Stephen King | Critical Essay by Karen A. Hohne

This literature criticism consists of approximately 15 pages of analysis & critique of Stephen King.
This section contains 4,263 words
(approx. 15 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Karen A. Hohne

SOURCE: "The Power of the Spoken Word in the Works of Stephen King," in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 28, No. 2, Fall, 1994, pp. 93-103.

In the following essay, Hohne analyzes the use of official and unofficial language in King's fiction.

Orality seems straightforward and decorative, occurring in texts as either the voice of the poet or the people and apparently functioning very much on the text's surface. In fact, as a way of embodying and/or discussing power, it can be a central organizing factor in a text. Orality indicates power relations both in terms of who values the spoken word and how that word behaves towards other languages. Precisely because orality is a large and flexible category, containing many oralities, it is useful for authors and complex for scholars. It may, for instance, be dialogizing and internally persuasive or monologic and authoritative. It may function as a container of knowledge, preserving a history unvalued by those in power and only occasionally sanctified by being written down, or it may work as a mobile dispenser of silence and death, obliterating all voices not its own. Because it is polymorphous, it is a good vehicle for double-voicedness in texts, gesturing simultaneously towards both ends of the power spectrum.

When it is recorded, orality may preserve a poetic tendency to involve word play and consciousness of words' sounds as well as their meaning, as, for instance, dialect stories do or, for a perhaps more familiar example, rap does (where the supposed spontaneity of the moment is even usually carefully duplicated on the record—party sounds, inappropriate snorts of laughter, etc.). But generally when it is captured and preserved in a more or less static text (in such forms as the fairy tale or epic poem), orality's playfulness is frozen; it stops being an open, welcoming, hands-on endeavor, a work of the world and of empowerment, and becomes closed, forbidding, esoteric, and disempowering (the distance between epic poetry and rap, for instance, is above all the distance between the power that rules and the power of the people). Although epic poetry comes from folk epic and these two are connected in the mobius strip of literature, recorded oral narratives tend to be as flat and monologic as the spoken-aloud forms are orchestral and dialogizing.

Orality's double-sidedness is often disregarded whenever the term is applied to texts, but a fine example of its slippery dual nature is Stephen King's writing, where there is a great tension between the heteroglossic orality that is slang speech, which codifies a knowledge rejected by those in power, and monologic orality, which embodies that power.

Bakhtin designated the two language sets functioning in the dialect story as literary (written) and extraliterary (oral), but in actually working with double-accented texts, I found the terms official and unofficial more helpful, since they preserve the languages' very important relationship to both power and to authority, and since clearly orality may be either official or unofficial, as is the case with King.

Official language is a set of verbal and non-verbal authoritative languages which attain value in society based on their association with entrenched power. Thus included in this category as verbal languages we find not simply the language of high literature, but the political rhetoric of the State, the languages of legal documents, of "distinguished" journalism, academia (including the language of this paper), and so on. Official language usually literally embodies its association with the ruling forces by an adherence to the rules for speech; it is grammatically correct according to the grammars penned by those who (consciously or not) serve entrenched power.

In contrast, unofficial language as a category is composed of languages not valued (or perhaps even illegal or forced underground) by a particular society and which usually are furthermore rule-breaking in their form as well as their spirit, being ungrammatical, slangful, bastardized, and illogical. Unofficiality embraces otherness, borrowing from various aspects of unofficial culture—slang, obscenities, advertising, popular music, yellow journalism, B movies, comic books, etc. It is the speech of the marginalized majority—of rural folk or uneducated workers, of children, criminals, or minorities (to refer back to The Shining, for instance, the speech of the child Danny or the black cook, Mr. Hallorann). However, unofficial ideology is distinguished by how it behaves as well as by its vocabulary and syntax. It is internally persuasive, constantly trying to enter into dialogue, and generally does not attempt to exile others to absence or strip them of their rightful voices. The only otherness unofficiality opposes is the otherness that wants to obliterate otherness—authoritativeness.

