Stephen King | Critical Essay by James Egan

This literature criticism consists of approximately 21 pages of analysis & critique of Stephen King.
This section contains 6,205 words
(approx. 21 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by James Egan

SOURCE: "'A Single Powerful Spectacle': Stephen King's Gothic Melodrama," in Extrapolation, Vol. 27, No. 1, Spring, 1986, pp. 62-75.

In the following essay, Egan analyzes King's use of elements of the gothic and the melodramatic in his work.

The Gothic tradition which has survived into the twentieth century, after passing through the hands of the Gothic dramatists, Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Henry James, and Shirley Jackson, has evolved into a complex mixture of the sensational, the sentimental, the melodramatic, and the formulaic. True, a Gothic work such as Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House occasionally achieves belletristic status, but most examples of the genre can be appropriately categorized as "popular" fiction. Stephen King's numerous references and allusions make plain his familiarity with the Gothic tradition, particularly that part which begins with the publication of Frankenstein. One finds in King many Gothic conventions of setting, plot, characterization, and theme, along with an assortment of melodramatic techniques which accentuate his Gothic motifs and help to shape the world view which permeates his fiction. It must be emphasized, however, that the Gothic and the melodramatic in King are virtually inseparable, just as they are in the Gothic tradition itself. Equally important, one must recognize that King employs the Gothic and the melodramatic in accordance with the demands of popular formula literature, for he intends to offer his readers a combination of stock thrills and intriguing innovations, the security of the familiar and the unsettling delights of the unknown.

As Elizabeth MacAndrew has argued, Gothic literature highlights vice. King treats vice consistently, luridly, graphically. One of the main plots of The Dead Zone details the exploits of Frank Dodd, a rapist-murderer who stalks a succession of young women and ends his spree with the killing of a nine-year-old. Dodd's behavior follows the strangely consistent pattern of the deranged mind, a pattern which King describes in detail. After slapping a victim around and then raping her, Dodd savors the joy of murder: "He began to throttle [Alma Frechette], yanking her head up from the bandstand's board flooring and then slamming it back down. Her eyes bulged. Her face went pink, then red, then congested purple. Her struggles began to weaken." Eventually, the novel's psychic detective, John Smith, identifies Dodd; but Dodd declines to surrender quietly. Instead, he cuts his throat with a razor blade, spraying a bathroom with blood, and hangs around his neck "a sign crayoned in lipstick. It read: I CONFESS." Several humans confront a huge, rabid St. Bernard in Cujo. Cujo mauls Joe Camber and his friend, Gary Pervier, and traps Donna Trenton and her son, Tad, in Donna's car. King devotes a substantial section of the novel to the brutal, life-or-death struggle between Donna and Cujo. The dog bites her, and she in turn slams the car door repeatedly on the dog's head. For melodramatic effect, this war of attrition goes on in nearly unbearable heat and humidity, conditions which cause Tad to go into convulsions and finally contribute to his death. More than a rabid animal, Cujo is evil, a demonic reincarnation of Dodd returned to prey on the innocent once again. Sex competes with violence in Cujo as Steve Kemp, Donna's rejected lover, vandalizes her home while she battles the dog. Kemp's orgiastic violence does additional duty as a symbolic rape: sexually aroused, he nearly demolishes the Trenton home and then masturbates on Donna's bed.

Sex and violence also combine sensationally in Firestarter. John Rainbird, a bizarre, deformed hit-man for The Shop, a shadowy government espionage agency, strangles his victims slowly, hoping to witness death as they draw their last breaths. After learning of Charlie McGee, the adolescent girl with pyrokinetic abilities, he becomes fascinated with the child's power and personality. Rainbird wants to become "intimate" with Charlie—he seems to have fallen in love with her. His grotesque appearance and peculiar intentions evoke the stereotype of the child molester. Gruesome destruction is panoramic in Carrie. Following repeated harassment by her mother and her peers, Carrie White turns her telekinetic powers on the town of Chamberlain: water mains explode, gasoline stations erupt into flames, and the population stumbles about in a state of chaos—all of this because Carrie has become a vindictive, seemingly demonic character who seeks revenge on each and every one of her tormentors and even upon those who did not harm her. Once a victim, Carrie evolves into a methodical executioner whose vendetta take up the final third of the novel. Doubt and guilt do not impede Carrie, who simply kills whomever she chooses. The novel shifts, with melodramatic rapidity, from Carrie the victim to Carrie the avenger.

