Last weekend a group of us joined millions of other horror geeks for the opening weekend of IT, a cinematic re-imagining of the 1990 TV movie imagining of Stephen King’s epic, 1,000-page novel, originally published in 1986.
I was quite excited, as was my mom, a King mega-fan, just like the throngs of other King fans nerding out in the Alamo Drafthouse theater over their bottomless popcorn bowls and adult milkshakes. Not only is IT is my favorite King novel, it was the topic of the first chapter of my doctoral dissertation, which grew out of an undergraduate English paper that kinda sorta set the whole shit crit thing in motion. In that respect, IT is arguably the heart and soul of what became my academic career (such that it was). IT is where it all began, this quest to understand how we imagine embodiment and what that says about the society we live in.
All of this renewed interest in the film—and by extension the book—has also renewed regrets that I never did anything with my dissertation, but also stirred a small hopeful feeling that maybe it’s still possible. So, I wanted to post the chapter here not because it’s in any shape to really be published in its current form, but just to make a first incremental little baby step in the direction of finally doing something with it. Cuz after all this time, I still believe in that project, which is also to say that I think what King is doing and saying in that novel is important and revealing.
From the Bedroom to the Bathroom: the Scatological Horror of Stephen King
In 1989, when I was 10, Stephen King was the shit, figuratively. My mother understood this and maintained an ever expanding library of King novels on a special shelf of the living room bookcase; my best friend Sarah understood this and was forever reading King in and out of class, further whetting my curiosity. Unfortunately for me, the King shelf at home was off limits, since my mother, as much concerned parent as she was avid King fan, felt that his novels were not for the impressionable eyes of children.
Why not? I asked, intrigued. What’s so bad about Stephen King?
Too much profanity, replied my mother with mysterious finality: case closed.
Or not—because she had never spoken so enticingly, and I would crave the quiet Saturday afternoons when, my parents off running errands, I could carefully slide King’s hefty volumes from their place on the living room bookshelf and curl up on the couch, one ear cocked for the sound of the garage door. My particular favorite was It, an epic tale in which a group of preadolescent outcasts bands against a shapeshifting, sewer-dwelling monster—in part because the novel was satisfyingly profane in all the ways I had hoped. Full of ess-words and eff-words and killer clowns whispering seductively from inside storm drains (the kind of storm drains my grandmother had warned me to stay away from during heavy rains because, she said, you could get sucked down below) It made good on both my mother’s enthusiasm for King and her proscription against him.
At the time I understood this proscription literally; too much profanity meant too much swearing. Yet in retrospect I see that her injunction made a more subtle distinction as well. In saying, Do not read King because he’s profane, my mother was also effectively saying by contrast, but you’re free to read Conrad and Faulkner and Hemingway and DeLillo if you choose—canonical, literary writers, in other words—the implication being that while these authors wrote works that were just as disturbing as King’s novels (if not moreso), they presented this disturbing content in such a way that at age 10 I could not readily understand or even recognize it. My mother’s injunction thus implied a distinction between an imagined realm of “real literature,” in which writers presented disturbing content covertly, shrouded in layers of complex metaphor or formal experimentation, and the world of popular fiction, in which the text was bald and eviscerated, its meaning gutted and exposed for the apprehension of all—even, or especially, children. This injunction did not state, Don’t read Salinger because you won’t understand him; but rather, Don’t read King because you will.
I begin this chapter on horror and the scatological with my personal introduction to King because I believe it reveals something important about the way we conceptualize notions of the popular, and by extension the way we construct and ascribe cultural value generally. What my early encounters with King capture is the relationship between the frequently scatological content of horror (its “profanity”) and the metaphors of waste and excretion used to position the genre, and popular culture more broadly, as “crap”, “trash”, or “filth” in relation to an implied “real” literature or cinema. According to horror theorist Mark Jankovich, these discourses (and by extension the bodily norms that undergird them) are “not limited to a small group of self-appointed cultural guardians, but are part of everyday language and culture. These attitudes have acquired the status of the obvious and the common sense” (1992, 7-8). Even people who enjoy horror, and maybe especially people who enjoy horror, can easily recognize that the pleasures of the genre lie with its divergence from standards of taste and decorum. In this way the spectacular display of the excretory body within horror and the ordinary processes of distinction-making used to position horror as “low” culture are linked through everyday understandings of the excretory body as disgusting or taboo. The corporeal terms in which horror is devalued links the frequently scatological content of the horror text and the formal accessibility of that content with a history of classist understandings of popular culture and its consumers.1 If King is profane, then, this is because he is read by those who (in one critic’s words) “don’t ordinarily read much more than the MEN/WOMEN signs on restrooms” (Schweitzer 1985, 5).
Schweitzer’s words are all the more revealing in that, as I will argue in this chapter, King interrogates this linkage between a devalued embodiment and a devalued popularity precisely by writing from the bathroom, bringing front and central to his fiction the disgusting excretory body and the spaces in which we are trained to recognize it as such. For this reason it is too simple to say that horror simply affirms the taboo status of the excretory body, because horror is arguably one of the cultural sites where excreta is most acceptably and legitimately visible. Bodily fluids may be “matter out of place” for western cultures, but because horror stages an encounter with what is culturally out of place, the scatological is “in place” (legitimate, acceptable) when present in the horror text. Stated differently, horror is the most culturally acceptable affect in response to a public display of the excretory body. This degree of affective acceptability is in fact why I start an extended study of the scatological with a study of horror, examining the relationship between the semi-legitimacy of the scatological within horror and the semi-legitimacy accorded horror from without: in other words, between the bodily economies of ingestion and excretion that the horror text spectacularly displays and the cultural economies that sort, organize, and classify texts, bodies, and objects, including some as “high” or legitimate and expelling others as “low” or vulgar/profane.
Stephen King is a particularly apt case study to these ends, because he arguably embodies not only the genre, not only popular fiction generally, but the mainstream of middle class American culture. As horror historian David J. Skal writes, “King doesn’t just mine popular culture; in many ways he is popular culture” (2001, 378). And as such his novels are deemed “crap” by a number of cultural commentators: not only cultural elites and social conservatives (traditional critics of horror) but fans of the avant-garde horror tradition as well. In her essay on the overlap between Euro-trash art horror and lowbrow/low-budget horror in US fanzines, Joan Hawkins argues that the lack of broad social support for lowbrow horror is precisely what fans value, perceiving a “’uniqueness of vision’ … [that] allow[s] [them] to distinguish [lowbrow horror] from commercial film production, which is generally despised. Low budget horror is fetishized as real and authentic[;] … commercial horror, by contrast, is ‘crap'” (2001, 312). My rationale for focusing on mass culture paragon Stephen King rather than on a potentially avant-garde “cinema vomitif” (see Brottman 1997) is precisely because commercial horror is disparaged in scatological terms by the genre’s detractors and its hardcore aficionados.
The representation of the excretory body in the commercial horror of Stephen King is thus triply interesting: first, because King’s mass popularity means his fiction is a cultural site where the excretory body appears most legitimately; second, because this mainstream success is also the site where multiple discussions converge regarding the distinction between real literature and popular “crap;” and third, because King, as I argue here, frequently uses scatology to comment metafictionally on his own status as the “literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries” (Collings 1991, 210). Through a literary analysis of the novels It and Dreamcatcher, then, followed by a more sociological examination of King’s status as “brand name” cultural phenomenon, I look at how the devalued status of the excretory body centrally structures both internal textual dynamics and—following Pierre Bourdieu—the larger social dynamics of classification and distinction-making that position King ambivalently in relation to the literary canon. In this way we can use the case of Stephen King to talk more broadly about how somatophobia lies at the heart of cultural classification generally. Not only cultural objects, but people and social groups are included and excluded, sorted into categories of in and out, up and down, based on perceived proximity to the body or nature. A discussion of the imbricated relationship between cultural hierarchies and social hierarchies for this reason has to be able to account for and theorize the existence and operation of what I would term ecological hierarchies.
The Psychic Geography of It and Dreamcatcher
King is well known for his scatological bent; as one critic comments in a review of It, his fiction contains so much “blood, mud, slime, sewage, vomit, urine, feces, and oozing flesh” that it almost exceeds the classification of horror: “[his] spendthrift elaboration and gargantuan iteration are more appropriate to the genius of comedy than to the spirit of horror, which is anal and claustrophiliac” (Stade 1987, 262). Moreover, the two novels I want to look at here, It (1986) and Dreamcatcher (2001), are among his most scatological and bathroom-obsessed. But while his mainstream, brand name recognition means that King is perhaps the visible apotheosis of scatological horror, he is hardly exceptional in taking the bathroom as center stage. Within horror film at least, there is in fact a long history of bathroom scenes stretching back to Psycho; in this way the inauguration of bathroom horror coincides with the emergence of modern horror, or what film scholar Andrew Tudor calls “paranoid horror”.2 And the bathroom itself is simply an extrapolation of the “closed space” of much gothic fiction and film (Aguirre 1990); within the imaginary of modern horror, the bathroom is, according to preeminent King scholar Tony Magistrale, the most gothic space in the house (2005, 73), a space where the structuring oppositions of capitalist modernity (public/private, outer/inner, culture/nature) both meet and diverge.
The prevalence of the bathroom as a site for horror might be read as a confirmation of somatophobia, with the visceral effect of disgust produced by the graphic display of the scatological body reaffirming the propriety of the body’s ordinarily taboo status. Visual artist and art historian Margaret Morgan, for instance, has most recently and thoroughly examined the ubiquity of the bathroom in horror; in her installation piece Toilet Training (2001), she seamlessly stitches together bathroom scenes from 20 different popular films (largely horror) to highlight how “in a body-phobic, misogynistic culture, plumbing stands in for the very bodily stuff that it allows us to flush away – the wastes and fluids we’d rather not ponder, lest we be reminded of just how porous and permeable we really are” (“Margaret Morgan”). She comes to similar conclusions in the accompanying essay “The Plumbing of Modern Life” (2002), which examines the toilet as a cultural icon (in art and architecture as much as in horror films) and draws a connection between the white porcelain “revered and reviled” by industrial culture and the white women whose bodies are rendered both abject and desirable, targeted for mutilation in the tubs and showers of horror cinema. In life and in film, plumbing encodes and embodies a fear of the body, in particular of female sexuality, perceived excessiveness of which is to be controlled as sewers and toilets control the flow and flooding of rivers and watersheds within the urban environment.
King’s bathroom scenes bear out Morgan’s analysis in some ways, but in more important ways complicate it. As I will discuss below, It does use plumbing to figure social processes of abjection, and in some ways it is female sexuality that is abjected (the final horrific revelation at the end of the novel is that the monster is not only female, but—horror of horrors—pregnant). However, these dynamics are absent in the later, but equally scatological Dreamcatcher, whose excretory bodies are exclusively male, and whose bathroom scenes reflect anxieties around not sexuality but the vulnerability of the body to environmental contamination within a networked society (what Ulrich Beck has termed the “risk society”). King’s different deployments of the bathroom in the two novels thus reflect an overall movement in the genre toward what I would call an urban environmental gothic, which questions rather than affirms the body’s abject status by drawing attention to the structural and geographic forces that produce bodily norms, and in so doing recasts the traditional textual and psychic dynamics of repression and return that Morgan emphasizes in more materialist and ecological terms.
It: Scatology as Ethical Refusal of the Refusal
Published in the mid-1980s, It culminates the early part of King’s career, which focused more traditionally on supernatural horror (psionic powers in Carrie, The Dead Zone, and Firestarter; vampires in ‘Salem’s Lot; a haunted motel in The Shining; zombies in Pet Sematary). As many reviewers have pointed out, It is a monster extravaganza. In King’s words, It is his final work concerned with “children and monsters;” after It his fiction would take a more psychological direction as he attempted to cultivate an image of himself as a writer of serious fiction rather than a genre or popular novelist.
As King tells it, It is the story of “six boys and one girl, none of them happy, none of them accepted by their peers, who stumbled into a nightmare during one hot summer when Eisenhower was still president” (1986, 143-144). The six boys and one girl in question make up the members of the “Loser’s Club,” a group of preadolescent friends drawn together by shared experiences of marginalization: there’s the Jewish kid, the fat kid, the token black kid, the token girl from an abusive working class home, the wimpy (thus queer-coded) asthmatic, the nerdy wiseass with Coke bottle glasses, and protagonist Stuttering Bill, who, appropriately, grows up to be a horror novelist. Conveniently for a novel that sets out to be an epic of horror, the monster they face is a glamour, a shapeshifter that appears to its victims in the guise of his or her worst fears, allowing King to bring together in one novel all the classic monsters of the western literary and cinematic unconscious. To different characters It appears as the Mummy, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Rodan, the Werewolf, a giant crawling eye, and in its final form in the novel, a giant spider (the final form, revealed to be female and pregnant).