As aggressive as unofficiality is in its demystification of officiality, it does not usually attempt to gain the position of power, to officialize itself by obliterating officiality and clambering onto the vacated throne. It seeks only to unseat, not to be coronated. When unofficiality copies officiality's distinguishing feature, hatred of the other, it rejects all language borrowings and becomes monologic. Such an unofficiality occurs in the "The Mist" in the person of the fearsome Mrs. Carmody, whose own personal religious language, churchless and therefore powerless, becomes a vehicle for death (which perhaps simply indicates the real power unofficiality does have). Languages not in power that nevertheless reject internal persuasiveness for authoritativeness are simply officiality's poorest cousins, the lumpen proletariat of language. They are always lurking on the very fringes of society but never discover the positive aspects of life on the fag end. Instead, they dream of the day when they may be allowed to enter the society's center and thence exercise their authoritativeness to the fullest extent—i.e. through the tender attentions of fascist persuasion—death, torture, and silence. And we must assume that they will be made use of, just as the lumpen proletariat has been made use of, by an authoritativeness in fear of losing the power backing its words.

In works like The Shining and The Stand, however, we see the grubby-faced mongrel of internally persuasive unofficiality meeting prim officiality with the general result that unofficial language/ideology sticks out its tongue and reveals official language/ideology as a lie.

The kind of narrative which showcases this sort of double-accentuation takes monologism as its topic, revealing its negative effects. But these texts are no one-sided depictions of the horrors of some version of dictatorship, real as those horrors are. They speak not only monologism's deadly fallout, but its slithery attractions and stinky comforts. If official language is usually the language of the author/reader, then taking monologism as a subject to be deconstructed means deconstructing monologism not just out there somewhere in the world, but in the internal world; in other words, writing (and reading, if one reads dialogically) this kind of story means attempting to demystify oneself.

King is perhaps best known precisely for those narrators whose language is torn between the unofficiality of everyday spoken speech and the officiality of literary narration. Rather than make use of the officialized orality of the epic or fairy-tale, they string sentences together with "and" and repeat phrases in the redundant stutter of conversational, and their speech is full of highly unofficial slang and obscenities. But even in terms of their unofficiality one is not allowed to forget that they are individuals negotiating a heteroglossic world. Various unofficialities interact in these characters; in their speech we encounter bits of rock songs, advertising jingles, set phrases born on TV, and idiolects. King's readers live in this unofficiality, which is, outside of the book, constantly under attack by officiality; here that same unofficiality is celebrated and accepted as a vital aspect of the narrative of readers' lives, and when officiality attacks, precisely in order to silence all this difference and to force the acceptance of its version of our lives, unofficiality strikes back and wins. This accounts for a great deal of King's popularity; he is the native son who wants to liberate the liberating mother tongues.

In most of King's novels the sensitivity to unofficiality is so great that there are attempts made to counteract the possible negative effects of literary narration on unofficial language. Some of the most dialogic moments occur when more-or-less unmediated thought penetrates the narrator's speech. It is indeed difficult to speak aloud without excessively monologizing, for these intrusive thoughts, rather than seconding or ratifying the oral narrative speech, contradict it and thereby take on the role of the unofficial, revealing the narrator's speech as inadequate to the world. It is as if orality, when given the job of narrative work normally performed by literary language, becomes officialized enough to require another sort of "spoken" speech, thought, to derail any monologic tendencies. Thought is then to spoken as spoken is to written. Thought may appear as a commentary on the speech of oneself or others, or as part of internal dialogue. It generally utilizes typeface to signify (a wonderfully curious situation given the orality we are dealing with) and often lacks punctuation (just as orality does).

It is fairly common in literature for thought to comment on the speech of others; however, in this example from The Shining we hear the internal unofficial other speaking in its own voice—not linearly, not in rule-bound sentences, but in fragments, circles:

Jack's hands were clenched tightly in his lap, working against each other, sweating. Officious little prick, officious

"I don't believe you care much for me, Mr. Torrance. I

little prick, officious

don't care. Certainly your feelings toward me play no part in my own belief that you are not right for the job."

For a somewhat more subtle usage, where one insists on one's own internal, unofficial word over the official word imposed from without, there is the story of a boy who finds a tiger in

The bathroom


Of course, the internal, unofficial other who cleaves to "basement" is proven correct—there really IS a tiger in the boys' room—just as the cage of dead, hypercorrect speech of the hotel manager in the previous excerpt is broken open both by Jack's unofficial language and by what actually happens at the Overlook Hotel.

