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Critical Essay by James Egan
SOURCE: "Sacral Parody in the Fiction of Stephen King," in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 23, No. 3, Winter, 1989, pp. 125-41.
In the following essay, Egan discusses how the sacral parody common to gothic literature is at work in King's fiction.
Leslie Fiedler's observation in Love and Death in the American Novel that the Gothic is a parodic medium, "a way of assailing clichés by exaggerating them to the limit of their grotesqueness," has generally been supported by subsequent analyses of Gothic literature. Rosemary Jackson points to Gothic's tendency to "invert romance structures," for example, the quest, by twisting the quest into a "circular journey to nowhere." Coral Ann Howells makes explicit what Fiedler had implied, namely that in Gothic novels the structure of the external world breaks down, that the Gothic idiom destabilizes. William Patrick Day's recent study offers the most sophisticated reading of the parodic tendencies of Gothic and the implications of those tendencies. If, as Day contends, the Gothic parodies both romance and realistic fiction, and if the "Gothic world is one of unresolved chaos, of continuous transformation … of the monstrous that is the shadow of the human," resolution in such a world would be grotesque or absurd, the articulation of the basic intent of the parodic. If the "wasteland of the Gothic is a world in which cruelty, violence and conflict are the only principles upon which the characters can act, only to destroy themselves," an atmosphere of radical distortion and mutation becomes normative, akin to the aesthetic direction of the parodic.
Not only can Gothic fantasy exhibit the "disintegration of the spiritual," but the Gothic has long contained "a religious undercurrent of meaning." Nineteenth-century Gothic writers occasionally employ religious images to define man as "eternal victim" or place guilty wanderers at the center of essentially Calvinistic parables of sin and retribution. To cite several familiar examples of Gothic's incorporation of the sacral, Shelley's Frankenstein works ironic variations on creation, Resurrection and Adamic motifs, Stoker's Dracula invokes a largely Christian ritual to defeat the vampire, and Lovecraft's universe features a pantheon of dark gods. Stephen King's habits as a Gothicist have been much discussed, but his consistent development of Gothicism's parodic tendencies and the direction of his parody deserve more attention. Douglas Winter notes that in The Mist King accentuates the powerful shaping influences of science, materialism and religion and questions the worth of such influences. Tony Magistrale has argued, more specifically, that "one of the major elements linking Stephen King's fiction to the inclusive gothic tradition is its attack on the very foundations and values upon which society is built." Some of those values are societal bonds, science and religion. King depicts both government and organized religion as "spiritually bankrupt" and religious extremists are conspicuous in his fiction.
His attack upon Christian religious traditions, impulses and assumptions is, I would suggest, more comprehensive and sophisticated than either Winter or Magistrale indicates. King's Gothic world not only identifies itself but, in the most extreme instances, mimics its own identity by bonding itself to religious concepts, so that the "monstrosity" of his Gothic often relates directly to his "inversion of the numinous." King mocks religious targets, both literally and allegorically, by means of fairly conventional satiric stratagems, primarily caricature, ironic inversion, the grotesque and the burlesque and satiric juxtaposition. Rarely does he use humor as a form of catharsis, but rather as a device of intensification. King's sacral parody serves two primary purposes, to define the Gothic nightland more fully and to test the conventional religious beliefs of the normative world. Though his Gothic universe characteristically inverts and mimics the routinely sacral, King's stance toward the sacral does not appear uniformly negative. In some cases, an encounter with the Gothic underworld affirms the power of the sacral and sets the boundaries of the underworld. In others, escape from the darkness becomes possible when a secular credo replaces the sacral. King's parodic targets fall into several categories, categories which invariably overlap. My discussion presupposes a close relationship among these religious targets and the categories I employ have been selected because in each of them a particular target receives prominent emphasis. King occasionally mimics rather specific doctrinal issues, but for the most part his parodic emphasis falls on Christianity in the broadest sense.