King's emphasis on blood and gore does not always depend upon vice, however. The Breathing Method, one of four novellas included in Different Seasons, qualifies as a "tale of the uncanny" told at a mysterious gentlemen's club in New York. Miss Standfield, an unwed pregnant woman who has diligently practiced controlled breathing in order to make delivery easier, is beheaded in a traffic accident while on the way to the hospital to give birth. Her body, though, remains alive, and the narrator, Dr. McCarron, helps the "corpse" deliver its child. But McCarron's excursion into the supernatural has not yet ended, for as he prepares to leave, Miss Standfield's head "mouthed four words: Thank you, Dr. McCarron." McCarron informs the head that Miss Standfield has delivered a boy, and the head obligingly dies. The determined innocent-in-distress, Miss Standfield, has heroically, melodramatically, cheated fate and triumphed against all odds. Though diversified, the incidents cited above all emphasize "violence, physical disaster, and emotional agony" which is both Gothic and melodramatic. King starkly polarizes and exaggerates innocence and malignancy for intensified emotional effect.

King's drastic, violent subject matter fits in with his essentially Gothic themes. He stresses the primordial power and pervasiveness of the unknown, the irrationality and unpredictability of the human psyche, and the moral reality of good and evil. King's metaphysics of the Dark Fantastic provides a contemporary rendering of concepts that have permeated Gothicism for more than two centuries. King treats the Dark Fantastic as an environment where the primitive, superstition, and rudimentary incarnations of good and evil hold sway. In such an environment, those who refuse to take the fantastic seriously or who continue to explain it in terms of the realistic are usually its victims. How valid, King asks, are the empirical and psychological paradigms upon which contemporary society relies to explain reality? And what of the nature of reality itself? Should one conclude that reality is chaotic and menacing? Can subjective phenomena such as the Dark Fantastic be understood objectively? King makes, moreover, a highly plausible assertion about the relationship of the known to the unknown: the territory of the unknown is immense and probably expanding, not diminishing, despite the increasing sophistication of modern investigative methods. Since King deals with the volatile, explosive behavioral eruptions are to be expected. The plot, characterization, rhetoric, and world view of his fiction support these thematic premises and may be viewed, in melodramatic terms, as vehement arguments for them.

Critical consensus holds that melodrama stresses plot over character, plot which relies considerably upon coincidence and accident. Melodramatic plots feature rapid movements from one crisis to another and frequently terminate in death crises, or they accentuate "crucial times in life that seem to determine one's fate once and for all." King's characteristically fast-moving and episodic plots often depend upon coincidence to link together a series of crises which hinge on or end in death. He builds The Stand around several subplots which trace the lives of half a dozen people who try to survive a plague that destroys virtually the entire population of the earth. In order to survive, the main characters must surmount disaster after disaster. Above all, they must avoid the Dark Man, Randall Flagg, and finally confront him—in each case they are at risk. Everyone encounters hazards in the form of emotional agony, encounters with death or near misses, and the need to kill. Nick Andros loses his lover, Rita, to a drug overdose, Mother Abagail must stare down Flagg's menacing animal familiars on a lonely Nebraska road, and Harold Lauder must deal with maddening jealously after the woman he loves rejects him for another. The Stand ends in a holocaust when an atomic bomb destroys Flagg's assembled forces. The Dead Zone opens with the protagonist's dangerous fall while ice skating as a youth, proceeds to an auto accident which leaves him in a coma for five years, and then traces his encounters with a rapist-murderer. Before the novel closes, he tries to assassinate a diabolical politician, only to be shot in the attempt. One seldom finds a dull—or normal—moment. Clearly, much of what happens to Smith seems accidental or coincidental, particularly his astounding awakening and apparently full recovery from a lengthy coma.

