Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Stephen King, Master of Non-horror

Like most writers of horror fiction, I can trace my roots directly to Stephen King.  The first time I picked up "The Stand," the hook was set.  After finishing "It," that hook was swallowed and securely wrapped around my gizzard.  The only way to disgorge my devotion to his writing would be to jam a screwdriver down my gullet and twist until all my internal organs are ripped loose. 

Unfortunately, because of stories like "Salem's Lot," "Silver Bullet," and "Needful Things," his place as a horror writer is cemented.  Not a writer, but a horror writer.  To paraphrase a line from Dennis Miller, being the top horror writer is a lot like being valedictorian at summer school. 

Folks who would praise Melville's work on "Moby Dick" ad nauseum will turn up their collective snoots at anything bearing King's seal.  Personally I find this funny, as Melville's tale is essentially a horror story highlighting a big white waterborne monster. 

From my perspective, King isn't a master of horror -- he's a master of the written word.  Upon closer inspection, even his most famous books aren't horror themes; they're universal themes we can all relate to, which is why it's such an injustice to pigeonhole him into a very narrow slot.  Carrie, his first published novel, wasn't as much about immolated prom-goers as it was about a scared, bullied, and abused teenager.  Firestarter was less about pyrokinesis and more about a connection between child and parent and what happens when that trust is broken.  Stand By Me is the seminal pre-teen adventure story.  Bag of Bones is a love story.  And of course you have the Dark Tower series, which is the truest quest literature since Alfred Lord Tennyson's 12-part saga of King Arthur.  Take out the lobstrosities, and most of the Gunslinger books wouldn't ring the horror bell among even the most delicate observers. 

The fact that Roland's tale isn't taught in middle school English classes alongside J.R.R. Tolkien and Melville is more a testament to the pervasive level of bias that still discards even great modern American writers to the slough pile if they are in any way tainted by a populist horror label.

I've experienced the anti-horror bias even in my own novel, "Howl of a Thousand Winds."  A bank teller recently asked me about my book after it reached the number one spot on the Sunbury Press bestsellers list.  I made the mistake of opening with "it's a horror novel that asks 'what if the people dying in snowstorms aren't really being killed by the cold and the snow?'"  She got as far as the "errr" sound in "horror" before her face switched off and the shutter doors slammed down over her ear canals.  "I don't read horror," she answered.  When I tried to explain that it wasn't a gore-fest like a lot of today's "horror" movies that rely on tanker trucks full of fake blood and gratuitous dismemberments to jump start movie-goer senses, it didn't matter.  She wouldn't read it because I used the "hor" word. 

Ironically, I'd bet a box full of chocolate-covered goat eyeballs that the woman has seen at least three Stephen King movies in her lifetime without running them through her anti-horror filter.  It's not really the genre that turns her off, it's the generalization.

And that's the point.  King isn't a horror writer.  He's a writer that includes horror in some of his work.  It would be like labeling Peter Benchley a pornographer because he included a sex scene in "Jaws." 

In real life, people often use pejoratives to seine out others as an expedient way to codify an individual instead of taking time getting to know the person.  If we're guilty of doing that to other humans, we're even more ruthless in assigning labels to their various words and works.

In the sifting, we miss opportunities for broader and more enlightening experiences, which is the greatest of all life's ironies.  We watch movies and TV shows about out-of-the-ordinary incidents, then curse our own lives made mundane by a lack of extraordinary events -- precisely the kind of events that can only be found when we veer off the sanctimoniously marked trails.

Of all my reasons for gratitude toward Stephen King -- inspiring me to be a writer, entertaining me for thousands of hours with his books and movies, teaching me courage by never apologizing for what he writes -- his greatest gift was opening the eyes of a non-horror fan to the mesmerizing writing that transcends tags.   

So here's to Stephen King...the master of non-horror.


  1. Firstly, I wanted to thank you for your kind comments on my blog, which is why I followed you here.

    Secondly, am I ever glad I did! Bravo! I can't tell you how many times my wife and I have had this conversation. I've also found myself defending his work, trying to explain to certain myopic individuals how profound Stephen King really is and how fortunate we are to have his books to read.

    I read somewhere that Stephen King, himself, met a woman who told him that she didn't read his work because she didn't care for horror. When he mentioned that he wrote a story which was made into a movie that she enjoyed (I believe it was The Shawshank Redemption, or as a real Stephen King fan knows it, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption) the woman balked and practically called him a liar to his face, saying, "No, you couldn't possibly have written that, because I actually LIKED it."

    Thanks for this post. And again thanks for your comments and I'm glad I searched you out. Take care!

  2. Ha! Great story, KG, about Shawshank. Laughed out loud.

    Morris, while I've only read a few of Stephen King's books, I never could understand why his work attracts such repugnance from some folks. What I've read, I've liked a lot. I haven't met anyone who's read King and slagged him—the "hate" seems to come from those who haven't bothered to read for themselves what's between the covers.

    I guess we fear most what we do not know, and fear likes to send otherwise rational people into (occasional) fits of irrational behaviour.

    Great post.