Religious derives gone awry, particularly fundamentalist obsessions and the ludicrous, grotesque and violent consequences of such obsessions surely qualify as one of the primary targets of King's sacral parody. Several of his characters are obsessed in this fashion, for example, Vera Smith, mother of protagonist John Smith in The Dead Zone. Though the issue seems far from clear to anyone else, Vera considers her son's return to life after a long coma as the Lord's work, part of the providential plan, believing that "all actions of the creature happen under the lordship of the creator" and that the "Lord is always present, active, responsible and Omnipotent." She refuses to consider another Christian idea of providence, namely that "God's sovereignty is hidden to mankind, discernible only by faith, and then not as a clearly perceptible pattern." After the accident which nearly killed Johnny, Vera turns ever more zealously to her pronounced fundamentalist beliefs in an attempt to explain and justify his misfortune. A reliance on the "inerrancy of the Bible" typifies fundamentalism, yet that reliance has often proved troublesome for fundamentalists because of the ambiguity of highly personal interpretations of the Bible; and so it goes with Vera Smith. Her obsession grows into a fanatical zeal, culminating in her belief that Christ plans to come to earth in a flying saucer to commune with His faithful and to reward believers such as herself. Here King takes aim at the ludicrous consequences of fanatical "zeal," long a fundamentalist characteristic, as well as at the eschatalogical bent of fundamentalism, its belief in a vivid, apocalyptic "end to the existing order of things." Vera's zealous response to Johnny's trip into the unknown actually distances her from her son, who becomes a living icon, a way to verify her perception of the ways of the divine and her own manic zeal. Vera has begun to run in circles, so that the more she practices her beliefs, the more ineffectual and preposterous they seem. Vera's obsessions have distorted her into a comic character; she has become a caricature, a woman whose religious predilections have become the dominant features of her personality. While these predilections may well be a response to divine love and to a providential plan, they also alienate her from the husband and son she claims to love. The strong evangelical zeal historically associated with fundamentalism likewise manifests itself in Vera, who tries, aggressively and repeatedly, to convince Johnny that a divinely ordained mission awaits him. Yet King darkens her evangelistic quest before it can really begin, implying that evangelism alienates, spreading confusion and dissension. Directly after Johnny's accident, as she leaves the hospital with Sarah, Vera, "looking dreamily up at the moon," announces: "It isn't in God's plan for Johnny to die." Then she smiles: "In that smile Sarah suddenly saw Johnny's own easy, devil-may-care grin, but at the same time she thought it was the most ghastly smile she had ever seen in her life." Imagistically and thematically, King treats Vera's compulsive evangelism as a mixture of the ludicrous and the "ghastly."
Vera Smith, however, merely echoes perhaps the most dangerous fundamentalist fanatic in all of King's fiction, the mother of Carrie White in Carrie. A militant, literal biblicist, a church unto herself, a tyrannical twentieth-century Puritan who insists that private reading and meditation on God's word must be enforced at all costs, Mrs. White embodies many fundamentalist clichés and their destructive consequences. She stands committed to the fundamentalist assumptions that neither an ordained ministry, nor a formal theological education, nor group reinforcement should be required for the true believer. The Gothic world tests, by means of Carrie's parapsychological powers, the efficacy of Margaret White's assumptions. Unfortunately for her, the Word has no explanation for the telekinetic prowess Carrie displays at an early age, except to suggest that Carrie should be labeled the "Devil's child, Satan spawn." Her pathological horror and "ever-present" fear of sin, an evangelical trait, along with a fundamentalist zeal for proselytizing, lead her into a crusade to convert Carrie into a replica of herself, so much so that she tries to conceal from her daughter the more "awkward" aspects of sexuality, such as breasts and menstruation. She strives as well to convert non-believers outside of her home, but with little success; unfortunately for Carrie, these failures probably redouble her mother's attempts to keep her "pure." Mrs. White's horror of sin and desire to spread God's Word turn the White home into a grotesque, darkly comic environment. She regularly punishes Carrie by locking her in a closet for hours to beg forgiveness before a glowing crucifix, on the assumption that torture will lead naturally to moral improvement. In a particularly ludicrous scene, after Carrie has endured the humiliation of experiencing in a school shower her first menstrual period, she returns home to confront a mother who decides that prayer is the answer to menstruation:
[Carrie's] sobs were too strong to allow more [than the word 'Momma']. The latent hysterics had come out grinning and gibbering. She could not stand up. She could only crawl into the living room with her hair hanging in her face, braying huge, hoarse sobs. Every now and again Momma would swing her foot. So they progressed across the living room toward the place of the altar, which had once been a small bedroom.
As Carrie and her mother lurch toward the place of atonement, we are reminded of a serio-comic religious procession punctuated by screaming, kicking and "grinning." Margaret White, however, proves very capable of directing the same sort of violence toward herself, and she does so when Carrie refuses to abstain from going to the prom:
Momma screamed. She made her right hand a fist and struck herself in the mouth, bringing blood. She dabbled her fingers in it, looked at it dreamily, and daubed a spot on the cover of the Bible.
