ORONO, MAINE -- Want to put a scare into a literature professor this Halloween? Try reading aloud this quotation from renowned literary critic Leslie Fiedler: "None of us will be remembered as long or revered as deeply as our contemporary, Stephen King."
Stephen King? That Stephen King? The Master of Horror? The King of the Best-Seller? The mass producer of nightmares, of vampires and rabid dogs, of giant spiders that pull children to their deaths in sewers and cars that are satanically possessed, of women handcuffed to beds and psychotic fans who chop limbs off their favorite authors? That Stephen King?
Well, yes. That Stephen King.
The Stephen King who increasingly is being taken seriously in high schools and on college campuses across the country. The Stephen King who is winning recognition for his writing and admiring reviews for his books. The Stephen King who was, of all things, the subject of an entire academic conference at his alma mater, the University of Maine, earlier this month. Its title: "Reading Stephen King -- Issues of Censorship, Student Choice and the Place of Popular Literature in the Canon."
Stephen King in the Canon? Literary connoisseur Harold Bloom's brains must be melting, not an altogether unfamiliar occurrence in a blood-soaked Stephen King novel, though a rarity in Shakespeare, Dickens or Joyce. All of those authors have the additional cachet -- at least in Bloom's eyes -- of being dead white males. King is very much alive. It's his characters -- dozens and dozens of them -- that become dead white males.
It is almost impossible to contemplate, but King may be more popular today than ever before. Earlier this month, five books on the New York Times' paperback best-seller list were installments of King's six-part, death-row serial, "The Green Mile." And his latest two apocalyptic novels, "Desperation" and "The Regulators" (the second written under his pseudonym, Richard Bachman) occupied the top two slots on the hardcover list. His books have sold 250 million copies worldwide, and more than a score of his works have made their way onto the television or movie screen. Another, "Thinner," opened in theaters last week, and at least three more of his novels are now before the cameras.
According to published reports, King will be banking $34 million this year, whatever the critics say about him.
What they are saying about him nowadays is much kinder than it used to be. Still, it would be a stretch to say that Stephen King is widely admired in academia, where literary reputations are advanced. The vast majority of English professors would probably still cheer Stephen Dixon's contempt-laden dismissal of King. "To me, he's a total hack and shouldn't be taken seriously," says Dixon, an English professor at Johns Hopkins University and a two-time finalist for the National Book Award for fiction. "He's schlock, and teaching him is just pandering to bad taste. It is scurrilous."
Nevertheless, after 31 novels over the past 22 years, almost all of them best sellers, King is winning more and more acceptance by academicians. From Yale to Georgetown, from the University of California to the University of South Florida, they are teaching him in their classes, and they are writing books and submitting papers on his work. King, they argue, is not simply the writer of terrifying potboilers but often a sharp observer of contemporary American culture. They are not at all ashamed to link him to Poe, Hawthorne, even Faulkner. He has a lot to say, they insist; we'd do well to pay attention.
"I read Stephen King because he's telling us something about ourselves and our culture that we would seek to repress," says Tony Magistrale, an associate professor of English at the University of Vermont who teaches King and has written several books about his work.
Magistrale and a growing number of scholars say that King's books are about more than vampires, ghouls and goblins. "The Shining", they say, is about alcoholism and child abuse. "The Stand" is about biological advances that outpace the society that created them. "'Salem's Lot" is about the disintegration of community.
"There always is a subtext," says Fiedler, the Samuel Clemens professor of literature at the University of Buffalo. "Underneath the superficial horrors of his books, he writes about ordinary horrors of life, husbands who can't get along with wives, parents who can't get along with children, alcoholism, people facing bankruptcy and ruin."
The University of Maine conference, just eight miles north of King's satisfyingly Gothic home in Bangor (the one with the wrought-iron fence depicting winged gargoyles, howling wolves and spider webs), wallowed in these and other drippingly esoteric topics. English grad students and garden-variety fans alike rubbed shoulders at seminars titled "Deconstructing the Good/Evil Dualism," "Redemption through Friendship in Stephen King" and "Stephen King and Prototype Theory."
There was also this dagger to the heart of many a literature professor: a colloquium called, "Stephen King: The Shakespeare the Twentieth Century."
King, who last year won an O. Henry Award for short-story writing, is modest enough and smart enough not to include himself in such august company. His own writings suggest some ambivalence about the notion of popular writers aspiring to "serious" books. In "Misery", for example, pulp writer Paul Sheldon is punished rather grotesquely when he finally writes a worthy novel. And in "Desperation," he creates a supposed literary giant, Johnny Marinville, who is ridiculed for being nothing more than a hack writer with pretensions.