King uses a variety of specific plot devices, moreover, to keep the level of suspense high in his crisis fiction. Short, fast-paced, rapidly changing scenes are commonplace, notably in 'Salem's Lot, The Stand, and The Shining. Though his novels tend to be long, he breaks narrative detail down into many miniature, self-contained episodes, a favorite tactic of melodramatists. Multiple narrative viewpoints are another suspense tactic. In The Stand and 'Salem's Lot he tells the story from the vantage points of many characters, often switching points of view as he changes chapters. The effect is both panoramic and provocative because important details are provided in small increments.

King likewise creates suspense with the thriller tactic of ending chapters on a climactic high note which whets the reader's curiosity, or by providing clues and hints which create a state of nervous anticipation. As it draws to a close, The Shining evolves into a continuous chase scene, a suspense device in itself. Danny Torrance has, in fact, been the object of a chase since the novel opened. An early chapter ends with Danny being stung by wasps while he sleeps, another when the ghost of Room 217 tries to strangle him, and a third when the hedge animals pursue him through the snow to the front porch of the Overlook Hotel. The suspense generated at the end of each chapter holds the reader's attention: one grows more curious about who or what will be Danny's final pursuer. King fancies murder-mystery plots and effectively utilizes the suspense inherent in such plots. In Cujo, Donna Trenton and her son turn up missing and the planting of clues begins. The police discover Donna's car has vanished, Vic Trenton tells them about the taunting note he received from Donna's ex-lover, Steve Kemp, and the police soon apprehend Kemp. Once the clues rest in the hands of the authorities, the reader waits eagerly for them to deduce that Donna took the car to Joe Camber's garage for repairs and wonders how long it will take for her to be rescued from Cujo.

An equally important way of creating thrills is intrinsic to the Gothic genre itself. The deliberate, necessary blurring of appearance and reality in most of King's fiction keeps the reader uncertain and therefore attentive to plot developments. In The Mist a group of people huddles inside a supermarket while an impenetrable, acrid mist blankets the world outside and carnivorous creatures prowl around. What the creatures may be, where they came from, how they might behave, and the extent to which insanity has infected those inside the market are all uncertain matters. The ambiguity of the situation makes distinctions between truth and falsehood problematical at best. A similar motif appears in 'Salem's Lot—the Lot has been invaded by a vampire and his familiar. Is an "invasion" by a vampire possible, or no more than a mass hallucination? If vampires are real, might they be killed by the methods folklore prescribes? Who faces the greatest danger from the undead? Few of these questions allow for definite answers and suspense grows out of the uncertainty.

A final suspense gambit, clearly a stock melodramatic one, consists of delaying the "inevitable and wholly foreseen" denouement. Perhaps King's clearest and most emphatic use of this tactic occurs in Christine, the story of a 1958 Plymouth inhabited by the demonic spirit of its former owner, Roland LeBay. Arnie Cunningham, a lonely, socially isolated teenager, becomes frenzied as soon as he passes LeBay's house and notices the car for sale. It becomes apparent from the outset that Christine has a relentless supernatural grip on Arnie and that he will readily do her bidding. The plot makes it equally clear that Arnie's closest friend, Dennis Guilder, suspects and fears Christine's malign influence. A romantic and a revenge plot intervene, but the denouement methodically arrives: Christine turns Arnie into a human lackey and Dennis finally succeeds in destroying the evil machine.

King's emphasis on fast-moving, thrilling plots moves his work in the direction of another melodramatic convention, allegorically simple good and evil characters whose appearances correspond with their inner natures. He typically delineates such characters, moreover, as extremes of vice or virtue, freely adopting the Gothic convention that neurotic and obsessional emotional dynamics are the aspects of a character's psyche to be stressed, in addition to the Gothic preoccupation with guilt, fear, and madness. His characters act more out of compulsion than out of free choice. Like many other melodramatists, King plays up the consistent dual result of compulsion: victimization by a variety of aggressors, including nature, society and evil individuals, and subsequent aggression. Finally, characterization in King fits in with the traditional melodramatic striving after pathetic effects. Jack Torrance, protagonist-turned-antagonist of The Shining, suffers from a variety of unresolved psychological problems, including memories of a family-abusing father, alcoholism, and an explosive temper. When he arrives at the Overlook, Jack is driven to discover its dark secrets by his inner demons of guilt, paranoia, and self-destructiveness. These inner demons join forces with the demons who inhabit the Overlook to transform Jack into a victim and then into an aggressor. The amount of free will he possesses remains open to serious question from the story's outset.