Self-mutilation here translates as a distorted form of punishment, a propitiation to a presumably angry God, yet the ritual of atonement borders on the absurdly comic. Irrespective of her intentions, Mrs. White plays the fool, the slapstick, dreamy-eyed buffoon who has managed to punch herself in the mouth.
The cataclysmic ending of Carrie, moreover, may be read allegorically as the mutation of evangelism into a parodic form. Carrie mimics her mother's excesses, taking them to massively destructive ends; she finally becomes the "Angel's Fiery Sword" her mother wanted her to be, a demonic evangelist who presides over a hellish, fiery holocaust. Unlike her mother, Carrie makes converts—converts who come to believe in the power of the unknown. Fundamentalist religious postures have been mocked by the fierce "zeal" of telekinesis. By trying so hard to preserve Carrie's purity and to create a saint, Margaret White has helped to fashion a demon who rejoices in the chaos she creates.
In both novels King presents the reader with what Elizabeth MacAndrew calls a statement of the grotesque "which contains a pervasive comic element arising from and producing that uncomfortable sense of the incongruously horrible that makes the viewer laugh as he inwardly groans." Ironically, Mrs. White's "psychological monstrosity" may be seen as a tangible example of the shadowy moral evils she so thoroughly fears. Again ironically, the religious excesses of Margaret White and Vera Smith distort both women to the point that they come to resemble zealous automatons, character types occasionally found in the Gothic universe. King's dark humor offers no catharsis here.
Ministers, priests, sacraments and formal rites and rituals are likewise parodied in King's fiction. The Reverend Lowe in Cycle of the Werewolf qualifies as a case in point. A werewolf responsible for monthly killings, Lowe experiences little introspection, yet King's mocking touches can easily be seen when such introspection occurs. Near the end of the Novel, Lowe examines his situation, realizing that he is a werewolf, the scriptural Beast reincarnated, but still he declares, "I am a man of God." Lowe has undergone a parodic version of an examination of conscience. Despite his earnest declaration, the reader recalls that Lowe has a Gothic double, that he is very much a bestial creature from the Gothic universe, who hardly seems intent on spreading the gospel. If Lowe's examination of conscience contains elements of prayer, those elements are somewhat suspect because they do not provide a "means of grace" for him. Earlier, when the minister imagines his congregation metamorphosing into an assembly of werewolves, a grotesquely comic element surfaces. Indeed, as Randall Larson argues, pentecostalism may be one of King's targets here, yet other evidence of mimicry appears as well. Lowe's parishioners perform a parodic "low-church" ritual, a sharing of fellowship, but their evangelistic zeal has become bloodlust. For Lowe as well as his parishioners metamorphosing into a werewolf means experiencing a grotesquely rapturous ecstasy. By means of satiric juxtaposition King links ecstasy with bestial regression, riddling the notion of rapture with dark elements of self-delusion and degradation. Lowe's vision of his congregation suggests that an ominous metamorphosis awaits those who reach for the "high." A final religious irony underlies the story's parody. At no point can Lowe discover why or how he has become a werewolf. He seems to have been fated, in a mockery of traditional low-church notions of "election," to carry the mark of the Beast and to descend periodically into a hellish underworld, for no apparent reason. Lowe's status as unenlightened victim calls into question the providential scheme of things, the supposed divine benevolence, and adds an ironic twist to the identities and purposes of those called to do the Lord's work. So also does Lowe's belief that "if it's the Lord's will," he will find Marty Coslaw, who has discovered his duplicity, "And silence him. Forever." Christian providence appears to have a demonic equivalent. Lowe dies without ever recognizing an overriding purpose or sense of individual wrong doing which would account for this dark "election" as a werewolf. In the absence of that purpose, a Gothic foreboding figures importantly in the story.
