This month we’ll be releasing the premiere of Late Night Lit (our new video series featuring intellectually inebriated discussions about books), in which co-hosts Sarah Marshall and Candace Opper discuss Stephen King’s The Stand. To further celebrate this inauguration, we asked our contributors to muse on the master of horror’s far-reaching influence.
Below, you will find Part One: Ourselves, and Other Complex Horrors, by Allie Angelo.
The most important things are the hardest things to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them—words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were In your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That’s the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear.
-Stephen King; Introduction to The Body
When I was nine years old my mom came home with a copy of Stephen King’s The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, the story of a nine-year-old girl who gets lost in the Canadian Bush. Finding herself alone in the wilderness with not only natural but also unnatural horrors lurking around every corner, she finds comfort and companionship in her imaginary version of her favorite baseball player Tom Gordon. It was the first horror novel and the first Stephen King book I’d ever read. While I had always loved horror movies and spooky TV shows, it never occurred to me that I could find that same thrill in reading. My mom had always been a huge fan of Stephen King; she has every book he’s published along with specialty items like signed books, rare first editions, and original copies of magazine and newspaper articles he has written. In fact, my name comes from one his books. My mom began reading his Dark Tower series in 1988, the year before I was born. In the first novel of the series the main character Roland spends some time with a barmaid named Alice who everyone calls Allie. A year later when I was born, she gave me that name.
After reading that first book, I fell in love. Not only did I love the horror in King’s novels, but I found the characters and situations within his stories to be more relatable than in any other book I’d ever read. King’s understanding of the human condition, his ability to take ordinary people and place them in extraordinary situations, has always amazed me. A regular sheriff, watching over a his small New England town in Needful Things, a group of misfit friends facing off with the sum of all their fears in IT, the loving husband and father being given another chance after being diagnosed with a terminal illness in the novella Fair Extension. Stephen King gives you the feeling that these people could be you, or someone you know. He paints a vivid picture of the way real people would act in these insane and often unbelievable situations. He also leaves the reader with stark conclusions that defy the predictability often present in genre writing. When a murderer or a monster is running rampant it’s not just the frat boy and his girlfriend, having snuck away from the group to have sex, who will die. It could be the little boy and his puppy that are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, or even the main character who we’ve grown to know and love over the course of the novel. These outcomes are not predictable; they are real.
In the afterword for his book Full Dark, No Stars, a collection of short stories, King talks about his style of writing and the importance of writing the truth. “When it comes to fiction, the writer’s only responsibility is to look for the truth inside his own heart. It won’t always be the reader’s truth, or the critic’s truth, but as long as it’s the writer’s truth all is well. For writers who knowingly lie, for those who substitute unbelievable human behavior for the way people really act, I have nothing but contempt. Bad writing is more than a matter of shit syntax and faulty observation; bad writing usually arises from a stubborn refusal to tell stories about what people actually do—to face the fact, let us say, that murderers sometimes help old ladies cross the street.” Stephen King is true to his word; there is no sugarcoating or substituting irrational human behavior. King knows that the things that go on in the world are ugly; they aren’t things that can always be explained or wrapped up nicely. In real life, “main characters” and little kids die, murderers can be kind, and awful things happen to good people. King does us the favor telling the absolute, sometimes uncomfortable and terribly upsetting, truth.
With his knowledge of people comes the knowledge of how to scare the hell out of us. He understands what we fear, the things that sit in the dark corners of our minds waiting for a moment to come out and stop us dead in our tracks. I don’t believe that true fear can be achieved through this medium without having a working knowledge of humanity. Of course many horror story lines instill fear in us without being accompanied by a working knowledge of what makes us tick, but is it the same degree of fear, or is it just the cheap kind brought on by images of big sharp teeth and people being torn apart limb by limb?
You don’t open a King novel looking for cheap thrills. The fear he taps into is real human fear: the fear of dying, of losing a loved one, of failure and ridicule. He brings these fears to the surface, sometimes using monsters and incarnations of evil, but never choosing an easy scare over a more complex one. Consider The Mist, which appears to be about a town suddenly caught in an eerie mist from which unimaginable creatures appear to kill and maim anyone in their path. When you really read The Mist, you look past these otherworldly creatures that have taken over this little New England town and see that the focus of the story is something entirely different. The group of people the story centers on is the part of the small town that became trapped in the local market when the mist descended. These people are trapped together with no way out and no way of knowing what will happen next. They’re afraid of the monsters outside, of the uncertainty of the situation, and eventually of each other. The Mist explores what happens to people when they’re trapped together and scared out of their minds. It shows us that even in a threatening situation with real horrors ready to kill us, sometimes the truly scary things are the people around us and ourselves.
Stephen King evokes emotion in unique ways I have not experienced with other writers. His stories are known for the visceral response people have to them, for the emotion they stir within readers. He has created an entire universe within his writing, a place that is simultaneously frightening, beautiful, and magical. It’s there that I’ve found a safe haven, a place to retreat where my focus is turned toward the extraordinary. In times of stress some people exercise, clean, drink; I read Stephen King.
Allie Angelo has been writing for over ten years. Her work has been published in the Scholastic Young Writer’s and Artist’s Anthology and she is the main writer and editor for Bare Essentials Magazine. She has one book of poetry published under her maiden name Allie Ullom, titled A Tribute to Constant Thinking. She also runs two popular blogs, one of which will be turned into a book within the next year. She lives in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, with her boyfriend, working as a writer and freelance voice actor.