King portrays Carrie White as a victim from early childhood until death. Denied a normal maturation and social life by her mother's religious fanaticism, she becomes the perpetual butt of jokes and harbors fantasies of vengeance against her many tormentors. After Carrie's humiliation at the prom, fantasies evolve into aggressive obsessions, and then into overt madness during her telekinetic vendetta against Chamberlain. Surely madness compromises the matter of free will, yet Carrie's dilemma loses none of its pathos. The reader can easily sympathize with her because of her frustrated, empty life and because she possesses powers which mystify and perhaps control her. Carrie's vendetta, of course, also creates sympathy for the innocent victims who must pay for her lifetime of deprivation. Driven by a messianic desire to save civilization, John Smith in The Dead Zone has the ability to "see" the future. But his second sight reveals to him only the dark side of awareness—he can predict what will be, but can rarely convince others. A melodramatic simplicity stands out in Smith's character when King plays him off against his two primary antagonists, a rapist-murderer and a ruthless politician—obviously society can only profit from his exposure of these evildoers. Still, society refuses to listen, preferring to suspect Smith and his "gift." This pariah-like treatment intensifies Smith's obsession to carry out his quest, and pathos mixes with irony as he pushes onward to save his uncaring fellow man. Predictably, Smith dies as he lived, only vaguely aware of the mysterious forces which drive his personality. He does not pause for detailed reflection. He acts.

The single-natured yet relatively complex villain acts as the moving force in melodrama generally, and in Gothic melodrama demonic-seeming villains predominate. King's villains blend into the tradition of Gothic melodrama: monopathic, relentless, obsessed, they are his most fully realized and intriguing characters. Randall Flagg is literally a demon, a shape-shifter who can become a man, an animal, or a disembodied force. Evil displays itself in Flagg's very appearance, for those who dream of him see only a faceless man. Though Flagg may be surrounded by a supporting cast of criminals and semi-demons, he has no rival as The Stand's most interesting villain. Harold Lauder and Nadine Cross rediscover a truism, that all who serve Flagg eventually become his pawns. The Dark Man's cruelty knows no limits: he crucifies his victims, turns them into slobbering imbeciles, or hurls them from the upper floors of buildings. He broods endlessly over his relentless ambition to destroy his enemies in Boulder, led by the saintly Mother Abagail, and works tirelessly to build an arsenal. Both demon and workaholic, Flagg eventually falls victim to another melodramatic convention, namely that "Evil can only destroy itself, no matter how hard it tries." John Rainbird, the huge, grotesquely scarred Indian of Firestarter, looms as the most physically conspicuous Gothic villain in King's fiction. His sinister freakishness evokes pathos when he encounters Charlie McGee, the innocent adolescent heroine. Here, beyond doubt, appearances alone are reliable measures of good and evil. Rainbird lives for a single purpose, to kill, doing so with ingenuity and pleasure. A creature of almost pure malignancy, monopathic, devoid of qualities higher than a powerful survival instinct. Rainbird dominates the novel. Before Andy and Charlie McGee can escape from The Shop, they must confront him, must either destroy him or be destroyed.

In constant danger themselves, women in Gothic melodrama often become a source of danger to others as well. "King follows this convention of characterization closely, establishing his female characters, for the most part, as vulnerable stereotypes in order to make the convention operate more effectively. Soon after the Torrance family's arrival at the Overlook, Wendy turns into a target of Jack's mania. In order to fight back, she jeopardizes Danny by using him as a psychological weapon or a bargaining chip. Susan Norton, a heroine-turned-predator in 'Salem's Lot is coveted by the vampire Barlow. Susan signals danger for the novel's two main protagonists, Ben and Mark, because of her close relationship with both before she became a vampire. Fran Goldsmith of The Stand suffers as the object of Harold Lauder's unrequited love. Even though she finds Lauder's diary and realizes that he plans revenge by killing Stu Redman, her new lover, she cannot determine where and when Lauder will strike, or whether he intends to kill her also. In the end, Fran becomes both victim and threat when Lauder decides to retaliate by detonating a hidden bomb at a meeting of the Boulder citizens' council where Stu will be present; not surprisingly, several innocent people perish. Women, then, generally serve as targets of villainy and objects of pathos so that King's male villains can remain the most powerful figures and the initiators of his fiction's primary action.

