Sometimes, Horror is the Only Fiction That Understands You

“I don’t trust people who look back on high school with fondness; too many of them were part of the overclass, those who were taunters instead of tauntees. […] They are also the ones most likely to suggest that books such as Carrie and The Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace be removed from libraries. I submit to you that these people have less interest in reducing the atmosphere of violence in schools than they may have in forgetting how badly some people—they themselves, in some cases—may have behaved while there.”

Stephen King, Vermont Library Conference’s Annual Meeting, 1999

Stephen King has a long and twisty relationship with censorship and book banning. During the 1990s, four of his books turned up on the ALA list of most banned books: Cujo at #49, Carrie at #81, The Dead Zone at #82, and Christine at #95. In 1992, a middle school in Florida pulled The Dead Zone and The Tommyknockers from their library’s shelves, prompting King to write a response in The Bangor Daily News.

King begins by speaking directly to the kids, telling them not to bother fighting, but instead to go to the local library and read the banned book.

“Read it carefully and discover what it is your elders don’t want you to know. In many cases you’ll finish the banned book in question wondering what all the fuss was about. In others, however, you will find vital information about the human condition. It doesn’t hurt to remember that John Steinbeck, J.D. Salinger, and even Mark Twain have been banned in this country’s public schools over the last 20 years.”

Only after he has that out of the way does he turn to the parents and educators of the town, saying that “controversy and surprise—sometimes even shock—are often the whetstone on which young minds are sharpened.” And while he adds that some books (he mentions Fanny Hill and American Psycho specifically) shouldn’t be included in school libraries, he ends on a great rallying cry: “As a nation, we’ve been through too many fights to preserve our rights of free thought to let them go just because some prude with a highlighter doesn’t approve of them.”

In 1999, about a month after the Columbine shooting, King gave the Keynote Address for the Vermont Library Conference’s Annual Meeting, and publicly wrestled with his identification with Harris and Klebold. He talks about the anger and desperation of the teenage underclass, and he talks about his own time in high school:

“I sympathize with the losers of the world and to some degree understand the blind hormonal rage and ratlike panic which sets in as one senses the corridor of choice growing ever narrower, until violence seems like the only possible response to the pain.”

By the end of the speech, though, he’s talking about his decision to censor himself. There had already been three school shootings that strongly resembled the events in Stephen King’s early novel Rage, which was published under his pseudonym, Richard Bachman. After the fourth troubled boy turned his anger on his classmates, King asked his publishers to pull the book from publication in future editions. He said that while he didn’t want to draw a direct connection between the book and the shooter’s motives, “…the point is that I don’t want to be a part of it. Once I knew what had happened, I pulled the ejection-seat lever on that particular piece of work. I withdrew Rage, and I did it with relief rather than regret.” But he never suggests that he shouldn’t have written Rage.

He instead stops mocking “prudes with highlighters” and begins to point out that we all need to deal with a culture that glorifies violence and allows easy access to guns, rather than continually blaming video games, movies, books, online culture, etc. for each new national tragedy. He focuses on what he thinks is the largest underlying factor—the way that poverty and class affect the American psyche.

Stephen King, perhaps better than many people writing today, understands poverty (the physical kind and the intellectual kind) and he realizes that it is the bedrock of much of the violence in society. A large part of his talk in 1999 is about the anger and desperation of the teenage underclass, and he talks about his own time in high school in extremely negative terms:

“My stories of adolescent violence were all drawn, in some degree, from my own memories of high school. That particular truth, as I recalled it when writing as an adult, was unpleasant enough. I remember high school as a time of misery and resentment.”

While he was still in high school he took on a job at the local mill in order to save money for college. His mother was determined to send him off to school, but not just because she wanted him to get a solid education—poor boys who didn’t have college classes to attend were getting sent over to an as-yet-undeclared war in Vietnam. So during his last year of high school, he was attending classes until about 2:00 in the afternoon, heading out for an eight-hour shift at the mill, and then heading back to school at 7:00 am after a few hours sleep. He worked at the University library while getting a teaching degree, but when he graduated there were no teaching jobs to be found. He and his wife Tabitha lived in a series of trailers, writing while their kids were asleep and they weren’t too exhausted to think. Tabitha worked the counter at Dunkin Donuts; Stephen found a job at an industrial laundry that only paid a little more than the mill had. And from the sound of it, the work was even worse:

“The greater part of what I loaded and pulled were motel sheets from Maine’s coastal towns and table linens from Maine’s coastal restaurants. The table linen was desperately nasty. When tourists go out to dinner in Maine, they usually want clams and lobster. Mostly lobster. By the time the table cloths upon which these delicacies had been served reached me, they stank to high heaven and were often boiling with maggots. The maggots would try to crawl up your arms as you loaded the washers; it was as if the little fuckers knew you were planning to cook them. I thought I’d get used to them in time but I never did.”

