Stephen King is not an unfamiliar name. Even if someone hasn’t heard of him, they have, undoubtedly, heard about the period blood scene in Carrie, or they at least know what REDRUM means backwards.
Parents curse him in agony as their children make them check under their beds every night as they want to sleep – ‘Damn you, Stephen King! I just want my eight hours of sleep!’ The man is a master, a brilliant mind, and a King, indeed.
To celebrate his birthday in September, the British Film Institute in London is doing a month dedicated to him with screenings of his films, talks and Q&As, and some films selected by the man himself. It is his birthday, but the gift is to the horror community in London. And I thank the BFI.
Therefore, inspired by the eerie flying red balloon that was seen at Stephen King’s house in Maine earlier this week, and to celebrate this amazing gift by the BFI, and his many adaptations that are coming soon or have already arrived to disappoint some and make others fall in love (The Mist, I’m talking to you), this month’s ‘A Living Tribute’ of course goes to him!
It is well known that Stephen King’s mind is a place not everyone is courageous enough to enter. For some it is as scary and creepy as the Upside Down from Stranger Things, but for us horror fans it is more like the Christmas Town in The Nightmare Before Christmas – with every ‘From the mind of Stephen King’ or ‘Based on the Stephen King’s best seller’ our mind goes straight to singing mode ‘what’s this? What’s this?’
King’s mind has given us so many great stories, from huge ones, like IT, The Tommyknockers, The Stand and smaller ones that go straight for the gut, such as 1408.
His body of work is immense and it would be crazy, if not impossible to review it all (although Michael Blyth, from the BFI, has done an incredible job talking about all of the King’s stories that were adapted to the screen, both big and small one), King would probably have released half a dozen new books by the end of that task.
This year alone five of his works are being adapted for television and cinema: The Dark Tower, The Mist, Mr. Mercedes, IT, and Gerald´s Game.
When he first got published with Carrie in 1974, he started writing at such a fast pace that his editor said he wouldn’t publish anymore of his books because the public would get tired of seeing his name around, and would not be able to consume his books as fast as he was releasing them.
By that time he had written: Carrie, Salem´s Lot, The Stand, The Shining, and The Dead Zone. So what does the master do? Creates a pseudonym to keep writing, of course. He creates Richard Bachman and publishes books he had already written but had been rejected by publishers, such as The Long Walk, Rage, Roadwork, The Running Man, Thinner and Blaze.
Bachman’s true identity became public and King wrote a sad, but Kingnian, finale for his alias: Bachman ‘died’ in 1985 from “cancer of the pseudonym, a rare form of schizonomia”.
In the midst of over 200 stories (short stories, novellas, novels, screenplays, and poems), countless television/cinema adaptations, as well as roles and cameos in some of them, articles in anthologies and magazines, and now cute puppy pictures of Molly, aka The Thing of Evil, how does one even begin to praise him? How do I face the task I have laid in front of me?
Well, simple. I put on my glasses and I put on a fresh pot of coffee and set myself to years of reading and watching films.
Cut to a few years in the future:
We all know about the master’s capacities of entertaining us, however, many of his works fall short – King’s first time directing a film, Maximum Overdrive, was so bad it ended up being good, other works such as Cell, both the book and the film are bad and unnecessary.
When one begins to talk about Stephen King, one must select a niche to dwell into, and after a while, I chose mine: I’m not going to review any of his successes because I believe there is enough reviews of Carrie, The Shining and so forth; nor his failures because I do not want to waste my first opportunity to write about an author so beloved by me and focus on his worst – therefore, I will talk about three of Stephen King’s surprises.
That is: three of his stories I read without expecting much and was happily surprised with what was delivered throughout the pages. So, here they are:
Gerald’s Game has to be the first on my list because it was the first Stephen King book I ever read. Mind you, I was only 13 and my parents thought it was ok to let me read a book about BDSM…
Of course, they didn’t even know what the book was about, so when I told them it had sexual abuse, incest, sex, death, and, a degloving injury (for me, that was the cherry on the cake) they were not happy.
