Beyond Boo!: The Case for Stephen King as Literature

PopMatters Film and TV Columns Editor

When one thinks about literature, they are apt to apply a standard similar to one Justice Potter Stewart used in connection with obscenity in the landmark case of Jacobelllis v. Ohio. To paraphrase His Honor’s words, a work of literary art may be difficult to define, but one usually “knows it when (they) see it”. Indeed, a lot of the determination of what stands for the aesthetic of the written word seems buried in a revisionist mode, a surreal sentiment that argues that painters are masters until they have died, and time has proven their penchant for greatness. The acceptance of art seems buried in consensus, scholarship and a lot of outdated acolytes. Getting into this hallowed hierarchy is a lot harder than many writers care to admit.

Granted, not everyone can or should get into the vaunted guild of literary merit. Otherwise, there would be no point to a pronouncement of “literature”. A group that’s not exclusive is by definition inclusive, without a single standard applied or attempted. Membership derives no great benefits; the connection creates no certification or classification. It becomes one big huddled mass of mediocrity, with the stellar examples rubbing syntax with entities of nominal — or no — worth whatsoever. So while it is easy to point to what is NOT literature, it seems difficult if not next to impossible to prove what is. Arguments and assertions only cloud the already confused horizon, leaving many to ignore the argument all together.

Referenced book:
The Colorado Kid
by Stephen King

Hard Case Crime
October 2005, 184 pages, $5.99 [paperback]

Most definitions of literature revolve around the determination of recognized artistic merit. Technically, one is looking for imaginative or creative writing that, as author Rebecca West puts it, consists of “an analysis of experience and a synthesis of the findings into a unity.” Artistry has several factors, usually derived from accord, the overall body of work to be explored, and a look at what, if any, standard is set by the created canon. If the writing in question can invoke a clear aesthetic experience, or produce a certain emotional state, or offer a clear cognitive experience, then it has value. Once it is recognized by more than one person for these (or other tangential) properties the discussion of literature can begin. There is no guarantee of a final stamp of approval, but at least you’ve overcome a burden that many can’t even begin to scale.

It’s a lot like the Freemasons, or the Stonecutters of The Simpsons fame. You “gotta know someone”, get your name on college syllabi and have thesis after thesis dissect your work. Stumble somewhere along the line, and you could find yourself blackballed forever. Take yourself too seriously, and these editorial elitists will see right through you. Indeed, a balance must be struck between the seeking of recognition and the recoiling from same. Many individuals who’ve been labeled with this literary marking have embraced the taxonomy, while others shun it as a brand unbecoming a true work of art. To paraphrase another old saying, some people do achieve literature, but most unwittingly have it thrust upon them. Still, like the Oscar for actors or the hit song for a musician, the declaration of universal importance for one’s writing is a membership in merit that authors sense and strive for.

One of the most misunderstood members of the literary missing is Stephen King. A devastatingly popular (and populist) scribe, his accomplishments are near mythic in scope. A few hundred million books in print (give or take a couple hundred thousand), dozens of bestsellers, a legion of fans spanning three generations, a gaggle of goofy –and good — film adaptations, and an inseparable identification with the genre of horror. More so than any writer of his or previous generations, King has redefined the medium, turning terror and its written counterpart into a mass appeal model of efficiency and effectiveness. His books have been recognized for their story craft and creep showiness. He’s dabbled in every classical and post-modern form of macabre, and has even sprinkled his prose with political and personal ideology. More than just a scare doctor, King is a sly old wizard of untold wonders, forging his legends out of imagination and madness to enflame the fears of anyone who comes in contact with his spells.

But the question becomes, is he “literature”? Can one literally defend King in the realm of artistic merit? There will be those — and if you’re really quiet, you can probably hear them right now — who will scoff at the merest mention of “King” and “art” in the same sentence. Indeed, by this time in your reading, the laughter may be so deafening that you should probably switch over to another psychic channel. The author himself refers to his efforts as “the Big Mac and fries” of fiction (a statement he has recently come to regret), predetermining their disposable and empty calorie count before critics have a chance to lambaste him. Others have called him a hack; a summer read snake oil salesman, and a one-note novelty (though he’s proven that a single sustained tone can last over several lifetimes) who explores the fad of fright.

