-by Susan Wise Bauer
Stephen King's Tragic Kingdom
Nightmare or fantasy, [amusement] parks allow one to inhabit a world where some powerful narrative once held sway, a narrative that gave people a reason for living, and in whose absence a kind of psychic trauma ensues. Even if a narrative places one in hell, it is better to be there than to be nowhere.
The End of Education
Welcome to Stephen King's amusement park. It's all fun and games on the surface; a sprawling, glittering, multi-billion-dollar entertainment estate, boasting 46 massive King attractions-novels, movies, short stories, collections. Every ride is guaranteed to set your heart racing and color your dreams for weeks to come. No self-respecting critic would put a toe through the turnstiles, but millions of Gentle Readers cram in. At one point last year, during the publication of King's paperback serial novel The Green Mile, King occupied five spots on the New York Times best-seller list. He has just made yet another movie deal, for 1994's Rose Madder. His two new novels, Desperation and the pseudonymous The Regulators, total nearly twelve hundred pages and come shrink-wrapped together with their own reading light. Now you can stay in the park after dark.
But be careful. In the King theme park, danger is more than an illusion. Evil exists. Supernatural forces lurk in gloomy corners. Demons are real, and they're waiting just inside the gates to rip your head off.
In Desperation, which King calls "the best story that I've written in probably ten or fifteen years," Tak-the demon du jour-has been trapped underground in a copper mine for centuries. When a strip-mining company opens its imprisoning shaft, Tak immediately escapes and possesses one of the inhabitants of a nearby town.
The life of a roaming demon is not as easy as you might suppose, and Tak has two sizable problems. Its superhuman energy wears out the bodies of its human hosts in short order, forcing it to jump ship as its present body disintegrates in typical King style. (Let's just say that I felt absolutely no stirring of the usual temptation to munch while reading Desperation. "Cat got your tongue?" is not a figure of speech in this book.) Furthermore, Tak has to feed itself by killing off the surplus players-those who aren't useful host material-and feasting on the psychic energy thus released. An assortment of happy Nevada campers, traveling through the bare and sunny desert, find themselves sucked into battle with this creature, sized up as either habitation or hors d'oeuvre.
The Regulators treats us to the same set of characters, including the demon Tak, plopped down in the sleepy little hamlet of Wentworth, Ohio, and acting out an entirely different scenario. This time, Tak escapes from the Nevada copper mine and attaches himself to the consciousness of an autistic child named Seth, who happens to be driving by with his vacationing family. The family goes home, unaware of the hitchhiking parasite. But back in Wentworth, Tak is bored. Trapped by the limitations of his host, Tak slowly turns the town into a reproduction of Seth's imaginary universe, complete with giant avenging play-action figures armed with automatics. After three-quarters of the town is dead, Seth kills himself to save the survivors, thus effectively disembodying the demon. Have a nice day.
Any reasonable person, you might think, would flee all this grimness as quickly as possible. Or at least quit driving through Nevada on vacation. But the theme park continues to flourish. King's public willingly forks over close to $30 for his hardbacks, seven bucks per movie. King's Web site records thousands of hits daily. Bookstores where he appears in person brace for a torrent of fans. Loyal readers turn on their reading lights and stay up all night with Tak, deserting the real world in favor of a realm where evil is real, threatening, and transcendent.
Why do we swarm into the nightmare park, knowing before we go through the gates that we'll be scared out of our wits? In The End of Education, Neil Postman argues that we cannot live without a narrative-a story that "tells of origins and envisions a future, a story that constructs ideals, prescribes rules of conduct, provides a source of authority, and, above all, gives a sense of continuity and purpose." We tell ourselves stories that explain where we are, why we exist, why the world works the way it does. A good story tells us why we love, and why we hate. A good story explains why some people sacrifice their lives, while others destroy and mutilate.
The Christian story served this purpose well, with its narrative of a transcendent God and a personified Evil. But for twentieth-century Americans, the Christian story has been largely overwritten by snappier narratives; Postman offers the stories of inductive science, technology, and consumerism as examples. Each story offers us a purpose for living-the pursuit of knowledge, the mastery of the physical world, the accumulation of wealth.
None of these stories, though, offers a satisfying explanation for the evil that we inflict on each other. Ignorance, psychological trauma, poverty, and disenfranchisement-all of them fall silent in the face of Bosnia, Rwanda, Nazi Germany, Susan Smith, Richard Allen Davis. The New Yorker publishes an essay concluding that the last victim of Hitler is meaning: We simply cannot account for these atrocities. Time's cover article on the death of Smith's toddlers concludes that Smith was sexually abused, abandoned, depressed, and suicidal, but the headline trumpets the unanswered question: "How Could She Do It?"