I, on the other hand, was thrilled. It was my first introduction to horror in literature. And to this day, it has kept alive that flame in me that makes me want to read horror. I will never forget the way I threw the book to the other side of the room during the eclipse scene.
To contextualise, for those who don’t know what the book is about…
The story starts with a sex scene between Gerald and his wife, Jessie Burlingame. We discover, as Jessie tells us, that they are in their lake house, a place they have adopted to have rough sex without being spied on by neighbours.
However, as it happens, Jessie, as she is handcuffed to the bed, realises she is not into it and asks Gerald to stop. But Gerald is gone – he is an animal, as she asks him to stop, the more he is aroused. And because of that, Jessie is scared.
When he continues, Jessie kicks him and he falls from the bed and onto the floor, hitting his head and dying instantly. As if the descriptions of Gerald’s grim and animalistic sexual pleasure wasn’t enough to trigger horrific fears on the reader, the realisation that now Jessie is naked, if not for her underwear, and alone in a deserted lake house and handcuffed to the bed with her dead husband lying on the floor, then the horror really kicks in – and doesn’t stop.
Many have praised this book as King’s most non-visual work, as Jessie is on the bed for the duration of the whole book, albeit the book offers us flashbacks to her childhood and the beginning of her adulthood.
In addition to dealing with physical strains, Jessie’s character goes through periods of self-doubt, shame and self-affirming as she remembers moments from her past, she recognises patterns that allows her to subvert her role in her own life.
Jessie has internal dialogues and develops alter egos to talk to, and while she tries to stay alive and free herself from the handcuffs, she stares at the manifestation of Death as it waits for her to collect her bones.
The book is very raw, as it dwells into unsafe territory. It is brutal, both mentally and physically.
Throughout the book, as Jessie digs deep in her memories, we suffer alongside her as we are confronted with her deeply disturbing past. We are invited to her deepest memories from the perspective of the abused, and by contrasting them to the grown woman stuck on the bed, we can draw a line from the abused little girl and comprehend the tolls the abuse takes upon the abused.
From her inner conversations, it is possible to see what could have been, who she would have become if it weren’t for the bad things that were done to her. We enter the mind of the abused to see that what goes on inside, it can be even worse than reality – even her reality. We feel Jessie’s pain and we desperately want to help her, but it is a journey and she must face alone.
The Last Rung On The Ladder
This short story was published in King’s first collection of short stories, Night Shift, in 1978. It is a very concise and blunt story that goes straight to the point.
The story starts with Larry receiving a letter from his sister, Kitty, with whom he has fallen out of touch through the years. He does not revel the content of the letter at first, but he tells a childhood story – during a warm day in November, Larry and Kitty, aged 10 and 8, were playing their favourite, though prohibited, game in the barn.
The game involved them going up a wooden stair, with 43 rungs, and jumping onto a haystack. They were both so involved in the game they didn’t think much of it when they saw a loosen screw.
They continued their routine until it was Kitty’s turn and the ladder fell backwards as she was holding onto the last rung on the ladder. Below her there was no hay and Larry promptly started running from the haystack to the place where Kitty would fall and started his own mini haystack.
He ends up building a rather big one, which saved Kitty’s life, but he was still appalled by what could have been and by Kitty’s blind trust on him, as she reveals she didn’t know what he was doing since she had her eyes closed all the time.
Larry is touched when Kitty reveals that when hetold her to let go, she didn’t think twice and just did it because “You’re my big brother. I knew you’d take care of me”. Those words haunt Larry as he reads Kitty’s letter, now in present time.
The letter didn’t say much, but cites the incident in the barn as Kitty wishes he never had saved her. Kitty ends up committing suicide and the letter was a cry for help, which Larry got too late. In the envelope there were signs the letter was mailed to multiple addresses until it ended up reaching him.
King explores the human relationships and how they are taken for granted. It is about family and love between siblings, but also about the strangeness we feel through life as we fall estranged from the people we love.
