bangor, Maine—has given form and substance to almost every dark facet of contemporary American life: AIDS and abortion, rape and rock ‘n’ roll, child abuse and the shadow of Vietnam, baseball and cocaine. There are happy marriages, divorces, and wife beatings; alien abductions and alcoholism; the death penalty and political assassinations; serial killers and cell phones; tabloid journalism and all the endless miseries of childhood. “You don’t achieve Stephen King’s sort of Vulcan mind-meld with America unless you are in intimate touch with the communal fantasies of the whole culture,” John Leonard once wrote—and sure enough, when the authorities in Paducah, Kentucky, searched the locker of the student who gunned down three of his high-school classmates in 1997, they found a copy of King’s 1977 school-shooting novel, Rage, written under his Richard Bachman pen name.
It’s American pop culture, above all, that comes to life in a Stephen King story—in a stream of references and quotations and nods and shout-outs, a perfect reproduction of our media-drenched way of talking and thinking, and all of it untouched by the sense of chilly irony with which so many contemporary novelists approach our television/Internet age. A critic once dismissed King’s novels for their willingness to traffic in “pre-existing images from cartoons, old movies, television shows and commercials.” In King’s landscape, he complained, “sinister men wear ‘white Andromeda Strain suits.’ . . . A ruffled adulterer, when caught, looks ‘like Alfalfa in the old Little Rascals.’ Men wish for guns ‘like the one Dirty Harry wore.’ Slacks are ‘the color of Bazooka bubble gum.’” That’s true enough, but such preexisting images provide the vernacular of most Americans’ inner lives. There is nothing aesthetically glorious about King’s prose—he is no student of Nabokov, to put it mildly—but there is something defiantly plausible and distinctively American about how his characters tend to regard the world.
And then, of course, there are all those pesky ghosts and vampires. What kind of realistic novel includes a demonic clown, or a haunted car, or a literary pseudonym that comes to life and stalks his creator? Except that they are our ghosts, our vampires, our haunted houses, and our monsters: They’re at once horrifying and entirely recognizable, intruders from an alien dimension and just another part of the great America pantomime.
The UFO that Bobbi Anderson digs up in her backyard in The Tommyknockers isn’t just a spaceship—it’s nuclear power and environmental contamination, the military-industrial complex and the just-as-oppressive drug culture that tried to overthrow it, with the strains of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” playing in the background. In Needful Things, the devil seduces the residents of a small Maine town with bits and pieces of Americana: a rarer-than-rare Sandy Koufax baseball card, a pricey fishing rod, a photograph of Elvis. In The Stand, Satan’s avatar, Randall Flagg, remembers spending time as a member of the KKK and the Weather Underground; he once attended high school “with a red-haired, bandy-legged boy named Charles Starkweather”; played a part in the wave of civil rights-era violence (“the beatings, the night rides, the churches that had exploded as if some miracle inside them had grown too large to be contained”); and recalls “drifting down to New Orleans in 1962, and meeting a demented young man who was handing out tracts urging America to leave Cuba alone.” Flagg is history’s string-puller and a walking compendium of dark Americana:
His pockets were stuffed with fifty different kinds of conflicting literature-pamphlets for all seasons, rhetoric for all reasons. When this man handed you a pamphlet you took it no matter what the subject: the dangers of atomic power plants, the role played by the International Jewish Cartel in the overthrow of friendly governments, the CIA-Contra-cocaine connection, the farm workers’ unions, the Jehovah’s Witnesses (If You Can Answer These Ten Questions “Yes,” You Have Been SAVED!), the Blacks for Militant Equality, the Kode of the Klan. He had them all, and more, too. There was a button on each breast of his denim jacket. On the right, a yellow smile-face. On the left, a pig wearing a policeman’s cap.
“Walt Disney’s evil twin,” John Leonard called King, and sure enough the psychic powers that Johnny Smith acquires in The Dead Zone carry him to a moment “as American as The Wonderful World of Disney . . . the politician and the man in the high place with a gun.” Except that, in the wonderful world of King, the assassin is the good guy.
This kind of supernatural realism is a hard trick to pull off. Most writers who deal in the supernatural tend either to abandon the everyday in favor of landscapes (Poe’s House of Usher, Anne Rice’s New Orleans, Lovecraft’s New England) that exist at a sharp angle to the real world, or else domesticate the supernatural so that it fits snugly in the confines of normal reality. (Magical realism, in particular, introduces magical happenings by pretending that they aren’t magical at all; no character in Toni Morrison or Gabriel Garcia Marquez ever seems truly surprised by a supernatural event.)
But King has it both ways. His great achievement—which covers a multitude of literary weaknesses—has been to join the supernatural to the natural in a marriage of equals that leaves the verisimilitude of both intact.
