As I've been reading Stephen King over these past few months, I've come to a realization about him. It's one that I think has occurred to a number of other Constant Readers over the years.
Stephen King, the man often referred to as "the Master of Horror"...isn't a horror writer. Or at least, he isn't exclusively.
I don't think this is something that can be argued, as much of King's literature that has become popular out in the general public can't be called horror by any stretch; movies like Stand By Me, The Shawshank Redemption, Dolores Claiborne and The Green Mile as prime examples. But then, it's kinda funny how these are among his most beloved film adaptations and yet there are still people who have no idea that they're based on his works, and in many cases won't believe you if you tell them. After all, Stephen King writes horror, and these aren't horror.
But does he? To answer this, we have to first define what "horror" is, in reference to it as a literary genre. This is hard, because the word can be pretty subjective. What might be a horror to you might mean nothing to me, and vice versa, not to mention how often the word is misapplied.
"Did you see how the Red Sox were playing last night? That was horrific."
But, if we're to define the term, shouldn't we start with the dictionary? Webster defines horror three ways:
- painful and intense fear, dread, or dismay
- intense aversion or repugnance
- a state of extreme depression or apprehension
Now, most literary genres are pretty easy to define. Crime fiction is about, well, crime, mystery is about mystery, romance is about love, science fiction is about real science used or applied in fictional ways, fantasy is about the fantastical or mythical, historical fiction tells a fictional story in a real historical setting, etc.
So what about horror? What, as a genre, is it about? Certainly it's not just about ghosts, vampires and other things that go bump in the night, as much of what is labeled "horror" doesn't feature anything remotely supernatural. And much of what does really shouldn't be thought of as horror.
Let's pose a question. What genre does the movie The Sixth Sense fall into? Horror, right? I mean, of course it does. It's about ghosts!
Okay, so I suppose Shakespeare's Hamlet and Macbeth are horror as well, right? Now you're scratching your head, because you likely studied one or the other of those, or both, in school, and surely school wouldn't be teaching horror as part of its curriculum.
But Hamlet features a ghost come back to convince his son to murder his uncle, there's a good deal of suspense, violence and darkness, and it ends with all the main characters dead. Macbeth features not just ghosts, but witches, and it features a once noble character going mad with the idea of gaining more power, murdering people he once called friends and allies, being visited by their ghosts, and it ends with his head on a spike.
Sounds pretty horrific, right?
Of course, neither play is thought of as horror, because ultimately, both offer much for the viewer or reader to think about, reflect on, etc., and while both may come to sad endings (they are tragedies, remember), neither one inspires feelings of painful and intense fear, dread or dismay, intense aversion or repugnance, nor do I think, as sad as these stories are, that anyone has finished them and felt extreme apprehension or depression.
So, if they're not horror, despite featuring ghosts and witches, why is The Sixth Sense considered so? After all, while the main plot does concern a child who can see ghosts, and there are a few creepy scenes, did you walk out of the theater feeling painful and intense fear, aversion, repugnance, apprehension or depression? Not only do I strongly doubt that you did, I also do not feel that the movie intended you to feel any of that. When people bring it up today, no one talks about how scared they were by it. Mostly they mention one of two things; the tour-de-force performance of 11-year-old Haley Joel Osment, or, say it with me, the twist ending.
It was labeled horror due almost strictly to marketing.
Let's compare it to another movie that was released the same year. The Blair Witch Project was, at the time, a relatively inventive movie that told the story of three young film school students trying to film a documentary about a local legend in a small town. The three students disappear, but now their footage has been found.
That's the setup, anyway, and the movie does all it can to be as authentic as possible. The actors' names are the same as the characters. The cast really did spend days in the wilderness, camping and making their own food, wearing the same clothes day in and day out, and filming themselves with two hand-held cameras. They were not given a script, and the only direction they received was notes they found each morning upon waking up as to where they were supposed to go and what they were supposed to do. One of them going missing, the flight through the woods in the dark, the creepy sounds around their camp at night, none of the actors were told about this.
The result is a palpable feeling of dread that you feel because it's so obvious the characters feel it. Heck, the marketing campaign didn't even make it clear that this was fictional; some thought it really was recovered footage (this was before the "found footage film" became its own genre). The whole point was to make you, the viewer, terrified. To inspire in you painful and intense feelings of fear, aversion, etc., etc.
My point is this; while it's possible to be made afraid by stories that are not horror, I don't think we can or should label something as "horror" unless there is a clear attempt to make you feel that painful and intense fear, dread, apprehension, etc. In short, to be horror, it has to want to scare you. And I don't mean make you afraid for the characters.
I hear this all the time: "That book scared me so much. I was sure (character) was going to die!" But let's be honest; that kind of thing doesn't scare you. There's no painful, intense fear that lasts once you've closed the book. You were afraid for the character, not for yourself. That kind of story plays up suspense and character empathy, but not true fear. Your spine stopped tingling when the book was over. Once you put down to do other things throughout your day, the feeling of fear did not follow you. You wanted to get back to it to find out if the character lives to the end, but you didn't spend the day worrying about yourself and wondering if you're going to meet the same fate the character. You aren't afraid the the villain is going to come for you.
