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  • Writer's pictureRebecca Frost

Surviving Stephen King

One of the biggest difficulties in studying Stephen King is the vast array of material available. He has written more than 60 books and over 200 short stories. Even selecting a single title comes with complications, since so many of his works are interconnected. Attempting to answer a single question across all of King’s works—for example, how can his characters increase their chances of survival?—is therefore difficult.

For my book Surviving Stephen King: Reactions to the Supernatural in Works by the Master of Horror, I narrowed my focus (albeit only slightly) by choosing the King narratives in which everyday, “normal” people find themselves confronted with a supernatural foe. This discounted, for example, the Dark Tower books because Roland Deschain is of Gilead, not of Earth, and Cujo, since the threat there is a very realistic rabid dog. Once narrowed, I began examining three aspects of the remaining narratives: how the main characters sought to define the threat; how they ended up confronting the threat; and whether they succeeded in their task.

Explanation and Confrontation

Defining the threat often, but not always, happens with the help of a library or librarian. In some cases, such as Christine, the characters forgo this step because they believe that they are dealing with something entirely unique. Since Christine is the only car that has ever done this, the main characters can find information from others who have interacted with Christine before, but there will be no record of others like her. When other characters look in books and cast their nets wide, the information they uncover is generally new, and frequently outside of their own experience or even their own background. It is not unusual for King’s characters to, at this point, seek help or reassurance in cultural appropriation or, if they are not themselves religious, in the trappings of Catholicism.

Cultural appropriation and Christianity can also be found in characters’ attempts to confront and defeat—or at least displace—the supernatural threat. Here there seems to be more danger in grasping at Christianity as an unbeliever than in appropriating rituals from marginalized cultures. There are, however, two other options for dealing with the supernatural that have nothing to do with beliefs, be they innate or adopted: at times King’s characters try to simply destroy the physical embodiment of the threat, as when the characters do their best to smash Christine into nothing but scrap metal; and other characters find themselves giving in and adapting to live alongside the threat.

Here we come to the final question: what, exactly, do we mean by “success”? Permanently killing the threat seems to be a clear victory, but what about the books in which the supernatural creature is merely expelled from the town? The main characters may have protected their friends and loved ones, but they have done nothing but cause the threat to fixate on other people. King has even shown that threats may only seem to be neutralized within the course of a book, only to resurface in another novel or short story published later. The question of whether the heroes of ‘Salem’s Lot succeed in ridding their town of vampires is answered in the short story “One For the Road” with a resounding “No,” although the novel itself leaves the ending open for interpretation.

With such a large array of stories, however, no single approach is ever universally successful or universally unsuccessful. Within King, Christianity is usually a recipe for making the situation worse, but not always. Destroying the physical embodiment of the threat can work, but that exact same threat might arise again later in the novel’s epilogue. Surviving Stephen King looks at these various approaches, comparing them across King’s works to ask how well, in each case, the main characters seem to succeed.

Stolen Stories, Borrowed Solutions

It is one of King’s most interesting books from this standpoint because the main characters, collectively called the Losers, use one method to determine what, exactly, their supernatural foe might be, and another completely to confront It. In 1958, the city of Derry, Maine, is undergoing one of its unusually violent cycles during which children seem to mysteriously disappear. Despite the city’s curfew and the talks many parents give their children, nothing seems to prevent the mysterious It from taking Its sacrifices. Only the Losers, eleven years old at the time, recognize the connections between not only these murders, but the cycles that have come in the past.

In order to make a plan for confronting the supernatural threat, King’s characters must first define what, exactly, that threat is. The hope is that a definition—say, vampire—would lead to a list of weaknesses: garlic, wild roses, crucifixes, and wooden stakes. These sorts of explanations also lead to connections, since they prove that the threat is not singular. If there is a myth surrounding it, then other people have encountered it at other times, making the main characters simply another link in the chain. While King’s main characters might be isolated from other members of their communities, they are not completely alone in history.

One of the Losers, like many of King’s characters, goes to the library for help and a book fairly jumps into his hands, as though he were meant to find it. Ben reads Ghosts of the Great Plains and then tells the others about a “Smoke-Hole Ceremony” during which unspecified “Indians” sought guidance in times of uncertainty. The Losers—five white boys, one Black boy, and one white girl—decide to adopt the ceremony for themselves and immediately set about it.

Even though none of the Losers have a connection to any Indigenous peoples, and although they live in Maine and nowhere near the Great Plains, the ceremony itself seems to work as two of the Losers are granted a vision. The witness It arriving on Earth in prehistoric times and conclude that their enemy is, in fact, an alien. The Losers seem to think that the ceremony has therefore worked, forgetting what Ben had told them: that the ceremony was supposed to provide answers and a direction on where to go and what to do. Instead of answers, the Losers seem to have more questions: can something like this even be killed?

Their chosen means of fighting It follows a very similar path. Another Loser tells the group of a library book he read, this time relating the “Ritual of Chüd,” which is meant to be enacted by a “Himalayan holy-man.” Even though this book has offered other explanations and other solutions, the Ritual of Chüd becomes the Losers’ focus. Rather than following it strictly, as they did with the Smoke-Hole Ceremony, it seems that they focus largely on the name and not on the process.

While the Smoke-Hole Ceremony only happens once in the book, the Ritual of Chüd takes place during both confrontations with It, in 1958 when the Losers are children and in 1985 when they are grownups. Clearly the first Ritual was not a success since they had to return to Derry to confront It yet again. At least this second time one of them has had past experience with their version of the Ritual, and therefore has personal knowledge on his side, rather than simply grasping at strange and mystical directions from a book.

This second confrontation ends with one of the Losers squashing Its beating heart between his palms, presumably killing It. However, King being King, this might not be the final say in the matter, even though the novel ends on a positive note. Twenty-six later, when characters in another novel return to Derry, they come across the unsettling declaration that It still lives.

The Key to Success

Unfortunately for the Losers, who fight not only for their own lives but for the lives of all of Derry’s children, there is no one easy path to survival, and success, in a Stephen King novel. Although books and teachings from various cultures and elders might be readily available to the main characters, they are not always the right solution.

Even when King informs his characters—and his readers—of the best chance for survival, it is not easy to follow. He includes the message in It and even in the title of another of his novels: “be true, be brave, stand.” It is not reaching for library books, religions, or rituals outside of their personal experience that will give King’s characters the best chance of survival and success, but reaching deep into themselves and finding the truth within.

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