Stephen King: 'America's Dark Theologian'

Horror might not be a replacement for the absolutism of religion, but for Stephen King its proved to be both a lucrative and at times life-long examination of what exists behind locked doors.

America's Dark Theologian: The Religious Imagination of Stephen King
Douglas E. Cowan

NYU Press

Jun 2018


The inherent difficulty in assessing the literary canon of Stephen King is determining where to focus and how to start. Look in one corner and there are the straight horror stories (It), in another vampires and the undead ('Salem's Lot), in a third young women possessed with telekinesis and a rage for retribution (Carrie), and in a fourth the apocalypse (The Stand.) King has made a place for everything in his over 40 years as a chronicler of the American psyche: noir detective, speculative alternate histories, memoir, film criticism, short stories, and fantasy. From his start publishing stories in "gentlemen's" magazines in the early '70s, through the nearly 100 books of novels, stories, and collaborations, the worlds King has created exist in a well-oiled machine that is sometimes surprising, usually formulaic, but always thick (literally and figuratively) with the promise of doom.

Douglas E. Cowan's America's Dark Theologian: The Religious Imagination of Stephen King is an interesting and at times compelling examination of the religious strains in King's work. The first hurdle Cowan confronts comes from the Masters of the Ivory Tower, like Harold Bloom, who responded to King's 2003 award from the National Book Foundation by saying he was an "…immensely inadequate writer." Bloom continued, claiming King was "…an immensely inadequate writer." For Bloom and other guardians at the gate of decency and all that is proper literature, King was only a vehicle on which the publishing industry was kept afloat. Popularity can be a curse for those who aspire to something bigger, and Cowan uses King's words as a launching point for his own examination of Religion in his major works:

Good writing… [is] imagination's firing pin, and the purpose… is to offer us solace and shelter from situations and life-passaged which would otherwise prove unendurable.

It's a heavy premise Cowan assumes, and the results are a little mixed. King's canon really does have too much material, and Cowan understands this from the beginning. Those familiar with Carrie, The Dead Zone, It, The Shining, The Green Mile, and Under the Dome (among others) will appreciate the deep dives. Surprisingly, Cowan manages to cover even more territory in this relatively brief academic work. A reader's tolerance for the end result will depend not only on an intimacy with King's core "horror" work but also patience for diversions into religious philosophy. For Cowan, this study "is not about horror as religion." Additionally, it's not about "horror in place of religion." If the popularity of horror has to do with what King saw as "…the failure of religion" then the question is simple: how did it fail? The core of King's work asked who we are, how we are, and why we are. Horror might not be a replacement for the absolutism of religion, but for King its proved to be both a lucrative and at times life-long examination of what exists behind locked doors.

The simple truth about King is that those who might not have read all his books, or even half, are certainly familiar with the theatrical or television adaptations. The problem here is that not all of those adaptations have reached any level of artistic success, and that fact clouds our perceptions of the original source material. In Chapter One, "Reading Stephen King Religiously", Cowan properly places King's epic novel The Stand in the context of other religiously inclined tracts. Like the popular Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, The Stand worked within the world of "the unnatural narrative". Cowan cites Jan Alber by noting that these stories deviated from natural cognitive frames. The problem with this chapter, an issue that runs through the entire book, is that Cowan doesn't seem comfortable with staying in one place for too long. He jumps from one King text to another, and the effect can be overwhelming. It's only when Cowan brings us to more familiar texts, like King's Carrie, that the arguments are more consistent. Even here, though, Cowan is more dependent on drawing from the work of others in order to draw his conclusions:

Jesuit scholar Edward Ingebretsen… considers Carrie 'a text in the apocalyptic tradition of [Cotton] Mather, in which a war between invisible and visible is rewritten as a private obsession and narcissism.'

It's a deeper reading for sure, and one that probably should have been allowed more room to breathe. Carrie is a difficult text to really like if the contemporary reader views it from a modern perspective. It seems less a variation of some female horror character themes than a reaction to the then-nascent Women's Liberation Movement. It's an early King effort, an effective horror story, but a little queasy to take as a meaningful novel.

In Chapter Two, "Thin Spots: What Peeks through the Cracks in the World", Cowan explores the short story "Children of the Corn", in which the reader comes to see that the world is not as it appears. The story is overwhelmed with images of a Christ with green hair, the "unseen order" so apparent in the work of philosopher William James. It's deep material (probably deeper than it should be) but Cowan seems to understand that such studies are nothing if they're not in for the duration:

Unspoken here are issues to which Stephen King returns again and again. How fragile is the unseen order on which we think we depend? How solid is the rock of our foundation?

The diversions and religiously-centered philosophical discussions don't consistently work well with a discussion of King's works, especially when Cowan seems intent on wandering liberally through more than this text really should contain. In Chapter 3, "Deadfall: Ghost Stories as God-Talk", Cowan does find a focus:

Whether we are believers or not… religion… often binds us to two important considerations: priority and story. Religious belief and practice do not precede death as a human inevitability.

Cowan takes another deep dive into King's short story "The Things They Left Behind", about the inherent power of "…the material culture of ghosts" and the legacy of 9/11 on those who were taken from us and the rest of us, who had to stay. Again, there's a lot here to consider and Cowan doesn't spend as much time as he probably should with one key text. Instead, we travel back to It. Enter Pet Sematary, The Dark Half, The Tommyknockers. The themes Cowan introduces are clearly delineated but it's difficult to effectively tie together all the texts without an intimate connection to them. He would have been better served had he stayed with a deeper discussion of religion within Bag of Bones:

…King highlights the uncomfortable truth that whatever answers we think we have are contingent at best and that however we frame the answers, our questions remain… the Baptists will have to be happy with their shiny new pews, the Methodists with their hoary old hymns. Bag of Bones suggests they have little more to offer than that.

Halfway through America's Dark Theologian, Cowan offers an interesting examination of "religious socialization" in King's The Shining. It's the scene where our hero (Jack Torrance) is forced to agree with the Sister in his Catholic school class compelling all the students to see Jesus in an image of "jumbled black and whites".

The 'zigzag of shadow' could easily be the darkness of the cross; the cares that crease his brow are precisely the sins young Jacky thinks he has committed.

The key to understanding Cowan's thesis as he attempts to examine the religiosity of King's work, such as it is, probably rests in the middle of this book. For Cowan, King has always been more interested in assessing the unintended consequences of religious socialization, the implied bullying effect of religion that says this should happen or else, this will happen or else:

His storyworlds may be didactic, but they are never homiletic… he proposes no 'dark theology'… He investigates what people do claim about the world and how those claims shape their decisions, making them not religious per se, but human.

There are certainly more interesting moments as America's Dark Theologian reaches its conclusion, including Cowan's conclusion that King "…suggests that religion and fear are not only connected but intimately related." The problem is that these chapters are so thick, so deeply entrenched within the demands of a religious studies book, that even the most patient reader may become overwhelmed by the digressions and side trips deeper into philosophical-religious concepts.

King certainly warrants extreme consideration as a horror writer whose mission has always been to spread himself into many different genres, and that might be the biggest problem with America's Dark Theologian. It's an impressive achievement to write eight chapters on religious aspects of an extremely popular writer's horror novels and stories. Put together in a book that doesn't seem to know what it wants to be -- a tribute to King or a solemn examination of the connections between horror and religious allegiances -- this would have been much better served had it thinned down its choices of King's material. Even for fans of the horror genre, and especially regarding Stephen King, there are limited amounts of time we can run around the same race track without growing bored and tired.





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