The calls for artist, though, have been there, albeit in a rather minor manner. Washed within the waves of dismissal and outright disrespect have existed a small, supportive group who believe that King resides with the masters in his handling of word and thought, not to mention his creation and management of both. They point to his growth, his ever-changing approach to subject and story, his experiments both inside and outside the genre and his vast, overwhelming oeuvre as proof that he is a prolific and polished craftsman. Has he left the world a Gravity’s Rainbow? A Catcher in the Rye? A Finnegan’s Wake? Probably not. Has he written works that will stand the test of time to translate across the years and into the realm of the well remembered and respected? Yes. Somewhere in the middle of those two statements lies his legacy. Somewhere in the middle of those two statements lies his fate as literature.

Naturally, within any debate over merit, one has to look at both the pros and cons in consideration. King comes with some significant baggage that both bolsters and blindsides his literary status. Some of the standards applied are so old and arcane that many of the works that we consider classics of the art form would today instantly fail the test. But King appears hampered by factors that he cannot or could not control, and by bias based in shortsighted snobbishness and a real sense of envy. Everyone loves to champion the poor starving artist, unable to make ends meet while forging away at their forgotten craft. King suffered early on in his illustrious career, but after a couple of novels and a single film adaptation, he was a wealthy man. Today, he is probably the most important figure in modern publishing — aside from a certain television talk show host with her own book club.

If we boil literature down to its basics, we must concentrate on one of two areas — issues of either internal (story, character, style) or external (theme, influence, importance) value. When agreement results, the foundation for its classification as art usually derives from a combination, or collective of several of these facets. One would be hard pressed to call King an important author (though his popularity and cultural prominence may argue otherwise) and he is often accused of having a style that shuttles between campfire tales and occasional gimmickry (Dolores Claiborne‘s first person narrative). Still, it is impossible to deny King’s way with story. He truly is a genius of plotting, a writer who can make even the most linear chronicle a crackerjack exercise in timing, arrangement and execution.

There is an art to storytelling, make no mistake about it. Critics have complained (for as long as there have been outlets for such analysis) that many writers are devoid of invention and imagination when coming up with classic yarns. Many feel they return to formulaic familiarity, while others stumble over themselves with lapses in logic, derivative dead ends and amateurish cyclical threads that end up strangling the story outright. King has none of these problems. His novels are well-honed saga machines, his short fiction an effortless exercise in efficiency. King understands the inherent fun of a tale well told, and he manufactures some of the best in this business. You can see it in something like Carrie which takes coming of age into far more terrifying territory, or It, with its childhood trauma as adult drama chronicling.

King’s books are built on beautiful narrative nimbleness. Something as ultimately silly as The Tommyknockers, or as derivative as Dreamcatcher finds its force in the ability for the plot to pull off even the most underdone of ideas. No one said King’s muse was perfect, and he can expel the odd fictional flub now and again. But it takes genius to maintain the storyline integrity of something like The Dark Tower series, or to revisit the moldering vampire legend (ala ‘Salem’s Lot) with something other than unoriginal awe. Deride their characterization, argue over their fear factors, but King cannot be faulted for his talent with a tale. He is perhaps the only author currently working who can still claim a connection to the one element that put him on the publishing map in the first place. Fume over other facets, but King’s plots are worthy of artistic consideration.

So is his impact on horror. King came along at a time when the genre needed a good swift kick in the backside. While other influential authors like Richard Matheson and Robert Bloch were functioning fine within their niche, King caused tomes of terror to break out into the legitimate pop culture mainstream. During the 1970s and 1980s, the writer became a kind of Beatles to the baneful, a phenomenon dripping with the gore of gratuitous shocks and scares. The public couldn’t get enough of it, translating his works into overnight sensations of sales and significance. It was King who laid the groundwork for the coming wave of horror histrionics that got its start with John Carpenter’s Halloween and worked its way through a veritable who’s who (or maybe a better tag would be “what’s what”) of spook shows.