Heteroglossia is manifested in internal dialogue as well. Notice the difference between the language inside and outside of parentheses in the following example. Both the form and the content are different. Unofficial speech, fenced in by parentheses and thus nearly literally marginalized, not only uses obscenities but rejects punctuation. Rule-abiding officiality, in contrast, is as always attempting to cover over lived life with its own lying version of things (here, the good father/murderous abuser), but its linear authority can be made to disintegrate under the stress unofficiality knows how to apply. Recalling the time he physically abused his son, Jack tells himself

It was an accident He fell down the stairs.

(o you dirty liar)

It was an accident I lost my temper.

(you fucking drunken waste god wiped snot out of his nose and that was you)

Listen, hey, come on, please, just an accident

What appears on the microlevel organizes the macrolevel of these works as well. In speech so correct it sounds affected, the hotel manager tells us the official version of the Overlook Hotel's brilliant history as the grand stopping place of presidents (center of society). But Jack, a mere caretaker (margin of society), finds a scrapbook full of newspaper articles (certainly an unofficial version of a "real" book) in the basement; the unofficial story he puts together from the scrapbook gives the lie to the official version—the fine old hotel is actually a charnel house produced by corruption in high places. Unofficiality appears likewise as the Shining itself (the clairvoyant abilities of Mr. Hallorann and Danny). A non-linear means of cognition, the Shining is considered the knowing of the mentally ill and the simple, yet has the power to unmask officiality.

Official language, the peddler of a dangerously false knowledge which pretends to know everything, to encompass the universe within itself, may appear in various guises. All of its versions buy into the system of power and thus in the final instance serve the same master; they scramble over each other's backs in an attempt to be first and best at giving voice to those who rule. Officiality knows that other official languages all recognize authority, even if that authority is other than itself; should those other official languages attempt to garner for themselves monologic power, officiality understands and can even forgive, since monologism and the urge to it is the only value in its world. Officialities thus have few difficulties in appearing side by side. A version of official language I have elsewhere called Scientific because of its use of science-peculiar buzzwords and syntax occurs in King and normally leads to lethal consequences, but official language is not limited to this incarnation. Religious language proves to be a particularly virulent strain of officiality for King, occurring again and again. A good example is "Children of the Corn," where children in the grip of religio-speak sacrifice passers-by and their own comrades to a blood-spattered god. But scientific and religious officialities may easily coexist in the same text, as in "The Mist," where blundering, know-it-all science, our present religious authority, overwhelms and destroys most of the world, and a recrudescence of old-time religion does its best to kill off the remainder. Science and religion, which appear to be completely opposed (when viewed from the rational/irrational axis), are thus revealed as identical in terms of their negative relationship to otherness: if it is other, eradicate it.

In works where the unofficial word emerges triumphant, the velvet glove that covers officiality's iron fist is, all unknown to it, slid off, and officiality's literal or figurative monstrosity is revealed; this is quite different from the situation normal to society at large. There, unofficiality is allowed a precarious validity only at the margins, yet since our lives are awash in unofficiality, its absence from the privileged sorts of communication we employ emphasizes the unofficiality of our lives. It is then with great relief we take up a horror novel of King's type. In these the monstrosity is officiality itself.

Literary language, perhaps the most invisible of all authoritative words for academics, appears in each of King's works, and as we know, there is an official space for orality within literary language as poetry and fairy tale—thus its double-voicedness as a category. Even in his use of slang King draws attention to language, and this language self-consciousness fits the classic Formalist definition of poetry. It would seem strange for an author who produces works so crammed with validated unofficiality to create anything which touts officiality, but there are works in King's corpus where unofficiality not only does not triumph but appears to be smashed. The problem is that orality's connection to poetry and the fairy tale pulls the text away from heteroglossia and possible dialogism. We find these monologic capabilities demonstrated in novels like The Eyes of the Dragon and The Dark Tower.

