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King and rural America - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
King and rural America
I've had a perfectly lovely day. Paid my bills and did my taxes--in other words, caught up with life--and then took a long walk and visited a branch library I haven't been at, and had an actual conversation with a colleague on a day off. I love my cyber-friends, but I would especially love to have friends in my surrounding physical world.

Anyway, I had a book with me as always, and this time it happened to be literary criticism of Stephen King, and I noticed something of a disconnect between the way I read King and the way the review reads King. And I got to wondering... I rarely give much credence to "regional bias" in reading tone, but I'm curious about this particular issue. I'm interested in responses from King readers, but also in responses from people who've stayed away from King from various reasons, and will give some quotes before the poll so there's something to judge by.

The town knew about darkness.

It knew about the darkness that comes on the land when rotation hides the land from the sun, and about the darkness of the human soul. The town is an accumulation of three parts, which, in sum, are greater than the sections. The town is the people who live there, the buildings they have erected to den or do business in, and it is the land. The people are Scotch-English and French. There are others, of course--a smattering, like a fistful of pepper thrown in a pot of salt, but not many. This melting pot never melted much. The buildings are all constructed of honest wood. Most of the older houses are saltboxes and most of the stores are false-fronted, although no one could have said why. The people know there is nothing behind those false facades just as most of them know Loretta Starcher wears falsies. The land is granite-bodied and covered with a thin, easily ruptured skin of topsoil. Farming it is a thankless, sweaty, miserable, crazy business...

[List of town's sordid secrets]

...These are the town's secrets, and some will later be known and some will never be known. The town keeps them all with the ultimate poker face.

The town cares for devil's work no more than it cares for God's or man's. It knew darkness. And darkness was enough.

'Salem's Lot, "The Lot (III)"

They wheeled their bikes past the trucks and then rode on. The highway had turned close to the sea again and it was cooler. Summer cottages were jammed together in long and sordid rows. People took their vacations in those tenements? Larry wondered. Why not just go to Harlem and let your kids play under the hydrant spray?...

Part of him clamored at their sad and blatant ugliness and at the ugliness of the minds that had turned this section of a magnificent, savage coastline into one long highway amusement park for families in station wagons. But there was a more subtle, deeper part of him that whispered of the people who had filled these places and this road during other summers. Ladies in sunhats and shorts too tight for their large behinds. College boys in red-and-black-striped rugby shirts. Girls in beach shifts and thong sandals. Small screaming children with ice cream spread over their faces. They were American people and there was a kind of dirty, compelling romance about them whenever they were in groups--never mind if the group was in an Aspen ski lodge or performing their arcane rites of summer along US 1 in Maine.

The Stand

Small-town murder in real life, he had found, rarely bore any likeness to the small-town murders in Agatha Christie novels, where seven people all took a turn at stabbing wicked old Colonel Storping-Goiter at his country house in Puddleby-on-the-Marsh during a moody winter storm. In real life, Pangborn knew, you almost always arrived to find the perp still standing there, looking down at the mess and wondering what the fuck he'd done; how it had all jittered out of control with such lethal speed. Even if the perp had strolled off, he usually hadn't gone far and there were two or three eyewitnesses who could tell you exactly what had happened, who had done it, and where he had gone. The answer to the last question was usually the nearest bar. As a rule, small-town murder in real life was simple, brutal, and stupid.

The Dark Half

I'm curious as to what you think of King's views on rural America, and what makes you think it.

I would describe my background/upbringing as...

Small town

How do you perceive King's attitude toward small town America?

Hostile and disdainful
Frustrated and resentful
Loves it despite its flaws
Just loves it and perceives it as superior

Is King's vision of American people generally...

hopeful and loving?
Other? (explain)
31 comments or Leave a comment
caitie From: caitie Date: April 1st, 2006 01:07 am (UTC) (Link)
I took the poll, though I've never read King. When I was a kid, my mom didn't want me to and I wan't a contrary child, and I had plenty of other things to read. And I've always associated King with R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike and other types of horror writers that my mom didn't want me to read and that I didn't want to read anyway because I'm a big wuss with an overactive imagination. Although, I know King doesn't strictly do horror, I've never been able to shake the association.