As a collection of masks seemingly without a real face beneath, It is arguably the experience of horror itself – a symbol of whatever is incomprehensible or incapable of being rationalized within a given symbolic system.3 Though the Losers eventually learn that It arrived long ago as a kind of alien presence on something resembling a spaceship, they are simultaneously aware – and we are told – that this account merely approximates what It really is. What It is is absolute exteriority to time, space, and language; prehistoric, presocial, and prehuman, it comes from “ago” and from “outside everything”, as Richie Tozier learns during a smoke-induced vision of It’s origins (728). As such It is monstrosity itself, a primal and archetypal experience of namelessness or inarticulability onto which different cultures in different historical eras have projected particular faces.
The story of the Losers’ confrontation with It unfolds in Derry, a fictional small town in King’s home state of Maine. It is here that It lives and sleeps, awakening in 27-year cycles to prey on Derry’s most vulnerable residents. The act of violence that signals It’s return, for instance, involves a homophobic mob throwing a gay man into the Canal that runs through the middle of Derry during the town festival; later in the book we learn that, several generations before, a catastrophic fire at a black servicemen’s nightclub announces It’s return. Manifesting as cyclic eruptions of sacrificial violence required to maintain the ruling social order, It is thus the abject in Kristeva’s sense, a symbolic banishment or catharsis that secures communal bonds.
Its primary victims, however, are children, who in turn are uniquely attuned to the monster’s presence in Derry. By contrast, adults are actively oblivious to the mysterious cycles of violence that recur with each successive generation. King in fact presents adulthood as the assumption of a willful ignorance of historical violence, a purposeful forgetting that allows it to repeat—which arguably constitutes its repetition. King positions this violent compulsion to repeat against the transformative sort of circularity embodied by the Losers’ collective journey as adults as they travel back to Derry to confront the monster they battled as children, a physical journey of return that requires them to journey psychically from willful disavowal to willful remembrance. King represents these journeys narratively via the recursive logic of the novel, which alternates between 1958, the year of their first unsuccessful confrontation with It, and 1985, the year of their second and final confrontation with It as adults. The Losers embody forces of newness, change, and growth stemming from a radical remembering, which King opposes to It’s oppressive compulsion to repeat, rooted in forgetting: “It had made a great self-discovery: It did not want change or surprise. It did not want new things, ever. It wanted only to eat and sleep and dream and eat again” (966). Its circularity maintains the ruling order, whereas the circularity of the Losers is revolutionary; it is a radical recursivity on the part of the excluded against the rituals of sacrificial violence that renew social relations of exclusion.
The setting for these confrontations between monster and children is the Derry municipal sewer system. It lives in the sewers and uses the system of drains that link the private domestic sphere to the surrounding watershed as a means of transportation. Consequently, many scenes in the novel take place within the bathroom, given that its sinks, tubs, and toilets serve as portals between the surfaceworld of domestic normality and the subterranean sewer world of It. At the outset of the novel Bill Denbrough’s younger brother George is killed by It, his arm ripped off at the shoulder at the mouth of a stormdrain, and throughout the novel multiple characters hear the voices of other dead children, murdered in or near the sewers, talking and laughing from bathroom sinks that spout fresh blood visible only to children. Likewise, half the vignettes that introduce us to the Losers as adults unfold in the bathroom. After receiving Mike Hanlon’s call that It has returned to Derry, Eddie Kaspbrak packs his entire medicine cabinet in preparation of his return to Derry; Richie Tozier pukes his guts as memories of It begin to surface; and Stan Uris commits suicide in the bathtub. In all of these scenes, the bathroom is figured as a space that evokes or recalls what we want to disavow. As a space that links the surfaces of urban domestic normality with the largely invisible systems that manage the byproducts of capitalist production and consumption – its garbage and sewage – the bathroom is where we flush or otherwise dispose of what we want to forget, and where what we want to forget sometimes returns to memory, with visceral, even emetic consequences:
Did [Richie] remember? Just enough not to want to remember any more, and you could bet your fur on that.
A smell of garbage, a smell of shit, and a smell of something else. Something worse than either. It was the stink of the beast, the stink of It, down there in the darkness under Derry where the machines thundered on and on. He remembered George–
But that was too much and he ran for the bathroom, plundering into his Eames chair on his way and almost falling. He made it…barely. He slid across the slick tiles to the toilet on his knees like some weird break-dancer, gripped the edges, and vomited everything in his guts. Even then it wouldn’t stop; suddenly he could see Georgie Denbrough as if he had last seen him yesterday, Georgie who had been the start of it all, Georgie who had been murdered in the fall of 1957. Georgie had died right after the flood, one of his arms had been ripped from its socket, and Rich had blocked all of that out of his memory. But sometimes those things come back, oh yes indeedy, they come back, sometimes they come back.
The spasm passed and Rich groped blindly for the flush. Water roared. His early supper, regurgitated in hot chunks, vanished tastefully down the drain. Into the sewers. Into the pound and stink and darkness of the sewers (66).
Much of the literary criticism on the novel understands the sewer setting as part of a moral geography of good and evil, according to which the town’s appearance is belied by what lies beneath, and It embodies the evil and violence visited by the townsfolk upon those already marginalized. For example, Tony Magistrale views the novel’s topographical organization—aboveground/belowground, city/sewer—as reflective of King’s critique of Derry’s social corruption and decay: It “is the collective representation of the town’s adult crimes and darkest impulses. The sewer system of any city contains the wastes of its populace; Derry’s accumulative moral wastes coalesce into Pennywise [It]” (1992, 110). In Magistrale’s analysis, both monster and sewer symbolically conceal what is “within” and “below”, a reading that reduces the meaning of scatological in the novel to its purely negative aspect, equating shit with sin.
This sort of analysis is similarly applied to King’s focus on the relationship between childhood and adulthood – a recurrent motif in his fiction – reading it simplistically as his desire to oppose the “innocent” world of children to the morally corrupt world that has replaced belief in supernatural possibilities with an anxious adherence to a rational universe devoid of magic. In his reading of It, for instance, critic Jonathan P. Davis writes that “Childhood to King is a magical time, a time when the world seems magnificent in its literal beauty, a time when a human being is most splendid because of ignorance of worldly evil” (1998, 131). Within this moral framework, children’s belief in the supernatural presents an argument for theism, for the power of spiritual belief and ritual as an antidote to the worldly evil represented by the monster and the sewer.
But I actually think King’s project is far more complex and radical with respect to monsters, the sewers they inhabit, and the children who confront them there than a moral framework can account for. Firstly, because it is apparent that the distinctions between city/sewer and adulthood/childhood that organize the novel spatially and temporally chart a psychic landscape more than they do a moral one. We might read these distinctions more usefully as a dramatization of the split subject of traditional Freudian psychoanalysis than as a battle between good and evil; the sewer and the hydraulic logic of modern wastewater disposal are models for both the “clean and proper” adult subject constituted through its repressions, as well as for an official history constituted by what it actively erases, excludes, or forgets. Sewer and city, adult and child emblematize a relationship between conscious and unconscious, a realm of apparent normality and a realm of unincorporable unthinkability.4
And secondly, the novel offers a theory of this split subject, linking its formation to the epistemic violence that results from a modern privileging of rationality. In this way, the novel both dramatizes and problematizes the social and psychic orders of capitalist modernity, suggesting their historical formation in Enlightenment views of nature and the body as inanimate, mechanized, and innately subject to rational/technological domination—as disenchanted, in a word. It challenges the forces of disenchantment that produce the rationalist split subject, first on the level of narrative (in the story of children who descend into the sewers to defeat forces of exclusion/purification) and secondly on a formal level (in King’s metafictional use of scatology to critique the cultural and literary forces of purification that exclude him as a popular or genre writer).
We can see how the novel theorizes modernity as disenchantment in King’s extended discussion of Derry’s political ecology. For the sewers in It are not simply symbols of a repressed corporeality, but the technological means for the residents of Derry to use local waterways as dumping ground for this despised embodiment. As was true for much of the United States from the widespread adoption of municipal sewers in the late 19th century until the formation of the EPA in the 1970s, the people of Derry use local waterways as the repository for all raw sewage and grey water; the result is that the Kenduskeag is “polluted to drop dead levels” (185): whereas “[o]nce there had probably been fish in [the] river[,] [n]ow your chances of catching a trout wouldn’t be so hot. Your chances of catching a used wad of toilet paper would be better” (344-5).
Released downstream of downtown, Derry’s wastewater flows into an undeveloped area of town called The Barrens, where the Losers Club plays and where all of Derry’s environmental bads converge (right next to the poor part of town, as many a sociological study into environmental racism and classism would corroborate). Like the bathroom, the Barrens are a liminal space where the opposing distinctions between “culture” and “nature” are both erased and reaffirmed, a place within the city where, uncannily, “the only vestiges of the city … were Derry Pumphouse #3 (the municipal sewage-pumping station) and the City Dump” (186). Its waterways full of sewage and washwater, its air smoky from the adjacent dump’s incinerator, and its landscape covered with “trash plants,” the Barrens are what geographer Kevin Anderson has called “marginal nature”: a space of danger and disuse, but equally an enchanted place where a repressed and managed nature returns, a place whose exclusion from economic productivity makes it a safe haven for those excluded socially. The entire novel, in fact, is a tour of such marginal and excluded spaces, Derry’s industrial backspaces and ruins: not just sewers and dumps, but gravel pits, abandoned houses, trainyards, and alleyways at the back of stores where trucks offload their cargo.
King presents pollution and the domination over nature it represents as the “dark side” of Derry’s economic success, which is also centered on the Kenduskeag, enclosed in a concrete canal as it passes through town. “It had been the Canal which had fully opened Derry to the lumber trade in the years 1884 to 1910; it had been the Canal which had birthed Derry’s boom years” (18); and it is the Canal where Derry dumps its shit and where It resides. When the Losers finally defeat It at the end of the novel, Derry crumbles as well due to the total collapse of its invisible infrastructures. Flooding overwhelms its sewers; its streets collapse, as does the Standpipe, the water tower that houses Derry’s water supply. Bridges cave, power transformers explode, and the office building of Bangor Hydroelectric Company sinks into the ground. Inside the houses of Derry, drains back up catastrophically:
At 6:06, every toilet on Merit Street suddenly exploded in a gyser of shit and raw sewage as some unimaginable reversal took place in the pipes which fed the holding tanks of the new waste-treatment plant in the Barrens. In some cases these explosions were strong enough to tear holes in bathroom ceilings. A woman named Anne Stuart was killed when an ancient gear-wheel catapulted from her toilet along with a gout of sewage. The gear-wheel went through the frosted glass of the shower door and passed through her throat like a terrible bullet as she washed her hair. … .Another woman was killed when the sudden violent reversal of sewage, driven by expanding methane gases, caused her toilet to explode like a bomb. The unfortunate woman, who was sitting on the john at the time and reading the current Banana Republic catalogue, was torn to pieces. (998-999)
This “unimaginable reversal” is precisely a refusal of the refusal that the sewer represents in its embodiment of the rationalist imperative to master nature and the body. The Losers refuse the logic of the sewer as they confront what Derry wants only to forget, as does the novel as it meditates, at great length, on the excretory body. In this respect, the floods that bookend the novel can be seen as the revenge of the urbanized environment on the modern project of river taming: “you couldn’t drop that much shit into a raging body of water without causing a lot of trouble,” says one of Derry’s residents as he flees the rising water (1051). This complicates Morgan’s argument that horror only reaffirms the desire to master (female) flooding; in It, flooding is an ethical refusal of the refusal that plumbing symbolizes.
