Friday, February 7, 2014

Stephen King and the End of Horror

Stephen King (Pinguino)
In his recent novel Doctor Sleep Stephen King’s bad guys, a group called "The True Knot", live on pain and terror. The suffering of others feeds and rejuvenates these monster who, when pretending to be regular people, appear to be retirees traveling about the country in a caravan of RVs. They visit the scenes of tragedies to recharge their life force. If there are no horrific events for them to feed from, they can always torture and kill humans for their nourishment, the younger and more sensitive the victim the better.

In a scene described with simple sentences, the group tortures a boy to death. I stopped reading there and will not finish the novel, and I will not quote the passage verbatim. The silence is not meant to protect readers of this blog. I simply don’t want to read the passage again and copy it. The referenced passage in Doctor Sleep is not the writing of someone without moral direction. In fact it could only be written by someone with a clear sense of the complete violation it portrays. King writes about monsters but is not one.

King’s creation of The True Knot implies a satire of the old benefiting from the labor of the young, a theme in horror at least as old as Dracula. If King intends a particular political statement it’s not evident, at least not as far as I have read. But the situation pointed to is real enough: people with power using those weaker for no other reason than the perpetuation of that power. Allegorically King's scene of torture happens in day-to-day life whether you believe it’s a general condition in society or you believe it transpires frequently only in private ways.

The description of the torture itself is simple and clear. The gore is present but indicated in few words. This is not a scene from splatterpunk horror. You can’t read the passage without admiring its spare craft. But the simplicity of the words only serves to bring the reader closer to the imagined event. The effect resembles that of a crime scene photo or the audio tape of a real torture. It could be that later in the novel King redeems this scene in satisfactory ways. I will never know. I mean no attack on King, whose writing I’ve enjoyed since a summer vacation day when I was 16. I mean only to limn possible boundaries of the genre of horror.

Horror, in common with all art, contains a variable distance between the audience and what is portrayed, although at times spectators violate that distance, as when a member of the crowd jumps up on a stage to throw real punches in a sham fight that moved him to participate. In the Roman Empire real deaths occurred for entertainment on stage or in the arena, but there was that physical separation between spectator and spectacle, as there was also a legal one between spectators at a public execution and the condemned they witnessed. These examples are offered here to describe the barest separation between audience and observed in horror.

Distance in literary horror is often one of humor. Horror easily becomes farcical, and it’s rare these days to find a horror movie without its moments of laughter, or at least of wryness. Entire movies have been made of horror camp such as Shaun of the Dead and Fright Night. In the absence of humor there are the usual varying degrees of “madeness”—the consciousness on the part of the audience that what it observes is a contrived artifice or "fake"--any work of art has along with corresponding levels of the suspension of disbelief. One way creators of horror have tried to narrow the space between the subject matter and its consumer is the use of the fictional found manuscript that claims to be an original account of a horrific event. Poe used this method in “MS. Found in a Bottle”, and today we see it used, to much less effect, in the explosion of found footage horror movies that began with The Blair Witch Project.

A conceivable if intolerable way to make horror entertainment is to use true documentary source material. To a certain extent this happens on the world wide web today with its sources of grisly videos and other files gathered by journalists. David Foster Wallace created a sketchy fictional treatment of reality horror in his fascinating story “The Suffering Channel,” in which the source material was described, harrowingly but at a safe distance from the reader (in the context of a document within a story that was mostly about other events). Wallace also wrote an incredible story about pain, “Incarnations of Burned Children,” which is very nearly unreadable because the event in it is so close to the reader. The horror happens to a child, creating strong empathy that pulls us in, and tortures us in a way by putting us in the middle of an emergency we want to end instantly. The story is mercifully short.

But King may have used a device outside of literature to make Doctor Sleep's horror more poignant: the self-image of his audience as people who have identified over time with his characters and King’s manipulation of that self image. (Note this is not an effect some guy living in Maine can pull off. Only a commercial superstar such as King can do this.)

Doctor Sleep’s hero is a middle-aged Danny Torrance, a character who was the traumatized boy that survived the ultimate dysfunctional family horror story at the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, a novel that appeared as I was leaving high school. Those of us who started reading King from the beginning resembled Danny in both The Shining (though we were older and wouldn't admit the resemblance then) and in Doctor Sleep (where we share his identity as adults), but in fact we resemble The True Knot more and more. It is not comfortable to think of our retirements’ coming at the expense of the suffering labor of those younger.  We might consult our retirement accounts (if we still have them) and convince ourselves we have bought and deserve those vacations-unto-death, but we intuit that isn’t quite right. And who is paying for Medicare, anyway?

I suspect Danny Torrance does not survive the plot of Doctor Sleep. I suspect he fights The True Knot valiantly, saving a little girl the vampiric group of retirees wants to torment in order to harvest her strong life force. I suspect The True Knot is set back a great deal after the final conflict, but not totally vanquished. I think King offers us Danny, who we really always remember as a little boy, quite like ourselves when we first met him, as a sacrifice to remind us that our young selves have vanished and that there’s something we owe to the real young people who will support us. I imagine all these things. I will not read them.

Consuming Doctor Sleep for nostalgic comfort, as I did, is impossible, because there King fans see the destruction of their younger selves, and in the place that old image we see the ghoulish spectator who wants entertainment and rejuvenation through the vicarious experience of horror.

Here I would like to pay King a huge compliment: not that he has found a deep way to manipulate us but that he has found the end of horror. “The end of horror” should be in quotes, because I’m referring to “my end of horror”. But even if the place King takes us is some kind of objective end of the horror genre, human creativity being what it is, that limit actually forms a frontier. But why go to such a dark precipice? Why challenge it?

The critic Allen Grossman has suggested that literature portraying the apocalyptic and the horrible is meant to have the governing effect of keeping such events from happening in reality. What King wants to head off may be irresponsibility in aging, which would mean getting old while forgetting the suffering of others. And maybe in his depictions of brutality he’s telling us in Doctor Sleep, in a very guarded way his publicist would never admit, that we should grow up, stop consuming fake images of terror and try to combat real suffering in the world.

After quitting Doctor Sleep I thought I'd never read horror again. Well, let me just say we all have our karma, and I'm still a King fan. But I won't finish this one.

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