Father Donald Callahan in 'Salem's Lot meets a fate similar to Lowe's when he challenges the Gothic universe manifesting itself as Barlow, the king vampire. We learn that Callahan, suffering from a crisis of faith and identity, very much needs the support and consolation his venerable traditions and rituals would presumably give him. Early encounters with Barlow show Callahan the victor who manages to exorcise the vampire from his sanctuary, the Marsten House. Yet Barlow boasts that he will eventually win, and makes good on his boast. In the crucial confrontation scene between the two, the sacred flame of Callahan's cross feebly flickers out, and the vampire contemptuously tosses the cross away. Then he initiates the failed priest into the Gothic universe by forcing Callahan to drink his blood, an appropriately Gothic "exorcism," a reversal of the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist. Callahan becomes a Cain-figure, an outcast with the devil's mark upon him, who can no longer enter the church he once served. True, Callahan can easily be faulted as an individual whose weak faith caused him to be drawn into the Gothic underworld. Yet does his failure not reflect the failure of his rituals, his sacraments, his church itself as well? King leaves the matter open to question, yet one may safely conclude that a priest with a crisis of faith and a drinking problem, on a mission of good, discovers no convincing proof in the rituals he practices that such rituals can keep back the darkness or refute the vampire's mocking laugh. If the sacramental system was designed to "secure God's aid in correct living" and to "protect against the crises of life," Callahan has not been its beneficiary. The priest's formal system of religious practice works no more effectively for him than Mrs. White's fundamentalist improvisations did for her.
The ways and workings of mysticism, affective and supra-rational approaches to the Visio Dei, are still another form of the sacral which King consistently undercuts, though his parody of the Visio seems more indirect and allegorical than do most of his other sacral inversions. Christian mysticism "stresses that God can be known in immediate fashion, not merely by inference." In order to possess the Visio Dei, an intense and fulfilling experience of transcendent truth which unites the mystic with God and allows him to see God in the whole world, the mystic must pass through several stages of purification. Having awakened supra-rationally to a "consciousness of Divine Reality," the mystic must undergo various purgations to heighten his illumination of the divine, notably a mystic death, the "Dark Night of the Soul." To lift the "veil of imperfection" and to achieve a heightened consciousness of God, a mystic needs to experience psychic fatigue and emptiness. Despite the Dark Night of the Soul, the transcendent union with God ultimately achieved promises to be positive and uplifting—a transfigured vision of the universe allows the mystic to see beauty in all things and to achieve peace, rest and often bliss. The extrasensory powers possessed by several of King's characters serve as a metaphor of mystical perception and its varied results, some of which are plainly affirmative. Mother Abagail in The Stand, for example, remains steadfast during the epidemic of plague because of her visionary apprehension of an important role she has been given to play in heading a mission against the demonic adversary, Randall Flagg. After leading her pilgrims to Boulder, she vanished without explanation into the wilderness, explaining on her deathbed that her mystical vision had become blurred, requiring that she submit herself to purgation and endure the Dark Night of the Soul, thereby to offer proper guidance to her followers. After her sojourn in the wilderness, Abagail regains enough of her mystical insight to define the proper way to defeat Flagg. Her purification and repentance allow for the birth of a new self and she dies in union with the divine.
For the most part, though, King treats the Visio and the mystical way less reverently. If mystics typically attain a transfigured vision of the universe, the experience of several of King's characters suggests that they encounter the parodic opposite, that King deflates mysticism by means of burlesque, allowing the mystical to intrigue and compel characters, only to leave them disenchanted or traumatized. Rather than experiencing the Visio, these characters gain insights into its inversion, the Gothic underworld; their dark trips into the unknown call mystical ecstasy into question. If a "mystical adventure" may be defined as a "going forth" from the normal self, what happens to Carrie White might qualify as "mystical," but hardly as an "adventure." Carrie's telekinesis gives her, in addition to the ability to move objects, an immediate and intense awareness of the feelings and perceptions of those around her. As her telekinesis develops, so does her heightened insight. Carrie comes to perceive, in her "mystical" fashion, not the "beauty in all things," but the malignity in the hearts of her peers and her mother. For Carrie, the mystical Dark Night of the Soul becomes a venture into the Gothic darkness. She experiences pain and death rather than the Visio Dei, the emptiness of the void rather than fulfillment through unity with the One.
