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Suffer the Little Children (Part 1)

As I’m sure is the case with many Madness Heart readers and fans, I took to reading early. My childhood hunger for words was bottomless, and thus at some point when I was mature enough my parents stuck a Stephen King novel in front of me, and that was that. It was off to the races.

Salem’s Lot. The Stand. It. Many of my earliest lessons in “adult” cognition and the opaque, complicated ballet of “adult” emotion came from King’s books. This was, in part, a function of natural childhood development and a reason why reading is so beneficial, but also in part a function of King’s specific and extraordinary gift for voice. He can articulate a character’s internal motivations and train of thought better than almost any modern author I’ve read, even after all these years, and when I was a young man this helped me to develop my own empathy and ability to listen. I will always be grateful to Stephen King for that.

Of the King books that I dipped a toe into early on, The Shining stands out as a, well, shining example. The Shining is a complex, dark, and gorgeous book. It is still widely considered one of King’s best, and for good reason. The tale of the Torrance family’s long winter alone in the Overlook Hotel is more than one of horror’s all-time great ghost stories, and more than a portrait of one man’s descent into madness. It’s a complicated psychological tapestry as well, one that addresses parenthood, the suffering of children, alcoholism, obsession, humiliation, and more. It was, to a young reader, one hell of a user’s manual to the human psyche.

The Shining was first published in 1977, and was followed by a Stanley Kubrick film adaptation in 1980. (The film is obviously worth addressing on its own terms, in its own post, although it will play a minor role in this discussion.) Unlike many of his stories, King had no apparent difficulty with the ending of The Shining. It wrapped up neatly with all pertinent question answered and its characters fully realized (seemingly) in their destinies. Why, then, would King return 36 years later with a sequel, Doctor Sleep?

In asking that question, we’re actually asking a broader one: what haunts Stephen King? The man is a graphomaniacal berserker, a prolific generator of complex, interconnected stories with a lot of moving parts. Many of those parts are meant to mesh, as an increasing amount of what he writes takes place in a deliberately planned-out shared universe. But there are patterns in his books that I don’t think he intentionally puts there. Just beneath the surface of his books are recurrent themes that are a sort of psychic fingerprint. Some of these are more obvious than others; alcoholism and recovery (especially Alcoholics Anonymous) and parapsychology are both prime examples. Some, however, are less overt and more morbid: in reading Doctor Sleep and watching the film adaptation, I was struck by the ways in which the plot hinges on the torture and suffering of children.

Now, two quick notes. First, I am hardly the first to ascertain that horror (and violent entertainment more generally) is exploitative of the pain of the innocent, in particular children. But I think that is a broader, more general trend and trope that requires more unpacking than we can do here today. Also, horror’s general treatment of the innocent is less specific and concrete than Stephen King’s use of childhood pain. Second, I am not even the first in my family to make this observation. Both of my parents used to be devoted Stephen King readers until sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s when they became disenchanted with King’s treatment of the topic. It was the book Cujo in particular which struck my dad as unacceptable and egregious.

Even if this is not a novel observation, a string of recent Stephen King projects – the Outsider, Doctor Sleep, It Chapter 2, Pet Sematary – have brought this unsettling habit to the forefront of my reflections on Stephen King. Now, let me be clear; in absolutely no way do I think King is a sadist or a man who hates children. Far from it. I think King has a soft spot and an abundance of empathy for children, and that drives a burning fear inside him for their safety. This fear is then expressed externally in the horror that he creates and shares with the world. In this sense, King’s focus on  the pain of children is a spiritual pursuit, a tortured attempt to explain the suffering of the innocent and what that means to the concept of a just universe (spoiler alert, Stephen: it means there is no such thing as a just universe).

This meditation is quite interesting when carried out in the fictional person of Danny Torrance, the childhood protagonist of The Shining and adult protagonist of Doctor Sleep. In tracing Danny’s 36-year journey and the benchmarks of his life along the way, we can see much of what makes Stephen King tick in 2020. Danny’s story puts King’s emotional makeup on fascinating display like the inner workings of a glass-backed clock. Next week, we will take that journey with King and Danny, and see what we learn along the way about the suffering of the innocent and other lighthearted subjects.

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