'Lynching Stephen King'

Article excerpt

M.P. McCrillis is lecturer in English at the University College of Cape Breton in Nova Scotia. His article "Why Eminem Is Important" appeared in the March 2003 issue of The World & I.

David Lynch can teach us more about horror than Stephen King can. I say this not because I'm a bigger fan of David Lynch than Stephen King, nor because I wish to denigrate King. I enjoy reading him most of the time and I'm even proud to say that we have a few things in common. We share the same alma mater. My wife and I lived in the same run-down apartment on Sanford Street where he received the good news that the paperback rights to Carrie had been sold to Signet Books for an astounding $400,000. The apartment was no better when we lived there some twenty years later. The only reason I know it had been King's place is because our landlady remarked that the room we were standing in when she came to collect back rent from me was the same room that was covered with typewriter paper when she came to see Stephen King about his rent.

I am originally from the Bangor area. My wife knows King personally, but I don't. At least, she used to know him (she baby-sat his kids off and on for about a year), before fame made him America's premiere horror writer and, for all intents and purposes, unapproachable. As for Lynch, I don't know him at all, and it's unlikely that I ever will; yet his work occupies a place in my psyche that King's doesn't and can't.

While I am in agreement that King does in fact churn out what he himself has called "the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries," I admit that, like many people in America, I like a Big Mac and fries. However, just as I am suspicious of McDonald's "healthy choice" menu and Dairy Queen's new "grill and chill" family restaurant makeover, I am equally suspicious of treating my Big Mac as if it were gourmet food. The same applies to King's novels. Because he is perhaps the most famous living writer in history, people are aching to know his secret to success, and people are dying to make King "literary," in the sense that Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, Hawthorne, etcetera are thought of as literary. I don't mean to suggest that King is less than literary, only that academics have a bit of difficulty finding a place for him in Harold Bloom's notion of the Western canon.


The effort to figure King out began back in the 1980s with his famous 1982 Playboy article "Why We Crave Horror Films," which developed into something of a manifesto of horror. In the essay, he explains how the horror film has become "the modern version of the public lynching." Like any good creative writer he establishes a controlling metaphor. In this case, though, it is so intriguing that it can draw attention away from the point that he is making. He goes on to say that "the potential lyncher is in almost all of us ... and every now and then he has to be let loose to scream and roll around in the grass." In other words, like the person who witnesses a lynching, we as an audience tend to delight in the pain and agony that are depicted through such artistic imitation. If King is right, we may even identify with the lyncher himself and indulge our homicidal tendencies over buttered popcorn.

This delight may indicate, as he says, that "we're all mentally ill" to some degree, but what is really important is that this delight provides "psychic relief" to the audience. Thus, the fact that we watch horror movies may say something about our mental stability, but, more important, such films provide a way of "reestablishing our feelings of essential normality." In his Danse Macabre, King reiterates his notion that horror has the effect of restoring the social order.

This view of art has Aristotle written all over it. In his Poetics, Aristotle argues that tragedy, "through pity and fear, effect[s] the proper purgation of these emotions." The notion of catharsis was a way for Aristotle to rescue imitative art from the Socratic criticism that it was potentially dangerous to those whose opinions could be easily swayed. …