But King himself clearly does believe his books have a subtext, which he says elevates his work above that of Dean Koontz, Clive Cussler and some other writers of thrillers. Appearing at the Maine conference in a black Harley-Davidson T-shirt, worn jeans and black boots, King explains his approach to writing in his keynote speech. It is no surprise that instilling terror is his first motivation.
"I write each book twice," he says in his singsong Maine accent. "The first time, when it comes out of my head and onto the page, what I'm mostly concerned about is the emotional gradient. That writer has absolutely zippo interest in theme, allegory, symbolism, politics, ethics, sexual roles, culture or dramatic unity. What I want is to reach through the paper and grab the reader. I don't want to just mess with your head, I want to mess with your life. I want you to miss appointments, burn dinner, skip your homework. I want you tell your wife to take that moonlight stroll on the beach at Waikiki with the resort's tennis pro while you read a few more chapters to see if Jessie Burlingame is going to get out of the handcuffs or if Gage Creed is going to come back from the dead and eat his mother."
By now, his rubbery face and wide mouth have taken on a slightly demonic cast. "I want you afraid to turn off the lights," he says. "I want you sorry you started the goddamn thing in the first place, and I still don't want you to be able to stop. For me that first time through is personal, and it's really more about you than it is about me. I want you sweating bullets and looking behind doors, and nothing about this seems in the least abnormal to me. Compulsive reading is a sickness, and I've always wanted to be 'Typhoid Stevie.' "
But giving chills and thrills is not all he is about, King says. His second draft is where he satisfies his own intellectual curiosity. It is where he adds layers of meaning and resonance, metaphor and symbolism, and sly references to literary predecessors like Poe and H. .P. Lovecraft. It is the rewrite, he says, that keeps his books from being disposable, "the mental equivalent of a stick of gum."
Some, including Dixon, find those claims laughable. "King is the type that declares himself to be a serious writer, and if he says this enough there may be some dimwits who will believe it's true," says Dixon, who acknowledges that he can only stomach a few pages of King before giving up. "It's not, of course. The writing is shallow, and the writing is unliterary."
To Dixon and to Bloom, teaching King in universities typifies the dumbing-down of America, the dissolution of academic standards. "Everything is becoming a vast swamp called 'cultural studies' where everything goes," says Bloom, the Sterling professor of the humanities at Yale, whose book "The Western Canon" purports to defend literary excellence.
Those who teach King believe that the scholars who dismiss him (and scorn them) are elitists, perversely blaming King precisely because he is popular and fabulously wealthy for it. But they also acknowledge that it is the decline of literacy in America that makes King necessary. Some college professors say the King novels they assign in class are sometimes the first novels that their students have ever finished. Legions of their students seem to pass through high school on a diet of Cliffs Notes and movie versions of "Sense and Sensibility" and "Great Expectations".
Jim Farrelly, an English professor at the University of Dayton, for example, teaches a course, "Stephen King on Film," in which he assigns students to read five King novels and watch their cinematic versions. He says he successfully uses the lure of the films to get his students to read King's novels. His class is easily the most popular in the school's English department, far outdrawing such giants as Jane Austen, for instance.
Getting the students to develop the habit of reading, Farrelly says, is the goal. "If they will read other books because they learn to read through popular fiction, then I feel that I've made the connection," Farrelly says.
He is simply practicing what many have already learned at the secondary school level. If kids believe reading is drudgery, they won't read, says John Guthrie, co-director of the National Reading Center at the University of Maryland.
"The question is whether the reading kids are required to do contributes to a long-term motivation to read," says Guthrie. "If that reading is aversive, and it's reading that they want to terminate as soon as possible, then that reading is not going to turn them into long-term readers. If it is compelling and interesting and exciting, the chance of the reading leading to long-term interest is much, much higher."
Kids like King, Guthrie says. They find his stories engrossing. They enjoy his wise-acre, often juvenile humor. And they appreciate his references to familiar cultural touchstones -- to McDonald's and Pearl Jam and Jolt Cola. If you're a teacher, why not turn the kids' natural affinity for King to your advantage? According to Guthrie, King's writing contains complex characterizations, clever plots, symbolism and allegory. Studying those elements in King trains students to apply the same techniques of analysis to more complex literature, says Guthrie.
This is the "bridge" theory of literature. It holds that the works of Stephen King and other popular writers tempt students into reading more classical literature. In King's own parlance, it is the idea that "if we start them out on the marijuana of Stephen King, we'll get them to the heroin of Shakespeare."
A former high-school English teacher himself, King doesn't necessarily buy into that theory. "If reading Stephen King awakens in them a desire to read fantasy, then they might go to Borges or Robertson Davies or I. B. Singer," he says in an interview.
