As we approach All Hallow’s Eve, when the barrier between the land of the living and the realm of the dead thins to a porous shroud, it’s only natural that ghosts and goblins, demons and witches, vampires and werewolves should dominate our dreams. This holiday, above all others, allows our imaginations free reign, in an attempt to conquer our fear of the unknown. By constructing an elaborate world of the supernatural (or by simply describing it, if you prefer), we can manage that fear of the dark that has been with us since childhood.
The darkness that can be found within the human soul is much harder to banish with the use of scary costumes and fake blood. Master storyteller Stephen King has always understood this. It’s the human element that has elevated his work above the easily-dismissed label of “genre fiction” to art that speaks to the heart of his readers. His characters—from the tortured teenager in Carrie, the alternately struggling, guilt-ridden, alcoholic, or grieving writers in The Dark Half, The Tommyknockers, The Shining and Bag of Bones, and the obsessed fan in Misery, to the many kids on the cusp of adulthood (“The Body”, It) and small town sheriff heroes (too many titles to count)—are real people struggling with issues we can all understand.
In the Afterword to his latest bestseller, King says that he writes about “ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.” Yes, I suppose you could call the descent of a forcefield over your town “extraordinary circumstances” (Under The Dome). That King could use this premise as the basis of more than 1000 pages of riveting fiction about how people act under pressure is phenomenal. No monsters with weird, glowing eyes or fangs. Just the people with live with every day, seen at their worst—and best.
Of course, King has evolved over the years. There were more of those “real” monsters in the early days—It is an example—more of the clearly supernatural. Yet even then, the people in those stories stood out—the gang of misfit kids fighting that evil clown, the grieving father finally realizing sometimes it’s best if they don’t come back in Pet Sematary. Guilt. Redemption. Deep stuff for a mere “horror” writer.
In King’s latest bestseller, a collection of short stories entitled Full Dark, No Stars, there are no monsters except the ones we carry with us, hidden beneath the faces we show to our neighbors and friends. In each of the four stories, King shows us just how it should be done, taking a relatively simple premise and extending it to its logical conclusion. Without flinching. How greed destroys a man and two families in rural Nebraska in “1922”. How an unassuming writer of cozy mysteries finds her true self in her reaction to violation and near-murder in “Big Driver”. How envy leads a man to make the deal of a lifetime—and seemingly get away with it—in “Fair Extension”. How a woman comes to recognize the rotten foundation of her partnership in “A Good Marriage”.
Writing at short story length is a challenge for the best writer. You have to build the story quickly, scope out the characters in full in a few words, condense the three acts of the drama to a few short pages. But though he can be wordy at novel length, King shines in a brief character sketch, whether in a novel or a short story. In two paragraphs, he can make you see, hear, smell and know that character intimately. And he is a master of the other elements of the writer’s art at this length. It’s no wonder that short stories like “The Body” (which became STAND BY ME) and “Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption” were so successfully adapted to the big screen.
The world’s greatest “horror” writer has a lot to teach those of us struggling to make a name for ourselves in the rocky territory of “genre fiction”, whether we target the romance audience, the science fiction audience or both. King quite obviously writes character-driven fiction, though his characters most often find themselves in horrific situations. His audience has found him, and it’s much broader than the "slasher" fans who read hardcore horror fiction.
Yes, Stephen King is a phenomenon not likely to be repeated. (Would that I had just one drop of that juice!) But just as he has not allowed himself to be pigeon-holed, neither should we force ourselves into categories that don’t fit us in a false hope of acceptance.
Happy Halloween! Donna