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The unbearable brightness of Stephen King

Adam Nayman

America’s Dark Theologian: The Religious Imagination of Stephen King

Douglas E. Cowan

New York University Press

272 pages, hardcover

ISBN: 9781479894734

In a 2012 essay for the los Angeles Review of Books entitled “My Stephen King Problem: A Snob’s Notes,” Dwight Allen makes all the usual accusations against the top-selling American fiction writer of his era: that King’s plots are hackneyed; that his characters are thin; that his palette runs to junk food flavourings. (“I am the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries,” King once joked with a self-deprecating humour that loses a bit of its humility when you realize that McDonalds’ motto “billions and billions served” actually applies in his case, and that novels cost a lot more than burgers.)

Jeremiads against popular phenomena tend to oscillate between self-conscious provocation and simple dismissal, and Allen’s is no exception. After explaining the hows and whys of his lifelong avoidance of King’s work—he implies that he had his arm twisted into reading Christine by a friend (who must have regretted the recommendation)—Allen uses the 1999 Stephen King novel The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, about a nine-year-old girl who becomes separated from her family during a hike in the Maine woods, as a club (or a baseball bat) against his subject. He implies that only a reader of the same preteen vintage as the story’s protagonist could possibly enjoy King’s book, one of his best-reviewed novels even if it didn’t penetrate the public consciousness like many of its predecessors. Presumably typing on a laptop somewhere far from the madding crowd, Allen asks what is it about King’s writing that appeals to so many people, before answering his own question in the most reductive terms. “[King] appeals to the aggrieved adolescent, or the aggrieved nerdy ­adolescent, or the aggrieved nerdy adult, who believes that people can be divided into bad and good…a reader who would rather not consider the proposition that we are all, each of us, nice good people awash in problems and entirely capable of evil.”

Douglas E. Cowan is not a teenager, which places his new book, America’s Dark Theologian: The Religious Imagination of Stephen King, at odds with Allen’s grandstanding conclusion. Whether or not King is truly a literary pariah at this point or an indestructible piñata for restless writers to take a bad faith swing at every now and then is hard to say for sure, but Cowan stakes out his sliver of interpretive territory with defiance and purpose. A professor of religious studies at Renison University College at the University of Waterloo, Cowan specializes in the relationship between religion and horror; he has published a book on horror cinema that investigates these themes. He correctly characterizes as a defence mechanism the snobbery practiced by Allen, or an even more imperious figure, Harold Bloom, who famously declared King an “immensely inadequate writer” (in between essays championing Cormac McCarthy, who one could argue offers the literary equivalent of slaughtering a cow at the table for steak). Calling oneself a snob is no less transparent than self-identifying as a Big Mac, and in King’s case, the defender-of-letters posture is a way for higher-than brows to avoid wrestling with the aesthetics of genuinely popular literature. Or, even scarier, considering the proposition that the gap between themselves and the “nice good people” who form King’s voracious fan base might be narrower than they’d like to think.

Cowan makes the case that the intersection between sermonizing and scary stories is instructive in assessing the psychic life of a country.

It may be that performing an extended exegesis on a brand-name writer is an easy way to score a book deal, but it still requires more effort and insight than blanket dismissal.  Writing in a clean, accessible style that avoids academic jargon whenever possible, and without resorting to mocking scholarship outright (the let’s-all-scarf-this-Big-Mac school of pop culture writing), Cowan traces the vast but clearly defined boundaries of his argument. He is not making a case for King as a stylist, or a storyteller, or even a scare tactician, although his admiration for King’s prolific output and his imagination—his ability to conjure up endlessly different subspecies of monsters and wring variations on a theme—is evident. That is as it should be, because when King is engaged, he’s quite formidable: a doorstop-sized tome like It may be overwritten but the flabby packaging doesn’t negate the lean, terrifying concept at its centre: a macabre twist on the statesman’s rallying cry that there really is nothing more (or less) to fear than fear itself.

Cowan may be a fan, but the fannishness in his writing is ultimately not a liability, because admiration compels him to engage with the work in terms of specifics rather than generalities. This is all the more striking when compared with the view of the King refusenik: “The writing [in The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon] is at times so weak—so pat, so lazy—that I no longer imagined that King was attempting anything other than getting his story from Point A to Point B,” sneers Allen, citing no examples and employing the sort of junky cliché (“Point A to Point B”) that he accuses King of using regularly as a crutches. By contrast, Gordon climbs inside the stories and spelunks through their subtexts. “One problem with the reception of genre fiction,” Cowan notes, “is that novels such as…The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon can be read in a single evening…in the rush to find out what happens, we often miss what happens.” In other words, the ones rushing from Point A to Point B are generally aggrieved critics—and, to meet a cliché with a cliché, they’re missing the deep, dark Hawthornian forest for the trees.