Thus, what would be forces of evil and “sin” according to a moral framework might be read historically as the strictures of an oppressive symbolic and social order grounded in the Enlightenment privileging of instrumental rationalism, a logic of purification that justifies the disenchantment and exploitation of nature as well as the marginalization of the social others represented by the novel’s 7 Losers. Similarly, children are not so much “innocents” to morally “corrupt” adults; rather, children represent the counterrational and the forces of reenchantment against the forces of disenchanted modernity. From the beginning, King contrasts adults’ fatal inability to believe in the extrahuman (to see the blood that spouts from the sinks) with kids’ “faith” in monsters. But this is not faith in a religious or theistic sense so much as it is an openness to the autonomy of more-than-human otherness: faith as arational, as nonmodern. This capacity allows children to coexist with the horrific/inexplicable, whereas adults, King suggests, cannot cope:
[Ben Hanscom] remembered that the day after he had seen the Mummy on the iced-up Canal, his life had gone on as usual. He had known that whatever it had been had come very close to getting him, but his life had gone on. He had attended school, taken an arithmetic test, visited the library when school was over, and eaten with his usual heartiness. He had simply incorporated the thing he had seen on the Canal into his life, and if he had almost been killed by it…well, kids were always almost getting killed. … Kids were better at almost dying, and they were also better at incorporating the inexplicable into their lives. … A sudden upheaval of beauty or terror at ten did not preclude an extra cheesedog or two for lunch at noon. But when you grew up, all that changed. You no longer lay awake in your bed, sure something was crouching in the closet or scratching at the window…but when something did happen, something beyond rational explanation, the circuits overloaded. … You couldn’t just incorporate what had happened into your life experience. It didn’t digest. (509-510)
Ben Hanscom’s choice of language is interesting, implying as it does that the rationalist symbolic and social order dramatized by the novel is one that cannot abide not only the inexplicable, but the ordinary range of embodied experience as well; the inexplicable in fact equated with the body. The adult/modern subject casts off what is inexplicable like shit or vomit rather than “digest” it. This childhood tolerance for both the inexplicable and the porousness and instability of the human body (“shit washes off,” Stan reassures the others as they descend into the sewers) echoes Bill’s adult encounter with a skater kid upon his return to Derry. Without thinking he advises the kid to be careful—the standard adult directive—to which the kid replies, “You can’t be careful on a skateboard” (569). The implication is that one must, as an adult, accept the risks inherent in mortality, the uncertainty and unpredictability of embodied existence, as a child does.
This childlike “digestion” of monsters is ultimately what allows the Losers, even as adults, to defeat the monster (that is, to undo the logic of sacrificial violence the monster represents). This is reflected in the talisman Bill uses against It, an expression originally learned to help him overcome his stutter: he thrusts his fists against the posts and still insists he sees the ghosts. This mantra suggests that if It, that which cannot be spoken, thrives on a refusal to accept the inexplicable, the key to It’s undoing lies in a radical affirmation or insistence, despite social/historical disavowal, that one “sees the ghosts,” a speaking of what cannot be spoken.
As a mode of sustained reflection on what we don’t want to confront, the horror novel similarly engages in a kind of “unimaginable reversal,” insisting against a modern logic of purification and disenchantment that that it “sees the ghosts”. It is arguably for this reason that, of the 7 Losers, Bill Denbrough and Mike Hanlon are the most central characters to the novel. A horror novelist and a librarian, respectively, Bill and Mike represent the writer of tales and their collector and archivist; through them King presents writing and archiving as modes of radical remembering, against the violence of forgetting/repression that It and Derry represent. Storytelling and archiving alike thus comprise ethical acts of reenchantment similar to the Losers’ battle against the monster.
It: Scatology as Metafiction
As also suggested by the centrality of Bill and Mike, It is very aware of itself as a novel, and specifically as a horror novel. Yet this self-referentiality is also an awareness of being a novel within a genre deemed not quite legitimate. “It’s as if I’ve fallen into a story,” Mike Hanlon writes in his diary; “[b]ut if this is a story … it’s not one of those classic screamers by Lovecraft or Bradbury or Poe. … The gothic conventions are all wrong” (140-141). Mike’s allusion to King’s literary “wrongness” points to another way scatology is omnipresent in It – as a carnivalesque, metafictional element that calls attention to King’s expulsion from the literary canon as a genre writer of popular “crap” or “trash.” In this way, the geographical relationship between city and sewer, adult and child, maps out a cultural as well as psychic topography, delineating the status distinctions (up/down) and dynamics of inclusion and exclusion (in/out) that trouble not only the novel’s Losers but King himself as a genre writer deemed “low” in relation to hegemonic definitions of literature or “high” culture. Just as King’s Losers refuse to refuse a confrontation with the monster in the sewers, so too does King in It refuse the refusal upon which definitions of the literary turn: a refusal of the commercial, mainstream, and popular – associated with a kind of gross, corporeal accessibility – in contrast to a “real literature” whose meaning is obscure, requiring critical exegesis by a trained body of experts. King thus exposes the excretory body, and the sewers and bathrooms intended to conceal it, in order to self-consciously and garishly showcase a devalued popularity or accessibility, and to resist a literary criticism that assumes the possibility of the text’s total explicability, rationalizability or mastery.
On a formal level, this deployment of scatology equates to a kind of purposefully radical accessibility: firstly, a baldness of description and language deemed vulgar, even pornographic; and secondly, a willful immersion in contemporary culture deemed grotesque. We see this first instance in the scene right before Patty Uris discovers her husband Stan dead in the bathtub, victim of suicide after learning of It’s return. As she walks anxiously up the stairs to the bathroom, Patty reflects on the novel Stan had recently been reading by his childhood friend Bill Denbrough (whose status as horror writer clearly mirrors King’s own): “It had not just been a novel, she told her mother later; it had been a horrorbook. She said it just that way, all one word, the way she would have said sexbook. … ‘It was full of monsters,’ she said. ‘Full of monsters chasing after little children. There were killings, and…I don’t know…bad feelings and hurt. Stuff like that.’ It had, in fact, struck her as almost pornographic” (38). With a sort of ironic self-consciousness, King draws a connection between the sexual display of pornography and the violent and gory display of the popular horror novel – both deemed gratuitous and profane by critics. But in both cases, what is “profane” about this display is not its content – not what it displays – but its form, the fact that what it displays can be easily deciphered by all. As he takes us into the too-quiet bathroom with Patty, King depicts both her anxiety and the scene she stumbles onto in prose so simplistic it is almost puerile: “The bathroom was lit by fluorescent tubes. It was very bright. There were no shadows. You could see everything, whether you wanted to or not” (58, my emphasis).
The image of a naked Stan Uris floating in the bathtub, wrists slashed and bloody, is undoubtedly gruesome. But gruesomeness is not necessarily profanity; the profanity of the passage results from the act of drawing back the proverbial (and literal) shower curtain and showing us everything, but more importantly from the fact that by setting up the display in the bathroom and the sewers—spaces that, within the psychic topography constructed by the novel, represent absolute anteriority to language and rationalization—King insists we not mitigate our horror by interpreting or rationalizing away what we have just witnessed. The act of writing from the bathrooms and sewers is thus an attempt to incapacitate the reader’s interpretive drive so that they are forced to confront an abjected corporeality or materiality without the protective, transcendent rationality of adulthood. But it is also an act of literary class warfare, an attempt to incapacitate the critic’s drive to master the text, to disavow the horrific by giving it an economic or social explanation. The true profanity, for which King is both venerated and prohibited,5 lies in his request that his readers believe that what is horrific about the horror text evades complete explication; and more broadly, that what makes fiction itself powerful in its effects on the reader is its resistance, in the final instance, to rational analysis.6 In this respect, then, King is like the undergraduate in the literature or film classroom who resists critique because of its puritanical threat to pleasure, maintaining that “it’s just a story/movie; you’re reading too much into it!” Yet I would argue that this stance is not anti-intellectual so much at is a rejection of classist understandings of popular culture premised on a refusal of that which is readily accessible or pleasurable (and a disparagement of those who enjoy it).
We thus might view Stanley Uris, who commits suicide rather than confront It as an adult, as an embodiment of one of King’s harshest critics, the rationalist academic for whom everything must signify something else. For instance, when an illustrated history of Derry comes to life as the seven adolescent Losers look on, Stan denies that a moving apparition in the pictures of Pennywise the Clown, one of Its chief incarnations, is real:
Stan snatched the album from his hands and slammed it shut. He held it closed with both hands, the tendons standing out along the inner surfaces of his wrists and forearms. He looked around at the others with eyes that were nearly insane. “No,” he said rapidly. “No, no, no.”
And suddenly Bill found he was more concerned with Stan’s repeated denials than with the clown, and he understood that this was exactly the sort of reaction the clown had hoped to provoke. …
“No,” Stan said softly.
“Yes,” Bill said.
“No,” Stan said again.
“Yes. We a-a-all–”
“–a-a-all suh-haw it, Stan,” Bill said. He looked at the others.
“Yes,” Ben said.
“Yes,” Richie said.
“Yes,” Mike said. “Oh my God, yes.”
“Yes,” Bev said.
Bill looked at Stan, demanding with his eyes that Stan look back at him. “Duh-don’t let it g-g-get y-you, man,” Bill said. “Yuh-you suh-saw it, t-t-too.”
“I didn’t want to!” Stan wailed. …
“But y-y-you duh-duh-did.” (731-32)
In the end, however, Stan cannot accept that what he sees is real, that a book (“just a story”) could come to life; unable to “digest” this experience, he kills himself: not because he is afraid of It but because It offends him, because It disrupts his belief in an entirely stable, material, and rational universe, a universe in which the pictures in photo albums do not leak blood; werewolves do not lurk in school boiler rooms; the dead do not come back to life; and what gets flushed, negated, disappeared by the collection of tubes and pipes that snake their way beneath the town of Derry does not return into the harsh, revealing light of the bathroom.
The second way scatology is present in the novel as a self-conscious referencing of a devalued formal accessibility is in King’s willful (even gleeful) immersion in consumer culture. For official definitions of literature that understand “real literature” as that which strives toward aesthetic rarity, timelessness, and universality, King is offensive because his writing exhibits a ruthless kind of contemporaneity and commerciality perceived in terms of corporeal excess, as grotesque or vulgar. Even critics who have tried to rehabilitate king’s literary status by working him into a gothic tradition have bemoaned this aspect of his fiction, an example of how (as Mike Hanlon put it) “the conventions are all wrong.” Referring to Cujo, sympathetic critic Alan Warren nonetheless complains that “one cannot go thirty pages into [the novel] without mention of Luke Skywalker, Hogan’s Heroes, Gilligan’s Island, Mike Wallace, Jerry Falwell, Darth Vader, the New York Mets, and the Rolling Stones” (1985, 17). This is equally true of It, which takes a certain delight in namechecking the signposts of consumer culture.
King seems particularly aware, however, that consumption is linked to bodily anxieties, specifically a desire to contain and master the excretory body. “If you would know all there is to know about an American man or woman of the middle class as the millennium nears its end,” he writes, “you would need only to look in his or her medicine cabinet—or so it has been said” (79). Then, in a passage that goes on for several paragraphs, King introduces asthmatic Eddie Kasbrak by way of the brand name pills and bottles overflowing the shelves of said cabinet, voyeuristically exposing the leaky truth of the body against bourgeois norms that insist on the absolute absence of bodily excess, exudate, or excrescence (Bakhtin’s “classical body”):
On the top shelf there’s Anacin, Excedrin, Excedrin P.M., Contac, Gelusil, Tylenol, and a large blue jar of Vicks, looking like a bit of brooding deep twilight under glass. There is a bottle of Vivarin, a bottle of Serutan (That’s “Nature’s” spelled backwards, the ads on Lawrence Welk used to say when Eddie Kaspbrak was but a wee slip of a lad), and two bottles of Phillips’ Milk of Magnesia[.] … Ex-Lax. Carter’s Little Pills. Those two keep Eddie Kaspbrak moving the mail. Here, nearby, is Kaopectate, Pepto-Bismol, and Preparation H in case the mail moves too fast or too painfully. Also some Tucks in a screw-top jar just to keep everything tidy after the mail has gone through, be it just an advertising circular or two addressed to OCCUPANT or a big old special-delivery package. Here is Formula 44 for coughs, Nyquil and Dristan for colds, and a big bottle of castor oil. There’s a tin of Sucrets in case Eddit’s throat gets sore, and there’s a quartet of mouthwashes: Chloraseptic, Cepacol, Cepestat in the spray bottle, and of course good old Listerine, often imitated but never duplicated. Visine and Murine for the eyes. Cortaid and Neosporin ointment for the skin, … a tube of Oxy-5 and a plastic bottle of Oxy-Wash (because Eddie would definitely rather have a few less cents than a few more zits), and some tetracycline pills (79-80).
On one level, the scatological humor of this passage, coupled with King’s excessive enumeration of brand name products, functions as a carnivalesque riposte of the bourgeois classical body. But on another, more formal level, the passage functions as metafictional reference to a literary canon that excludes King both for his immersion in the banalities of consumer culture. Embracing his status as “the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries”—a comparison that bespeaks King’s awareness that his devaluation is grounded in the conceptual link between a gross corporeality and a gross commercialism—King refuses to strive for transcendence of the embedded and the immanent, insisting instead on the pleasures of style, plot, and setting: the elements of story. As storyteller he promotes an embodied symbolic, a symbolic in which the body is not the constitutive outside to meaning but rather its source. As literary critic Linda Badley writes in “Stephen King Viewing the Body,” writing for King is not an escape from embodiment through textuality, but a means of plunging into and embracing it: writing as story, an oral act rather than transcendent Word or Law, and meaning as utterance rather than rarified sublimation (1996, 165).