King’s effect was both as fan and formulator. He was an aficionado of the genre, and indulged in its depraved joys from a young age. Like a literary Tarantino, he absorbed all he read and saw, and channeled it through his own wounded worldview to create a kind of geek-heavy version of the heebie jeebies. King re-imagined the standards, rediscovering what made the Haunting of Hill House (an obvious nod for The Shining) and childhood horrors (It) so scary to begin with. But he wasn’t afraid to modernize, to find contemporary ideals in classic creep outs. It’s still the same today. A book like Insomnia can work the religious right and abortion into its mortality demon details, while hot button topics like spousal abuse (Dolores Claiborne) and the death penalty (The Green Mile) find their way into his words. Impact is an important part of merit, and it’s hard to argue over King’s connection to the genre. You can almost label modern horror B.K. and A.K. — Before King and After King.

Still, potency and plot power are ancillary to the mighty purveyors of prose when it comes to a label of literature. Indeed, perhaps the most telling tenets in the entire argument derive from something the ancient Greeks deemed necessary to determine art. For those ancient arbitrators, all the great stories of the cosmos centered around certain themes, be it good vs. evil, life vs. death, love vs. hate, etc. For something to signify its literary status, is has to fall within these unclear, occasionally obscure, categories. In Boccaccio’s Decameron, the subjects were clearly seen, set out like menu items for a good literature lunch. Wit, love, fortune, deception, sex, religion, unnatural cruelty, the dead, and animals all find a home in the thematic resonance of art. These basics can even be expanded to cover taboos, magic, marvels, monsters, tests, wisdom/foolishness, the future, society, chance/fate, captivity/freedom, and the biggest battle of all, man against the natural order.

Looking over the litany of possibilities, it is not difficult to see these overriding ideas of many King novels. Dare it be said that King can comply with almost each and every one of them. The Dead Zone revolves around the wheel of fortune, Cujo is all about nature’s revenge on man. Gerald’s Game takes abnormal brutality to new levels, while The Eyes of the Dragon has its foundation in the magical realm of fantasy and quests. Each and every one of his novels address the classical themes that make writing art, some skating over several such topic areas on their way to the wickedness. In general, King writes about family and the past, generations lost and trying to right themselves. His books can be steeped in alienation, and deal directly with myths and legends (like The Talisman). He has often used education as the background for his characters mantel, and he loves to spin terror into tragedy, and visa versa. His are works of heroics and villainy, fortune and fate all lost in the karmic chaos that pits man vs. man, and humanity vs. horror.

So King’s calling to literature seems pretty clear. There are tangentials that can be taken into account, factors that help support his space in the alcoves of art. But there are also some fairly big faults; reputational stains that make it hard to unanimously apply for aesthetic honors. Granted, they appear much worse than they really are, but they do tend to make one step back and reconsider the aforementioned affinity. King has his supporters, but he also has his detractors. And when voices are measured and meaning deciphered from the din, the bad seems to stunt the good in ways detrimental to a determination of merit.

It is safe to say that, if anything, the films made of Stephen King’s books have, for the most part, fucked up his chances at literary greatness. The connection is superficial, yet significant. Discounting the vast differences between the two mediums — the way they tell their stories, the way they achieve their ends — a very clear correlation still exists. For many, crappy movie must mean crappy book — or worse, crappy writer. Such a shallow jab seems unfair at first, but how many of us dismiss the works of certain directors or screenwriters the minute we see their name on the marquee. Popcorn fun is one thing, but King’s adaptations have been lame, lowest common denominator disasters that have definitely besmirched the man (and he didn’t help his cause, helming the equally abominable Maximum Overdrive himself).

Since there are so many of them, it is hard to see the successes for all the shit. But even then, something strange happens. King is not credited for creating the good, or even masterminded interpretations of his work. It is always someone else — usually a screenwriter or a director — who is awarded that honor. Stand By Me, Misery, The Shawshank Redemption, The Dead Zone, Carrie, The Stand mini-series have all found their favor with individuals — Frank Darabont, William Goldman, Rob Reiner — who supposedly stepped away from the author’s aggressively average work and reconfigured it into something special. Believe that if you want (and its not true) but the premise to all these productions still belongs the King. The way in which the narrative unfolds and the characters interact derived from one man’s mind. Doctor it up all you want and put as many famous faces in for known names, but it still came from his imagination. After all, if the badness derived from King, so must the goodness, right? Film is a collaborative process.