These official languages are necessary to (or necessarily) reproduce the monologic relations of the society depicted—generally some version of feudalism, which is wonderfully fitting. When authoritative language is used to limn a monologic world, no space is left for us to work out a compromise with that world; we must accept or reject it in its entirety. Not only are the world's imperfections carefully smoothed over by their convenient absence, but the authoritative force of that world does not allow us to look at the white space, the margin, that signifies imperfection's existence. Only Evil, which is presented as individual deformation of universally accepted morality, a big or small glitch in an otherwise smooth-running machine, may counter officiality's bland narrative. But we are not permitted to wonder if there is anything wrong with the machine itself. On the contrary, bare-faced inequity is presented as normal and good, and if we would be normal and good, we must accept it as such. These works are in fact reader-hostile—there is nowhere for us to enter into the work; what's more, the lack of dialogized heteroglossia is antagonistic to our life experience.

A novel which speaks monologue is not going to be powered by a plot that deliberately works to subvert its world. On the contrary, the plot in these novels, like their language, lauds officiality. Instead of depicting positive transformation, which can only come about in the field of dialogism (as at the end of The Shining, for instance, where a new and completely different sort of "family" is formed), the plot born of a monologized world moves towards an entrenchment of the status quo. In Eyes the rightful king (certainly a fine representation of officiality), imprisoned by a usurping magician (unofficiality in its "evil" guise), destroys the magician and re-takes his throne to the usual rejoicing of the peasants, who, as always, are there to assure us that the lives of the people are just grand under authoritarianism. This sort of story has appeared over and over both in older horror novels and other writing. Here officiality smears unofficiality by attributing to it its own crimes—murder, torture, intrigue, etc. (that is, the activities practiced openly by kings rather than magicians)—and denies unofficiality its voice by killing off its speakers. Unofficiality is presented as an ugly deviation from the beautiful order of officialized society. It is an evil way of knowing precisely because it is an other way of knowing.

Unofficiality is here not permitted to speak its own language; instead, it is ventriloquized by officiality. Often these villains are gleefully self-condemning, tooting the horn of their own evil as no real villain would. Curiously, however, many readers identify with the villains rather than the heroes of this sort of work. This is not a function of the alleged difficulty of presenting good people as interesting but of readers' deep realizations that the story being told concerns them directly; the villain is their own life experience, which speaks a language different from the official version and which therefore is called evil. Contrast this to works where what horror has historically considered evil is openly depicted as attractive and even gets away in the end, thereby subverting the entire world of officiality. This latter is a progressive trend, for it means accepting one's own unofficiality and perhaps even taking pride in it. But since novels like The Eyes of the Dragon are told from the point of view of officiality, unofficiality is represented as an evil to be snuffed out. Then officiality can resume its rule, painting itself as universal, seamless, and ahistorical.

We see the same sort of reversal of the roles normally played by officiality and unofficiality in The Dark Tower, a work both poetic and poetry-inspired. The gunslinger, a sort of traveling officiality minus the bad makeup of civilization, pursues an alternative Satan of the trickster variety who carnivalizes wherever he goes. Rather than using a mixture of spoken slang and literary language, as appears in texts like The Shining, the narrator speaks in the officialized speech of the fairy tale or epic: "He was still unbedded, but two of the younger slatterns of a West-Town merchant had cast eyes on him." Although out of context the lifelessness of this particular officiality is so apparent that it is almost humorous, it is difficult while reading to resist the power of the narrator's authoritative word—one must either accept it or pull out of the book. Thus it becomes easy for us to see the Man in Black, who kills one person and reanimates two, as demonic, whereas the gunslinger, who kills at least 38 people, including a young boy devoted to him, seems heroic. If one recalls that in The Shining as well as other of King's works a child represents unofficiality's power, the significance of the boy's sacrifice to officiality's quest in this novel is clear.

In these works heteroglossia cannot and does not give birth to dialogism. It is merely decorative (in fact, "poetic"), lending a pleasant local color rather than representing alternative worldviews. The well-crafted characterization through language that is one means of introducing heteroglossia into novels like The Shining does not occur here. Instead, these characters are, like their worlds, flat. In Eyes, for instance, individuals' speech may be class-distinct, but this language differentiation is reminiscent of a snobby British novel where flower girls drop their h's and cloddish workmen stretch out their diphthongs like taffy—in other words, otherness may aspire only to (powerless) quaintness. It is noticeable that whenever otherness appears as unofficiality in these novels it is either incomprehensible and (therefore) ridiculous or it is simply an estrangement of our own world, which makes it even more ridiculous—the Amoco pump worshipped as a thunder-god, for instance. We laugh at our own estranged unofficiality, forgetting that officiality's most damaging effect on those who must have truck with it is the loathing and fear towards the unofficial other it produces, be that other another living being or an individual within the speaker's own psyche.