Small children and elderly people, Michael Booth argues, serve to "reinforce pathetic effects" in melodrama, and this is their primary purpose in King's fiction. The theme of virtue in distress, a convention of the sentimental novel, King applies primarily to children. Tad Trenton in Cujo surely merits pity because he is at the mercy of a panoply of forces he cannot understand: hunger, thirst, a distressed mother, a rabid dog, and supernatural powers. Billy Drayton's position in The Mist offers little improvement. The boy has lost his mother, gotten trapped in a crowd of increasingly demented strangers, and been singled out as a sacrificial offering to propitiate carnivorous beasts. Charlie McGee's dilemma may be the most pitiable of all, for she is "gifted" with pyrokinesis, a talent which causes her endless anxiety. If pyrokinesis itself were not problem enough, The Shop captures and uses her as a psychological guinea pig, John Rainbird lusts after her, and she must use her "gift" to kill nearly the entire staff at The Shop's compound. King's child characters are purposely one-dimensional, stereotypical innocents-in-distress whose misfortunes invariably invoke pity. He treats the elderly in similar fashion—for example, Jud Crandall in Pet Sematary, Matt Burke in 'Salem's Lot, and Mother Abagail in The Stand each of whom faces a hazardous situation, a superior human opponent, or the supernatural. Like the children, these three must cope with complex problems alone, and their physical infirmities parallel the physical immaturity of the children. Pathos arises from the reader's fear that the older people, despite their heroic efforts, cannot finally escape the status of dependents. When the elderly die at the villain's hands or in the battle against him, however, they at least assure themselves of the mildly heroic stature reserved for virtuous characters in the sentimental tradition.

King relies upon bombastic rhetoric, a fundamental part of Gothic melodrama, to underscore the effects of his plotting and characterization. In the following passage from 'Salem's Lot, Straker, the human familiar of the vampire Barlow, has just strung young Mark Petrie from a ceiling beam to wait for Barlow's return. Straker cannot resist teasing his victim: "You're trembling young master … your flesh is white—but it will be whiter! Yet you need not be so afraid. My Master has the capacity for kindness…. There is only a little sting, like the doctor's needle, and then sweetness…. You will go see your father and mother, yes? You will see them after they sleep." This sarcastic gloating naturally encourages the reader's sympathy for the helpless boy, and emotions polarize, the normal effect of bombast. Straker's bombast echoes the good-evil dichotomies found elsewhere in the novel, the juxtaposition of totally negative and purely positive. Carrie White's mother indulges in an equally blatant outburst when she tries to discourage Carrie from making a dress for the prom: "'Take it off, Carrie. We'll go down and burn it in the incinerator together, and then pray for forgiveness. We'll do penance.' Her eyes began to sparkle with the strange, disconnected zeal that came over her at events which she considered to be tests of faith. 'I'll stay home from work and you'll stay home from school. We'll pray. We'll ask for a Sign. We'll get us down on our knees and ask for the Pentecostal fire.'" Anything but subtle, Mrs. White's diatribe provokes confrontation, as melodramatic bombast usually does. Rhetoric magnifies the emotional conflicts that divide Carrie and her mother, branding Mrs. White as the aggressor and Carrie as the victim. Predictably, her mother's bluntly emotional appeal prompts Carrie to make an emphatically emotional response—a direct, uncompromising denial.

King's handling of subject matter, plot, characterization, and rhetoric implies a world view consistent with the world view of melodrama. Melodrama emphasizes the equitable rewarding of virtue and punishment of vice, and perpetuates the "fantasy of a world that operates according to our heart's desires." Since melodrama sets before us a world of clarity, simplicity, either-or dichotomies, and absolutes, appearance and reality conveniently correspond. Melodrama stresses as well fate and fate's victims. Whether or not fate figures as a cosmic culprit, melodrama encourages pity for victims and outrage at evildoers. Several of King's theories about horror fiction align themselves with the melodramatic world view. A major purpose of such fiction, he asserts, is to "confirm our own good feelings about the status quo by showing us extravagant visions of what the alternative might be." The writer of horror fiction functions, therefore, as "an agent of the status quo," the norm, operating according to what could be construed as a fantasy of a universe governed according to certain fixed principles. Horror stories, he argues, are "conservative," essentially the same as the morality plays of earlier centuries. In effect, horror stories, like other species of melodrama, support a conventional morality. The horror story's "strict moralities," in fact, make it a "reaffirmation of life and good will and simple imagination." King defines the horror story, finally, as an "invitation to lapse into simplicity," a definition which supports the melodramatic preoccupation with absolutes, extremes, dichotomies.