Similar problems afflict Danny Torrance in The Shining. Throughout the novel, King portrays Danny as a "sincere acolyte," an innocent whose "shine" allows him to make first contact with the Gothic world of the Overlook Hotel, to sense the darkness waiting to envelop him and his family. Though King does not add an explicitly religious dimension to Danny's life, as he did with Mother Abagail and Carrie, the notion of acolyte works metaphorically to suggest that Danny leads a procession or pilgrimage of sorts; technically, the term "acolyte" refers to a "cleric in the highest of the four minor orders of the Western church." Figuratively, then, Danny's heightened powers read as another version of the mystical. Before he arrived at the Overlook, moreover, Danny's shine had acquainted him with other forms of darkness: quarreling, alcoholism, child abuse. When Tony, Danny's contact in the world beyond the here and now, warns him about "redrum," the reader recognizes the continuation rather than the onset of a pattern, even though Danny himself realizes that his shine sometimes alerts him to dark possibilities that do not develop into facts. What happens at the Overlook, however, accentuates the problematic nature of mystical insight. Danny was born with a sophisticated power from whose potentially dangerous effects he has virtually no protection. His shine makes him highly attractive to the dark forces that inhabit the hotel, and Danny is vulnerable because, although he senses danger, he usually cannot locate it precisely. He confronts in innocence many of the hotel's traps, a number of which are religious inversions. When the ghost of Room 217 tries to strangle him, Danny encounters a parodic "welcome" into the afterlife, a grotesquely distorted Visio which traumatizes him. Nor does his mystical sensitivity alert him to his father's demonic ecstasy. After Jack strikes his bargain with the hotel, he erupts into a murderous "rapture," a frantic desire to destroy Danny and Wendy, so as to enjoy a "higher truth" by meeting the hotel's demonic manager. The Gothic world of the Overlook seems to strip Danny's Visio of its affirmative qualities. He has not been uplifted by his mystical abilities, has not found ecstatic happiness or even harmony with the world around him, has not been able to understand more than a little of the actual workings of his shine. Rather, his raptures, premonitions and trips out of his body have typically been horrific, a burlesque deflation of the alleged effects of mysticism and of mystical religion's contention that good should be sought in "that which is above and beyond this life." The Overlook's voracious attempts to assimilate Danny mock mysticism's exaltation of a "union with God in which the self disappears."
John Smith's mystical-seeming powers are equally unsettling in The Dead Zone. Smith recognizes his talents early on and feels "uncomfortable" about them even after he wins big at the wheel of fortune. After his lengthy coma, Smith's abilities intensify greatly, but with equivocal results. Dark visions haunt him: he senses the catastrophic fire at Cathy's, the horror of Frank Dodd and his mother and the menace of Gregg Stillson. Yet Smith's knowledge seems overwhelming, inundating, and his warnings are feared as often as they are heeded. He evolves into a Cassandra-figure, a pariah besieged by fanatics of all sorts and the cynicism of a culture dubious of mystical awareness. Eventually, despite Smith's concession that he has become a Jeremiah-like prophet on a mission to stop Stillson, a mission his insight has led him to, he can appreciate the moral ambiguity of his planned assassination and must wrestle with the thought that "This was no holy business he was on." King creates the appearance of mystical awareness in Smith's case, seemingly to illustrate the frustrations, the unsettling moral paradoxes and the lack of reassurance connected with such awareness. Johnny's acceptance of his "mission," one presented in implicitly religious terms, further dramatizes that transcendence and illumination are not necessarily the rewards of those who possess mystical sensitivity. In the three novels discussed, King undercuts the Visio by suggesting that psychic fragmentation and radical, mutated psychic development accompany it; by rendering ambivalent and ironic the higher levels of consciousness available to those who experience it; and by upsetting the normal balance between pain and pleasure which characterizes the mystical state by accentuating pain, darkness and calamity.