Since what heteroglossia there is has no dialogic life, the rich internal dialogue that weaves together books like The Shining is missing. Thought simply does not generally disrupt the flow of speech, and when it does, no illuminating spark of difference is struck. Instead, it is much more in line with what one would expect from a traditional novel:

They [Brown and the gunslinger] looked at each other across the shadows, the moment taking on overtones of finality.

Now the questions will come.

But Brown had nothing to say.

These heroes may even, like the gunslinger, as many an outlaw before and since, be inarticulate in their native language, which is quite appropriate, for the heroes of these works are deaf to heteroglossia. It is significant that in The Drawing of the Three the gunslinger has great difficulty not only with the "foreign" words of our world but with the codes of his own; likewise, in The Dark Tower, when he tries to read the clues left behind by the Man in Black, he thinks

—Perhaps the campfires are a message, spelled out letter by letter. Take a powder. Or, the end draweth nigh. Or maybe even, Eat at Joe's. It didn't matter.

Indeed, it does not matter to one who does not prize heteroglossia; to him, all difference must be equal to inferiority. Officiality has no need to be wor(l)dly-wise; its tongue is a gun, its word a bullet. It would be difficult to find a better metaphor for officiality's attitude towards otherness.

King's works provide a paradigm illustrating the tension between official and unofficial languages/ideologies that exists not only in literature but throughout our society. In one of the sorts of novels he produces, orality appears in its official guise, as epic language, to tell the only story it is capable of telling—that of a world monologized. In such a world, heteroglossia cannot be dialogized; rather, other languages are mere surface decoration, and difference is an occasion for the expression of moral superiority and humor that excludes and objectifies otherness. Such novels are manifestations and exercises of the existing power relations. The plot of this sort of novel must be the story of officiality's triumph (there can be no other story). They are perhaps precisely those which will meet with greater acceptance from individuals taken up with officiality's literary business, for despite the fact that the far more vital works are those which turn away from literariness to make use of our own very living languages, these officialized works buy wholeheartedly into the literary system, which act therefore justifies them. In these tales, unofficiality is nowhere permitted to speak; instead, crimes, particularly those which officiality has itself committed, are attributed to unofficiality in absentia. This story and the way it works occur not only within the confines of a book but frequently out in the world.

The authoritativeness of such narratives draws us in, making us into exactly the sort of reader they demand—one who may easily stomach oppression because she laughs at her own (unofficial) self with a laugh emanating from self-hatred rather than demystification. But smothering difference means ultimately becoming inarticulate oneself, as the gunslinger illustrates, and likewise is apparent in society as a whole, where officiality, able to use only itself as reference, has less and less to say about the world we live in. This lack of substance is perceived by many and accounts for the popularity of texts which speak another language, another world, as some works of King do.

These texts are precisely the other side of orality, the other story, which likewise takes monologue as its subject, but this time depicts it from without rather than within, thus exposing the cracks in the deadly mechanism. The power of "simple," "ordinary," "everyday" speech is revealed as a force non-linear, fragmentary, and circular and thus peculiarly fitted to debunking rigid, straight-line officiality. Again the plot is related to what is going on in the work's language, but here heteroglossia leads to a real interaction of languages that produces something other than the same old story from which we must be excluded unless we mutilate ourselves and others. Unofficialized texts, in contrast, point to the power of our own unofficial languages in a society overdetermined by officiality, a power simply waiting to be wielded. These stories tell us to speak in our own true voices, all of them, to exploit multiplicity and fragmentation, to realize the lesson incorporated in the Babel myth. The tower to heaven is always being built again by officiality, but the real might of Babel was not the tower. It was the languages which are, since officiality tells the tale, presented as a curse. We see that other versions of Babel, such as those told by King, reveal this curse to be in fact the possibility of liberation.

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