Stephen King offers the answer. Transcendent evil exists and stalks the earth. In a 1992 Writer's Digest interview, King described his writing process as "like walking through a desert and all at once, poking up through the hardpan, I see the top of a chimney. I know there's a house down there, and I'm pretty sure that I can dig it up if I want. That's how I feel. It's like the stories are already there."
The innate human knowledge that Evil exists-malignancy with personality, a force that wishes us harm-keeps poking up through the neat narrative landscape of the twentieth century. Like our everyday lives, King's amusement park does not look like hell at first glance. His characters are normal folks, going about their regular business. Desperation begins with its cast of assorted vacationers driving blamelessly through the Nevada desert; The Regulators opens with two children buying candy at the 7-Eleven, a newspaper boy delivering papers while the sounds of Little Leaguers at bat chunk happily over the hill. It's a world where evil is a matter for therapy, not exorcism.
There is something wrong in this amusement park, though. The warped mirrors of the funhouse reflect a dark shadow bobbing into view behind your shoulder. A horrible creature whisks out of sight as you turn your head. A roller coaster full of people veers off the track and plunges to the ground far below.
But we stay in the park. We read King for the same reason that a four-year-old asks to hear the "real" Hansel and Gretel, the one where the witch bakes in her own oven: We already know that evil is real, and we want to see it defeated. A good fairy tale serves this purpose for a toddler. Children are born knowing perfectly well that evil exists. Not even the most gently reared child escapes nightmares of the Thing Under the Bed. My middle son, carefully protected from tv scariness by the vigilance of a resident grandmother, had his first nightmare at age three: a monster who came in the window and cut up his favorite blanket with giant scissors. A three-year-old's version of Tak, the evil force that descends to wipe away our security and destroy our carefully ordered lives. Gail Caldwell of the Boston Globe writes, "Most of us get acquainted with such fears by an early age; if we are fortunate, we have a chance to corral some of them within the sheltered realm of fantasy: through some form of narrative where the ghouls disappear with the words 'the end'-thus ensuring a frisson of danger while one is still safely ensconced in feet pajamas and a toast-like bed."
Children can go happily to sleep as soon as the witch dies. But adults, living in a world where an Oklahoma City federal building can be blown up, where a killer can snatch a 12-year-old from her living room during a slumber party, need a Grimm for grownups-a narrative that not only explains the presence of evil but offers a triumph over it. Andrew Delbanco begins his book The Death of Satan:
A gulf has opened up in our culture between the visibility of evil and the intellectual resources available for coping with it. . . . The repertoire of evil has never been richer. Yet never have our resources been so weak. We have no language for connecting our inner lives with the horrors that pass before our eyes in the outer world. . . . We certainly no longer have a conception of evil as a distributed entity with an ontological essence of its own, as what some philosophers call "presence." Yet something that feels like this force still invades our experience, and we still discover in ourselves the capacity to inflict it on others.
The Devil has died in America, but his ghost lingers on. Delbanco suggests that the popularity of horror novels is a "response to our panic over the loss of a language for speaking about evil." Horror writer Dean Koontz, describing his serial-killer novel Intensity, agrees:
Part of the thrust of this book comes out of the idea, out of the Freudian theory that has led us to believe that virtually anybody can be understood or rehabilitated. But this isn't true. We put ourselves at risk when we accept that there is no such thing as real evil in the world, that it's really one degree or another of dysfunction and that it can all be treated.
Flannery O'Connor wrote of her own work, "I want to be certain that the Devil gets identified as the Devil and not simply taken for this or that psychological tendency." King-lacking both O'Connor's literary artistry and her solid theological underpinnings-nevertheless fulfills this exact function. The evildoers in Desperation are possessed by Tak, and the death that results originates in the mind of Tak. This Devil is no mere metaphor.
If evil in King's world is real and transcendent, it is also apparently patternless. What terrifies us most is violence that descends without purpose, the serial killer who picks my bedroom window through a process of eeny-meeny-miney-mo. Both Desperation and The Regulators center on this kind of random evil. The travelers through the Nevada desert stumble on the one town where a demon is roaming around looking for victims to devour. In The Regulators, the autistic child who unwittingly serves as a channel for demonic power simply happens to pass by the mine where the demon lived. And even the demon chooses his victims without reason. The five-year-old girl in Desperation dies casually, for no reason, while her brother survives; who lives and who dies in The Regulators depends on who happens to be walking down the street when the giant action-figures-come-to-life cruise by with their automatic weapons. As in life, there is no guarantee that a character you like is going to survive. In King's amusement park, there's a distinct possibility that the Seven Dwarves might get knocked off by a passing ogre while whistling their way back from work.
