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Critical Essay by Tony Magistrale
SOURCE: "Inherited Haunts: Stephen King's Terrible Children," in Extrapolation, Vol. 26, No. 1, Spring, 1985, pp. 43-9.
In the following essay, Magistrale explores the role of children in King's work.
On March 25, 1984, in Boca Raton, Florida, Stephen King delivered the closing address at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. Following a discussion about King's childhood readings in the horror genre, someone in the audience asked the author the question, "What terrifies you the most?" King's reply was emphatic and immediate: "Opening the door of my children's bedroom and finding one of them dead."
King's dread that his offspring could be harmed has not inhibited his use of infantile and adolescent characters throughout his writing, which has achieved wide notoriety and brought a degree of untoward fame on its author. It is a fiction centering on excursions into terror, surreal fantasies which spring suddenly to life, the dark spirits that inhabit a deserted town or hotel. His stories are populated with demons and ghosts, monsters and phantoms. And his youthful protagonists are besieged by a variety of these creatures. This siege is in keeping with the foreword to his collection of short tales in Night Shift, where King insists that a requisite for a successful horror story is its ability to "hold the reader or listener spellbound for a little while, lost in a world that never was, never could be." Yet one of the major reasons for King's commercial and critical success as a horror writer is his uncanny ability to blend and convolute the artifacts of everyday reality, replete with brand names and actual geographical locations, with the incongruous and startling details of an imagined realm. In creating this blend, King displays no neglect for the humans who inhabit his works, be they children, many of whom appear to be endowed with either supernatural powers or an uncommon trait, or adult protagonists, the majority of whom are, by and large, middle-class men and women eking out a living in contemporary America. For varied reasons (sometimes accidental, usually deliberate) these characters find themselves suddenly and helplessly enmeshed in the Gothic machinery of a nightmare from which they will not awaken. King's people are not superhuman, but ordinary, flawed, and vulnerable. In his tales, good must struggle against evil, and from the encounter become less good. Behind this moral backdrop, he invests the majority of his protagonists with a persuasive sympathy: we care about these people, hope they will somehow discover a way to survive, and continue reading about the unfolding of their fates with a curious mixture of fascination and apprehension, because in many ways his literary characters represent our own fears and values.
King's most memorable and important characters, and the ones to whom we as readers grow increasingly attached, are his children. Frequently they form the moral centers of his books, and from them all other actions seem to radiate. In King's fiction, children embody the full spectrum of human experience; they are identified with the universal principles of ethical extremes. Some represent the nucleus for familial love. They are often healing forces, as in Cujo and the first halves of The Shining and Pet Sematary, enabling parents in unstable marriages to forgive one another's human failings. On this level of being, many of King's children represent the principle of good in a corrupt world; they seem both divinely inspired and painfully cursed with prophetic knowledge. Danny Torrance in The Shining, Carrie White in Carrie, and Charlie McGee in Firestarter possess superhuman abilities that trigger death and destruction, and yet these children elicit our sympathy because they appear more often in the role of victim than victimizer. It is not really the children who are responsible for their various acts of destruction, but the adults who mislead and torment them.
At the other moral pole are the adolescent hunters—the denim fascists in "Sometimes They Come Back," Christine, and Carrie—who portray ambassadors from an immoral world, their sole purpose being to wreak destruction on anyone or anything weaker than or different from themselves. These "children" have completely severed their bonds with innocence; in their vicious lust to exploit sex, alcohol, and violence, they model their behavior on an extreme conception of adulthood. They want all the pleasures of worldly experience, with none of the responsibilities. Thus, they are simply young versions of the corruption which animates King's adult society. If they manage to live long enough, they will become the Jack Torrances (The Shining), John Rainbirds (Firestarter), and Greg Stillsons (Dead Zone) of the next generation.