This refusal to refuse the pleasures of commerciality, body, and story is ultimately what positions King as “crap”, as suggested in one deeply satirical scene that seems to tell the story of King’s own coming of age as a writer through the character of Stuttering Bill Denbrough. “Here,” he writes,
is a poor boy from the state of Maine who goes to the University on a scholarship. All his life he has wanted to be a writer, but when he enrolls in the writing courses he finds himself lost without a compass in a strange and frightening land. There’s one guy who wants to be Updike. There’s another one who wants to be a New England version of Faulkner—only he wants to write novels about the grim lives of the poor in blank verse. There’s a girl who admires Joyce Carol Oates but feels that because Oates was nurtured in a sexist society she is ‘radioactive in a literary sense’. Oates is unable to be clean, this girl says. She will be cleaner. (124)
Bill’s talent, however, lies in writing science fiction and horror stories—productions that earn him, at best, Bs and Cs in his creative writing seminar. His classmates’ ideas about writing confound him; he doesn’t understand why stories have to be “socio-anything”: “‘politics…culture…history’”, he says in class one day, “‘aren’t those natural ingredients in any story, if it’s told well? … I mean…can’t you guys just let a story be a story?”(125).
When the instructor snidely inquires whether Bill believes Shakespeare and Faulkner were simply telling tales to make a quick buck, Bill replies that, yes, actually, he thinks just that—after which he goes home and writes a story called “The Dark”, a tale about a boy who discovers, battles, and defeats a monster that lives in the cellar of his house. A metafiction that alludes simultaneously to the novel It, the basic narrative of all horror tales, and to the very act of writing itself as an act of sublimation, King-cum-Denbrough describes the act of writing this story in physiological terms, as a kind of excremental expulsion: he feels “that he is not so much telling the story as he is allowing the story to flow through him”:
At one point he puts his pen down and takes his hot and aching hand out into ten-degree December cold where it nearly smokes from the temperature change. … [H]is head seems to bulge with the story; it is a little scary, the way it needs to get out. He feels that if it cannot escape by way of his racing hand that it will pop his eyes out in its urgency to escape and be concrete. ‘Going to knock the shit out of it,’ he confides to the blowing winter dark, and laughs a little—a shaky laugh. He is aware that he has finally discovered how to do just that—after ten years of trying he has suddenly found the starter button on the vast dead bulldozer taking up so much space inside his head. It has started up. It is revving, revving. It is nothing pretty, this big machine. It was not made for taking pretty girls to proms. It is not a status symbol. It means business. (121, emphasis in last two sentences mine)
Here King rejects a hegemonic understanding of writing as belles lettres in favor of grittier metaphors: writing as a physical labor, the urgent “business” of psychic bulldozing or taking a dump (metaphors as gendered as they are classed). It is arguably for this reason that when Denbrough’s instructor returns the story it is marked with an enormous F across the title page and “two words … scrawled across beneath, in capital letters. PULP, screams one. CRAP, screams another” (126). Humiliated, he is about to discard the story when, suddenly reconsidering, he instead decides to submit “The Dark” to a men’s magazine. He expects further rejection, but when the story is accepted with accolades, Bill Denbrough – now two hundred dollars richer – tacks both acceptance letter and drop card to the bulletin board outside his instructor’s door, writing him a brief note in the process: “If fiction and politics ever really do become interchangeable, I’m going to kill myself, because I won’t know what else to do. You see, politics always change. Stories never do” (127, emphasis mine).
Although King is presenting here his view that there is something archetypal or universal about “stories” as opposed to “politics,” I would again propose a more historically specific reading of these brief lines: that King is also rejecting the cultural topography of high/low and in/out produced alongside the psychic topography of a disenchanted modernity: the symbolic order constituted by what it rejects, and the subjects driven to master texts in an attempt to assuage the anxieties produced by what lies “below” and “outside.” Lest Stan Uris’s fate become our own, King suggests, it is imperative that as writers and readers we reject such a logic of purification, insisting – against the imperative to separate private from public, the body from the symbolic, rationality from that which is inexplicable – that we “see the ghosts.”
Dreamcatcher: Scatology as Deroutinization
Like It, Dreamcatcher (2001) is an intensely visceral, corporeal novel, full of flatulence, shit, blood, and vomit; gluttonous urges and bodies pushed beyond exhaustion; cancer and illness. Much of this emphasis reflects the fact that King handwrote the novel during six and a half months of convalescence following a near fatal accident in which he was hit by a car during a walk; a preoccupation with the body’s fragility and vulnerability consequently permeates the text (which King had originally entitled Cancer).
But Dreamcatcher imagines a different psychic construct in relation to the body than does It, and enters a different metaconversation about King’s literary value. Instead of charting a subject organized around axes of up/down and in/out, Dreamcatcher presents a more nuanced psychic topography, in which relations to the body are not the constitutive exterior to consciousness but rather part of an intermediary realm inbetween conscious and unconscious, a plane of mental life that sociologist Anthony Giddens has termed “practical consciousness” (1984). Rather than a subject modeled on the relationship between city and sewer, Dreamcatcher suggests a subject shaped laterally, by a diffuse landscape of infrastructures, technologies, and services that condition norms of embodiment in urban industrial cultures, and which make bodily products and processes something ordinarily “out of sight, out of mind.” Here King’s vision of urban industrial subjectivity is not one structured by the abject as an actively disavowed and absolutely exterior negativity, but rather by those habits and mundane daily activities that ordinarily position the body below the threshold of social perception or significance. We see this not so much in the bathroom scene that King references, where the excretory body is wildly spectacular and carnivalesque/abject, but in the connection between this scene and a more persistent (even paranoid) focus on water and communications infrastructures.
As in It, Dreamcatcher is set in and around Derry, Maine, and centers on the relationships between childhood friends who share a quasi-mythical bond that leads them to reunite as adults to defeat a continuing threat. Temporally, the story flips back and forth between the late 1970s and early 1980s of the protagonists’ adolescence and their adulthood during the time of the novel’s writing. While there is no clearly autobiographical writer character in the bunch as there is in It, King arguably works himself in nonetheless through the figure of Jonesy, a history professor and horror movie fanatic in recovery after being struck by a car; as well as via aspects of other characters (the mellifluous potty mouth of Beaver Clarendon, the working class earthiness of Pete Moore). Compared to the convoluted narrative and metaphysical universe of It, however, Dreamcatcher is a fairly straightfoward tale of alien invasion, and a decidedly lighter one than some of the texts it references (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Alien, and Apocalypse Now on the cinematic and pop cultural end of things; Heart of Darkness on the literary end). The scene for much of the story’s action is a cabin in the Maine woods, where childhood friends Jonesy, Henry, Pete, and Beaver meet for their annual hunting trip. This particular trip happens to take place not only during a blizzard, but during an alien invasion as well – ostensibly by the gray bug-eyed aliens of X Files fame, but King later reveals that this visage is merely an apparition pulled from the collective cultural consciousness. The alien life force invading the frozen Maine forests of Dreamcatcher is in reality a more or less inanimate fungus (the “byrus”) that reproduces by infecting its hosts via spore or, in more serious cases, via voracious parasites that grow in human bowels and erupt from human asses, a carnivalesque inversion of Alien’s famous chest-bursting scene.
This sets the stage for what is arguably one of the most graphically scatological bathroom scenes in the genre. King himself has discussed this scene in such terms; in an interview included as part of the DVD for the film version of Dreamcatcher, he comments on his rationale for the scene:
What you’re looking for, if you write stories that are scary—you’re looking for the taboo zone; you’re looking for a place where the door is closed, and we don’t go beyond that door. And it used to be the taboo zone was the bedroom. But eventually the movies got beyond the bedroom door, and I thought to myself, well, is there a door that’s still closed anymore? And the answer was, yes, it’s true—the bathroom door is a place that we don’t go anymore. And I started to think about the bathroom as a room where, really, a lot of nasty discoveries are made. I would guess that probably sixty to seventy percent of our first realization that we have a tumor, we have cancer, that sort of thing, happens in the bathroom. You’ve done your number one and you’ve done your number two and you look in the bowl and there’s blood. And you say, uh oh – I’ve got a problem. You can say I wrote the whole book in order to have the scene where he sits on the toilet and he can’t get off because the thing is inside; it won’t go down because it’s too big to flush. In a way, it was that scene that became the driving scene of the book. It’s gonna do for the toilet what Psycho did for the shower.
The scene in question opens when, during what will be the final annual gathering of the four protagonists, Jonesy nearly shoots a man who wanders in front of his hunting blind. The stranger appears lost and disoriented, so Jonesy brings him back to the cabin where he reveals his name to be Richard McCarthy, a reference to “Kevin McCarthy in that old horror movie about the pods from space that made themselves look like people” (137). Once back in the cabin, McCarthy begins to exhibit increasingly bizarre behavior: not only is he oblivious to several freshly missing teeth and mysterious red patches on his face, he complains of a stomachache and emits several volcanic belches and farts. Sensing that something is not quite right, Jonesy and Beaver suggest that McCarthy lay down for awhile; shortly thereafter, the two friends notice that McCarthy has risen and locked himself inside the bathroom, trailing blood from the bed to the bathroom door. They also notice a horrible stench hanging in the air, smelling like “mine-gas trapped a million years and finally let free. Not the kind of fart smell kids giggled over on camping trips, in other words. This was something richer and far more awful. You could only compare it to farts because there was nothing else even close. At bottom … it was the smell of something contaminated and dying badly” (107). From behind the bathroom door they can hear McCarthy farting, and in a passage that underscores his penchant for blurring the horrific and the comedic, King writes that “[i]t was ridiculous to think of what they were hearing as ‘passing gas’ or ‘breaking wind’ – those were airy phrases, light as meringue. The sounds coming from behind the closed doors were brutal and meaty, like ripping flesh” (110). Disturbed, Jonesy and Beaver knock on the door, but McCarthy screams: “’Get away from me! … I have to shit, that’s all, I HAVE TO SHIT! If I can shit I’ll be all right!’” (114). And in an echo of the shower curtain-drawing gesture used in It, Jonesy and Beaver break down the bathroom door – to discover McCarthy sitting naked on the toilet, which is running over with blood “in a big sloppy paintstroke” (158). When Beaver shakes him, he topples off the toilet and into the tub, and the two friends scream: “McCarthy’s ass was a lopsided full moon with a giant bloody crater in its center, the site of some terrible impact[.] … It seemed to Jonesy that the hole was a foot across” (160).
But the horror (or comedy) is not yet over, for they soon notice that the thing once inside McCarthy (dubbed a shit weasel later in the novel) is now splashing around in the toilet. Beaver quickly sits on top of the lid to trap it, while Jonesy runs off to get duct tape to wrap the lid shut. In his friend’s absence, however, Beaver makes the fatal mistake of reaching for a toothpick that fell from his shirt pocket amidst the earlier chaos. As he bends over, the creature headbutts its way out of the toilet and attaches itself to Beaver’s back, biting his neck with its needle sharp teeth. Beaver manages to dislodge the weasel but it flies out at him again, wrapping around his waist and attacking his face. Thus, like McCarthy, Beaver dies on the toilet.
After the death of Beaver Clarendon, Jonesy tries to bar the bathroom door against the shit weasel but the creature is too strong for him. Just when Jonesy’s demise seems inevitable, another figure appears behind him, the first appearance in the novel of the “grayboys” that along with the byrus and the weasels comprise the various manifestations of the invading alien presence. A moment later the gray man explodes and the detritus enters Jonesy, snatching his body and leaving what’s left of his human identity/consciousness a mere “kernel in a cloud, a bit of undigested food in an alien gut” (289).
As in It, the bathroom in Dreamcatcher acts as a mediating space, connecting the visible world of appearances with the largely imperceptible systems of urban infrastructure that undergird and sustain it. Moreover, the bathroom in both novels functions to expose and make starkly, even spectacularly visible what ordinarily remains hidden. King even describes this capacity for making the invisible visible in similar terms, echoing It‘s characterization of the light quality in the bathroom as uniquely all-revealing and explicit. Like the flash of a camera at a crime scene, the “harsh fluorescent light” of the bathroom “kept no secrets but blabbed everything in a droning monotone” (161).
