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Stephen King and the Birth of Armageddon: Pregnancy in Horror, Part Two

I’ve referred before, in my review of Clive Barker’s Books of Blood, to what I’ve called Stephen King’s conservatism. I want to clarify, before digging into a few examples of his treatment of pregnancy, that I don’t mean he’s politically right-of-center. If anything, King’s long-running dispute with Maine Governor (and unapologetic white nationalist) Paul LePage indicate that he’s a lefty when it comes to social and fiscal issues. The conservatism I talk about when I point it out in King is more of an attitudinal, dispositional conservativism. It’s a habit of mind, a way of looking at the world that King (in Danse Macabre) framed as a tension between the Apollonian and the Dionysian, between chaos and order.

Worth remembering, too, is that King has been at this very hard for a very long time. Since 1973, he has published 58 novels and six nonfiction titles. He’s sold more than 350 million books, and has had his work adapted into film and television projects (of varying quality). As a novelist, he occupies very rare air indeed – like JK Rowling or Tom Clancy, his work has helped to redefine not only a genre, but the tastes of popular fiction writers and consumers worldwide. A career so extensive is bound to have both hits and misses when it comes to writing pregnant women. Add to that the fact that King is a male author, and it’s worth looking at what King treats with skill in his books, and what he doesn’t.

Let’s start with what I think is King’s most fully-developed portrayals: Fran Goldsmith and Nadine Cross, two women whose pregnancies feature prominently in the plot of his fourth novel, The Stand. If we consider the good-evil spectrum of the story to be a linear one, with good resting at one pole and evil at another, we can consider Fran and Nadine additive inverses. Nadine is Fran seen through a mirror darkly: Fran loves and stands by her man, Nadine is trapped and driven mad by a monstrous destiny – Fran’s child eventually (spoiler alert) winds up surviving and is a symbol of hope a new world, Nadine’s child, it is implied, would have established Randall Flagg’s hell-dynasty on Earth, but instead dies when he throws her to her death. The Stand is a long novel; the original edition clocked in at 823 pages, and the prescription-strength unabridged version, released in 1990 with additional material edited out of the original is a whopping 1152 pages. All told, The Stand is King’s longest novel. Before the advent of tablets, that was hard on a readers’ wrists, but the upside of such an ocean of detail is that both Fran and Nadine are three-dimensional characters with complicated motives, complex feelings about their pregnancies and the future, and voices that sound and feel very real and natural.

That is, unfortunately, not the case regarding Susannah Dean, one of the protagonists of his epic Dark Tower series. Susannah had a lot of heavy lifting to do as a character, given that she is the only member of Roland’s band of adventurers who is not both white and male. Susannah suffers from dissociative identity disorder, and one of her personae – Odetta Holmes – is an example of King at his worst and most problematic. Calling Detta a caricature would be an undeserved compliment. Fortunately, by the time Susannah’s supernatural pregnancy comes along in the story, King has mostly written out that aspect of her character, and the gestation and birth of her demonic young is gross and thrilling and the locus of some of the best writing of the last few books of the series.

King’s dispositional conservatism doesn’t make him a bad guy in the least. If his attempts to write black characters are, at best, a bit clunky, his depictions of life, love, loss, and terror in the Northeast, particularly his native Maine, are breathtaking in their note-perfect imitations. When King writes Maine, you can feel the texture of his characters’ voices and hear the echoes of the stories I’m sure King heard – and absorbed – throughout his youth there. One such story is “Home Delivery,” which is not only one of the best stories of pregnancy and womanhood that I’ve read, but on the short list of my favorite King tales, full-stop. “Home Delivery” was first published in 1989 in an anthology and then in 1993 in King’s short story collection Nightmares and Dreamscapes. In it, a pregnant young widow named Maddie and the tiny island community in which she lives attempt to live through zombie Armageddon. Maddie isn’t exactly a Michonne or a Furiosa; she’s timid, unsure of herself and used to feeling powerless. This could make for a one-dimensional, helpless character, mere furniture in a story about the heroism of men. King doesn’t go that direction. In his telling, Maddie is a complicated character, and her journey of survival is a portrait of pregnancy and womanhood that doesn’t fit neatly into gender roles as they might be explored by Carmen Maria Machado or Stephanie Meyer.

And speaking of Stephanie Meyer, next week we’ll look at portrayals of pregnancy in horror that range from problematic to outright inexcusable, starting with the worst example I’ve ever encountered: Breaking Dawn.

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