King has occasionally compared himself to Theodore Dreiser and Frank Norris, two turn-of-the-century social realists who specialized in urban miseries and workmanlike prose, and he loves to quote Norris’ riposte to critics: “What should I care if they single me out for sneers and laughter? I never truckled, I never lied. I told the truth.” But King has effectively expanded the definition of realism to include a set of human experiences that have been systematically excluded from the novel’s purview for two centuries or more. At their best, his works aren’t just a wide-open window into the bedlam of recent American life. They’re the first significant attempts at literature for a post-secular age.
Midway through Salem’s Lot, King’s second published novel, a schoolteacher named Matt Burke informs the local Catholic priest that their hometown is being taken over by vampires. The time is the early 1970s, and the priest, Fr. Callahan, explains the Church’s post-Freud, post-Vatican II posture on such things:
“The Catholic Church has been forced to reinterpret its whole approach to evil-bombers over Cambodia, cop-killings and ghetto riots, the billion smaller evils loosed on the world each day like a plague of gnats. It is in the process of shedding its old medicine-man skin and re-emerging a socially active, socially conscious body. The inner-city rap center ascendant over the confessional. Communion playing second fiddle to the civil rights movement and urban renewal. The church has been in the process of planting both feet in the world.” . . .
Matt said deliberately, “And you hate it, don’t you?”
“Yes,” Callahan said quietly. “I think it’s an abomination. It’s the Catholic Church’s way of saying God isn’t dead, only a little senile.”
As with Fr. Callahan and the Church, so with King and the novel. His career is an act of rebellion against literature’s nineteenth-century decision to abandon the numinous and “plant both feet in the world.” There are exceptions, scattered here and there across the canon, that are attuned to the mysterious aspects of human affairs. Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, for instance, demonstrates that it’s perfectly possible to write a great novella about invisible worlds without taking a position on whether they’re objectively real. The last chapter of Anna Karenina contains a depiction of religious epiphany, Hermann Hesse successfully documented sojourns in Jungian mysticism and the occult, and there’s always D. H. Lawrence’s windy sex worship and pantheistic ecstasy. But such attempts are rare enough to make one almost grateful for even the contemptuous attention of an atheist like Flaubert, who depicted religious experience with rancid mockery: “When she sighed her last breath she thought she saw an opening in the heavens, and a gigantic parrot hovering above her head.”
Even novelists known for their religious beliefs have tended to depict the supernatural’s immanence through its absence, preferring psychological pain to demonic affliction, and dark nights of the soul to the voice from the whirlwind. You can find God in Evelyn Waugh or Graham Greene but more often as a significant absence than as a presence; so too with modern novelists such as John Updike, whose Almighty resembles nothing so much as the senile divinity that King’s Fr. Callahan so loathes. Actual encounters with the divine or the demonic are left to occasional taboo-busters like the British writer Hilary Mantel, herself subject to paranormal visitations. (“I am used to ‘seeing’ things that aren’t there,” she writes in her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost. “Or—to put it in a way more acceptable to me—I am used to seeing things that ‘aren’t there.’”)
And then there is Stephen King. Whether he has ever seen a devil, as Mantel did as a girl—“It has no edges, no mass, no dimension, no shape except the formless; it moves”—is ultimately unimportant; his novels are the work of a man who believes in devils, or at least in their possibility, and the possibility that one of his ordinary Americans could encounter one by chance.
Or perhaps not by chance: King’s stories, like human life, are replete with examples of the randomness of evil, but the worse the monster, the more likely that we have invited it in to feed. In The Shining, the ghosts in the Overlook Hotel embody the hotel’s overflow of sins—suicides, New Year’s Eve debaucheries, mafia killings—and they turn Jack Torrance into their willing tool by playing on his private failings, his alcoholism, and his rage. In The Stand, King’s magnum opus—or at least his best book, since he would probably give the magnum-opus nod to his bloated, interminable seven-volume Dark Tower saga—the survivors of a global superflu face off in an apocalyptic battle royale, but the superflu itself is an entirely human creation, a dark thing conjured up by the just-doing-our-job good men in the U.S. military and released into the world by simple human error.
Near the end of Salem’s Lot, a local sheriff remarks of his suddenly vampire-haunted town:
“It ain’t alive . . . . That’s why he came here. It’s dead, like him. Has been for twenty years or more. Whole country’s goin’ the same way. Me and Nolly went to a drive-in show up in Falmouth a couple of weeks ago, just before they closed her down for the season. I seen more blood and killin’s in that first Western than I seen both years in Korea. Kids was eatin’ popcorn and cheerin’ ‘em on.” He gestured vaguely at the town, now lying unnaturally gilded in the broken rays of the westering sun, like a dream village. “They prob’ly like bein’ vampires.”