With its series of ironic resurrections which unify the varied forms of sacral parody in the novel, Pet Sematary represents perhaps the most thoroughgoing inversion of Christian motifs in all of King's fiction. He evokes the Christian concept of Resurrection through Scriptural quotes and paraphrases at the opening of each division of the book, only to deny it with his plot, characterization and thematic emphases. The Pet Sematary is the nexus of the Gothic universe, an ageless and forbidding place seemingly far older than Christianity. King defines the Gothic universe, in part, by means of allusions to Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos. On one of his last trips to the Micmac burying ground, Louis Creed hopes that the strange shapes he sees around him are not "the creatures which leap and crawl and slither and shamble in the world between … [the] dark and draggling horrors on the nightside of the universe." Yet his experiences rebuke his hopes. The platform on which the burying ground stands resonates with age and alienness, as do many ceremonial locations in Lovecraft's mythos tales. When Creed ascends the forty-five steps to the platform for the first time, he wonders whether the Micmacs who allegedly carved them were "Tool bearing Indians." On a later trip, he "cocked his head back once and saw the mad sprawl of the stars. There were no constellations he recognized and he looked away again, disturbed." Again King recalls a Lovecraftian sense of the void. Eventually Louis Creed concludes that the "grave markers in the Pet Sematary, those rude circles" recall a "much older God than the Christian one." Carrying Gage through Little God swamp, Creed encounters various personifications of his deepest fears, a "grisly, floating head," "its mouth drawn down in a rictus" and "a diffuse, ill-defined watermark … better than sixty feet high. It was no shade, no insubstantial ghost; he could feel the displaced air of its passage, could hear the mammoth thud of its feet coming down, the suck of mud as it moved on." Creed has seen the Wendigo, the God-figure of the burying ground, whose monstrous material presence recalls Lovecraft's mythos creatures at the same time that it mocks the presumed anthropomorphism and aetherial nature of the Christian God. The succession of dark priest-figures in the novel, moreover, echoes Lovecraft's mythos priests. Judd Crandall tells Creed of Stanny B, a Canuck "medicine man" of sorts, who "was a proper Christian and would preach on the Resurrection when he was drunk enough," a shape-shifter who, Crandall thinks, metamorphoses into an Indian as he leads Crandall to the burying ground. Crandall himself undergoes a similar metamorphosis, speaking of the Micmac past as though he had actually experienced it, becoming a shadowy "hood" which seems to "surround a blankness" as he leads Creed to the burying ground for the first time, and finally a priest who helps Louis bury the family cat and construct a cairn over Church's grave. Throughout the novel, King blurs Crandall's identity, and his knowledge and purposes are never clear. As did Stanny B, however, Crandall understands the dark rituals of the burying ground and the ceremonial formulas necessary to petition eldritch forces. Like Lovecraft's mythos priests, Crandall serves as the often terrified but still willing agent of the elder gods.
That the burial ground offers passage into an alien and terrifying universe the animals and people who return to life well demonstrate. As the book unfolds, a progression of demonic resurrections occurs, each in some way more complex and ominous than the last. A sustained mockery of Christian notions of the afterlife unites these resurrections. After Creed brings Church back to life, the cat lurches, sways and behaves like a snake, its animal vitality replaced by the confused energies of a creature scrambling for a foothold in the now unfamiliar world of the living. Church comes to resemble a demon in animal form, full of bizarre menace and peculiar power. Crandall finally tells Louis the story of Timmy Baterman, a World War Two casualty brought back to life by his father. To Crandall, Timmy seems "damned," possessed of a preternatural knowledge of dark secrets in the lives of those who confront him. The return of the damned to an earthly existence plainly satirizes the Christian notion of a benign providential control of the afterlife.
Pet Sematary's most acute horrors, however, involve the rebirth of Gage and Rachel Creed. Louis buries Gage with a guarded optimism, but the resurrection of his son animates a demonic being more vindictive and aggressive than Timmy Baterman, one who kills and cannibalizes out of pure malignity. If Gage has become a reanimated body from which the original soul has fled, his presence inverts the Christian belief that the unique personality survives after death. In desperation, Louis buries Rachel, who returns as the "best" and therefore the most terrible of the novel's parodic resurrections, the soul mate of the dark magician, the bride of the Frankenstein Doctor Louis Creed has become. Creed has finally succeeded in keeping open the passage to the Gothic world itself. The horror of Pet Sematary derives from our comprehension of how ominous that world can be. Timmy, Gage and Rachel, then, call into question the Christian perception of Resurrection in the spirit by reducing resurrection to a material level and equating it with the evocation of Gothic doubles who embody the monstrous, torture, madness and death. These bodies brought back from the dead resemble in no way Christ's glorified body, nor do they suggest a Christian Resurrection of the Just. King links a demonic creation motif to his resurrection parody in Pet Sematary, finally, to expand the range of the parody. Louis Creed devolves into an anti-creator whose "works" ridicule the Christian assumption that man was made in God's image. Gage and Rachel embody the darkness of his own heart; he has remade them into images of himself which allow the Gothic world an opportunity to exert its mocking, nihilistic force and to deny the sacral, the vivifying message of Christian Resurrection. To compound the irony of Creed's final predicament, he seems as much the mad victim of the burying ground's narcotic power as the powerful "creator" of diabolic life forms.
