It’s been nearly 40 years since Stephen King unleashed “Carrie” – a lonely, bullied teen who discovers her terrifying telekinetic powers – and her long shadow still lingers over popular culture.
For King, who up to then supplemented the family income with a strong of short fiction, the novel launched a career including novels, story collections, film and television adaptations, essays and recently, even collaboration on a musical.
King recently spoke in a conference call ahead of a Dec. 7 appearance at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell’s Tsongas Center about the engine that drives much of his most famous work – fear – and how frightening characters or events in fiction can provide a counter to real-life terrors that may seem beyond control.
“I think people have a hunger for things that are scary, and for the fantastic that is sort of wedded to everyday life and every day things,” King said.
“When you see something like what’s going on in Gaza and Israel now, that’s a fear of some kind of escalation of things getting out of control, and that is kind of a persuasive thing,” King said. “It’s like a whole-body fever – it’s just a feeling you can’t do anything about, and you are sort of a helpless spectator to that, and the same thing is true in books and movies that are scary.”
He added, “You can control it, and if you get really scared, you can leave the movie theater or close the book, right? The only thing you can do with a real-life situation, like what’s going on in the Middle East, is turn off the TV – which is akin to an ostrich burying its hand in the sand – not quite the same thing, somehow.”
King said the recent elections proved a rich, if somewhat dismaying, territory to explore.
With a chuckle, King said, “For somebody like me, who has dealt with suspense and fear and paranoia for my whole career, to watch a thing like the political campaign that just took place and see how people play on people’s fears, it’s a little bit depressing, in a way – to see people saying, not, ‘You should vote for me, because I’ll do this, this and this and make it better,’ but, ‘You should vote against the other guy because he’s going to do these terrible things’ – that sort of installation of fear.”
Of genre and gender
If King has been able to tell the experience of everyman in his work, some observers have found much to criticize in his portrayal of female characters and the landscape of horror and suspense in general.
“I was raised in a house full of women and I had the chance to observe them firsthand. They were pretty active, energetic and forceful people,” King said. “I tried my best to create the most active and assertive women character that I possibly could.”
He said, “I read a book at a formative age – 16 or 17 – a book of criticism of American fiction, by [Leslie A. Fiedler,] who is sort of a wild man – he wrote this book called, “Love And Death in The American Novel.”
In Fiedler’s critique, King said, “Most male American novelists had created women that were flat characters – basically, not every interesting,” either passive servants or intent on destroying or men in their lives.
King points to “Carrie” – along with other works, such as the 1995 novel “Rose Madder,” in which the protagonist struggles to escape an abusive marriage.
“The one that I like best is ‘Lisey’s Story,’” said King, about his 2006 in which a women lives in the shadow of her husband, a writer – and one of many of King’s stories in which the lives of writers feature.
Beyond that, King said, “All I can say is, I’m just a man, so I’m doing the best that I can.”
Speaking of horror – King says, “First of all, I don’t call myself a horror writer, I don’t do that -- as long as the checks don’t bounce, and my family eats.”
Whatever he or others want to call his work, he says, “The [horror] genre has always been looked upon as something that appeals to low tastes, and that’s true in a lot of cases – it does appeal to low tastes, including my own.”
But a story that speaks to the horrific, mysterious or just plain creepy can still tell a society something valuable about itself – although King said, it sometimes takes the passing of time for a work to grow in appreciation.
“Some time goes by and then people say, ‘Now, wait a minute, ‘The Invasion of The Body Snatchers was about maybe the paranoia in the ‘50s and the [McCarthy era] … or Ira Levin writes ‘The Stepford Wives’ and it’s a popular bestseller, and then a few years later, people say, ‘Now wait a minute, is this actually about feminism?’ and it has an allegorical feel to it. So we don’t always know what we’re doing at the time that we are doing it.”
For himself, King said, “The first one who spoke to me that way was William Golding, in ‘Lord of The Flies.’ He was taking boys who I understood. He shows how thin the veneer of civilization is. Or ‘1984’ by George Orwell shows what happens when politics run wild.”
Music and muse
A common thread throughout many of King’s works is music; many is the story or novel chapter prefaced by a line from a song that sets the tone, as it were, for a character or plot.
King has recently collaborated with John Mellencamp on a musical, “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County,” after he said Mellencamp approached him about the idea.
A performance at Alliance Theater in Atlanta drew a sold-out crowd and positive notices.
An album with songs from the musical is due out in March.
Rather than grand or operatic, it hails more from American roots tradition, something King said he and Mellencamp both enjoy.