This passage is steeped in the rot-from-within despair of the 1970s, and it is not a coincidence that King did his best work in the decade of Jonestown and The Exorcist, the Ayatollah Khomeini and The Late Great Planet Earth, the decade that stripped away the confident science-and-progress ethos of the 1950s and early 1960s. (The Stand was originally conceived as a novel about the Symbionese Liberation Army, and Cujo, the titular rabid Saint Bernard from one of King’s bleaker novels, is named after one of Patty Hearst’s kidnappers.) The 1970s made King’s supernatural realism possible, in a sense, by teaching Americans that reason and progress and enlightenment might be little more than convenient fictions, and that there are darker things in heaven and earth than had been dreamt of by George Eliot or John Cheever.
This realization gave birth to the paranoid style in American literature—Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and all their endless imitators. But even the most complicated conspiracy theories didn’t get at the change in the American consciousness quite the way King did when he kicked off his career by having a girl named Carrie destroy her high school with telekinesis and followed it up with vampires devouring a small Maine town. The Pynchonesque paranoid style is clinical and detached, whereas King’s is defiantly fleshly: His stock in trade is menstrual blood and diarrhea, vomit and dismemberment. “If I cannot terrify,” he once declared, “I will try to horrify; and if I cannot horrify I will go for the gross-out. I’m not proud.” The paranoid style’s evils are distant, invisible, corporate; King’s are terribly corporeal and groaning with the desperate hunger of hell. The paranoid style is steeped in agnosticism or a wary deism, whereas King’s novels don’t deal just in devils but in a personal, active Almighty as well.
God doesn’t make an appearance in most of King’s stories, which is understandable enough: The horror genre requires the supernatural, but it doesn’t require the divine. Indeed, a too-powerful divinity sucks all the suspense out of a supernatural thriller, since the outcome of a God-and-the-devil showdown is never really in doubt. Sometimes the demons King summons up are opposed by a generic white magic of one kind or another, which balances the evil but isn’t necessarily strong enough to overcome it. Occasionally he tilts toward the supernatural nihilism that Lovecraft cultivated, in which the universe is a thin membrane spread over a screaming abyss.
But God does elbow his way into King’s America—it wouldn’t be a recognizable America if he didn’t—and when he appears it isn’t as a distant, half-glimpsed presence, a philosopher’s God or the wan deity of wistful almost-believers. He is instead “the Lord God of Hosts,” as Mother Abagail, his prophet in The Stand, might put it, intervening directly in the lives of his people and demanding that they conform those lives to his will—whether it’s the chosen few who survive The Stand’s superflu and end up shepherded west to Boulder, Colorado, to form a new Israel set against the Babylon of Las Vegas; or the motley heroes of Desperation, King’s finest 1990s novel, who coalesce around a “God-bombed” eleven-year-old to battle a demon called Tak, accidentally let loose in the Nevada desert.
These divine manifestations have led some over-eager believers to claim King as a Christian novelist—or at least a writer with “an authentic Christian sensibility,” in the words of Paul F. M. Zahl, writing for Christianity Today. A Christian of some sort King may be, but the religious landscape of his fiction is something else. His America has passed beyond secularism, but it hasn’t come back to Jesus. Instead, it finds itself in what King seems to imagine is the world of the Old Testament, in which God is a hard and inscrutable taskmaster rather than a God of love, more to be feared and obeyed than worshiped and adored.
Indeed, insofar as King has a theology, it involves an Almighty who wills not only sacrifice but also suffering and death to serve a larger purpose that’s beyond any mortal ken. Such a God is awesome and cruel all at once, with no interest in answering to his creatures—even if many of King’s characters react with appropriately Joban outrage to his demands. “He can’t take them all and leave me!” wails David Carver, the preteen prophet from Desperation, when it becomes clear that his whole family will die at the demon’s hands while he is required to live. “Killer God,” a woman screams in The Stand, when Mother Abagail delivers God’s demand that her husband go out into the desert unarmed to confront their adversary. “Killer God! . . . Millions—maybe billions—dead in the plague. Millions more afterward . . . Isn’t he done yet? Does it just have to go on and on until the earth belongs to the roaches? He’s no God. He’s a daemon, and you’re His witch.”
There’s never an answer in King’s fiction to these outbursts. Nobody steps forward to offer any C. S. Lewis-style theodicy or hopeful promises of the resurrection and life everlasting. “God will dispose as He sees fit,” Mother Abagail says. “You are not the potter but the potter’s clay.” To David Carver’s agony, one of his companions—a Norman Maileresque aging literary legend who will shortly give his own life in service to God’s will—can only reply: “You said ‘God is cruel’ the way a person who’s lived his whole life in Tahiti might say ‘Snow is cold.’ You knew, but you didn’t understand. . . . Do you know how cruel your God can be, David? How fantastically cruel? . . . Sometimes he makes us live.”