The adults in King's world act frequently as children; they explore places where they have no business going, their behavior is often immature and without conscience, and their institutions—the church, the state's massive bureaucratic system of control, the nuclear family itself—barely mask an undercurrent of violence that is capable of manifesting itself at any given moment. The daily interactions in their marriages and neighborhoods bring out the worst in King's adult characters; they revert to the meanness of adolescence, acknowledging their selfish urges only after they have set in motion a series of events which lead to catastrophe. Throughout the novel Carrie, for example, Carrie White is forced into the role of persecuted outsider. Her first and greatest impediment to a normal life is her mother, a woman indoctrinated with a fierce religious fanaticism who refuses to teach Carrie the adjustment skills necessary for survival in the real world. Consequently, Carrie's discovery of her menstrual period—the initial event associated with the emergence into womanhood—brings her only fear and loathing. Her mother translates the biological function into a symbol of corruption sent by God to punish women. As a direct result of her mother's negative sermonizing, and motivated by the final humiliation of having a bucket of pig's blood dropped on her head at the senior prom, Carrie uses her telekinetic powers to destroy everything in sight. Since no one is either willing to, or capable of, guiding Carrie through the difficult transition from adolescence to adulthood, distinctions between good and evil lose their significance for her, and Carrie's night of carnage includes those who are innocent along with those who are culpable. Her only introductions to adulthood are presented through images of violence and pain, and all of Carrie's subsequent reactions become a grotesque reflection of what she has experienced personally. As King himself explains the novel in Danse Macabre, "Carrie can only wait to be saved or damned by the actions of others. Her only power is her telekinetic ability, and both book and movie eventually arrive at the same point: Carrie uses her 'wild talent' to pull down the whole rotten society."
The theme of innocence betrayed is at the heart of Carrie. Indeed, this concept unifies the major work of King's canon: throughout his fiction, the power of evil to malign and pervert innocence is omnipresent. Louis Creed (Pet Sematary), Jack Torrance (The Shining), and Arnie Cunningham (Christine), sacrifice their families and sanities when they succumb to the lure of evil. Evil becomes a pervasive force that these characters cannot resist. Creed is attracted to the power of the Micmac burial ground despite its obvious dangers; Torrance probes the history of decadence and violence in the Overlook hotel and yearns to become part of it; and in his automobile from hell, Arnie Cunningham surrenders both his personality and his soul to avenge a lifetime of frustration. In King's novels and stories, there are few heroes; at best his major characters endure, but they seldom prevail. Like the young protagonist in the tale "Graveyard Shift," his men and women are usually (and often literally) overwhelmed by the legions of the underworld.
The most effective dramatization of King's dark vision occurs through the interaction of adults and children. His children, in spite of their goodwill and special gifts, are shaped and motivated by adults who are enmeshed in a personal struggle with evil. Most often, his young protagonists—Gage Creed, Danny Torrance, Charlie McGee—are forced to pay for their fathers' sins of curiosity; their innocence is the price for an intimate examination of evil.
The short story "Children of the Corn" is one of the more sophisticated illustrations of this formula. A young couple, their marriage in disarray, stumble upon Gatlin, Nebraska, a town where time has apparently stopped. Instead of August 1976, Burt and Vicki discover calendars and municipal records that go no further than 1964: "Something had happened in 1964. Something to do with religion, and corn … and children." Moreover, there are no adults in this town, only children under the age of nineteen.
The time period is certainly of crucial importance to the story's meaning. But King never completely explains its mystery. Nor is it clear immediately why all the adults have been killed and why no child is permitted to survive past the age of nineteen. Like Vicki and Burt, the reader is supplied only with information about an Old Testament Jehovah whom the children worship in the corn fields. In return for their human sacrifices, he invests the crop with a special purity: "In the last of the daylight [Burt] swept his eyes closely over the row of corn to his left. And he saw that every leaf and stalk was perfect, which was just not possible. No yellow blight. No tattered leaves, no caterpillar eggs, no burrows."