Circumstances of life have kept Larry from visiting Kitty – law school, new job – and the letters Kitty wrote grew smaller and bitterer. The narrative is told through Larry’s point of view, and as he tells the story from the childhood he conveys so much love from his baby sister and we can see the innocence they both felt when they were young. She wasn’t Katrina, she was Kitty and she didn’t even have breasts, she had ponytails!
It is so sweet and so perverse when we realise the reason behind the letter. She asks for help as she is finding less and less reasons to continue to live. She needed her bigger brother to make it all okay again. She either needed Larry to come and rescue her, to put the hay and allow her to fall safely, or to take the hay completely and grant her release from her pain.
Larry wasn’t able to make a choice, as he wasn’t aware he needed to make one since he got the letter too late. But Katrina understood his silence as his response – he either forgot, or he doesn’t care. Either way, she grew tired of waiting.
This book is told through the first person perspective as Dolores Claiborne, the unsung hero, tells the story of her life as she is being questioned for the murder of Vera.
Dolores has to dig deep into her past to explain the circumstances that had led her to be the prime suspect. What she offers the detectives, and the readers, is a deeply personal and heartfelt story about love, and the lengths a mother is willing to go to protect her daughter.
Dolores estranged daughter, Selena, who is a lawyer, comes back to the small town to support legal aid to her mother, even though they don’t have a relationship anymore.
By coming back, they are forced to live in the same house and to confront what has happened between them. Regardless of her help, Selena believes her mother is guilty of killing Vera, the wealthy, elderly woman Dolores worked for. Selena was tested before, as her father died during an eclipse and the whole town blamed Dolores for killing him.
Selena, who had a close relationship with her father, cannot fathom the possibility of her mother killing her father because, in her young mind, she has repressed the abuse physical and mental abuse Dolores has endured by his hands and the sexual abuse she herself came to suffer. Dolores accepts the abuse on her but as soon as she finds about the sexual abuse towards Selena, she plans to kill him.
Stephen King dedicated this book to his mother, Ruth Pillsbury King, who was a single parent during the 1950s and went through many struggles to keep King and his brother above water.
King has praised his mother for being a strong woman and he paints Dolores in a similar tone. They are not flawless – they are strong. Vera Donovan is the only person Dolores confides in about the murder of her husband and she accepts Dolores’ crime, rendering it was necessary, she says: “Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman’s got to hold on to.”
Dolores Claiborne, alongside Gerald’s Game, belongs in King’s “feminist phase”. Dolores is fighting the abuse from her husband and society’s scrutiny as she stands up for herself.
In the words of Vera, Dolores is a bitch – someone who is strong and goes after what she wants – and she uses that label to define herself, to harden her exteriors to endure the sorrows and physical pain her life has placed upon her. She was turned into a bitch by circumstances of life. She is, essentially, a bitch so Selena does not have to be.
Dolores is defiant and King has praised her by painting a loyal portrait of a woman who has endured pain and came out on the other side stronger, and thus he dedicates her 300 pages of her own speech and resilience, unbroken by chapters.
Even though her moral code can be blurred, Dolores Claiborne is an example of what we could/should be. The relationship between her and Vera is almost a motherly type – it has fights and bickering, but it has love and acceptance.
Vera accepts Dolores’ crime and releases her from the sadness attached to it. On the other side, Dolores and Selena’s relationship, albeit it is a mother and daughter relationship, is broken. What has caused Vera to understand Dolores, and, in turn, Dolores to understand Vera is the same thing that changes Selena and Dolores’ relationship.
Dolores’ secret, her shame, is what saves and mends both relationships and what causes her to be accepted, if not loved by both women. Because it is a particular problem women face, sexual, physical and mental abuse by husbands and fathers, it is something that strengthens the ties between women. King has written this web of sorority where women pick themselves up, going together, but alone at the same time.
These three bodies of work — two books and one short story — were the ones that surprised me the most. As an (avid) constant reader, I could have written about many other stories, but time and space have failed me, and I had to restrain myself from writing more than a thousand pages, as King does.
The BFI’s Stephen King Weekender runs from 21st – 24th September, at the BFI Southbank. Click here for more details.