For Cowan, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is not simply a “child-lost-in-the-wilderness story,” however skillfully King marshals those tropes to build suspense and tension around the question of whether poor, terrified Trisha—stranded in the forest with nothing but a wonky Walkman—will emerge unscathed. Rather, he frames King’s novel (which I believe is one of his very best) as a treatise on “sympathetic magic.” What he means is that the what in The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is the relationship between the seen and the unseen—the actual and the ephemeral. Within the magic-realist schema of a game she is listening to, in which the hated New York Yankees are playing the Boston Red Sox, closer Tom Gordon, Trisha’s favourite player (and pre-teen crush) must “save” the game for his team while also serving as the force that sustains his biggest fan through her ordeal. Trisha’s certainty grows that the outcome of the game will have a bearing on her own survival, but King never tips his hand as to whether this is so, and the book retains a tantalizing sliver of ambiguity; in this minute but bottomless space, its plain, declarative title becomes a metaphor for religious faith.

Cowan’s belief in King’s significance on the theological spectrum is similarly devout, even if he doesn’t see him as a religious writer per se. His view is at once subtler and more expansive, placing King in a larger historical and literary context that proposes genre fiction as a longstanding cover for philosophical and spiritual inquiry. His King is not a faith peddler or a big-tent evangelist but a chronicler of American experience whose stories are steeped in regional specificities. As such, his writing can’t help but reflect and refract the religious aspect of American life, which has roots as deep as the country itself and has only grown more gnarled (and Puritan) since his emergence in the mid 1970s, with a debut novel, Carrie, featuring a demented fundamentalist as its villain. Critics  have categorized 1978’s The Stand as King’s epic “Morning in America” satire—a pitched battle between good and evil played out against a Midwestern backdrop—but I’ve always thought that Greg Stillson, the demonic presidential candidate in The Dead Zone, was a Reagan manqué—until recent events have transformed him again into a sort of Trumpian forerunner.

Cowan acknowledges that The Stand is the King novel that has come in for the most theological scrutiny, but he spends relatively little time with it in his ecumenically curated selection of novels and short stories. He’s also not particularly interested in overtly religious characters like Carrie’s Mrs. White or the fear-mongering Bible thumpers who pop up in every fifth novel or so to serve as mouthpieces for apocalyptic rhetoric: King is hardly the only contemporary author to use churchgoers as stock bad guys. Instead, he argues that King’s work, rooted as it is in everyday experience disrupted by the fantastic or the uncanny, has an inherently religious texture, which is woven at different levels of thickness and complexity into almost all of his narratives, touching on our culture’s relationship to death, the uses of ritual in individual and community life, the existence of God, and theodicy—answering why an all-knowing, perfect God permits evil.

The common denominator between these topics is the same rich, suggestive dialectic Cowan observes in The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon: the relationship between the seen and the unseen, whether in the Lovecraftian pastiche of the short stories “Crouch End” and “N” or the modernized haunted house parable of The Shining, in which the line between subjective hallucination and legitimately paranormal activity becomes frighteningly blurred. Cowan returns frequently to the idea of “thin spots,” permeable areas of King’s story worlds where that which is being concealed or repressed threatens to break through, and overall, hidden meanings and messages—experienced simultaneously by King’s characters and the readers for whom they serve as surrogates—are a major through-line in his analysis.

There’s something nicely self-reflexive in Cowan’s excavation of buried subtexts in stories that are literally about what lies beneath: however coincidental these resonances, they seem to allegorize his own interpretive project and even lend it a bit of ballast. Which it needs, because while proving that Stephen King is a practicing metaphysician is one thing, clearly identifying what’s at stake in such a diagnosis is another. The assertion that King’s work is valuable because of its essential open-endedness—its agnostic quality—holds water insofar as mass-market fiction is typically predicated on narrative closure and also because the increasingly open-and-shut-nature of American Christianity carries its own set of dire consequences. Cowan makes the case (quoting King and others) that the intersection between sermonizing and scary stories is instructive in assessing the psychic life of a country or a culture, and that the content of genre fiction and horror movies offers a pretty good sense of the zeitgeist at any given moment.

This is true enough. But while Cowan is skilled at paraphrasing the variably cathartic and maddening epiphanies experienced by King’s characters, he never quite pushes beyond his basically truthful and provable thesis into a realm of true revelation. His unfailingly intelligent, yet essentially repetitive conclusions skirt the same line between consistency and redundancy that King dances around himself. Still, as a conversion tool for unbelievers—or snobs—America’s Dark Theologian should prove fairly righteous.

Adam Nayman is a film critic and author in Toronto. His work has been published in The Walrus, The Ringer, and Cinema Scope, and he has a book about the Coen brothers coming out this fall via Abrams.

Related Letters and Responses

Douglas E. Cowan Waterloo, Ontario

Adam Nayman Toronto, Ontario

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