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Lecture on author Stephen King explores meaning of horror

by Scott Brinckerhoff - October 23, 2006

Stephen King novels are not the usual fare at the Marine Sciences Building at Avery Point, but on Tuesday night, the prolific writer of horror stories was dissected by Pamela Bedore, an assistant professor of English at the campus.

In a one-hour lecture, Bedore used examples from King's work to discuss why horror appeals to the general public, and whether writers like King should be taken seriously.

The lecture was one in a series on "The American experience," sponsored by the American Studies program.

With 44 novels, 101 film credits, and more than 200 short stories, King is obviously popular with the public, and to Bedore's surprise, also to academics.

"I found 266 articles on King in the MLA (Modern Language Association) database, many more than I would have expected," she said.

Using examples from King's long list of tales about malevolent cars, dogs, adolescents, and a particularly unpleasant woman who hacks off the foot of her favorite writer so he won't flee before finishing what will be his final novel, Bedore asked why so many people obviously enjoy being frightened.

"There's a masochistic element to reading horror, I think," she said.

She said King himself has suggested that horror has to do with catharsis, facing one's fears and somehow getting through the experience.

Bedore said King manages "to turn readers into kids," catapulting them past their intellectual filters (we all know that 10-foot insects are generally unlikely to be lurking behind closed doors).

But beyond the scary stuff, she added, King explores serious themes that can leave readers uneasy in a way that's distinct from plain old horror.

For example, in the story Apt Pupil, a lad develops "a horrifying symbiotic relationship" with an elderly neighbor whom he discovers to be a Nazi war criminal.

The boy threatens to expose his neighbor if the neighbor doesn't tell him in gruesome detail about the torment he inflicted on other humans during the war.

Before long, each character is in a downward spiral, weighed down by morbid fascination with atrocities.

In Misery, beneath the "hyperbolic violence," Bedore said, there is a complex message about power politics.

The story, made into a movie starring James Caan and Kathy Bates, describes what happens to a romance novel writer who has the misfortune to be rescued from a car accident by his biggest fan.

But Carrie was the story that started it all for King, who lives in Bangor, Me.

Originally begun in 1971 as a short story that King hoped to sell for $500 to help pay for rent and groceries, Carrie turned into a novel that has never gone out of print.

Bedore's audience on Tuesday was treated to a clip from the movie, starring Sissy Spacek as the high school girl whose telekinetic powers eventually destroy her life, along with much of the town that teased her so cruelly.

Bedore said the story revolves around gender problems and sexuality - a young girl growing up in a malignant environment that in effect rapes her mind.

"Does Carrie treat gender trouble in a positive way?" Bedore asked. "I think it does."

Gender relations, class, power structure, and death - especially "bad death" - are frequent themes throughout King, Bedore said, and happy endings are nearly nonexistent.

She noted that King's writing style often interweaves different types of narratives.

Thus, a narrator may be telling the story at one point and then there's a shift to what a particular character is thinking privately at that moment.

Other devices, such as quotations from an official report or "news story" that figures in the tale, may also be used to move the narrative along. King's work draws critics on both sides, but rarely is he ever accused of being ponderous or boring.

Bedore is planning to offer a course on King's works.  

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