A similar spirit is at work in The Green Mile, King’s serial novel set on a Tennessee death row, which seems superficially like a Christian allegory. A huge black prison inmate, falsely accused of murder, has the suggestive name of John Coffey and the power to cure the sick and raise the dead, but he ends up executed anyway, despite his jailers’ awareness that they are killing an innocent man. It is a Christian story—without the resurrection. God sacrifices the Christlike Coffey for purposes that remain inscrutable, and the prison guard who narrates the story is left stuck somewhere between hope and despair:
I think back to the sermons of my childhood, booming affirmations in the church of Praise Jesus, The Lord Is Mighty, and I recall how the preachers used to say that God’s eye is on the sparrow, that He sees and marks even the least of His creations. Yet this same God sacrificed John Coffey, who tried only to do good in his blind way, as savagely as any Old Testament prophet ever sacrificed a defenseless lamb, as Abraham would have sacrificed his own son if actually called upon to do so . . . . If it happens, God lets it happen, and when we say “I don’t understand,” God replies, “I don’t care.”
Nor is King’s God disposed to handle every supernatural flare-up. He coexists with a multitude of lesser powers, and he allows most of them more or less free rein. Not only ghosts and demons are loose in King’s post-secular landscape but also a Who’s Who of stranger spiritual influences, some benign and some malignant, some distinctively American and some very much Old World. In Rose Madder, there’s Circe and the Minotaur; in Insomnia, the three Fates, spinning, measuring, and cleaving away; in Pet Sematary, the Native American Wendigo. And then there is the host of quasi-mythic beings that King himself invents, from the dizzying cast of his Dark Tower saga to the unearthly Long Boy, which haunts the visions of a writer and his wife in last year’s Lisey’s Story, fixing them with “the hideous pressure of its insane regard.”
Writing in Books and Culture several years ago, Susan Wise Bauer complained that the willingness of King’s God to tolerate these lesser rivals—and his insistence that his human surrogates take them on—made him “an undemanding fellow” who outsources the hard work to human beings “and then desperately hopes they can pull it off.” King’s Almighty, she suggested, “is much like Rabbi Kushner’s God—creative, good, well-meaning, but limited.”
But, if anything, the opposite is true. King’s God isn’t a well-meaning weakling, holding our hands and hoping things turn out OK; rather, he’s so far above the various adversaries, from Tak to Randall Flagg, that the possibility of their winning passing victories concerns him not at all. The demons are a means to chastise and test a struggling humanity, not a threat to God himself; they are the potter’s wheel on which King’s characters can be broken without placing God’s providence in doubt.
This is questionable theology, but it is genius as a literary move and a perfect solution to the problem that God’s omnipotence poses for dramatic tension in a supernatural novel. Instead of preserving suspense through nihilism (in which God is either nonexistent or malign) or through Manichaenism (in which dark and light are equally matched and equally likely to prevail), the novelist gives us a God too powerful and too aloof to bother with anything so interventionist as the Incarnation. King may describe his theology as Christian—“this long tale of dark Christianity,” he called The Stand—but his God is one whose power is unmatched but whose wrath exceeds his love, a God with a taste for blood sacrifice, and a God who is prepared to let his people perish for purposes beyond our understanding.
The result, across King’s body of work, is a vision of contemporary America as a spiritual realm that is out of joint and up for grabs, thick with competing forces and watched over by an Almighty whose goals are inscrutable, whose demands are peremptory, and whose methods are sometimes cruel. It’s a landscape out of Ecclesiastes, in a sense, defined by its “essential fragility, its constant, unstoppable movement toward death,” as King puts it—a landscape where time is a thief and death is a mystery and where the hope of a resurrection is weaker than the fear of the dark. King’s characters are asked to reconcile themselves to mortality less out of any Christian hope than because the alternative is something far, far worse—eternity in the Overlook Hotel, say, or joining up with the vampires of Salem’s Lot, or sharing the fate of Louis Creed in Pet Sematary, King’s most horrifying work, whose attempt to bring his son back from the grave teaches the terrible lesson that “sometimes, dead is better.”
As for what awaits past death, King offers only uncertainty. Dying characters walk away down long shadowy corridors with God-knows-what at the end; they are carried off to the netherworld by huge flocks of preternatural sparrows; they ride a “steepening spiral of darkness . . . down and down, to whatever dreams there are.” Even in the novels where God is an active, demanding presence, encounters with the numinous inspire awe but rarely confidence. “We each owe a death,” the aging narrator of The Green Mile says, “there are no exceptions, I know that, but sometimes, oh God, the Green Mile is so long.”
The age of reason is over, but the age of faith has not yet returned. And so Stephen King’s America endures in fear and trembling—waiting for a messiah or a second coming.
Ross Douthat is an associate editor at the Atlantic Monthly and the author of Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class.