But the secret revealed by the bathroom in Dreamcatcher is of a different nature than that revealed in It. In the latter novel, the discovery of Stan Uris’s mutilated body bespeaks a subject constituted by the history it rejects, just as the appearance of urban order is ensured through the purifying logic of the sewer. In Dreamcatcher, on the other hand, the bathroom reveals the secret of the body’s insertion into the technological systems that make up what environmental historian Joel Tarr has called the networked city—and thus a subject constituted not through repression, but via a sort of routinized distance from the body. The very graphic bathroom scene in Dreamcatcher ultimately opens onto a larger preoccupation with the networked systems of the modern capitalist city, as well as how the body interfaces with its urban industrial environment.7 This is consistent with the emergence of what I have been calling an urban environmental gothic, which in focusing on the features of the urban landscape that condition bodily norms presents a more materialist theory of the urban industrial subject than that in It.
The first suggestion of these broader concerns occurs when Mr. Gray, having seized Jonesy’s body outside the bathroom at the cabin, drives to Derry expecting to find the Standpipe, the water tower that collapsed at the end of It. However, in its place all he finds is a pedestal memorializing those killed in the flood, in a direct allusion to It that implies both novels occupy the same narrative universe. After this unsuccessful trip to the Standpipe, Mr. Gray probes Jonesy’s memories of where Derry’s water came from post-flood, but like most urban residents Jonesy truly doesn’t know: “he had a vague memory of drinking a lot of bottled water after coming back from college for the summer, but that was all. Eventually water had started coming out of their taps again, but what was that to a twenty-one-year-old whose biggest concern had been getting into Mary Shratt’s pants. The water came, you drank it. You didn’t worry about where it came from as long as it didn’t give you the heaves or the squitters” (390).
Finally Mr. Gray is able to access knowledge of the nearest water source via an urban legend in Jonesy’s memories, according to which a woman committed suicide by jumping down a shaft at Quabbin reservoir outside Boston. Gradually, the novel reveals a bioterrorism subplot; Mr. Gray is in search of large water storage facilities because they provide an effective means of propagating his species. Because neither the grays nor the byrus can survive earth’s environment and the weasels only grow inside human intestines, the hijacking of Jonesy’s body after Mr. Gray’s physical death is a way the latter can reach a place like Quabbin Reservoir, where water “starts on its way to the taps and faucets and fountains and backyard hoses of Boston” (531), ultimately reaching its residents’ innards. As in It, then, the bathroom scene at the beginning of Dreamcatcher crucially reveals a larger preoccupation with the systems and services that link bodies to ecosystems, remaining largely imperceptible yet structuring subjectivity within urban industrial modernity.
Just as he does with the bathroom in It, King in Dreamcatcher uses the bathroom and the infrastructural landscape in which it is embedded to construct a political as well as a psychic topography, a body politic delineated by the novel’s concern with the fragility of corporeal boundaries (as captured in the novel’s original title). This raises the questions: why does King use alien invasion as a metaphor for cancer, and vice versa? Why the preoccupation with something that eats away at the body from the inside, the idea of an organism eating itself to death? What sort of national body or polity does King present in his focus on the snatched or infected body, the body eaten alive from within?
On the one hand, corporeal metaphors that equate alien invasion with cancer seem to straightforwardly pathologize otherness, to figure difference as a disease that destroys self, body, and nation from within. But King in fact holds up this view in order to critique it via the military characters in the novel charged with exterminating the grays. Aware of this impending mission, the grays broadcast messages over radio begging the US military not to hurt them, but as stated by Kurtz, the aptly named commander in charge, “they are not helpless little ETs, boys, … they are a disease. They are cancer, praise Jesus, and boys, we’re one one big hot radioactive shot of chemotherapy. Do you hear me, boys?” (196-197).
King’s characterization of the military response to the invasion complicates a straightforward reading that his cancer metaphors represent a pathologizing of difference. Here cancer is not just a metaphor that King uses uncritically to signify a threatening invasion of the national body, but also a metaphor voiced by forces King wants to critique. So it is not otherness which poses a threat so much as it is the social forces that construct self/identity as something necessitating violent defense, and which use a demonizing rhetoric of cancer to justify that defense, specifically the U.S. military in its policies and practices of colonial domination.8 The suggestion is that it is the body politic of the U.S. or west that is the invading force and, as such, eating itself to death: colonialism and imperialism as a kind of global metastasis, a devouring of other that eventually becomes an autocannibalization. As Owen Underhill thinks regarding his commander, “You’re the cancer, Kurtz, you” (229).
So just as in It, King’s theodicy, the vision of evil he constructs in Dreamcatcher, is a psychic and political argument more than a moral one, an argument against the institutionalized demonization of otherness rather than an argument against otherness or difference itself. What makes Kurtz evil, we are told, is that he has “absolutely no curiosity” (218). King compares Kurtz’s response to the invasion to that of elderly local hunters:
They were in their eighties, by the look of them, but they had the curiosity Kurtz lacked. You could see it in the set of their bodies, the tilt of their heads.
All the questions Kurtz had not voiced. What do they want? Do they really mean us harm? Will doing this bring the harm? Is it the wind we sow to bring the whirlwind? What as there in all the previous encounters – the flaps, the flashlights, the falls of angel hair and red dust, the abductions that began in the late sixties – that has made the powers that be so afraid? Has there been any real effor tto communicate with these creatures?
And the last question, the most important question: Were they grayboys like us? Were they by any definition human? Was this murder, pure and simple?
No question in Kurtz’s eyes about that either. (219)
Echoing this lack of curiosity, we are also told that Kurtz has been “dreamless since childhood and thus unsane” (404). The “banality of evil” that Kurtz represents thus seems to stem from his lacking any sort of unconscious, instead being pure consciousness. His dreamlessness and incuriosity make him as disgusted with the telepathy that the grays spread among their human contacts as he is with human sexual intimacy, especially with women, “vile creatures incapable of loyalty” who “drained a man. … Even when it was done for procreation, the result was usually a brain-equipped tumor, not much different from the shit weasels” (404). This totalizing consciousness that views all otherness as cancer signifies a disinterest in the possibility of nonhuman sentience or autonomy—the possibility of a nonrational, nonmodern reality—a disinterest that, as in It, King characterizes as suicidal, evidence of a deathwish (243).
The telepathy that Kurtz disdains is in fact a second running theme of the novel, one that goes hand in hand with the bodysnatching theme that fuels the concern with water delivery systems. From the outset we’re aware that the four friends “see the line”, an ability made possible by Douglas (“Duddits”) Cavell, a man whose Down Syndrome combines with his extrasensory perception to implicitly position him as alien or extrahuman.9 The grays are also telepaths who spread their psychic powers “like an annoying low-grade virus” (311) as they spread the byrus; if for the U.S. military, charged with exterminating the grays, these abilities threaten civilization as they know it, this is not only because telepathy breaks down the “us”/“them” distinction that the nation state (and thus its military defense) depends upon, but also because telepathy is a post-literate form of communication, a language of the image. King suggests as much when Henry incites rebellion among the quarantined civilians slated for extermination along with the grays via visions of death and destruction that he transfers psychically: “Henry shifted to the inside, sending pictures of screaming, milling people. Liquid fire dripped through holes in the blazing roof and ignited the hay in the lofts. Here was a man with his hair on fire; there a woman in a burning ski-parka still decorated with lift-tickets from Sugarloaf and Ragged Mountain”) (410).10 Just as invasion or infection dissolves bodily boundaries, telepathy dissolves psychic boundaries. For that reason, King presents it as a communications technology similar to previous developments in the history of information transmission (telephones, television, email, internet).
The dreamcatcher itself as the novel’s central symbol (and title, having supplanted Cancer) is in fact described in similar terms to the internet, as a medium or network that links minds. On the one hand the dreamcatcher is a literal object, the Native American icon that hangs on the wall in Beaver’s hunting cabin; on the other hand the dreamcatcher represents something that connects minds/events, “some huge pattern, something … that binds all the years since [Jonesy, Henry, Pete, and Beaver] first met Duddits Cavell in 1978, something that binds the future as well” (272). In other parts of the novel King refers to Duddits himself as the dreamcatcher, a hub that first draws the four friends together as teenagers and later as adults, and which connects them telepathically: “he makes them one” (454); together they “catch” and enter each other’s dreams (“catching” in the sense of spreading or infecting – they catch dreams from one another as they might catch colds).
King’s representation of the dreamcatcher as a kind of web that links minds psychically evokes an image of global communication technologies in the era of the internet. It is consequently a symbol at once hypermodern and a- or countermodern (problematically in some regards in the suggestion that the indigenous is somehow anterior or prior to the modern).11 The catastrophic representation of telepathy thus seems to express anxieties arising from globalization, a world entirely linked via communication technologies that trade in visual images. This “society of the spectacle” is threatening to someone like Kurtz because it threatens to obviate the primacy of the written word, the basis of a “civilization” defined by laws, directives, and prohibitions and hence governed by its lawmakers, its statesmen, its military force. The telepathic powers that the grayboys make possible hint at the disruption of a hierarchical symbolic order secured at the exclusion of the body, via the logic of the sewer, pointing instead to a symbolic produced through the linking of bodies and minds, an embodied symbolic.
Telecommunications may seem a long distance from the bathroom scene that King views as the driving force of the novel, but what connects Dreamcatcher‘s intense focus on the body— the fragile and permeable body, the body open to invasion and transformation by the other—with the metaphor of the dreamcatcher is that both are means of foregrounding the infrastructures that structure urban industrial subjectivity. Like telepathy, water delivery and disposal systems link bodies to one another, just as visual culture and information technology link minds. These are the large scale systems that sustain and contain bodies in urban industrial society, the technologies that imperceptibly mediate physical relations to environment.
In this way, King’s use of the bathroom to make visible the larger networks of urban infrastructures and services in which it is embedded as a nodal point suggests a more materialist or sociological rearticulation of the traditional psychoanalytic frameworks frequently applied to horror. The turn toward an urban environmental gothic in It and Dreamcatcher in fact recalls Freud’s original understanding of the uncanny as that which is not simply frightening, but rather “that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar” (1919, para 4). The uncanny, in other words, arises in the face of something that was once familiar but has since become unfamiliar, strange, and consequently frightening. What is useful here is the idea that what we consider uncanny is social in nature; far from naming what is “naturally” frightening or repugnant, it names what instead has been made to appear as such, via strenuous effort that nonetheless remains distant from perception. Likewise, in the two novels examined here, the excretory body does not simply function along a vertical axis of high/low to symbolize the “return of the repressed” – but more importantly calls attention to those lateral networks which routinize (rather than repress) the social invisibility of the body, resulting in a realm of “practical consciousness” whose production the novels make apparent.
In this respect we might think of It and Dreamcatcher as effecting what environmental sociologist Elizabeth Shove has called “deroutinization.” In Comfort, Cleanliness, and Convenience: the Social Organization of Normality, Shove analyzes what she calls “inconspicuous consumption”, or consumption that takes place as part of the “practices and expectations that constitute the barely detectable gridlines of everyday life”—for example, the water mains and showers that enable habits of daily showering (and hence a certain standard of cleanliness) and the central heating and air conditioning that regulate indoor climate to room temperature year-round (2003, 2). In contrast to many environmentalists and policy makers, Shove argues that the majority of environmental devastation results not from not conscious, conspicuous acts but rather from the background of services and infrastructures taken for granted as part of a standard of living considered inviolable in the urban industrial west – a standard that in the past century has been subject to “distinctive forms of escalation and standardization” (3). As she states, “many environmentally relevant ‘choices’ do not appear as such. Buried in the realm of what Giddens (1984) terms practical consciousness, … water consumption [for example] only penetrates the plane of discursive consciousness when it comes out brown, or in the wrong place, or when the utility bill arrives. … Such moments of deroutinization are critical because they enable people to examine and assess their habits from a green perspective” (7-8).
Reading psychoanalysis through the lens of environmental sociology, we might say that the overall tendency within the horror genre toward an urban environmental gothic conducts precisely this kind of deroutinization. Taking a more materialist view of bathroom scenes in horror thus complicates the more prevalent view that the body in horror is uncomplicatedly abject, and the bathroom a somehow inherently uncanny space. Though King himself suggests that the excretory body waiting behind the bathroom door is the “final taboo”, It and Dreamcatcher do not simply exploit the taboo status of the body for scares (or pleasure); they also deploy it strategically to point to the social production of this affect in the infrastructures that undergird and sustain modern life, suggesting in the process that the sewers, drains, toilets, reservoirs, water treatment facilities, and pipes that normalize distance from the body have transformed something at one time intimate or familiar into an alien and frightening presence. Given that it is the task of the horror novel to confront that presence, the mass success of King’s novels means they are also one of the cultural sites where the excretory body is most visibly acceptable.
