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“Stephen King’s Tragic Kingdom”

Bauer, Susan Wise | Books & Culture, March/April 1997


pp. 14 - 15

Striking piece on the astounding popularity of Stephen King, who sometimes has four or five books simultaneously on the New York Times bestseller list. King gives Americans a narrative, a way of accounting for why things go so terribly wrong, plus “a whole amusement park of chills,” plus a satisfying defeat of evil in the end. His main line: “transcendent evil exists and stalks the earth.” Moreover it takes people over. People in King novels are typically ordinary folks minding their own business when suddenly, out of nowhere, “a dark shadow bobs into view behind your shoulder” or “a horrible creature whisks out of sight as you turn your head.” Get this: “Children are born knowing perfectly well that evil exists. Not even the most gently reared child escapes nightmares of The Thing Under the Bed.” That’s why children love stories in which the evil witch dies in the end–and in the original Hansel and Gretel fashion, where she gets “baked in her own oven.” ”The devil has died in America, but his ghost lingers on. Andrew Delbanco suggests that the popularity of horror novels is a ‘response to our panic over the loss of a language for speaking about evil.’” Dean Koontz, “describing his serial-killer novel Intensity agrees: ‘Part of the thrust of this book comes out of the idea, out of the Freudian theory that has led us to believe that virtually anybody can be understood or rehabilitated.’” But this isn’t true. “’We put ourselves at risk when we accept that there is no such thing as real evil in the world, that it’s really one degree or another of dysfunction and that it can all be treated.’” King is speaking to this perception: it’s war out there and evil is real, is his message. But, now, note: nobody in a King novel is really responsible. “Nobody ever invites the evil in. Everybody is merely possessed by evil. All are innocent victims of this possession.” And how to get rid of it? Not by God, who is a Rabbi Kushner well-meaning, but weak, cheerleader. The only way to defeat evil is by the self-sacrificial, and often irrational and mysterious, acts of the possessed. “Face to face with the reality of evil, the American public is reassured by King’s fairy tales. The Thing Under the Bed is real. . . . [but] you’re perfectly capable of blowing the monsters away.” King distances us from evil (we’re not responsible). Evil is real, but we are only its victims. We become its victors by our own guts and wiles. And it takes wiles to defeat evil, because it’s seemingly personal.