Anyway. I don't know that King is hostile to rural life, but the passages you've posted certainly gave me vibes of "disdainful"
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 1st, 2006 01:12 am (UTC) (Link)
Out of curiosity, because I'm horribly nosy, what gives you "disdainful"? (Yes, I'm deliberately avoiding giving my own take.)
midnitemaraud_r From: midnitemaraud_r Date: April 1st, 2006 01:32 am (UTC) (Link)
It's been a very long time since I've read King (well, I've read On Writing several times, but I mean his fiction). I chose "other" because from my (vague) recollections of The Shining, Carrie, Salem's Lot and The Stand, (I read them well over 10 years or more ago), his vision of "American people" wasn't an 'either/or" type of thing, but more, in the basest sense, "some are black, some are white, most are shades of grey and fluid." In The Stand, for instance, it really depends on which group of "American People" you're focusing on, you know? Who is redeemed, who stands and who falls? Right there you've got hopeful, loving and negative, and he shows them all. "General" is relative to me.

As for his attitude towards small town America, regardless, most of his stories wouldn't really work in any other setting. And considering he lives in 'small town America' himself, and the care he takes in how the setting relates to the story he's trying to tell in itself, I can't help but think that he loves it despite its flaws.
From: underaloggia Date: April 1st, 2006 01:52 am (UTC) (Link)
I put "other" too, precisely because of the "loves it despite its flaws". At the same time, it occurs to me, King has the rare talent of being able to use harsh language without coming off as nasty--the vibe I get from the passages is cynical, but more in the "frustrated idealist" sense. His language (and the voice overall) is bitter and judgmental, but for whatever reason that sense doesn't extend to the *author*--or if it does, we're back to "loves it despite..." It's an interesting question!
sixth_light From: sixth_light Date: April 1st, 2006 02:45 am (UTC) (Link)
What's the difference between urban and suburban? We've got suburbs here, but none of them are more than half an hour from the centre city, and only yuppies live in the centre city, so...I mean, if you're from a city, you'll live in a suburb of the city, but the whole city isn't exactly very big. Apart from Auckland, which doesn't count, because it's Auckland.

fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 1st, 2006 03:32 am (UTC) (Link)
That may be just an American division, I'm not sure... though I'm inclined to say that, to use HP as an example, living in London would be urban, while living in Little Whinging would be suburban. (Hogsmeade would be small town, and the Weasleys would be rural.)
barbara_the_w From: barbara_the_w Date: April 1st, 2006 03:49 am (UTC) (Link)
King falls into that subtle category of "I hate people, but humanity is amazing"...
webbapettigrew From: webbapettigrew Date: April 1st, 2006 03:54 am (UTC) (Link)
I live about two hours from Stephen King (go Maine!) and I can say that he's a very philanthropic, caring person. He and Tabitha run a yearly contest for young writers in our state and has gone out of his way to donate large sums of money to UMO (my alma mater) and other causes.

He is more of a realist than anything, I think. He has grown up in rural Maine he lives in a small town (relatively--Bangor has about 40,000 people) and he knows our customs, our belief systems, the whole nine yards. His characterizations of the tiny villages and rural areas in his books are almost spot-on. What you see is what you get with him. Those people all exist, from the obsessed fans to the old people who hang out at the corner store and swap old stories all day.
webbapettigrew From: webbapettigrew Date: April 1st, 2006 03:55 am (UTC) (Link)
Also, with regard to my vote for "frustrated," since his accident a few years ago, he's made the point of trying to get some of these bad drivers off the road. The guy that hit him shouldn't have even been behind a wheel, yet he was. However, he's not having a lot of luck in preventing those same drivers from hurting someone else years later. He has voiced his frustration over this more than once.
norwegianblue47 From: norwegianblue47 Date: April 1st, 2006 04:31 am (UTC) (Link)
I think that King choses to portray rural life as negatively because it is so easy to depict loneliness in a rural area than in a city atmosphere, IMO, and when a person is alone, that's when their demons come out. But one of the books I've read by King Dreamcatcher, and while I know those guys didn't exactly live in the completely rural area, I think it was close enough. And they depicted the best, it was almost as if the guys from The Body stepped into a horror story and adopted a mentally disabled person. There was also a fairly decent guy from the military, and once they got down onto the level of the other miliatary guys many of them also seemed very personable.
I think in most of King's books, especially the "horror" ones, though I haven't read The Stand and Dark Tower, the horror aspect flourishes because it takes place in a small town, but anyone that survives also survives because of the small town atmostphere, and the loyalty that arises from it.