And that's what I mean by horror. An author isn't writing horror if they're not playing with your own personal feelings of dread, fear, revulsion, apprehension and depression. Maybe they're not very good at it, or the methods they use, which might work on some, don't work on you. But all the same, you can probably still sense the attempt to play on those feelings; to make you scared, and keep you scared once the book is closed.
I'll use an example from the book I'm reading right now. The last time I read Pet Sematary, I felt many things, including overwhelming depression (and now, re-reading it, I'm starting to feel it even before getting to the depressing parts) and a creeping fear about whatever was going on in that burying ground. I remember reading one scene, near the end, late at night when my house was quiet, then putting the book down to go to bed. Almost as soon as I turned the light off I wanted to turn it back on, and every little noise made my eyes pop back open. I even imagined I heard a child's laughter in the hallway outside my door.
Pet Sematary is horror. It's one of the few straight examples of horror that King has ever written.
See, nine times out of ten, I don't think King is trying to stir up those feelings of painful and intense fear, dread, apprehension, etc. Even when he introduces the monsters and creeps, it seems like he's more focused on the characters, making their struggles real to you, making you care about them, which often has the side-effect of making their fates all that much more affecting. While one could suggest that's a horrific thing to have to feel, again, I can't define fear or sadness for the characters as the same sort of emotion as fear and sadness for yourself.
How many of the novels and short stories that I've read so far truly were meant to inspire fear in the reader? Honestly, not as many as you'd think. Probably less than half.
Of King's novels thus far, I would only use the term "horror" to describe 'Salem's Lot, The Shining, Christine and Pet Sematary. Oddly enough, I might also include Apt Pupil from Different Seasons, despite the entire point of that collection being that King can write more than horror. It doesn't quite fit, but I can tell you that the depression it inspired was absolutely still felt after the story was over.
Several of the short stories King wrote can be considered horror, no question, but each collection so far has included a healthy mix of genres.
But let's look at the others. Carrie might have been marketed as horror, but why? Carrie herself was a very sympathetic character, and even when she snaps and starts murdering people with her powers, we still are more or less on her side. Margaret White can be considered a scary person, but again, only due to the threat she poses to Carrie's physical and mental well-being. I strongly doubt anyone reading Carrie became afraid that Margaret would come for them.
The Stand is pure post-apocalyptic fantasy, and while it's an amazing book, one that I literally cannot praise enough, the enjoyment I derived from it came from the characters and their situations. I enjoyed the main plot on the same level that I enjoyed the plot of, say, The Lord of the Rings or a number of other fantasies.
The Dead Zone was a deeply emotional, and strangely political yet apolitical, thriller. Not one iota of horror to this one, and I don't think anyone would argue with me. Some might argue The Stand or Carrie, but I have yet to come across anyone who considers this a horror story.
Firestarter; another thriller. There's a bit of science fiction involved, but mostly it's about a man and his daughter fleeing from a government organization.
Cujo certainly had its intense moments, and the movie scared plenty of people, but the novel mainly made me afraid for the characters, Cujo included.
The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger is fantasy from the word go.
I've already talked about how Different Seasons was supposed to prove Stephen King didn't just write horror, but the funny thing is how little horror he'd actually written thus far.
None of Richard Bachman's initial novels are horror. Dark, yes, but nothing close to horror. I shouldn't count those, however, as people still didn't know Bachman was King.
I haven't ready everything past this point, but I've read a lot, and read about the stuff I haven't read. About half of it could be called horror. The other half is a mix of almost everything.
In fact, I wonder how often King really set out to write something that would scare his readers. Even his overt horror novels focus more on character development and interaction than scares. That doesn't mean the scares aren't there, though, nor does it mean their impact is blunted. If anything, the fact that the characters become so real to us just hones the edge of the fear. But can you really suggest that King's main goal, ever, is to scare us? He's always got a bigger story to tell, and the scares just come naturally as part of the story, when they come at all.
Of all the horror writers out there, Stephen King seems to remain the ur-example, the go-to name when people try to think of horror story tellers. Even Lovecraft is a distant second these days. He's one of the more venerable names on the market; one of the only names that nearly everyone knows. Think of other authors who've managed that. How many of them were considered horror writers? Don't talk to me about Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley; its their big works people remember. Mostly, neither one wrote horror.
Here's where a King critic might resort to an argument I've heard countless times; that he's a flash in the pan. Fleetingly popular, and will be forgotten in ten years time. The problem is, people have been saying that about him since the mid 70's. If it was gonna happen, wouldn't it have happened by now? And then there's the argument that he's lost whatever he once had and isn't even trying anymore. I somehow doubt that most of those who think so have even read much King to begin with. Some of my favorite King novels came in the late 90's, early 00's. If I can believe reviews, both from professional and non-professional sources, he's produced some great stuff in the last decade as well.
This is because King isn't a horror writer. Oh, yes, much of what he writes has elements of horror. Some of it is overtly horror. Much of it isn't. All of it is so much more. He doesn't write to scare. He writes human stories that speak to all of us, that we relate to on some level or another.
He's one of the great American authors. It's almost a shame that history will likely remember him as "that great master of horror." He's that great master of the written word.