If Pet Sematary illustrates the malevolent energies of the Gothic and implies at least the partial triumph of those energies, The Stand indicates the limited and qualified nature of any such triumph. Because of the inherent instability of the Gothic world, it will inevitably fragment and mock its own devices. One of King's most fully realized Gothic worlds rises out of the post-apocalyptic ashes of The Stand, and again sacral parody figures prominently in his definition and development of that world. In the other novels discussed, a normative and empirical world exists in contradistinction to the Gothic shadowland, but in The Stand the epidemic of superflu decimates virtually the entire human population and much of the normative along with it. The reasons why the survivors have endured are not yet clear, and many of them possess uncommonly keen psychic perception. As Douglas Winter points out, however, Gothic fiction has traditionally played a major part in the apocalyptic; in a variety of ways the "new world" of The Stand is "haunted," so that in the rival empires of Boulder and Las Vegas the Gothic, not unexpectedly, manifests itself in uncommonly diverse and complex fashion. The novel's plot details an epic conflict between a foreboding Gothic world and a flawed but essentially righteous one. From the story's beginning, Randall Flagg, Gothic shape-shifter and apocalyptic Antichrist, establishes himself and his objectives with the help of sacral parody. Flagg sets the tenor of his demonic rule by recruiting Lloyd Henreid as his right-hand man, his "St. Peter," offering to "slip the keys to the kingdom right in [Lloyd's] hand," and then quoting Scripture to suggest to Lloyd that in the new realm of Antichrist, "the meek … shall inherit the earth." Flagg attempts to convert Nick Andros with another familiar ploy, this time echoing Satan's temptation of Christ on the pinnacle of the temple by whispering to Andros, "Everything you see will be yours if you will fall down on your knees and worship me" (Luke 4:1-13). As Flagg gains control of Las Vegas and the regions west of it, he takes up residence in a mammoth temple, the MGM Grand Hotel, where his growing legions of followers can worship him. Flagg underscores his reign of terror by crucifying those who oppose him and by impregnating the "virgin" Nadine Cross in an appropriately Gothic mimicry of the Incarnation.
The unstable, self-parodic nature of Flagg's empire soon becomes apparent, however; almost as soon as it reaches an apex, Flagg's power wanes. He loses control of the catatonic Nadine and tosses her out of a window, destroying his own offspring in the process. Proving that the "effective half-life of evil is always relatively short," Flagg's psychic perception falters and he loses sight of Tom Cullen, who escapes from Las Vegas with abundant information about Flagg's activities. His allies and followers, lieutenants as well as rank and file, begin to desert him, reflecting in their behavior the "dreadful insecurity" characteristic of Gothic fiction, their fear of a "contingent world which is altogether unpredictable and menacing." The instability of Flagg's empire has evoked a Gothic sort of paranoia in his followers. He succumbs, finally, not to desertion by his faithful, but to confrontation by his double and rival, the fire demon, Trashcan Man. Trash, Flagg comes to understand, may be stronger than himself. Trash begins his rebellion by burning and bombing the air force Flagg has assembled to attack Boulder. After this episode Trash feels repentant and dreams of atonement: "if he found something … something big … and brought it to the dark man in Las Vegas, might it not be possible. And even if REDEMPTION was impossible, perhaps ATONEMENT was not." Trash selects a nuclear bomb as a token of propitiation and presents it to Flagg, but the bomb detonates, destroying the Dark Empire of the west. Flagg cannot control the course of events or this climactic confrontation with his double. Instability has degenerated into chaos in a Gothic environment whose parodic impulse ultimately turns on itself. Trash's sacral gesture of atonement implies that even at its apex the intrinsically destabilized Gothic universe cannot achieve coherence through religious inversion.
The destruction of Las Vegas, finally, points to the limits King chooses to place on the Gothic world of The Stand. A fire demon has served as a providential agent by turning the apocalyptic fires of purgation on Flagg's empire: the ball of electricity generated by Flagg to torture his Boulder captives grows to a "tremendous size" and a mysterious hand appears in the sky, "The Hand of God!" which seemingly directs Flagg's electricity toward the cart holding Trash's bomb. The apocalyptic plague which aided Flagg's rise to power has given way to an apocalyptic judgement which will, at least temporarily, free the world of his influence. King has opted to curtail the chaos and terror of the Gothic underworld by denying the "possibility that the Gothic atmosphere will take over completely and that the conventional, stable division between self and Other will disappear completely."
King's sacral parody uses the Gothic universe to mock Christian conventions, but the novels in question are not devoid of affirmation or lacking in constructive redefinition of the sacral. The examples of Father Callahan, Carrie and Margaret White and Louis Creed illustrate the formidable power of the Gothic underworld, a world fully capable of destroying those who enter it. Not all who enter the vicinity of the underworld, however, meet the same fate. The Boulder colony escapes by providential fiat and Ellie Creed because of her physical distance from her father's transactions with the burial ground.