King's fictive practices confirm his belief in the world view of melodrama. Sensationalistic vice tends to be punished grimly: John Rainbird is incinerated, Randall Flagg flees to the nether world, and Jack Torrance forfeits his soul to the transcendent evil of the Overlook. Although not all of King's villains are punished so drastically, their ends are invariably frustrated. As demonstrated earlier, the innocent suffer abundantly, but suffering frequently vindicates their purity or rightness. This premise seems particularly true of child characters. Mark Petrie of 'Salem's Lot believes in the supernatural and in vampire lore, a belief shared by few of the adults he deals with. Mark loses his parents, his friends and nearly his life; however, his suspicions finally prove correct. John Smith of The Dead Zone, a childlike adult, undergoes a similar experience: the well-meaning Smith meets with recurring skepticism and frustration. Yet, in the book's climactic confrontation scene his suspicions about Gregg Stillson are justified—Stillson reveals his villainy when he holds a child in front of him to ward off Smith's bullets. King's dependence upon stereotypical figures, moreover, reinforces a world view that accentuates absolutes, clarity, and simplicity. Since characters are usually delineated as extremes of good or bad, reader recognition of a particular character's nature, motivations, and values rarely proves difficult. Again, in view of the one-dimensional nature of characters, the changes they undergo are easily anticipated and not unduly complex. Nothing will cause a Stillson or a Barlow, for example, to relent in his pursuit of a singular, clearly announced goal. King also provides clarity by means of his characters' preferences for immediate, direct action over lengthy, involved introspection. The major decisions they make often take on an either-or simplicity. All characters in The Stand, major or minor, must choose between the goodness of Mother Abagail and the evil of the Dark Man—the moral middle ground quickly vanishes for both character and reader. The bombastic rhetoric to which King's villains, particularly, seem addicted further illustrates the world of moral and psychological extremes in which they function. Bombast reduces potentially complex issues to simple, emotionally charged ones, establishing morally convenient polarizations. Plot, finally, moves so rapidly from crisis to crisis that it traps characters in the identities they assume early in a story. This crisis plotting necessitates limited, often fated characters who change little, irrespective of the dilemmas that assail them. Though it often appears to generate ambiguity, plotting probably resolves at least as much ambiguity as it creates.

An accomplished melodramatic strategist, King understands horror fiction's formulaic nature and that a formula writer must blend conventions with inventions. His Gothic melodrama provides the "emotional security" inherent in anticipated, standardized subject matter, settings, character and plot types, and themes, while the exciting effects he seeks often derive from his innovative experiments with the familiar. As suggested earlier, King evokes horror and fear by treating a variety of sensational subject matter: gruesome deaths, torture, sexual aberrations, grave-robbing, a worldwide plague, and the like. He offers a haunted house in 'Salem's Lot, a haunted hotel in The Shining, and a wide range of demons, vampires, monstrous, quasi-human villains, and occult powers. Ventures into the unknown, his plots dramatize confrontations with immanent evil, the dark side of the human psyche, and with transcendent evil, the unfathomable mysterium.