Fiction for the Unwashed Masses: King as Cultural Phenomenon
Interestingly, cultural discussions of this mass success is another site where the scatological becomes especially visible. As discussed previously, It and Dreamcatcher both evince a metafictional impulse, a self-referential drive by which King imagines himself as a horror writer in relation to a literary canon whose exclusivity is imagined as a kind of anal expulsivity. The numerous oozing, leaky, explosive bodies in King’s fiction, and the toilets, drains, and sewers intended to contain these bodies thus dialogue with the classical body of the literary canon: the notion of a corpus of “real literature” whose legitimacy is established via the popular fiction and genre writing it must expel as shit. Yet much of the pointed class consciousness of It is absent from Dreamcatcher; as evident in his allusion to Psycho when discussing the toilets of Dreamcatcher, King uses scatology in this later novel to position himself as part of a canon that, if not necessarily literary, nonetheless includes classic works of horror, rather than as the radical and constitutive outsider to notions of canonical respectability.12 But far from presenting a contradiction or incoherency, King’s ambivalence with regard to the canon, as reflected in his different deployments of the scatological, provides a window into how cultural legitimacy generally is constructed in discursive reference to the body. Whether King imagines himself as radically illegitimate outsider or respectable insider—and whether his critics regard him as literary shit or horror auteur—it is bodily boundaries, metaphors of incorporation and excretion, that demarcate the boundaries of literary acceptability. Thus, just as King’s fiction is a key location where the excretory body appears to us most visibly and legitimately (given King’s popularity), so too are larger cultural discussions around the meaning of King’s mass popularity.
On those occasions where King has been invited to reflect directly on his status as a writer of genre fiction, he has expressed this ambivalence about his relation to the literary canon – both a desire to belong and a contempt for its exclusivity – and alluded explicitly to the way the devaluation of the body dramatized/problematized in the horror novel informs classification processes generally. For instance, in a lengthy retrospective survey of his successful career to date, King commented in a 1991 issue of Publisher’s Weekly:
I’d like to win the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize, I’d like to have someone write a New York Times Book Review piece that says, ‘Hey, wait a minute guys, we made a mistake—this guy is one of the great writers of the 20th century.’ But it’s not going to happen[;] … once you sell a certain number of books, the people who think about ‘literature’ stop thinking about you and assume that any writer who is popular across a wide spectrum has nothing to say. The unspoken postulate is that intelligence is rare. It’s clear in the critical stance; I hear it in the voices of people from the literary journals where somebody will start by saying, ‘I don’t read Stephen King,’ and they are really saying, ‘I don’t lower myself.’ … [I have always wanted to] build a bridge between wide popularity and a critical acceptance. But my taste is too low, there is a broad streak of the vulgate, [though] not the “vulgar”, in my stuff. (Goldstein, par. 5-7).
Yet as the shift from It to Dreamcatcher suggests, King’s literary status has not been static over the course of his long career, and for this reason I would question any simple understanding of King as a purely popular or vulgar writer. His cynical comments in Publisher’s Weekly to the contrary, King in 2003 in fact became the first genre writer to receive the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, a sort of literary lifetime achievement award that placed him in the company of previous honorees such as Arthur Miller and Toni Morrison (Kirkpatrick 2003, E1). Moreover, from the beginning of his career King has always mixed elements of the popular and the literary; horror itself as a genre has an ambivalent relation to the canon, with one foot in the literary or cinematic (think Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) and the other in the popular (think B-movie Frankenstein remakes). It stands to reason that King’s reception would not be monolithic, but rather would vary by the social location of those receiving.
Rather than being absolutely vulgar, it thus seems more accurate to say that King is, by some cultural law of averages, semi-legitimate or indeterminate. The uneven and shifting nature of his reception over time suggests the necessity of complicating a purely literary approach which views him as absolutely excluded from the canon with a more empirical consideration of how this exclusion has actually operated: to whom does his indeterminacy suggest vulgarity, for what material reasons, and in what terms? In the section that follows, then, I want to turn from a literary consideration of King’s fiction to a more sociological consideration of King himself as a cultural phenomenon, and from an examination of scatological representations that appear in his novels to an examination of the scatological metaphors that frequently appear in discourses about King and the meaning of his success (and in discourses about popular culture generally).
King himself in the Publisher’s Weekly article quoted above points to the centrality of corporeal metaphors to debates over his literary value in his care to distinguish a “vulgate” (pertaining to “common” people, in particular common forms of speech and knowledge) commercial success and popular accessibility from an association with the “vulgar” (that which is disgusting or offensive). The problem, however, is that what is considered vulgate is almost always considered vulgar as well. As sociologist Laura Grindstaff points out in The Money Shot: Trash, Class, and the Making of TV Talk Shows, this is because vulgarity connotes a specifically physical or corporeal lowness, and “[w]hat is at stake in the struggle for distinction … is the ability to establish a perceived distance from, and mastery over, the body and its material existence” (2003, 266-267). This is a point originally elaborated by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in Distinction: a Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, and in this section I want to use this idea to further sociologize the psychoanalytic approach conventionally applied to horror, and which King himself dramatizes in It. Bourdieu’s Distinction sheds light on why King’s status as a popular writer is often discussed in scatological terms, suggesting as it does that cultural economies, or systems for rank ordering cultural production as “high” and “low,” are produced in reference to bodily economy, and in particular to the processes of incorporation and excretion that regulate physiological systems. As a case study, King as a cultural phenomenon bears out Bourdieu’s point that the lowness of the body is at the discursive heart of the cultural hierarchies that both reflect and reproduce social hierarchies, particularly of class. Yet in using King to instantiate Bourdieu, I also want to clear a space for moving one step beyond him as well, towards a mode of cultural criticism that questions the givenness of the body’s lowness, recognizing that the mutual constitution of cultural and social hierarchies takes place via ecological hierarches that assume nature is subordinate to culture and body to mind. As with the scatological content of King, the excretory metaphors used to discuss his literary status require an ecocritical approach that views the problematic relation to the body at the heart of distinction-making processes in ecological as well as social terms.
Disgust and Distinction
In Landscape of Fear: Stephen King’s American Gothic (1988), one of the earliest scholarly analyses of King’s fiction, Magistrale enumerates four basic reasons King had at that point in time been excluded from definitions of the literary:
1) King makes too much money with his books (at this writing his yearly income is greater than the gross national product of most third world nations) and any popular writer can’t be so good as his press;
2) he produces nearly a book a year, so he must not work very hard at his craft;
3) his predominant subject themes are the supernatural, the bizarre, and the occult, and he is therefore only tangentially concerned with the realities of contemporary life;
4) he needs an editor, presumably because many of his books are overwritten and badly organized (11-12)
In Magistrale’s short list we see the emergence of a pattern: too much money, too many books too quickly, too sensational, too many words. Behind King’s exclusion from the literary is thus his perceived excessiveness, where excess signifies not simple quantity but the grossness (in both senses of the word) of his output and intake. Here we begin to see how the body figures within notions of mass appeal, effecting a slippage between the vulgate (what is common, accessible) and the vulgar (what is disgusting). In his postscript to Distinction (1984), Bourdieu gives a theoretical account of this slippage, explaining that the basis for aesthetic judgment is in the end, “by an immense repression”, none other than disgust:
‘pure taste’, purely negative in its essence, is based on the disgust that is often called ‘visceral’ (it ‘makes one sick’ or ‘makes one vomit’) for everything that is ‘facile’[,] … what is easy in the sense of simple, and therefore shallow, and ‘cheap’, because it is easily decoded and culturally undemanding. (486)
For Bourdieu, this cheap accessibility is the hallmark of mass appeal. And taste—in its horror for that which anyone can understand, that which collapses aesthetic distance between object and beholder—is thus also a horror for the body and bodily necessity, for it is bodily necessity that reminds those who are high of their basic undifferentiability from the low:
enjoyment … performs a sort of reduction to animality, corporeality, the belly and sex, that is, to what is common and therefore vulgar, removing any difference between those who resist with all their might and those who wallow in pleasure, who enjoy enjoyment[.] (489)
Interestingly, we might understand Bourdieu’s methodological choices as arising from this definition of taste. As he argues in his postscript to Distinction, an empirical, even quantitative approach makes concrete and visible what by definition, in its claim to universality or even sanctity, denies its relation to the material or social. Although the sort of full-fledged statistical analysis that Bourdieu employs in Distinction is unnecessary here, I borrow methodologically from Bourdieu nonetheless by putting to practical use his idea that there is “an economy of cultural goods” with “a specific logic” to it (1). For Bourdieu, the logic that structures the cultural economy is the logic of class hierarchy; for every class position there is a form of culture whose consumption marks and legitimates the position of the consumer. Thus in the preface of Distinction Bourdieu gives a few examples of elite and middlebrow French publications and their possible American analogues—The New York Times Book Review, for example, is roughly equivalent to “an unlikely combination of the weekly Nouvel Observateur, the review Critique and … the journal Tel Quel” (xii). This understanding of cultural economies suggests an interesting approach to exploring the construction of King’s literary status: in lieu of using audience analysis to get at King’s reception over time, I instead examine how differently-positioned publications within the U.S. cultural economy have discussed King’s relation to the literary canon and how these discussions have shifted over the decades.13 Such a comparison of discourses on King across the class spectrum of print media usefully reveals how the lowness of the body produces and organizes cultural economies.
Spasms of Indeterminacy
Before going into detail on some of the major discursive shifts evident in cultural discourses on King, it might help to place these shifts in the context of where discourse on King is concentrated in the US print media. From my analysis, articles on King appear most frequently within middlebrow and trade publications, followed by elite publications; surprisingly, King articles appear least frequently in the popular press.14 Moreover, there seems to be a greater variety of titles among middlebrow and elite publications than there are among popular publications; by and large People is the only publication in the latter category. 15 King’s literary status thus seems to spark the most intense discussion in elite and middlebrow publications—popular and trade publications for the most part having no problems with King’s commercial success, therefore obviating the necessity of discussions on whether (or how) King met the definition of “real” literature.
What becomes most salient upon review of those publications where articles on King most frequently appear is that, moreso than trends, themes, or continuities, middlebrow and elite publications exhibit periodic spasms of indeterminacy—moments at which the question of King’s literary status become particularly acute. Often provoked by particular events or issues (King’s relationship to visual media, King’s contract negotiations) these spasms register discursively as clusters of articles, nodes of interest wherein critics and commentators collectively negotiate the meaning of King: Who is this guy? What is he? Working through these spasms entails a process of creating distinctions, of articulating the line between literary and popular fiction, often in corporeal terms. Yet with every successive crisis and its eventual resolution, the discursive terrain also shifts slightly—the distinction between literary and popular is expressed in different terms, until over time these terms allow for King’s partial incorporation into (elite) definitions of the literary.
This process of gradual incorporation is somewhat similar to that described by social historian Paul Lopes, who in The Rise of a Jazz Art World details the historical process by which jazz rose in status from a largely denigrated form of popular music to a high art. Lopes argues that professional musicians were at the historical crux of this transformation, mediating the diverse interactions between the social groups and market forces responsible for “fashioning the meaning, practice, and success of jazz as an art form” (2002, 2). Like Lopes, I am also interested in the material forces behind the discursive shifts positioning King as semi-legitimate; and interestingly, the center of this process again seems to be professionals—namely, the publishing industry. It is shifts in King’s relationship to publishers and the publishing world that largely seem to provoke the spasms of indeterminacy described above. What this suggests is that in order to fully understand discursive negotiations over King’s literary status, it is necessary also to examine these negotiations in relation to the structure of the publishing industry, and in particular to the distinction-making mechanisms internal to the industry (i.e. authors/sellers, hardback/paperback).
King’s Relationship to Visual Media
Before the 1980s, very few articles appeared in print on Stephen King, and the majority appeared (sometimes penned by him) in trade or professional publications, namely Writer’s Digest and Publisher’s Weekly. The other article from this time period appeared in The New York Times; yet this article focused less on King’s books than on his business dealings, primarily his decision to leave publisher Doubleday for a “backward deal” with New American Library.16 Included in this discussion is a mention of King’s business dealings with the film industry as well; speaking of the film version of Carrie made from his first novel, King stated that “‘[t]he movie made the book, and the book made me’” (Lawson 1979, BR11). This easy slippage between print and visual media was to incite the first crisis of indeterminacy over King’s literary status. Yet perhaps more at issue than mere slippage was the apparent inversion of the relationship between print and visual media; like King’s backward deal, in which paperback sold for more than hardback, the notion of a book being made from a movie (even if figuratively) reversed the proper order of things.
