“Stephen King: The Art of Darkness” (Ch. 3 – 4)

David | Aug 5, 2009 min read

Chapter 3 - Carrie

In chapter 3, Winter begins his critical analysis of King’s work with Carrie.

Here’s what I took from this chapter:

  • Winter considers Carrie to be King’s most eccentric work. In part, it seems, due to the epistolary structure.
  • Right from the start, King’s trademarks of “unassuming prose and truthful characterizations” are present.
  • In King’s own words, he’ll go for terror, horror, and even the gross-out. Per Winter, Carrie “evokes the visceral, bringing the reader down to the guy level at which King operates best.”
  • Winter quotes Peter Straub on the book: “…what was really striking about it was that it moved like the mind itself. It was an unprecedentedly direct style…”
  • The book deals with the loneliness of one girl.
  • It is a fairy tale, a warped Cinderella story.
  • “The Cinderella imagery is made explicit when [Carrie] loses her slippers fleeing the ball.”
  • Carrie’s final act of destruction “is not revenge – nor is it evil.”
  • Popular entertainment stereotypes children, but horror fiction often strives for the inversion of innocence, “rendering children into agents of darkness for no other reason than exploitation.” Winter cites The Exorcist and The Omen.
  • In Carrie, the “evil lies not in Carrie White but in her tormentors – and, more important, in the traps of society and religious mania in which her tormentors are confined.”
  • Carrie White is, in Winter’s words, “the first of many King protagonists who reflect his naturalist stance – she starts nothing of her own free will.”
  • Carrie is a story about the coming of age, showing the romantic side of King and his belief in the innate goodness of children.
  • The coming of age in Carrie is a journey - east to west.
  • Carrie also provides social commentary through a pervasive feminist element. “The blood imagery of Carrie has sexual significance, not as an extension of erotic power…but of feminine power.”
  • In contrast to the traditional fairy tale, where the heroine succeeds at her trials and wins the kingdom, Carrie is pushed to the edge, left no alternative but violence, and were it not for her “gift”, she would likely have failed.
  • In King’s words: “The fundamental unfairness of naturalistic storytelling is that it doesn’t really admit for much optimism…”
  • The final horror in the book is not Carrie’s. It is Susan Snell, “who must live in the memory of blackness and its death song.” Susan Snell survives but to what kind of life?

What I took from Winter’s analysis is King’s first published novel already sets a pattern of naturalistic storytelling, of twisted fairy tales, and that the idea of journey is fundamental to King’s work. King’s plain style and the naturalism are a powerful combination.

Chapter 4 - ‘Salem’s lot

‘Salem’s Lot is King’s best-selling Vampire story. But, as Winter shows us, it is not “just another vampire story.” Winter tells us that the idea for the story came from a discussion King had with his wife and his long-time friend Chris Chelsey on “what might happen if Dracula returned in motern times… to rural America.” (Emphasis mine) King dismissed the idea at first, but “his companions noted that almost anything could occur unnoticed in the small towns of Maine.” So King’s book is modeled on the Stoker’s Dracula, but Winter points out that the difference in titles indicates the difference in focus. Where Stoker’s story focuses on the Count, King’s focuses on the small town.

  • For the majority of ‘Salem’s Lot, Mr. Barlow, the king vampire, is kept out of site. It is a lesson King took from Dracula, the idea of building the fear around a character “by keeping him offstage.”
  • Winter also points out that the vampire is not just a literal thing, but it also representative of “the seductiveness of evil and the dehumanizing pall of moderns society.” King uses the small town to amplify the vampire metaphor, showing the difference in views of the towns outsiders (Ben Mears) and the insiders.
  • ‘Salem’s Lot differs from prior tradition in that the city is often the focal point of fear. “This sentimental antithesis between country and city serves as the underlying premise of ‘Salem’s Lot.
  • “King’s style seduces the reader through suggestion and understatement.”
  • ‘Salem’s Lot is also a story about a “great house”, and evil house
    • the Marsten House. It is a place with an evil history, and evil calls to evil, drawing the vampire to take up residence there.
  • King draws heavily on traditional vampire myth in the story. Rather than try to reinvent the myth itself, he uses it in subtle ways to bring out the characters. Winter notes how Ben Mears is able to repel vampires with a cross made of tongue depressors while Father Callahan is unable to repel Barlow even with a blessed cross.
  • King downplays the traditional sexual elements of the vampire myth, noting that at the time Dracula was written the great Victorian secret was sex. When King wrote ‘Salem’s Lot, in the 1970’s, King considers that the secret of the time was paranoia. So King himself considers that the story is in ways closer to The Invasion of the Body Snatchers that it is to Dracula.
  • The journey of Ben Mears is one from experience to innocence, that while he misses the past, he learns he cannot go home again.
  • The “plague of vampires…is less an invasion than a sudden confirmation of what we have silently suspected all along: that we are taking over ourselves, individuals succumbing to the whole.”
  • Winter calls this the root of paranoia - “a fear and mistrust not simply of those around us, but of our very own identities.

I think the most important thing I take from this as a writer is that reusing tradition and myth in a story does not require a reinvention of the myth. King stuck to tradition here, the vampires were vampires as everyone knows and loves them. The context in which they are applied is what makes this story unique.

The other piece I’m taking from this is the power of understatement. Barlow is kept off-stage for most of the book, and King’s writing style itself is cited as one of “suggestion and understatement.” Sometimes, what’s not said is more powerful than what is.

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