King's variations in the formulas of Gothic melodrama are generally noteworthy and often striking. Christine features a haunted automobile, Cujo a dog inhabited by the malingering spirit of a psychotic murderer, and The Shining a menagerie of hedge animals seeking human prey. Technically, King has not created a new species of Gothic being in each instance, but he surely has made substantial changes in the conventional werewolf or ghost figure. Even his relatively traditional villains evoke contemporary versions of the freakish: Randall Flagg recalls Charles Manson and Frank Dodd the sexual deviate whose bizarre exploits are chronicled in tabloids. King's "wild-talent" novels (Carrie, The Shining, The Dead Zone, Firestarter) represent a dramatic innovation in the Gothic convention of the character who possesses extreme "sensibility." He substitutes telekinesis, pyrokinesis, and other forms of parapsychological sensitivity for the heightened emotions of a figure such as Poe's Roderick Usher. The protagonists of the "wild-talent" stories each manifest an advanced awareness or power that sets them apart from the rest of humanity. King's settings fulfill a dual purpose, providing novelty of a sort while simultaneously encouraging a strong sense of reader identification. Even though twentieth-century Gothic settings have grown increasingly localized and familiar, traces of remoteness and the unfamiliar still remain. King has all but obliterated those traces. References to rock music, media celebrities, politicians, and miscellaneous easily recognized items of popular culture stand out in his work. Paul McCartney, Elvis Presley, and Walter Cronkite are each referred to in The Dead Zone, along with Arthur Bremmer and a woman named Moore, two would-be political assassins who aimed at George Wallace and Gerald Ford, respectively. In Firestarter, Mr. Coffee and Cremora are essential parts of Cap Hollister's office equipment, and in Carrie, King cites The Reader's Digest as the source of a story about the White case. King's "brand-names" approach to setting emphatically asserts that Gothic horror cannot be dismissed as obscure and remote; on the contrary, it has an immediate, domestic, and specifically American quality. In short, King has democratized and universalized the Dark Fantastic without depending solely on myth.

A final innovation involves plot and works similarly. Often a large plot segment consists of either a realistic feature of another genre or an entire realistic sub-genre itself. The Dead Zone follows the conventions of the political novel closely, so that Gregg Stillson's rise to power identifies the work as both a political novel and a Gothic tale. Early on, Stillson becomes a successful candidate for office and steadily acquires power, approximating in several ways the stereotype of the fascist manipulator found in modern American political fiction. The reader can witness in Stillson's career the machinations of actual demagogues such as Hitler and Huey Long, both of whom are mentioned in the story, along with Sinclair Lewis' treatment of demagoguery, It Can't Happen Here. The political plot of The Dead Zone suggests that King intends for the Gothic and the realistic to overlap until they are virtually indistinguishable. His plotting may be considered both an argument for the pervasiveness of the Dark Fantastic and a response to the formulaic demand for novelty.

The popular success of King's fiction grows out of his skillful blending of the Gothic, the melodramatic, and the formulaic. King's own observations on the horror genre suggest several reasons why his work has enjoyed such popularity. These comments deserve attention because they indicate the extent to which he understands and controls his medium and his craft. Horror, he points out, stimulates the reader's curiosity; we are simply fascinated by the dark side, for example, by freaks, who are morbidly "attractive" yet "forbidden" and therefore appealing. Horror satiates our curiosity about such "forbidden" delights since "horror is, by its very nature, intriguingly alien and aberrant." The "purpose" of horror fiction, as he sees it, is to "explore taboo lands," to probe the anxieties of its readers; at the least, tales of terror stimulate "simple aggression and … morbidity." Horror has proven itself capable of localizing and making concrete our "free-floating anxieties" of all sorts, political, economic, and psychological. Fears, of course, are universal, and if they can be intensified and made immediate, they will appeal. Clearly, horror caters to the reader's rebelliousness as well; we read to dare the nightmare, to show "that we can ride this roller coaster." Society, in fact, sanctions horror, recognizing in the idiom an invitation "to indulge in deviant, antisocial behavior by proxy." The reader can rebel because he has the equivalent of mob approval, having joined a conspiracy to "destroy the outsider."

Perhaps the most pervasive appeal of horror derives from its indulgence of the reader's innate fascination with death; horror invites us by providing a "rehearsal for our own deaths," by treating death as though it were a "single powerful spectacle" seen through the eyes of a child. Catharsis, escape, and the return to normality, however, must also be part of horror's aesthetic in order for that aesthetic to appeal to readers so powerfully. The "melodies of the horror tale," according to King, "are simple and repetitive … but the ritual outletting of these emotions seems to bring things back to a more stable and constructive state again." One partakes of horror, in part, to reestablish his "feelings of essential normality." Readers long for escape from the abundance of horrors real life surrounds them with, and fictive horror obliges by helping us to "rediscover the smaller … joys of our own lives … by showing us the miseries of the damned."

