As the film IT scares a whole new generation, Ed Power looks at why Stephen King’s stories are as popular as ever
STEPHEN King has never been quite out of the spotlight. But in 2017 the horror author is
especially inescapable. A big-screen remake of scary clown classic IT is steam-rolling the box office while this autumn will see the Irish debut of the adaptation of his thriller Mr Mercedes (with Brendan Gleeson as a retired cop).
Just last week, the trailer to a Netflix retelling of his 1992 kinky-games-gone-wrong novel Gerald’s Game was released.
These come on the heels of an (underwhelming) screen version his Dark Tower saga, starring Idris Elba and Mathew McConaughey, and the debut, again on Netflix, of The Mist, based on the 1980 novella.
Meanwhile, TV audiences are counting down to season two of Stranger Things, the “kids-in-bikes” mystery that channelled early King and which he approvingly described as a remix of his “greatest hits” (and which, in turn, conspicuously influenced the new IT). An anthology drama set in his fictional town of Castle Rock is being shepherded to the screen by JJ Abrams.
NOW’S THE TIME
Why has King returned to prominence at this particular moment? An amateur sociologist might be tempted to draw parallels between the early Eighties, when he became the world’s favourite novelist, and the present day.
Against all reasonable expectations, we once more live in the shadow of nuclear conflict. A controversial conservative occupies the White House. The global economy sits on a perpetual fault line. In times of uncertainty do we find solace in King’s dark tales? Things may be bad — but at least none of us is going to devoured alive by a clown living in a sewer, the grisly fate of the first victim of IT’s iconic villain Pennywise.
A more prosaic truth may be that King has remained enduringly popular regardless of events — and that it is mere coincidence that so many projects based on the author’s worked should come along at this particular moment. It isn’t, after all, as if there has been a drought of King tie-ins in the past several years. From the TV drama based on Under the Dome to the JJ Abram’s produced mini series 11.22.63, in which James Franco plays a teacher travelling back in time to prevent the Kennedy assassination, the author’s work has, even before this summer, arrived on screen at a steady clip.
“King’s writing also has a way of unsettling the mind, inducing terror within the most ordinary of setting and situations,” says Dr Sarah Cleary, a lecturer in Gothic studies at Trinity College Dublin and organiser of Horror Expo Ireland (at Freemasons’ Hall Dublin from October 29).
“For King anything, anyone and everywhere has the potential to induce fear and terror. Hence why the majority of his tales are set in his birthplace of Maine which seeks to locate horror within small town America as the site of paranoia, anxiety and evil.”
One of the recurring themes in his writing, she says, is the powerlessness of adults — and of the resourcefulness of children in impossible situations. The latter was transplanted wholesale to Stranger Things, in which a bunch of scrappy kids take on a dimension-hopping monster.
Similarly in IT, the adolescent members of the ‘Losers Club’ are the only inhabitants of a small Maine town to understand that an extra-planer entity is preying on the unwary.
“He seeks to subvert expectations by infantilising adults and granting children autonomy,” says Cleary. “As a result, in King’s quest to give a voice to individuals on the margins of society, his focus is often on childhood as a site of great anguish and trauma.”
SMALL TOWN AFFAIRS
King’s ability to see horror behind the most bucolic exterior flows from his baby boomer upbringing, academics have theorised.
His books are typically set in sleepy towns where the picket fences and lemonade stands conceal a lurking evil.
In Salem’s Lot a vampire descends on peaceful Jerusalem’s Lot; IT is set in a fictionalised version of his hometown of Bangor; Carrie, his shocking debut, is set in Chamberlain, another reimagining of small town America.
“Fifties America was a melting pot of social, political, racial and sexual anxieties which permeated the fabric of domestic life,” says Cleary.
“As a result King was part of a new generation of children growing up in the shadow of nuclear annihilation, governmental instability and political paranoia. The real horror in King’s texts is the ability of man to inflict pain on others and on himself. Ultimately King warns us that no boogie man, will ever come close the terror of real life.
“If you take Salem’s Lot, for example, the evil of the vampires infecting the town of Salem is really only a backdrop to the everyday evils of depression, domestic abuse, alcoholism, rape and child abuse which runs throughout the narrative.”
The cinematic quality of King’s writing may also explain why he continues to appeal to film-makers.
“My first editor, Bill Thompson, used to tell people Stephen King has a projector in his head, and that might have something to do with certain visual elements of the stories that have attracted producers and directors,” the author told Vanity Fair in August.
There could of course be a simpler reason: that King writes timeless stories which, as with all classics, remain compelling outside their immediate context. “The best horror writers, Stephen King included, offer their readers a sense of familiarity from which the supernatural emerges,” says Brian Showers of Swan River Press, an Irish publisher specialising in gothic and supernatural literature.
“Just as M.R. James wrote his ghost stories to amuse the fusty antiquarian scholars at his own university, King often writes for working suburbanites in settings and situations that are very much recognisable to us.”
King himself is philosophical about his present prominence. “In a way it does feel like I’m having a moment, but not anything that I’m trying to get a puffy head about,” he said to Vanity Fair. “It’s just the way things happen. You sow your seeds, and sometimes they all come up at the same time, and that’s a great thing.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved