Issues of faith matter a lot to me and I’m always fascinated by how they are explored in fiction. It’s something that’s been a theme in some of my writing, but when I was starting out, it was something I shied away from. It took Stephen King’s Desperation to show me the light.
These days, I consider myself a skeptical Christian, which sounds contradictory but it’s the best way for me to describe how I leave room to doubt and question in my faith. I was raised in a conservative, fundamentalist church which had a contentious relationship with art/pop culture. So coming up in the horror circles, my work was seen as “of the devil” and “glorifying evil.” Their take home message was that the only redemptive art was a kind of proselytizing art. This created a tension between my faith and my art because “Christian fiction” was something I had no interest in writing. I still wanted to explore faith as a theme in some of my stories, but I had no framework of how to explore issues of faith that weren’t reduced to essentially Christian propaganda.
Then I read Desperation.
King often wrestles with God and religious themes in a lot of his work, but here things crystallize. The story is fairly straightforward: Desperation, Nevada is a small, rural town run by an insane sheriff, Collie Etragian. The sheriff lures in and traps passing tourists, terrorizing them as part of his homicidal spree. Ordinarily, this would be the standard “escape from the madman” thrill ride; however, King decided to do a deliberate meditation on the idea of spirituality as a means to defeat evil.
One of the captured tourists, a young boy named David “Davey” Carver, had recently come into a special relationship with God. His friend was dying, Davey prayed—“Heal my friend and I’ll do your will”—and a miracle happened and his friend was healed. However, the main theme becomes how that faith is tested and sustained, with the central idea being that people either live in a state of faith or a state of desperation.
There are no simple answers the idea of prayer as a “weapon” is questioned and explored. David has to wrestle with the question of how a “good” God could allow such evil to run rampant. He has to trust that God has an ultimate plan. He has to confront and respond to evil. David is a character with a fully developed worldview. It is the lens through which he interprets the world and sets the framework for how the world treats and responds to him. He is aware of what he believes and why. His worldview is respected, and treated respectfully, with a sense of depth and meaning which services the story both in theme and plot.
Everyone believes in something. We all possess a worldview which helps us navigate life, even if it looks a lot like stumbling around trying to find meaning in a seemingly meaningless existence. All developing worldviews, what we choose to put our belief in, as we interpret the universe around us, begin with a leap of faith. Religious faith is a real part of many people’s lives. Despite what some people may say or believe, religious people aren’t stupid nor does, pursuit of a spiritual faith imply ignorance. Part of what makes us human is our self-awareness and that same higher consciousness not only causes us to ask questions about our life and who we are, but forces us to deal with the concept of our eventual death.
As people grapple to relate to the universe and their place in it—how we were created and why we are here—we spin causal narratives for natural events. There are questions without answers that are still worth asking and exploring as people seek to order their lives with meaning. Religion is a story or a collection of stories people believe in and are shaped by. Religion infiltrates all corners of people’s lives and culture, influencing everything from dress to language to art to thought to social mores. From Parable of the Sower (Octavia E. Butler), The Sparrow (Mary Doria Russell) to Too Like the Lightning (Ada Palmer); from C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, faith and religion bear examination. But Stephen King’s Desperation was my first time seeing it done.
Desperation drove home the fact that writers have to service the story first, not the message. Create well-rounded characters and a world for them to explore that challenges their worldview. Ask difficult questions, allow the reader to wrestle with them. In other words, do your job as a writer and trust the power of story.
Top image: UK edition of Desperation (Hodder & Stoughton)
Maurice Broaddus is the author of the urban fantasy trilogy The Knights of Breton Court. Some of his stories have been collected in The Voices of Martyrs, out now from Rosarium Publishing, and he has a novella, Buffalo Soldier, coming from Tor.com Publishing in April. Learn more about him at MauriceBroaddus.com.