King's analysis of the aesthetics of horror establishes numerous credible reasons for the appeal of his own fiction. The melodramatic and formulaic qualities of his work imply several additional reasons, for melodramatic and formulaic literature have traditionally enjoyed considerable popularity. Generally, his aesthetic of horror can be explained in terms of the melodramatic and the formulaic. King notes that horror fiction endures because it meets universal needs, essentially the same claim that Daniel Gerould makes for melodrama: "Melodrama is material available to everyone, its devices, characters and situations instantly known, implanted by the culture in the psyche of each of its members. This material may easily be aroused, activated, used." Robert Heilman concurs when he argues that audiences cannot do without melodrama, not only because it is exciting and invigorating in itself, but because it takes us away from complex and "dull or unproductive" contemplations of the "tragic consciousness." Melodrama, then, seems pervasive and permanent. King stresses that horror literature elicits fear and terror, both of which are highly appealing, and melodrama itself evokes analogous emotional reactions. Gerould claims that, owing to its "primal theatrical energy of aggression, anxiety, and eroticism," melodrama caters to the "eternal human longing to be terrified." John Cawelti has demonstrated that the idea of melodrama cannot be dissociated from violence, sensationalism, and terror. The success of any melodramatist, in short, may well depend upon his ability "to feel and project fear."

King considers horror fiction to be simple, explicit, repetitive, and direct rather than complex. Melodrama and formula literature could be characterized similarly, and like horror fiction they make ample allowances for escapism. Simplicity itself often proves exhilarating, a welcome relief which most readers can, at least occasionally, tolerate large amounts of. King magnifies and intensifies emotion, emotion which "takes us out of ourselves" and entices us to escape. He centers much of his fiction around violence, tacitly recognizing that "because it rouses extreme feelings, the representation of violence is an effective means of generating the experience of escape" from boredom and routine. King argues as well that horror fiction regularly attempts to probe taboos, a concern it shares with formula literature in general; the investigation of taboos "permits the audience to explore in fantasy the boundary between the permitted and the forbidden." Like horror fiction, melodrama and the formulaic are emotionally charged, aimed at producing thrills and allowing the reader to violate taboos vicariously and harmlessly.

Several additional features of King's work, all of them intrinsic to melodrama, further account for its popularity. Monopathy or oneness in characters produces a corresponding reaction in readers: as a result of his contact with melodramatic virtue and vice, one experiences a unity of feeling. Since he does not need to deal with a full range of emotions, the reader's reactions will be incomplete but they will also be intense and carefully channeled. Melodrama presents, moreover, a "clear menace," something we search for subconsciously, a menace which demands an emphatic denial. King calls up an abundance of such menaces: perversely evil characters, demons, a nuclear accident, and a plague, to name a few. Thus, the reader can easily determine that "guilt belongs to monstrous individuals," such as Flagg or Rainbird, with whom he is "not identified." Melodrama likewise employs the "disaster principle," stimulating us to feel the uncomplicated responses of pity for victims and indignation at evildoers. The "disaster principle" provides the additional benefit of self-pity when the reader identifies with an innocent character, for example, John Smith or Tad Trenton. King entices his readers with a number of psychological rallying points in addition to a variety of escape routes, both overt and subtle, and they respond to these appeals overwhelmingly, with a narrowly focused, intense enthusiasm.

The reasons why Stephen King has become virtually a brand name during the past decade become apparent when one examines his work objectively. He has given careful consideration to the aesthetics of horror fiction and has attained a sophisticated awareness of his strengths and weaknesses as a practitioner of a popular genre. King's treatments of the Gothic and macabre are the opposite of impulsive meanderings—he consistently seeks to create a "single powerful spectacle." That goal dictates a strategy which can best be described as melodramatic and formulaic, and one which places him in a loosely defined but densely populated tradition that has existed from the beginning of literary history. Irrespective of one's attitude toward violence or sensationalism, King deserves credit for understanding his subject matter, craft, and audience well. King proposed in 'Salem's Lot to celebrate "superstition and ignorance," his synonyms for the mysterious, the supra-rational, and the anti-scientific. His wildfire popularity suggests that he has found a large audience willing to share in that celebration.

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Critical Essay by James Egan from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
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