Another group does battle with the darkness and emerges with at least a qualified victory. In Cycle of the Werewolf Marty Coslaw can destroy the werewolf in part because he believes in the power and extent of the underworld. While Constable Neary denies all evidence pointing to Reverend Lowe as the werewolf, Marty accepts what his eyes and instincts tell him. He has not been corrupted by a false mythology which would maintain that a minister could not become a Gothic beast because of the protection his sacral role allegedly provides. Marty engages the darkness, in detective-like fashion, and investigates its mysteries without allowing himself to become enthralled by them. Another child survivor is Danny Torrance, who undergoes some daunting tests: the child-ghoul in the Overlook's playground, the hedge animals, the ghost of Room 217 and, worst of all, his own father. Danny also believes in the Gothic but resists enthrallment. In the climactic scene when he must confront the Jack-thing that stalks him through the halls of the Overlook, Danny faces down the darkness by empirically and matter-of-factly denying the inversions and distortions that support the Jack-thing. His denial does not refute the underworld itself, but rather defines correctly the Gothic qualities that adults typically fail to see. Mark Petrie and Ben Mears succeed in 'Salem's Lot, where Father Callahan had failed, destroying Barlow and most of the vampire colony. Mark leads the way by accepting the power of the underworld and doubting the intrinsic supremacy of the sacral to the Gothic. He confronts the Gothic world as an ingenious detective might, fully appreciating its menacing riddles, but denying that the power of the Gothic can benefit him. In part because he imitates Mark, Ben Mears manages to stake Barlow and to profit from the saving power of the sacred cross. Though Ben uses sacral devices, his own energy and ingenuity are his deepest resources of strength.
The survivors of the battles enumerated above embody a code or strategy which helps them to escape the terminal effects of the darkness. Their basically secular value systems allow them to maintain a careful distance from unqualified reliance upon conventional icons of and assumptions about the sacral and about institutionalized forms of it. They accept the fact that the Gothic can overwhelm the sacral and that coming to terms with the underworld means respecting its fierce powers. In effect, these characters "Gothicize" themselves; they defeat the monstrous with implicitly mocking gestures of defiance toward conventional and easy religious assumptions, rebellious gestures which reflect basic impulses of the Gothic itself. By so doing they can confront the Gothic without becoming enthralled by its most attractive qualities, and investigate it with enough detachment to make them effective detectives. Gothic postures of defiance, then, allow them to be in the Gothic world but not of it. King also relocates the intrinsic strength of the sacral by linking that strength with the innocence and purity of childhood. Childhood often possesses in his fiction an immense natural ability to negate the distortions of the underworld, to protect children from enthrallment, largely because King's child protagonists trust their own instincts, their native cunning, intuition, resourcefulness and purity. Recognizing that the systems and icons of adults regularly fail, these children turn to their own "simplicity" and frequently find their salvation in it. For King's adult characters, the taking on of childlike attitudes often becomes a metaphoric denial of Gothic enthrallment and a commitment to survival.
King's sacral parody consistently illustrates that in the Gothic universe a variety of Christian religious beliefs or procedures are inverted and turned awry, from fundamentalism to mysticism, rapture and communion with the Godhead, to sacraments and rituals, to Resurrection and the notion of divine providence. Dark, grotesque humor, often connected with the Gothic motifs of decay and breakdown, arises from that parody. Sacral parody not only reinforces Magistrale's argument that King implies the dissolution of "traditional concepts of social solidarity," but suggests that the weaknesses of the conventionally sacral may invoke Gothic horror. The Gothic archetypes examined by William Day, finally, help to clarify the nature and direction of King's parody. Somewhat predictably, King creates a Gothic underworld where conventional values are suspended or irrelevant. Again typically, he describes many sacral versions of the radical mutation and distortion characteristic of Gothic. King does present his Gothic environments as destabilizing and occasionally as self-parodic, but he stops short of nihilism, of insisting that there can be "no ascent from the underworld." Though he evidently questions the efficacy of the sacral, King's invocation of providence in The Stand and the escape routes scattered through his fiction mitigate somewhat the radical Gothic belief in the total "disintegration of the spiritual." For King, enough human qualities remain uncorrupted to allow for some measure of protection against the terrors of the nightland.
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