Hence a paroxysm of distaste in the early 1980s that united both middlebrow publications like Time and elite publications like The New York Times Book Review. Time was the first to register its concern; a 1982 article entitled “Master of Postliterate Prose” described King’s fiction as “a dazzling display of how writing can appeal to people who do not ordinarily like to read. King uses language the same way the baseball fan seated behind the hometeam dugout uses placards: to remind those present of what they have already seen.” What is “postliterate” about King’s prose, in other words, is that all of its references are to popular culture—the unconscious of his novels is entirely constituted by “the mass-produced icons that have invaded the communal memory”. This popular imaginary “spares readers the task of puzzling [things] out … [by] short-circuit[ing] thought [and] … plugging directly into prefabricated images” (Gray 1982, 87).
Similarly, a 1983 article in The New York Times Book Review described King’s work as “brand-name horror” for its use of pop culture artifacts to effect reader identification. “It is a consumer’s world that Mr. King depicts”, stated the Times BR after giving a paragraph-long-but-still-abridged list of brand names appearing in King’s novella Apt Pupil (perhaps tellingly—wishfully?—misspelled as “Art Pupil”). The implication is that King is excessive, and that in exceeding the boundary between print and visual media, King is also exceeding the boundary between the literary and the commercial—not just by selling a lot of books or by making lots of money, but because his writing itself stylistically effects a kind of crass commercialism; his books themselves are a kind of advertisement (as seen earlier in the list of medicine cabinet products in It). The crisis expressed by both of these articles is thus the crisis of mass appeal: why do people like this stuff? The answer seems to be that they like it because they are consumers rather than readers, a distinction that clearly locates King in the realm of the former and hence outside the literary.
King’s Entry into Hardback Sales
In 1985, Publisher’s Weekly printed an editorial by Stephen King on the flagging state of paperback sales. Drawing from his own recent successes in the hardcover market, King argued that paperback sales were down not because publishers had raised the cover price, but rather because they had “become steadily less necessary to those in the mood to buy”—those belonging to King’s own generation, “the media’s Flower Children of ’72” who later became “the media’s Yuppies of ‘84”. Where once, coming from “lower middle-class circumstances”, he had “look[ed] into the windows of bookstores with the idle curiosity of, let us say, a construction worker looking at the necklaces in the display windows of Tiffany’s”, he and many others of his generation “stopped waiting for the reprint because we could afford to buy it at the source” (60).
King’s editorial is telling in that it alludes to the class implications of the distinction between paperback and hardback fiction, where the former is associated with the trashy tastes of ordinary readers and the latter with the classy tastes of the upscale. For this reason, King’s rising hardback sales in the mid-1980s connotes a sort of upward literary mobility as much as it does the upward mobility of a generation of readers who can “afford to buy at the source”. The hardcover publication of It in 1986 hit the 1 million mark during its first printing; by the early nineties King was selling “as many copies in hardcover as his early books sold in paperbacks” (Goldstein 1991, par. 14). With a steadily increasing number of readers purchasing his novels in hardback, King thus became somewhat of an anomaly: a hardback paperback writer, meaning a classy trashy writer.
To that extent, middlebrow and elite response to It is interesting in that, at 1,138 pages and a first run of 1 million copies, the book’s massiveness became the focal site for working through King’s latest state of indeterminacy. In the process, the excessiveness earlier suggested by his ties to popular culture acquired an additional semantic layer—that of massiveness, a grotesque overabundance that connoted corporeal processes of intake and output. Allusions to explosive bodies thus abounded: one review of It in The New York Times called the novel an “epic of coprophilia” that failed because “it trie[s] too hard; it reaches for too much; it’s too damn complicated” (Lehmann-Haupt 1986, C21); another review in the Times Book Review concurred:
Casting aside discipline, … [King] has piled just about everything he could think of into this book and too much of each thing as well. While the legendary bathroom sink does not appear, there is a bathroom sink that spouts blood, a toilet that explodes and an entire municipal sewer system that is awash with ravaged corpses and the bones of many local children whom It has eaten over several centuries. (Wager 1986, BR9)
Once in agreement with the Times Book Review, middlebrow publications during this time seemed to manifest split allegiances. Newsweek referred to King’s “obsessive scribbling”, his “unprecedented flood” of bestsellers and the “insatiable appetite” of his fans—yet went onto discuss how these phenomena had “revolutionalize[d] the way books are sold” (Foltz and Wang 1985, 62). Similarly, a 1986 article in Time commented that It had “all the author’s patented tics and tropes … most discouraging[ly] of all, the Unconscionable Length”: “[t]he weight alone (3 lbs. 7½ oz.) would seem the right heft for a doorstop and the wrong one for a bestseller”. Yet immediately thereafter Time surrendered to popular opinion, citing It’s 1 million copies sold and conceding that “[w]hen an author receives that kind of recognition, two factors are at work: his skills and the vitality of his genre” (Kanter, par. 3-4). Time and Newsweek were caught between their bourgeois strivings and their middlebrow readership; as Bourdieu might put it, they had given way to “the horrible seduction of the disgusting and of enjoyment” (489).
Yet The New Yorker continued to hold out, printing not a review of It but a parody that opened with an epigraph from Time—the above-quoted passage regarding the novel’s doorstop-worthiness. Spoofing King’s massive success as itself a kind of Kingesque horror, the parody detailed a series of mysterious goings-on in a small town in central Maine: first men with chainsaws come and clearcut the forests. Then a bridge collapses under the weight of a cargo truck returning from a pick up at a publishing company. Then the floor beneath the “Authors Ka-Ki” section of the local library caves in. And then—most horrific of all—the parents of the parody’s six-year-old protagonist turn into zombies who every night after dinner trudge upstairs to do the unspeakable. Stumbling upon them in the act one night, the child realizes what they are doing: “Suddenly Chuckie understands. They will want him to do this, too, someday. They will make him. They will force him to do it for hours and hours until he says he likes it. The thing is a book, and Mom and Dad are—Oh my God—they are reading” (McGrath 1986, 26). Despite the ironic humor of the piece, the overarching suggestion is that the real horror of King’s massiveness lies in the force that creates it: the tasteless tastes of millions of middlebrow readers who might not otherwise open a book.
King Goes Shopping
By the 1990s, King’s reputation as “superstar storyteller and scaremeister” (Carvajal 1997, D1) was well-established, yet a number of incidents throughout the decade suggest King’s slowly increasing proximity to official definitions of literature. In 1990, for example—four years after its parody of It—The New Yorker periodically began publishing King’s fiction and nonfiction, and in 1996 one of his contributions won the O’Henry Award for short fiction. Most significantly, however, was King’s move in 1997 from longtime publisher Viking to Scribner, an imprint described by Publisher’s Weekly as having greater “literary cachet” (Quinn 1997, 10). While the motivating factors behind this move had less to do with conscious literary strivings than with author-publisher friction wrought by structural changes in the publishing industry (namely, the corporate merger between Putnam and Viking parent company Penguin), this incident and its aftermath nonetheless became another crisis of indeterminacy. A “literary free agent” as he shopped for a new publisher, King’s literary status too went on the market, his relation to the canon symbolically up for grabs.
For the news media, King’s search was the ultimate act of indecorum. The massiveness that formerly promised to revolutionize the publishing industry now threatened it: “Who can afford him?” inquired The New York Times indignantly (Carvajal 1997, D1). Yet the real impropriety was not the enormous advances against royalties that King’s bestsellers would inevitably require—rather, it was the fact that the search for a publisher who would pay the requested $18 million advance for King’s newest manuscript was conducted publicly. With the offended outrage that can only come from violated sensibilities, a later article in the Times explained in exasperation that “The plumb line in most mega-dollar book negotiations is secrecy. The author’s agent will discreetly call two or three possible publishers … and arrange for secret meetings, not an auction, of the publishers, the author, and his agent. By contrast, the current King negotiation is inarguably the most public auction ever held for a superstar author” (Arnold 1997, E3). In handling things publicly, King exposed the vulgarity of the entire industry, the dirtiness of vast amounts of money changing hands; as a result he himself was deemed vulgar.
Yet for the elite press, this incident seemed to be a critical moment in King’s reevaluation as a “serious” writer. In a glowing 11-page profile on King published in 1998, The New Yorker wrote off the incident as mere “silliness” that in no way detracted from his worthiness as a writer. Dismissing media claims that King decided to leave Viking when the Penguin-Putnam merger brought him into direct competition with fellow bestseller Tom Clancy, The New Yorker stated that “King, who cares plenty about cultivating his literary reputation, ha[s] no need to get into a pissing contest with the likes of Clancy” (Singer, 58). The symbolic move away from genre fiction attendant to King’s contract negotiations with the more literary Scribner is thus expressed here as a movement away from the scatological. The act of sublimation that seems to mark King’s complete incorporation into the esteem of cultural elites found parallel expression in a 2000 article published in Christianity Today. Entitled “Stephen King’s Redemption”, the article was as much about the redemption of King in the estimation of the author as it was about King’s reportedly Christian sensibilities. Thus, the recuperation of King’s status among religious conservatives occurred alongside his recuperation among literary elites—two groups traditionally hostile to both horror as a genre and King as its exemplar (Smith 2002, par. 16).
This is not to say that the elite press post-Scribners was unanimous in its assessment of King’s literariness. A writer for The New Republic, for instance, started by admitting that she was a King fan, noting that she no longer had to be embarrassed by this “predilection for pulp” given that “[a] movement is under way to rehabilitate (or perhaps simply habilitate) Stephen King as a Serious Writer”. Citing The New Yorker’s 1998 profile of King as evidence that “King’s subsequent project have been accorded somewhat more gravitas than his earlier efforts”, she observed that “[l]ast year’s The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon was lauded as a touching psychological thriller happily devoid (well, nearly devoid) of ghouls and gore.” Again, the literary is here constructed against the corporeal, the occult, the fantastic—a good writer, a literary writer avoids the excess implied by a focus on ghouls and gore. And it is for precisely this reason that The New Republic concluded that King could not yet be considered literary: he defines good writing as primarily attentive to story, and storytelling (like horror) is ultimately concerned with effect and thus with the affective. “King is a good storyteller,” the author wrote, “[b]ut he can’t resist taking full advantage of all the easy, creepy details one associates with the living dead—bugs crawling out of eyeballs, the stench of decomposing flesh, and so on” (Franklin 2000, 50).
He can’t resist: he is undisciplined, he can’t control himself. As with talk shows, the literary is structured by the distinction between expressiveness and restraint, where this distinction refers literally to the body—or more accurately, to norms of embodiment. The implication is that King is more concerned with short term effect on the reader (and on the reader’s body) than with long term effect on mind and history; he makes no lasting contribution to the repository of universal truth that great literature is imagined to be. Unlike literature, “the story doesn’t contain anything essential that lives on in our minds after we’ve put the book down.” A review of On Writing in The Nation agreed; although King’s memoir “dispenses good common sense on life as in writing[,] … his prose lacks … beauty … (a gift, I suspect, that can’t be taught)” (Wakefield 2001, par.17). Like taste, literary status is essential; it cannot be acquired.
King Wins the National Book Award
In 2002, Midwest Quarterly published an article by Greg Smith entitled “The Literary Equivalent of a Big Mac and Fries?: Academics, Moralists, and the Stephen King Phenomenon.” Responding to the recent movement to recuperate King, Smith wrote that the title’s question, with its famous metaphor, was perhaps more important or interesting than “whatever response it might elicit”: “Critics are not asking why other enormously popular contemporary authors such as romance practitioner Danielle Steele, techno/suspense novelist Tom Clancy or even Dean Kootz and John Saul … fail to be acknowledged by the guardians of literary taste, so what gives in King’s case?” (par. 5) What gives, Smith went on to imply, is King’s semi-legitimate status—his almost-but-not-quite literariness that The New Republic alluded to: he is intelligent and reflective but, sorry, not beautiful.