Reading King's best fiction is like visiting a city with innumerable corners of intriguing complexity and atmospheres that reward lingering absorption. "Children of the Corn" encourages the reader to linger over multiple interpretations. On the most obvious level, it is a story of religious fanaticism dedicated to a malevolent deity. But such a reading does not, however, explain the significance of the 1964 time setting—the initial period of active involvement by American forces in Vietnam—and its relationship to the fertility of the Nebraska corn. Both appear irrevocably linked. Listening to the radio outside the town, Vicki and Burt hear a child's voice: "There's some that think it's okay to get out in the world, as if you could work and walk in the world without being smirched by the world." And later in the story, after he has learned the awful secret of the town, Burt wonders if human sacrifices were ordained because the corn was dying as a result of too much sinning.
Although King is cautious to avoid so overt a nexus, the reader with any sense of history will recall the violation of the land in Vietnam by such toxic chemicals as Agent Orange. Man's technology carried the poisoning of the soil, not to mention the levels of death and carnage, to the point at which the land itself (the allegorical corn god) demanded repentance. If we place the events of this story in such a context, it becomes possible to understand why all the adults past the (draft?) age of nineteen are sacrificed. These are the individuals who were most responsible for the war, for the "adult sins" that defiled and destroyed acres of Vietnamese landscape, thousands of American and Vietnamese lives, and, finally, what was left of America's innocence. For Vietnam was, among other things, America's collective cultural emergence into the "adult world" of sin and error. Our loss of innocence and our recognition of self-corruption is what gave impetus to the antiwar movement. In trying to decide whose side God favored in this war we were shown with painful certitude that life is a more complicated mixture of good and evil than we earlier had assumed. King's own view on the immorality of the Vietnam experience, as expressed in Danse Macabre, corresponds precisely with such an interpretation: "By 1968 my mind had been changed forever about a number of fundamental questions…. I did and do believe that companies like Sikorsky and Douglas Aircraft and Dow Chemical and even the Bank of America subscribed more or less to the idea that war is good business."
Burt and Vicki are therefore sacrificed because they are adult representatives of fallen, post-Vietnam America. Both have strayed from any sense of a belief in God, their marriage is in disharmony; both appear as selfish, stubborn, and unforgiving individuals, they are anxious to pass through Nebraska and travel on to "sunny, sinful California"; and Burt is a Vietnam veteran. References to this last point are made on three separate occasions, but the most significant reference occurs immediately after Burt discovers the 1964 time setting. While standing on a sidewalk in the town, he smells fertilizer. The odor had always reminded him of his childhood in rural upstate New York, "but somehow this smell was different from the one he had grown up with…. There was a sickish sweet undertone. Almost a death smell. As a medical orderly in Vietnam, he had become well versed in that smell." The association between Vietnam and Nebraska and its corn fields, and the disenchantment inherent in adult experience, is maintained on similar symbolic levels throughout the story. Nebraska and its corn are in the "heartland" of America, its moral center, and out of an effort to reestablish the purity and innocence of an earlier era, both the corn and the land itself seem to be demanding adult penance for a sin that originated in 1964.
King's corn god is furious with the adult world, demanding blood in exchange for reclaiming the land from its state of spiritual and physical barrenness. Burt discovers the god's maxim written on the cover of the town's registry: "Thus let the iniquitous be cut down so that the ground may be fertile again saith the Lord God of Hosts." The very fact that the ground needs to be made "fertile again" suggests that it has suffered from some kind of pestilence. And the "disease of the corn" in this tale, while ambiguous throughout, can be interpreted in terms of American defoliation of the Vietnamese landscape, as well as the more symbolic cultural "illness" of moral guilt and spiritual taint that accompanied American war involvement.
The human sacrifices in "Children of the Corn" have been successful; vitality has been restored to the American soil. The corn itself grows in flawless rows. Moreover, as Burt discovers while running wounded through the open fields, the soil even contains a mysterious recuperative power: "The ache in his arm had settled into a dull throb that was nearly pleasant, and the good feeling was still with him." The corn deity has made the land, and all that comes in contact with it, into an agrarian Arcadia, a neo-Eden of pristine perfection and harmony. But to maintain this environment, the corn deity exacts from this symbolic American community in Nebraska a never-ending cycle of adult penance and revenge. In fact, at the conclusion of the story the corn god lowers the age of sacrifice from nineteen to eighteen, suggesting that the inherited guilt and shame of Vietnam will never be completely exorcised.