Even after he found teaching work, he didn’t make enough to get by. Tabitha had to stay at the donut shop, and they were still living the hand-to-mouth kind of existence that destroys creativity: a kid’s ear infection means the car doesn’t get repaired that month. Repairing the car the next month means the electric bill gets paid late, or not at all. You can’t live in Maine with children and not have heat, so the heating oil bill has to get paid, no matter what else happens. But then one of the kids breaks an arm. Then what? Rinse. Repeat.

It wasn’t until the sale of Carrie catapulted him into the upper middle class that they were able to stop worrying, but King’s focus remained on that struggle, and has continued to play out in his writing. He does write about doctors and lawyers occasionally, but far more of his memorable characters—good and evil alike—are nurses, struggling writers, electricians, poor moms, kids who don’t have enough money to fit in at school. There are also many small stories of thwarted artists, or writers whose dreams of literary high-mindedness are subsumed in the need to write pulp to pay the bills. While many of King’s books work as explorations of addiction, or as exorcisms of the worst fears of parenthood, they also very often serve as class critiques. I think that this is a key factor in why he’s censored, and also why his work is so important to younger people. Even though he doesn’t really spring to mind as a YA author, he is widely read by middle and high school students, and in between all the zombie cats and killer clowns and broken-foot-removals, he’s honest about class, about power, about violence, and about how all of these things intersect. He understands real poverty, and the desperation and anger it can breed, which allows him to empathize with violent kids in a way that I think most people shudder away from.

It was this honesty that I responded to when I read him as a kid. I have talked on this site about Ray Bradbury being the best writing teacher you could ever have. I stand by that statement. But for me, personally, it’s King who taught me how to write. (I guess whether that’s a good thing or not depends on what you think of my writing…) And it was King who got me through middle school, even before I discovered Heathers and Johnny the Homicidal Maniac and all the other things that gave me a way to channel my anger away from my own body.

Most specifically, it was It.

In middle school my best friend was crazy. I don’t mean funny-crazy, like, we had such wild times, I mean that she had actual mental illnesses—several of them—layered over what I choose to believe was her real personality, like a cronut. Occasionally the real personality would come out for multiple days, or even weeks, and we could have fun together like other friends; other times she would lash out with threats and paranoid accusations, or try to hurt herself, or try to hurt me. She wasn’t officially diagnosed (bipolar, OCD, schizoaffective) for another year, so at this point everyone tried to shrug off her mood swings as teenage hormones—it was easier for everyone, especially her desperately poor mother, to believe that her pain was just a phase she’d grow out of. Actual mental illnesses meant therapy and medication and terrifying hospitals—and there was simply no money to pay for any of that.

Our families lived at either end of a trashy beach neighborhood in Central Florida, back when those existed, before that area was nothing but multi-million dollar condos in various pastel shades. My family was in the front half of a duplex, renting out the back half to try to make the mortgage payments so we’d own the whole building eventually. There was a crack house one block over. The rental units next door had a constant turnover of addicts, working single moms, and middle-aged men with anger management issues. My friend was in a concrete house with few windows, and that type of grainy industrial fabric designed to give rugburns. Her stepfather’s metal shop was upstairs.

There was not much entertainment for two pre-driver’s-license kids, so my friend and I would either walk around aimlessly all night (in that part of Florida it only drops below 90 degrees after 11:00 o’clock) or we’d sit on the phone in our respective houses, hiding from the heat, and she’d tell me about Stephen King books. I mean this quite literally: she’d start at the beginning, tell me the entire plot, read me some dialogue, the whole thing. Sometimes we’d spend a whole afternoon that way and when we met up after dark, she’d still be talking about the book. She loved King, she read all of his interviews, and her mother always obliged her obsession by buying her paperbacks of his books when she could, and when she couldn’t, we’d walk to the library and check who was at the desk. If the friendly younger lady was there, we could pick his stuff up with no hassle. If it was one the two seething older women (the two who kept re-shelving the sex-ed books to try to keep the kids away from them) we’d be lucky to escape with Dean Koontz.

