Stephen King's Dolores Claiborne and Rose Madder: A Literary Backlash against Domestic Violence

Article excerpt

The creak of the stairs. The quickening of a heartbeat. The taste of fear in the back of your throat. Horror novels capture America's fascination because so many of us, on some level, like to be frightened. We anticipate the rush of fear as we turn the pages, reassured that the terror we experience is firmly confined to the book. We can read about monsters, ghosts, vampires, and ghouls because, as we shiver excitedly, the comforts and safety of our own homes surround us.1 True horror, though, occurs when the terror we read is mimicked in real life in ways that make novels seem tame. In real life, some chapters never end and for many people, especially women, there is nothing more terrifying than domestic abuse. While awareness of wife-battering grew during the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, the subsequent "backlash" during the conservative 1980s minimized societal responses. Images from popular culture reflected this, but often there were competing images. In many mainstream venues, such as popular films, feminism was blamed for larger societal problems; however, in some works, notably two novels by the phenomenally popular Stephen King, violence against women is portrayed as the result of a patriarchal and apathetic society.

Domestic abuse is a chilling reminder that violence is a persistent theme of American life for many people. Images throughout popular culture echo this reality, where violence is portrayed in film, popular songs, and literature. However, many images of domestic abuse are watereddown for mainstream America. It is often vehicles outside of this mainstream-the circus sideshows as compared with the "big tent," as historian LeRoy Ashby terms it-that present all the nuances and complexities of domestic abuse. Within the sideshow, authors and artists can question larger assumptions within society, holding up a mirror through which we can view ourselves, our behaviors, and our preconceived notions. Horror novels in many ways represent this sideshow aspect, and Stephen King ably uses this genre to expose the terror of domestic abuse. Drawing upon analogies that James B. Twitchell and other scholars have used, Ashby argues that "mainstream" culture can be viewed as the big tent of a circus, and the "oddities" of popular culture are contained in the sideshow (Ashby With Amusement for All viii). However, often these sideshows find their way into the big tent as more people venture to see the curiosities, marking a transition into the mainstream. In many ways, Stephen King fits this pattern as the horror genre's popularity increased in the 1980s and 1990s, moving him from the sideshow to the big tent. With two of his novels, Dolores Claiborne (1992) and Rose Madder (1995), King was able to bring his "big tent" credibility to the issue of domestic abuse, reaching a large audience. Both of these works made the bestseller lists, as Dolores Claiborne reached the number one position in 1992 with over 1.3 million sales and Rose Madder reaching number seven in 1995 with over 1 million copies sold (Bowker). While these books today are not as well-known as other King works, such as The Stand (1978) or Carrie (1974), their bestseller position indicate that at the time of their publications, they resounded with a great number of readers.

King is well-known for frightening America, for pulling back the curtains and revealing the more base qualities of our civilized lives. Finding horror in a King novel is no harder than opening its pages. While his villains often take gruesome faces-the vampire Barlow in Salem's Lot (1975), the terrifying Pennywise the clown in It (1986), and the rabid Saint Bernard dog in Cujo (1981)King is at his best when his villains are outwardly normal: the husband from across the street, the investment banker in the deli, the lawyer returning home to his family. The façade often cloaks a terrifying home life, and King's depictions of this display the complexities of domestic abuse and society's responses. …