In Danse Macabre, on the other hand, King states that he has "purposely avoided writing a novel with a 1960's time setting…. But those things did happen; the hate, paranoia, and fear on both sides were all too real." King may not have directed his energies into a full-length novel, but in "Children of the Corn" he has provided us with a frightening little allegory of the decade's major historical event. It is also interesting, given the time setting for "Children of the Corn," that the "adult world" is interpreted as sinful and in need of punishment. In the sixties, American youth were in the streets directing a cultural critique of the mores and values of their parents. The adults were the enemy; they had perpetuated the war in Vietnam and had sent America's children to perform the killing and the dying.
In Stephen King's Gothic landscape, horror often springs from social reality: the failure of love and understanding triggers disaster. King's world is a fallen one, and evil is perpetuated through legacies of sin, based in social, cultural, mythical, and historical contexts, and handed down from one generation to the next. Adulthood, because of its litany of selfish mistakes, broken marriages, cruel machinations, and drunken excesses, fully embodies this legacy of human corruption; adults show themselves capable of betrayal at any point. The inevitable violence and cruelty which are the usual end results of adult values and behavior force King's adolescent protagonists to relinquish their tentative hold on innocence and sensitivity. Gage Creed, the young boy in Pet Sematary, becomes a grotesque extension of The Wendigo, a creature from the pre-Christian world, because the human adults, Louis Creed and Jud Crandall, avail themselves of the unholy power within the Micmac burial ground. Charlie McGee's childhood in Firestarter is abruptly and hideously fragmented by the government's manipulation of her parents' chromosomes and the Shop's desire to extend the experiment. The child is caught in a conflict over the morality of using her superhuman powers. Knowing her confusion, the Shop engages in psychic blackmail, forcing her to refine her abilities and use them for destructive purposes. Although she cooperates with their devious methods, Charlie loses both parents, is betrayed by a surrogate father, and faces an uncertain future of fear and flight. In the short story "Last Rung on the Ladder," an attorney becomes so involved with his career and his reputation in the world that he fails to heed the plea for help issued from his misdirected younger sister. As a child, he was always there to protect her and lend his support, but as an adult he is too preoccupied. When she finally commits suicide, in large measure because of his failure to become involved, he is left with the enormous burden of responsibility.
Finally, King's novella, Apt Pupil, from the collection Different Seasons, works from a similar set of suppositions. Todd Bowden, a precocious adolescent fascinated with the grisly details of Nazi Germany, discovers an aging war criminal, Dussander, sharing his suburban American neighborhood. Over a period of years the child's fascination deepens into obsession, as he practices more devious and intricate methods of extracting a personal history from the Nazi officer. Through the course of their long relationship, the boy is slowly transformed into a version of the Nazi adult: his interest in schoolwork and sports is abandoned in favor of stalking and butchering helpless drunks and indigent street people. It is a complex, albeit overwritten, study of negative adult influence and the corrupting fusion of evil: the Nazi's oral history of death camp atrocities exacts an intimate, active response from the high school student. Todd may never have been a paragon of moral purity or innocence (in fact his psychological torment of the officer suggests quite the opposite), but steady contact with Dussander pushes him into a deeper, more serious, and personal participation in evil. By the conclusion of the novella, the child relinquishes all control over his own life; he is forged from the same furnace of hate that created the Nazi.
King's children, like those found in Dickens' novels, illustrate the failings of adult society. The destruction of their innocence accomplishes more than a simple restating of the universal theme of the Fall from Grace; it enlarges to include a specific critique of respective societies and cultures as well. Like Todd Bowden in Apt Pupil, the children in "Children of the Corn" are neither symbols of purity nor sensitivity. Yet, similar to many of King's other, more sympathetic adolescents—Carrie, Charlie McGee, Danny Torrance, Gage Creed—they are victimized by the inherited sins of an older world. In each of these examples, the children are constrained to pay for the mistakes of their elders; they do so, significantly, at the expense of their own transition into adulthood.
This section contains 3,279 words
(approx. 11 pages at 300 words per page)