"But if they don't, please don't blame me and don't blame them. For every one that takes the next step up, there are four that will take the horizontal step to Koontz which, actually, I see as a step back."
Interestingly, some of those who admire King's work are not convinced he belongs in the curriculum. E. D. Hirsch, who has written famously on the essentials of cultural literacy, believes King is an engaging writer, but sees no reason for him to be taught in schools. "People buy his books by the millions; you don't have to lure people into reading Stephen King," says Hirsch, an English professor at the University of Virginia. "Perhaps a better purpose for a high-school English teacher is to require people to read things that afterward they would be glad that they read. It doesn't take any work to make people want to read Stephen King; they do anyway."
Fiedler, whose review of "It" in the Boston Globe several years ago signaled King's growing respectability, agrees with Hirsch. "I think [King's] someone people should pick up not on assignment but because you're moved to do so," he says. King is straightforward, his language contemporary and easily comprehensible. He does not require the mediation of a teacher. "That doesn't mean that his books are bad," Fiedler says. "I think they have a different function, which is to give us pleasure and enable us to escape from the world of obligation."
Bloom, of course, also believes that King has no place in schools. If you encourage kids to read King, he says, they will go no further. "The old formula is still quite true -- you can only get people to give up easier pleasures by giving them the more difficult ones." The reverse is not true, he says. If you fill the curriculum with the easier pleasures, they will never discover the harder ones.
Whether or not King is in the curriculum may be part of a broader equation -- whether his writings will be lasting. It is a question in which King betrays considerable interest, much more, it seems, than whether contemporary critics value him. "I'd like to come back as a ghost in 100 years to see if Stephen King is still on the bookshelves," he admits.
Fiedler believes King should have no worries on that score. "The only great literature is the literature that pleases many and pleases long," says Fiedler. "He pleases many, and I believe he will please long."
KING ON KING
Excerpts from Stephen King's speech at the University of Maine Oct. 11:
The desire to please or try to is more or less hard-wired into my system to the extent that when I was a small child my mother sometimes used to say, "Stevie, if you were a girl, you would always be pregnant."
Kids have minds of their own and are engaged in learning how to use them. If you tell them Stephen King is good for them, they will read me. If you tell them that I'm bad for them, that I'll warp their little minds, they will stampede to read me.
I don't want to be the ramp that kids tromp over from the dirty dock lands of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys to the big ship of literature where Dorothy Parker and Norman Mailer are holding court in first class. I just want to be me. And to tell you the truth, I feel happiest when I see some kid reading one of my books not in the classroom but sitting on a school bus heading to an away soccer game or flopped down on the beach somewhere during summer vacation.
Most importantly, I want to remind you of one thing: check under your bed.
WHEEDLING AN INTERVIEW WITH STEPHEN KING:
After a barrage of television appearances in connection with the release of "Desperation" and "The Regulators," Stephen King returned to his home in Bangor to resume work on the next installment of his Dark Towers series. That meant, his assistant explained, that he would be granting no interviews in connection with the University of Maine conference.
But then, a series of serendipitous encounters with the author prompted one last appeal:
Oct. 14, 1996
You mock me, sir.
I requested an interview with you in relation to the just-held conference at the University of Maine. I didn't get one. I begged on the basis of my being a native of Bangor. It didn't work. I understood. I prepared to move on with my life. But you toyed with me.
At the banquet Friday night, you seat yourself at the very next table to me. Should I try to get a word with you? I restrain myself.
After your speech that night, as I walk to my car across from the Center for the Arts, you emerge from the Memorial Union building and walk toward me. Should I try to buttonhole you? I do not.
The conference ends with no interview. Fine. I can deal with that. But then, Saturday night, I go to the movies, and who walks in right behind me? You guessed it. "I am meant to talk to this guy," I say to myself. But no. I remember you are a private man, and you are obviously here, as am I, to relax and enjoy a movie.
I duck into one of the what? 15 different theaters. There are maybe three other people here. Then, two more show up and you -- you -- are one of them. I groan. You sit in front of me, so that I have to look over you to see the screen. You sit there as a nagging reminder of my journalistic obligations (although less so when Teri Hatcher is on the screen). I am in Bangor. I am doing a story on the Stephen King conference. And there you are, not five yards from me. What am I, an [idiot]?
Yes, I am. I let you get away.
But to clear my conscience, I write this one last request. In light of my remarkable sensitivity to your privacy, how about a few minutes of your time for an interview over the telephone?
If nothing else, I can find out what you thought of "2 Days in the Valley."
Epilogue: A few hours after this letter was faxed to Stephen King, a telephone rang at 501 N. Calvert St. "What did you think of the movie?" the Master of Horror asked.
Pub Date: 10/27/96