I remember the exact moment I personally fell for Stephen King. He was being interviewed about Carrie, and he mentioned the two high school girls he’d used as the basis for Carrie White. They were both sad, unpopular girls—one the daughter of a religious fanatic, the other simply a poor, friendless girl in castoff clothing that didn’t fit her. The second girl managed to get a makeover one holiday, and came back to school with a new outfit and a perm, obviously expecting to be praised. Instead the girls piled on her worse than ever, mocking her mercilessly until any newfound confidence was gone. She wore the same outfit every day until it was destroyed; she let the perm grow out, and she never did make friends. King took these two girls and combined them into the terribly sad character of Carrie, just as, a few years earlier, he had channeled his own adolescent anger into Charlie in Rage. I still remember sitting on my living room floor, and the crazy shock that went through my spine as I realized he was telling the truth. I had been raised on the usual slumber-party-movie-manna of the makeover: Grease, Dirty Dancing, The Breakfast Club, She’s All That, all of them telling me that with the right hair and some peach lip gloss I would be welcomed into my true home at the cool-kids-table. But here was King, a grown man, saying the thing that I had always secretly known: it wouldn’t work. None of that surface stuff would change how people really felt about you. A new outfit or haircut or piercing would never make you a new person, so you’d better accept yourself.

Shortly after this, my friend loaned me her copy of It. I started it on Friday on the bus on the way into school, with my legs pulled up in front of me, pushing my knees into the seatback in from of me, my knees popping out of my awful denim skirt and providing the perfect stand for the book. I managed to read a little bit during math class, and some more during lunch, before I was finally able to focus. When I say I did nothing but read that weekend, I’m not kidding—I finished the book at about 3:00 am on Sunday morning, having stayed up until dawn on Friday and Saturday. That was 7th grade. My friend and I spent the next month muttering “we all float down here” at every opportunity, and I felt like I finally understood her fascination.

It was King who taught me about the adult world, and taught me what my enemies looked like. More specifically, it was It that taught me about the banality of evil before I’d ever heard that phrase, and it was the villains of It who helped me make sense of the adult world in away I hadn’t before. Not Pennywise—he was too obvious. The real enemies in the book were Bill Denbrough’s hateful parents, the kids who picked on Ben for being fat, Stan for being Jewish, and Mike for being black. The evil was Bev’s abusive father and the poverty that forced her mother to stay with him, and later, her husband Tom and his cycle of beatings and make-up sex and promises of change that trapped her back in the same terrified life she thought she’d escaped. The enemy was the poverty that kept all of them in Derry, and the way the adults turned a blind eye to the town’s cycle of murders even when their children needed to be protected.

Looking at the story now, I can’t help but see it as a giant parable of King’s own class-jump—the kids from the Losers Club all run from their fear, poverty, abuse, etc, and completely forget their childhoods, Derry, and even It itself, once they reach adulthood. King goes out of his way to highlight the kids’ success—Ben owns a Cadillac convertible, Bill is married to a gorgeous Hollywood actress, Eddie and Bev both own their own businesses, Richie’s house overlooks the Pacific—and when he bumps into a chair, King makes sure to tell us it’s an Eames. Stan’s chapter is the most obvious: his wife literally chants an itemized list of their status symbols, including cars, country club membership, and even salaries. When Mike calls them all home, they each realize with the same horrified shock that their material success won’t save them from facing their pasts. Mike, meanwhile, who stayed behind and stayed poor, is shown as an aged, threadbare man, beaten down from his years in Derry. For each former Loser, going home means facing their pasts, facing their poverty and their abuse, as well as It, but almost all of them do it, and the journey home allows them to move on with their lives.

The reasons my friend and I clung to King’s work is easy to see in retrospect—first, he allowed us to externalize some of the fear as she lost control of her mind. As her grip on reality deteriorated, and she started having real hallucinations, it helped both of us to use his language, his gross-out humor, his colorful expletives, because it made her illness a thing apart, separate from her. A thing we could fight. The second reason should be obvious: she was poor, really poor, and I was not-quite-middle-class. King gave us mirrors—losers, nerds, crazy girls who refused the makeover—and told us we’d make it.

Our friendship lasted eleven years. Over that time we faced real horror—not because we sought it out, or because we were morbid—because my friend was sick, and no one was able to help her. People said then, and probably still would, that King’s work was a bad influence on us, but I know that without the books giving us a vocabulary for what was happening to us, we would have been lost. We might have found other teachers, sure, but would that have been as honest as King? Would they have shown us the world as it is, so that we could go out and navigate it? We were in an impossible situation, and King’s fiction gave us both a language for our fear when we needed it most.

This article was originally published in September 2013 as part of a celebration of Banned Books Week.

Leah Schnelbach extends her sincerest thanks to Stephen King, and encourages everyone to read as many banned books as they can get their hands on. You can follow her sporadic Twitter musings here.

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