This started out as something that was going to be really light hearted and about how I adored Stephen King when I was a kid, but it just kind of evolved into this, and you know what, I’m okay with that.
Me and Stephen King
When I was about eight-years-old my family moved to a different city, and while this was during the early 1990’s and the internet and cellular phones did exist, they were out of the budget for my family until the late 1990’s. Living in a new city without friends sounds like an absolutely miserable existence, but it was at this time I started my affair with the author Stephen King. Seventeen years later I can only guess that the first Stephen King Novel I read was Firestarter but Firestarter was only the beginning.
I’ve finished almost every Stephen King book I picked up (I never finished The Green Mile), including those written under Richard Bachman, don’t worry, this blog will not become a “A Year Of Stephen King” but after starting Under The Dome, I realized that Stephen King taught me four valuable life lessons about literature, characters, and how I read books, particularly his. If you’ve not read, The Stand, Hearts in Atlantis and The Dark Tower Series (and I mean all of them) beware, spoilers ahead.
Number 4: That’s not how I pictured them
It happens commonly in books that are later made into movies, that the actors and actresses look absolutely nothing like you imagined. Take for instance Natasha Richardson in the 1990 film version of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. While little is known of Offred’s appearance, we are told about halfway through the book that Offred is 5’7” when she is barefoot and that she has brown hair. There are things that Natasha Richardson was (fabulous among them) but brunette wasn’t one of them. Or for a more recent example, the casting of Josh Hutcherson as Peeta Mellark and Liam Hemsworth as Gale in the upcoming Hunger Games movies.
King does this with Jake in his Dark Tower series, not with description, but by having it come out rather late in the series that Jake is supposed to be a look-alike/doppelganger for Bobby Garfield in Hearts in Atlantis. This wouldn’t be bad, except, I always kind of pictured Bobby Garfield to be kind of soft compared to Jake – not that this softness is a bad thing – Jake just seemed to have a more gritty personality which to me translated to a more grizzled appearance. Not to mention that same is true for Randall Flagg/Walter/The Man in Black.
Number 3: Don’t get too attached because no one is safe
I’ve been reading Stephen King books for the vast majority of my life and one thing I’ve learned is that no character is safe and that if nothing else, Stephen King isn’t afraid to dig the knife in deep. Anyone that knows me and my passion for Stephen King books knows that I never quite for recovered from the deaths that occur in the dark tower. Heck, my college roommate could probably attest that after the death of Jake, I literally threw The Dark Tower across the room. I don’t think I read a Stephen King book for a good two years after that book came out.
Not only are children like Jake not safe from Stephen King, neither are lovable pets, such as Oy, but people who I viewed as main characters (like Nick Andros from The Stand) are killed. And if I had to pick, Oy, out of all of the other characters is given the most heartfelt mourning period.
King’s ruthlessness when it comes to character death isn’t necessarily a bad thing actually it’s one of the few things about Stephen King that I still admire.
Number 2: Women aren’t people
The closest Stephen King has come (based off of the books of his I’ve read) to a strong female lead character is Trisha in The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon and Charlie in Firestarter, and I’ve always found that unsettling. There are a plethora of female characters that appear in King’s works, Frannie in The Stand, Susannah Dean in The Dark Tower series, and many more, there are fundamental problems with the way women are treated.
For one thing, King’s language when describing women is pretty gross. I’ve read tons of articles and internet comments by Stephen King stans (fans) that say that it’s his characters who characterize women like this, not King personally, but not every man is a raging misogynist but almost all of the ones that live in the King-verse are, but it’s not limited to the men’s characterization, but the written characterizations of his female characters. Carrie, crazy, Rachel from Pet Semetary, becomes “hysterical” after the death of Gage, Wendy from The Shining, meek, afraid of her husband, and refuses to stand up for herself, and Christine from well, Christine not really a woman, a possession, which is kind of how Stephen King has a lot of that ownership type of relationship between men and women. The list goes on and on. Not to mention the degrading language he uses to describe women both in character and out of character. In Under the Dome the phrase “breeding patch” is actually used. To which all I can say is “really Stephen King, really?”
Number 1: No black people live in New England, or if they do Stephen King has never actually talked to one.
When I was younger and I started to read Stephen King I found my representation in the young characters, Jake from The Gunslinger and the rest of the Dark Tower Series, Trisha from The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, and Charlie from Firestarter, but as I got older, I found that I related less and less with the child characters in the book and found myself lacking in positive female representation (see number 2) and positive racial representation. As an educated black woman, I really had to look at what I was reading and ask why, and more importantly, try and qualify why the characters of color he does have are not really people.
I’d call my desire for racial inclusion a pet peeve, but the more I think of it, the more I realize that it is not only extremely prolific in King’s writing, but that it’s disturbing and disgusting. King tightropes the line between the Magical Negro trope (see Mother Abigail from The Stand and John Coffey in The Green Mile) and the invisible minority (which is simply that aside from a few and often negative mentions, there are very few black characters. Other than Mother Abigail the only other character I can think of in The Stand is a black man who gets a very short mention for ODing on heroin just as Captain Tripps is getting started. I’ve read tons of articles and internet comments arguing that Mother Abigail and John Coffey are positive, but I disagree. While I cannot speak much about Coffey as I never finished reading The Green Mile I have read The Stand repeatedly and I do this this argument holds true for Mother Abigail.
Mother Abigail so much the Magical Negro that she is barely recognizable as a person beyond that. She is designed to be the antithesis to Randall Flagg, who is meant to be quite literally, the devil incarnate. So King crates her as being this automatically “magical/othered” creature, and not really a normal person at all. She puts the needs of the survivors ahead of her own, but then she just wanders off to die for her own sins, in which can be (and should be) viewed as her sacrificing herself for the good of the community.
Susannah Dean in King’s The Dark Tower continues King’s tradition of othering and disabling black characters. Susannah starts out as Odetta Holmes and Detta Walker, a black woman who lost her legs to a train and gained a second personality. As she switches between the Odetta and Detta personalities we are given two very different but equally disturbing views of black women in King’s worlds. Odetta is timid, kind, grateful for the help of Roland and Eddie, and Detta is violent, and really just the typical stereotypical “uneducated, angry at all white people” black woman. It is disturbingly like the house slave who is loyal to the master (in this case Eddie and Roland) and the field slave, who hates them (which is in itself a stereotype that is negative of both field slaves and house slaves but I think the parallel needed to be drawn). Not to mention, when the two “halves” merge and Susannah is created, she remains legless, but still remains fractured and has another personality that takes control. Did I mention that when she finally does grow legs, they’re white? Yeah, because that’s not implying at all that she is incomplete without her legs or being white. I’m not even going to go into the abomination that is his idea of African American Vernacular English
Like I said, I’ve read lots and lots of commentary about how Stephen King isn’t a misogynist, how he isn’t a racist (or at the very least offensive) that it’s his characters that hold these beliefs, and perhaps that is the case, I don’t know Stephen King personally so I can’t say what he is. Instead to anyone who objects to what I’ve said my question is, if the characters above were the only representations of you ethnically or through gender would you feel that you were represented fully and positively? I know I don’t.