Then there is the genre. Horror is laughed at by lots of artistic types, dismissed as drivel and looked down upon as drek. In the hierarchy of hatred, it rests beneath romance novels and science fiction as subcategories of creative cravenness. People look at a book about ghosts or a tale about werewolves and assume that it’s all paint by numbers plotting, stick figure characterizations and by the “book” scare set pieces. And you know what, they’d be right. The vast majority of horror fiction is laughable in its outrageous inarticulateness. Get the blood flowing, get the monsters crowing, and hope for the best. While not descriptive of the entire literary genre, it is safe to say that the masters of the macabre are few and far between.

King is truly the genre’s leader — its overriding benchmark and its most passionate defender. Some would say that such a statement is like arguing that, in the realm of feces, he is less fragrant and more aromatically acceptable than all the others. But it’s really unfair to color King based on the badness of those who share his literary format. We wouldn’t do the same to someone like F. Scott Fitzgerald, or William Faulkner just because there have been some bad society stories and goofy Southern gothics in the realm of the novel. Not all love stories are Love Story, not all chick lit lumbers in from Barbara Cartland’s boudoir. The best way to grade a genre’s impact is not from the outside in, but from the inside out. Is everyone who writes science fiction Phillip K. Dick or Harlan Ellison? No. Is everyone out to recapture the old West a Zane Grey or a Luis L’Amour? If King is comparable to others within the realm of horror, then he deserves to be besmirched by their derivative designs. If he is not — and he most definitely isn’t — then he should stand alone, and not be judged by his association with a specific artistic area, but by his ability to transcend it.

Only problem is, there hasn’t been a great deal of critical concern for King. His fast food facets, dismissible movie catalog, and genre stench have kept him out of the Ivory Towers were authors are over-intellectualized and writing becomes synonymous with staunch, starchy discussions of middling minutia. Those in popular culture, paid to give their often-uninspired two cents about the efforts of betters have always dismissed him as pulp, or worse, pap. King is an easy writer to whittle down — he draws on a simple, Northeastern mindset of wholesomeness and heinousness to center his sensibilities. He finds new fun in classics from acknowledged artistic individuals and leaves a lasting impression on whatever category of tale he wants to tell. King has often been compared to Charles Dickens (for his scope) and Edgar Allan Poe (for his subjects). Yet those plaudits are the rampant exceptions, not the real rule. For many, King has no approved aesthetic, and therein lays the dilemma.

Without the empirical support and acknowledgement of his merit, King becomes the literary outsider always looking in (actually, he’s not looking at all, which may be another reason why he’s dismissed). He needs internal support to gain external recognition and this vicious cycle will continue with the doors to membership locked away by those who must be appeased before they will forge a key. Without their seal, you are nothing, and until they determine to take on your cause, you continue to be. It’s all very insular, incestual and inviolate. If this were a social standing under discussion, there’d be lawsuits attacking the exclusivity, with activists arguing for openness — or at the very least, consideration. But King appears blackballed by factors that surround him like inescapable clouds.

Let this be the first volley in King’s defense. Let this be the manifesto that corrects the conception of the author as high fat, high calorie content for only the most gluttonous of fiction gourmands. Let’s look at what King has done inside as well as outside the field of writing (including work in defense of the First Amendment and in favor of the preservation of reading and writing in school curriculums) and begin the beatification. Let’s not be so short sighted as those in the past who dismissed Van Gogh or raged against rock and roll. King’s legacy will live on well past our passing on this Earth and it is up to us to build the bandwagon before another generation beats us to it.

Decades from now, fans will unearth his tomes and savor their sensational scares the way we lord over Stoker’s violent vamp, or Shelley’s modern Prometheus. They will acknowledge and accept his place in literature and laugh at those who ever discharged him outright. They won’t have to wait to “know it” or “see it” — the work will “say it” all. Stephen King is a talented writer of great literary merit. His work has fine artistic worth. He has earned the label of literature. So let’s give it to him already.

Note: King’s pulp-noir book, The Colorado Kid, is out in paperback this month. Bill Gibron will review Doubleday’s new illustrated Salem’s Lot next week.