What Stephen King does even better than horror

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As it’s Halloween, we at The Edge thought – why not honour the King of Horror himself, with our very own KingFest? In this article, Declan Cochran looks at the things Stephen King does better than horror…

On just about every paperback copy I own of Stephen King’s novels, there’s a quote from The Telegraph (I think) comparing Stephen King to Dickens as a storyteller. On the surface, this seems disingenuous, a publicist’s wet dream come true as opposed to a genuine critical appraisal. Isn’t Stephen King a mere horror writer, whereas Dickens is responsible for some of the most enduring literature of all time, second maybe only to Shakespeare? How can the man who wrote Dreamcatcher, a novel that wrung an extended set-piece out of a man sat on the toilet trying to keep inside an entity known as a “shit-weasel”, compare to the man who gave us The Tale of Two Cities?

Yet above all things, Dickens was one thing; popular. In his time, he was the most popular. Stephen King, too, is one of the most popular. And despite the more recent literary prestige, Dickens was popular because of his warmth, a warmth that has been criticised as saccharine by the likes of Oscar Wilde. He had a subversive streak, for sure, but as Orwell puts it, “he attacked everyone, and antagonised nobody”.

He might have never attacked anyone in his entire career, but this points to an empathy which is shared by both Dickens and King. It becomes apparent even after reading one or two of his books that King is a truly empathetic, even humanist author, who sees each individual as just that-human. They’re concerned not with stories of ghosts, of madwomen with axes, of demons and time-travel and devils and dogs and killer clowns. Those things are simply the watercolours he uses to bring life to his frameworks of people. Every sentence of his plainspoken writing is concerned with people.

It is even easy to forget that King has written a great deal of non-horror work, which to me has always struck me as his best. I’m thinking of Duma Key, 11:22:63, Needful Things, Dolores Claiborne, novels which all may have lashings of the supernatural, but are all primarily concerned with human stories. When I remember Duma Key, for example, I think not of the grand story of the eponymous island, with its dark secrets, but I think of the protagonist, Edgar Freemantle, his missing arm and phantom limb, his friendships, his daughter, the ex-wife, the old woman overseeing the island.

11:22:63, may be his biggest book in scope if not length, conjures up not memories of a grand time-travelling conspiracy, but instead of one man lost in time, falling in love against his will, a deft metaphor for the deterministic nature of fate; a reassuring if uncompromising parable on the old maxim of “what will be will be”, with the emphasis on the ‘will’. I remember not the final tense final act, but again the little things, like the gay B+B owners, or the way protagonist Jake Epping strokes the scarred face of his lover; this is where the real brevity lies (and full disclosure; this book in particular isn’t the only book to have made me cry, but it is the only one that’s made me weep).

I could go on. Needful Things; story of a demonic shopkeeper, is really a dissection of small-town mentality with a delicate mosaic of memorable characters. Dolores Claiborne; story of a murder that turns into the story of a life unlived. Firestarter; story of a pyrotechnic, but really about a father and son. Cujo; story about a killer rabid dog, is really about a mother trying to keep her son alive. Stand By Me, The Shawshank Redemption. And so on.

Sure, there are elements of the macabre that creep in; nobody does unflinching grue like King, even in his non-horror work. But these aren’t the things you take home with you, the things that haunt you while you’re walking down the street, or idly killing time at work. Instead it’s the fullness of the people in his stories, his humanity and empathy, the way he can convey the nature of a person in just a few well-pitched sentences. And this isn’t to downplay his horror achievements, because he is exceptionally skilled at that. But I think it allows one to buy into the horror if they’ve acquainted themselves with his human outlook first.

King is a storyteller in the most traditional sense of the word, and his sheer humility, and lack of vaulting literary ambition, means that he will never be considered a great American author like Cormac McCarthy, or Philip Roth. But in his way, he is. From his morbid standpoint, he tells stories of thrillingly ordinary people. If Philip Roth will describe a big dinner with the Dean of a prestigious college, symbolising the fall of the American Dream, King will write about the waitresses who served him.

I know which one I relate to more. Maybe that Dickens comparison isn’t all that disingenuous after all.

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