Or I could be completely wrong. I just got out of work, and this is when I am at my worst.
frenchbraider From: frenchbraider Date: April 1st, 2006 04:42 am (UTC) (Link)
I based my answer on reading It, and Tommyknockers, Carrie, and Bag of Bones. The truth is, I'm not really sure what to think sometimes, but it seems to me that King sticks just the minimum of interesting, memorable characters into his small-town settings to somehow make people see the - I want to say, appeal of them.
I'm not really sure if others feel that way, but I feel that it's the people that make the town.
nomadicwriter From: nomadicwriter Date: April 1st, 2006 10:01 am (UTC) (Link)
I think Stephen King's greatest strength is that he writes some of the most human people I've ever encountered in fiction. I think generally, the two settings you get in books are "people, but slightly idealised" (or ridiculously idealised, if you've got a bad writer) vs. "a grim, unrelenting portrait of completely dislikeable people". (Ahem. I think my bias against the "it's not 'literature' unless everybody's drowning in a pool of misery of their own creation," school of novel-writing is showing. 'Scuse me.)

I don't think King's take on his characters is negative, I think it's unflinching. But since almost all books where the characters are the 'heroes' flinch a least a little bit - they don't let the 'good' characters pick their noses, or have truly murderous thoughts towards hated family members, or be the way real ten-year-olds are instead of how adults imagine ten-year-olds - it makes King's seem negative by comparison.

But that's exactly why I love his writing, and I can usually get something out of even the books where he seems to have lost the plot completely. He includes the little unsympathetic details that other writers shy away from, and somehow it makes the characters better heroes, since they seem like real people taking a stand instead of idealised good guys.
keestone From: keestone Date: April 1st, 2006 12:50 pm (UTC) (Link)
From the passages you give, I'd say that King is trying to counter regional bias, showing the dark side of human nature in a rural setting rather than falling in with the country-mouse/city-mouse stereotype in which the country is presented as inherently more pure and virtuous than the city. (Takes deep breath. I should avoid academic run-ons. Really.) I guess he's showing a kind of love for small towns by saying, "See, it's just as flawed and human here".

This post fascinates me, but mainly in a "what am I missing?" way. The thing is, I've only managed to finish one Stephen King book, and that was because my sister's fiance gave it to me for Christmas and I felt I had to give King another chance. I read a short story at some point years ago, but it was completely unmemorable and I think it was why I didn't bother to pick up any more of his stuff. My sister's fiance gave me The Gunslinger and I barely managed to finish it; I borrowed Hearts in Atlantis from my sister in the laundromat and didn't bother to continue reading after the clothes were done. I don't consider myself a literary snob, but King's continual comma splices drive me up the wall, and I can't seem to get interested enough in his characters to get past his style. I know a lot of people who love his books, but at the moment, I think I might possibly pick one up if it were just sitting there and I had the choice of reading it or watching paint peel. What am I missing? Am I beginning with the wrong books?

Which of his books do you think is the best starting point? Are there books you'd tell people who aren't total fans to avoid?

fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 1st, 2006 04:26 pm (UTC) (Link)
Heh, if I'd started with The Gunslinger, I probably wouldn't have gone on with the rest of the DT series. Very, very weird book. Hearts in Atlantis? Meh. It got good reviews and people have talked about complex themes, but it didn't do much for me.

If you're not accustomed to reading horror, the best starting place is the novella collection Different Seasons, either "The Body" (basis of Stand By Me) or "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" (The Shawshank Redemption). If horror doesn't faze you, DS is still a good place--damned good stories, including the only King that every genuinely scared the crap out of me, "Apt Pupil"--but you also might look at Carrie, which employs a neat quasi-epistolary style, or The Shining, which deals with family breakdown (and is a lot more subtle than the Kubrick film!). I personally love The Stand and It, but they're very long, so if you haven't already decided to commit, maybe not the best starting point.
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fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 1st, 2006 08:28 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Urban King

Yeah, I'd agree with that. It happened that I was thinking of the rural stuff because I'd read something about showing disdain, but his garbagey back lots with their amazing wild roses in the middle of New York show the same sort of thing. He hasn't had much truck with suburbs at all. Malden, MA, made an appearance in Cell--it was inhabited by zombies, but so was everywhere else.
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sistermagpie From: sistermagpie Date: April 3rd, 2006 03:47 pm (UTC) (Link)
Commenting since I said other--I thought his view of American people was just...realistic. It seemed hard to pin down one way he viewed them. Some of them are negative, some of them are hopeful and loving.
31 comments or Leave a comment