Yet from the apparent impasse of a high culture discourse that acknowledges King’s middlebrowness but no more—which balks at his inability to resist—emerged at this time a new discourse, one that viewed the path to King’s recuperation not in his sanitization, but rather in a transvaluation of his indeterminacy as hybridity. This move is best exemplified in a 2002 review of King’s books that ran in the prestigious New York Review of Books. Alongside ads for academic books on musicology from Harvard University Press, reviewer John Leonard waxed long and poststructuralist on the “slippage, … chaos and bricolage” of King’s fiction: “Black House is a thriller, so let it thrill you. It’s the usual Kingly mix of high, low, and middle management cultures” (34). In Leonard’s admonition to let it thrill you, we see a recuperative move not predicated on a refusal of enjoyment, one that refuses to refuse the body. Likewise, it values the scatological—as when Leonard, with a sort of vindictive glee, writes that when you’re Stephen King “you can even buy your own table at the National Book Awards, and invite as your guests such fellow bestsellers as John Grisham, who, like you, also won’t ever win one from those shit-weasels, the anal-retentive literary establishment” (33). Letting it thrill you here is parallel to letting go physically: letting one fly, letting slip.
The irony of this quote, of course, is that one year later King did win a National Book Award from the anal-retentive literary establishment. Whether elite transvaluation of King’s indeterminacy was necessary before King could attain official recognition can only be speculated upon. However, it is important to note that the terms in which Leonard celebrated King were by and large not the terms in the event unfolded within the public imagination. What the incident revealed, in fact, was the prevailing sense of ambivalence about King’s ambivalence, even as the incident itself suggested King’s wholesale incorporation into definitions of the literary. As stated by a journalist writing from the Times, “[t]he National Book Foundation … has decided to bestow its annual medal for distinguished contribution to American letters on the man who bestowed pig’s blood, homicidal jalopies and ax-wielding nurses on our libraries” (“The Shining Moment” 2003, A24).
As might be surmised from this statement, the National Book Foundation’s decision predictably elicited contempt on the part of those who had always viewed King as a vulgar writer, most notably traditionalist literary critic Harold Bloom, who in a livid editorial to the Los Angeles Times decried King as “a writer of penny dreadfuls” and his selection by the NBF as “another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life” (2003, B13). But King and the NBF had their defenders as well, and as a result the question of King’s literary status—and the underlying issue of cultural hierarchy—became a matter of public vexation, at least among middlebrow publications (elite publications remaining oddly silent on the matter).
Yet at the same time that the politics of canonization erupted as an intense site of interest, the issue of cultural power was largely displaced by those eager to reframe the debate in terms of quality or a simple “difference in viewpoints” between critics and defenders of King (Weeks 2004, C01). In this way, even those who challenged King’s exclusion from definitions of the literary ultimately reinscribed this definition. Time, for instance, wrote that “we readers … have an odd and deeply ingrained habit of dividing books into two mutually exclusive heaps, one high and literary and one low and trashy, and we should stop it. Books aren’t high or low. They’re just good or bad” (Grossman 2003, 72). Likewise, Publisher’s Weekly argued that it had always had a “catholic approach to books” based on the belief that “literary excellence can arise in any type of book” (Zaleski 2003, 18). What is of course omitted from these discussions is that excellence arises more often in certain types of book than others, and that these patterns both arise from and reproduce existing social hierarchies. In reframing the debate in terms of “quality”, then, one could extend certain permissions (King as a popular writer who’s “good”) without fundamentally challenging entrenched associations between what’s “popular” and what’s “bad”, what’s “literary” and what’s “good”.
On the one hand, then, the National Book Awards incident and the hoopla that followed suggest an institutional erosion of cultural hierarchy, especially given that the NBF within recent years has attempted to broaden its mission of literacy education by promoting a more inclusive understanding of American writing (Fialkoff 2003, 92). But on the other hand, the NBA hoopla is evidence that little has changed save for King’s placement within this hierarchy, and even that is uncertain. In a middlebrow echo of Leonard’s elite celebration of King’s indeterminacy, Time journalist Lev Grossman would applaud the National Book Foundation’s decision for “encourag[ing] the small but determined school of writers who are carefully, lovingly grafting the prose craft of the literary heap onto the sinewy, satisfying plots of the trashy one to produce hybrid novels”—right after admitting that, actually, “I don’t care much for Stephen King’s books” (72). For the cultural elite, distance from the body enables its transvaluation as hybrid, while for the middlebrow this hybridity in the last instant always contains a tinge of shit.
Cultural Hierarchies, Social Hierarchies, Ecological Hierarchies
As Greg Smith suggests, the question of whether King is high or low, upwardly mobile or fundamentally unincorporable may ultimately be more interesting and revealing than any possible answer. Further, it is the discursive centrality of the body to the fraught negotiations of King’s position within cultural hierarchies that perhaps proves most interesting. Yet in many ways the uncovering of a relationship between cultural processes of distinction-making and disgust for the excretory body must be a starting point more than a conclusion. Although Bourdieu reveals the fact of this relationship, he (like the psychoanalytic discussions of abjection often applied to horror) never actually deconstructs the body’s lowness. Why is it the case that the body must necessarily be low, necessarily be that which opposes the social? If the fundamental act of power is ultimately the power to classify, to preside over the distribution of bodies (and the cultural objects that represent them) into categories of in and out, up and down – and if this gesture of power fundamentally turns on a refusal of the body, a refusal of connectivity to or embeddedness within the material world – then it seems that this embeddedness must equally be a central focus of any social critique of distinction. Which is to say, this critique must attend to the ecological hierarchies that underlie and motivate the imbrication of social and cultural hierarchies; it must attend to the ways in which the particular conceptualization of bodily economy at the heart of classification processes is itself structured by material relations of domination over the natural, the animal, the inanimate: in short, the nonhuman, which in the end always means the subhuman. As I’ve tried to make clear in this chapter, horror, a site where the excretory body is most spectacularly but also legitimately visible, does not simply dramatize a hierarchical relationship to the body and nature (although it does do that). Horror also problematizes these hierarchies on multiple levels, as the case of Stephen King suggests. In this way, a subject that in some ways may seem narrowly literary reveals the broader political importance of imagining and effecting nonhierarchical relations to our own material embeddedness, and the centrality of these efforts to transforming the social hierarchies that cultural hierarchies always symbolize and reproduce.
1A term that perhaps sums up the ways in which the popular is understood/devalued precisely through its imagined connection with the body, via metaphors of ingestion as well as excretion. The literary has readers; the cinematic, viewers; but the popular has consumers.
2Like many film scholars, Tudor views Psycho as a turning point in the genre, one that marks a shift away from the “closed” narratives of the 30s, 40s, and 50s (in which the monster is defeated and order restored) and toward an open narrative structure which expresses much more ambivalence about human abilities to withstand socially disordering forces. The shift toward paranoid horror also imagines an increasingly internal threat – a threat immanent to humanity and social normality – rather than the supernatural or external threats of the genre’s first few decades. This distinction between secure and paranoid horror becomes clearer when we compare Dracula or the giant ants in Them! to Norman Bates. Modern horror is paranoid because what is monstrous is no longer easily recognizable; any one of us could be Norman Bates.
3 This is consistent with literary critic Scott McCracken’s argument that the essential or defining element of horror is “an emptiness which cannot be explained.” The effectiveness of the genre turns on the horror reader’s “inability to rationalise [explain] the source of the terror”. Thus follows an interesting point, to which It also seems to subscribe, as I elaborate later. Horror’s resistance to rationalization means that “there is a fundamental contradiction between the reader-identity of the academic critic and the function of the horror narrative. Where the critic wishes to understand, the horror narrative resists interpretation, numbing the critical faculty with the spectacle of the unknown” (1998, 128).
4This despite novelist Bill Denbrough’s dismissal of the Freudian model of subjectivity as the source of the horror tale. “Subconscious?” Bill muses as he thinks of interviewers who ask him where he gets his ideas. “Well, there was something down there all right, but Bill thought people had made much too big a deal out of a function which was probably the mental equivalent of your eyes watering when dust got in them or breaking wind an hour or so after a big dinner. The second metaphor was probably the better of the two, but you couldn’t very well tell interviewers that as far as you were concerned, such things as dreams and vague longings and sensations like deja-vu really came down to nothing more than a bunch of mental farts” (211). Interestingly, Denbrough’s explanation (which is of course implicitly King’s) itself operates as a kind of rationalization or disavowal. Though King denies a psychoanalytic account of horror and narrative, the structure of the novel nonetheless bears it out.
5 Venerated: with an income exceeding the GDP of some Third World countries, King is the most popular and mainstream author perhaps in the world. And prohibited: paradoxically, these same books also top lists of censored works (Casebeer 1996, 42).
6King develops this idea more fully in Danse Macabre (1981), a nonfiction work on the horror genre.
7For this reason King equates the body (partiuclarly its excretory and alimentary capacities) and water delivery/disposal infrastructure, discussing the former in terms of the latter (as when he refers to the intestines of a shit weasel-infected soldier as his “sewage treatment plant”) and vice versa (as when he describes the Quabbin Reservoir aqueduct that supplies Boston’s water and where Mr. Gray plans to unload a shit weasel as “an intestine sixty-five miles long” with “Shaft 12 … the throat”) (562).
8The political unconscious of King’s novels is always the Vietnam war, which makes sense given the era in which he came of age. In Dreamcatcher, however, he also draws parallels between older imperial wars like Vietnam and more recent US “peacekeeping” missions such as that in Bosnia, where we learn that Kurtz orders the murder of children who witnessed what is supposed to be secret military action, just as he orders the murder of civilians who accidentally witness the extermination of the grays.
9If it’s true that King views children and adolescents as ethical counterforces to a symbolic order predicated on violence/repression, and consequently adult/child hybrids as the solution to the killing logic of this order, it then makes sense that the central figure in Dreamcatcher would be Duddits, someone who, as one character comments to another, is “both a boy and a man,” whose Down Syndrome means he never really outgrows a state of hybridity. This in turn is what makes him extrahuman, “almost … a grayboy instead of a human” (500).
10Interestingly, King’s fiction is frequently decried in similar terms, accused of being “post-literate”: conveying ideas primarily through second order references to visual culture (and in particular movies) rather than through first order narrative description.
11At the same time, king does not present the dreamcatcher of the novel as an “authentic” indigenous art object so much as he does as an object whose authenticity/indigenicity has already been appropriated and commodified for white consumption (as evident by the fact that the dreamcatcher hangs, largely unromanticized, in the cabin of four white guys, simply something they’ve purchased).
12At the same time, King’s elision of the difference between horror film and horror fiction – his attempt to assert literary credibility by comparing himself to the classics of horror cinema – ironically suggests that his credibility as horror novelist is still in question. For as Magistrale points out, horror film has a very different critical reception than horror fiction: “In the past thirty years horror cinema has received its fair share of mainstream critical attention – unlike its dark sibling, horror fiction, which still remains relegated to bastard-child status in the literary pantheon” (2005, 1).
13To do this, I collected newspaper and magazine articles published in the mainstream U.S. press over a 31-year span (1973 to the present). Newspaper articles I accessed primarily through electronic databases that archive major U.S. dailies (e.g. The New York Times) while I accessed magazine articles using the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature. Of the universe of publications on King, I therefore had access to only the most widely available portion; further, of this portion I selected for review only those articles that seemed best suited to the parameters of my analysis. My archive is, therefore, to some degree arbitrary. Nonetheless, I assembled and reviewed a significant number of articles—96 in total—that upon collection I classified into 4 broad categories on the basis of their position within the U.S. economy of print media: popular publications (e.g. People Weekly); trade, professional, and industry publications (e.g. Publisher’s Weekly); middlebrow publications (e.g. Time, as well as most daily news media); and culturally elite publications (e.g. The New Yorker). Undoubtedly these categories are also to some degree arbitrary, yet I would also wager that they make a certain intuitive sense to those familiar with the U.S. cultural landscape.
14Of the 96 articles I reviewed, 72 appeared in middlebrow and trade publications, 16 in elite publications, and 8 in the popular press.
15It should be pointed out, however, that the university library from which I obtained these articles did not carry subscriptions for many of the popular publications featuring articles on King (Seventeen, Reader’s Digest, TV Guide), which points to institutionalized processes of distinction-making that literally exclude certain kinds of knowledge as undesirable or irrelevant. Personal processes of distinction-making may have also been a factor in the seeming scarcity of popular articles on King, as popular publications were overall less likely to address issues that pertained to my project (King’s fiction or literary status), focusing instead on his personal life or films. In addition to institutional factors, then, my own assumptions about which sorts of knowledge are valuable (critical/literary) and which are not (celebratory/commercial) may have contributed to the low number of popular articles available.
16 Normally a publishing house buys hardback rights to a book (considered more lucrative) and sells off the reprint rights to paperback publishers. That NAL opted for the reverse speaks to King’s enormous success at this time as a writer of paperback fiction, and as such implies his probable reception as a popular writer of genre fiction.