At first glance, King's plots may seem the fictional counterpart of Harold Kushner's pop cosmology. Kushner writes that "some things happen for no reason." Evil is truly random, just as you've always feared. And this is the most frightening monster of all. If evil-as Rabbi Kushner explains-is simply a matter of "pockets of chaos" that stand outside God's creative and regulative power, there is no defense against it.
King, lacking anything that resembles a coherent theology, doesn't even try to locate the purpose of evil. But he supplies us with an alternative method of mastering it: He gives evil a personality. And this is the first step toward containing it. A personality can be appeased, wheedled with, defeated through an act of the will.
In Desperation and The Regulators, King satisfies all our yearnings. Don't want to believe that terrific evil has its source simply in the human soul? You're quite right; evil is supernatural. Can't live with a supernatural evil that strikes without reason? Don't worry. You're not defenseless; the Evil has personality, which makes it vulnerable to human wiles.
In both novels, Tak is conquered by human ingenuity. The small hero of The Regulators outwits the demon through a trick. In an echo of Christ's temptation in the desert, the dissolute hero of Desperation rejects Tak's offers of success, money, and wisdom and plunges into the mine shaft strapped with high explosives. (Why this should destroy a disembodied demon is anyone's guess, but it seems to work.) This is perhaps the most seductive element of King's narrative. Real and overwhelming Evil is defeated, not by a transcendent God, but by a self-sacrificial act of the human will.
As in Desperation, the self-sacrifice is often performed by one of King's less admirable characters. King's recent novels have no bad people in them. People are just people; petty, self-absorbed, stupid, unadmirable, but not wicked. Wickedness comes from the supernatural powers that inhabit them.
King's heroes aren't even necessarily on the "good side." In Insomnia, the narrator explains that "nice moral questions as who was working for the good and who was working for the bad" aren't really the point. The hero fights evil because "the important thing was not to let the bullies kick sand in your face. Not to be led by the nose." In Desperation, this scrappy, human inde-pendence is overlaid by the presence of a God. King describes Desperation as a "deeply Christian book," which will startle anyone who has actually read it; God is present, but he's an undemanding fellow who assigns the job of overcoming Tak to his human creations, and then desperately hopes they can pull it off. In fact, he is much like Rabbi Kushner's God-creative, good, well-meaning, but limited. The real heroes are King's characters, all of them pure at heart despite their flaws, all of them capable of nobility, all of them capable of defeating monsters.
Face to face with the reality of evil, the American public is reassured by King's fairy tales. The Thing Under the Bed is real. King doesn't tell you to go back to sleep and stop being silly; he equips you with an AK-47 and tells you that you're perfectly capable of blowing the monsters away.
King manages to recognize pure evil while absolving humanity in general of any particular impulse toward monstrosity. This concurrent distancing of ourselves from the Thing while recognizing that it may be as close as the nearest closet seems to comfort us. We read about Desperation's serial killers and recognize them as creatures that might indeed exist in our safe, comfortable world. But after all, those folks were possessed by Tak. We are spared any uncomfortable recognition of the possibility that there, but for the grace of God, go I.
There is no guilt in King's world, which is why Audrey Wyler can serve as demonized murderer in Desperation and as sacrificial heroine in The Regulators. King absolves humanity of any responsibility for evil. Evil is real, but entirely transcendent, visiting Earth (as it were) from outer space. Evil is real, but we are all its victims.
But in the end, the comforting fantasy of King's novels turns out to be less satisfying than we think. King's answer to the most troubling question about evil-why do reasonably moral people sometimes choose it?-lies entirely in demonic possession. He seems to want to preserve the basic humanity of his characters. Of course, none of them would do such horrible things of their own free will. When given free will, they always choose to defeat the monster through self-sacrifice.
But this construction, paradoxically, destroys the very humanity King tries to save. Seth and Audrey Wyler and the demented police officer Collie Entragian are forced into evil against their will, possessed and turned into manslayers through a quirk of fate. King solves the problem of evil by removing any choice from his murderers. And so they become less than human, losing control of their own souls.
That's the great danger in Stephen King's amusement park, the real monster lurking near the gates: that casual visitors might find themselves suddenly transformed into monsters themselves. In the end, the Christian story yields more comfort. Orthodoxy may insist on responsibility, guilt, and the lake of fire, but it also offers choice. We aren't promised that we will never fall victim to a serial killer. But we are assured that we won't be transformed into serial killers against our will.
Susan Wise Bauer is the author of the novel The Revolt (Word) and a regular writer for Charles Colson's radio commentary, Break Point. She teaches English literature at the College of William and Mary and is working on a book about classical and home education for W.W. Norton.
Copyright(c) 1997 by Christianity Today, Inc/Books & Culture Magazine.
Mar/Apr 1997, Vol. 3, No. 2, Page 14