How Now, Stephen King?

How Now, Stephen King? | Alex Malikov (hand); | Baimieng (skull);

Can Shakespeare help us grasp the Maine author’s cultural sway?

By Will Grunewald

[dropcap letter=”L”]ast year brought Stephen King fans a new bestselling book as well as screen adaptations of Mr. Mercedes, The Dark Tower, 1922, Gerald’s Game, The Mist, and It. And with another slew of film and TV projects in development, has any writer racked up a longer IMDb page?

Well, one, anyway. We called up Caroline Bicks, a Shakespeare scholar and the Stephen E. King Chair in Literature at UMaine (a new position the Harold Alfond Foundation endowed and named for the prestigious grad) to see how the Master of Horror’s current popularity tracks with the Bard of Avon’s enduring influence.

King knows how to drop that one unforgettable word or sentence deftly into ourunsuspecting minds

It’s not often we get to talk Cujo with a Macbeth expert.

When I was a kid, my family spent summers in Castine. We didn’t have TV, but the public library had lots of Stephen King, and that part of Maine is full of ghost stories. If I wasn’t conducting séances with my friends, I was scaring myself to death reading Night Shift or The Shining. I was about the age of many of King’s protagonists — that added to the fear factor. Now, in my research, I’m looking at how the minds of Shakespeare’s girl characters get activated when they near or pass through puberty. King is clearly drawn to the brainwork of these girls as well — Firestarter’s Charlie, Doctor Sleep’s Abra, It’s Bev. I think of Carrie as a darker version of Juliet Capulet. Both are capable of imagining romantic fantasies and brain-dashing scenes of horror.

Does King’s writing stack up?

Like the best of Shakespeare, King’s writing sticks with you. Not just the plotlines, but the words. I read Pet Sematary 35 years ago and I can still hear that last gravelly “darling” spoken by Louis’s undead wife as she creeps up behind him. King knows how to drop that one unforgettable word or sentence deftly into our unsuspecting minds, like “REDRUM” or “We all float down here.” He’s like Iago pouring pestilence into Othello’s ear. He’s written that “the road to hell is paved with adverbs.” When you look at his most powerful lines — and Shakespeare’s — you see the wisdom of that. In King Lear, you can hear the heaviness in Cordelia’s line, “I cannot heave my heart into my mouth.” And the drawn-out tedium is built into Macbeth’s “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day.” Red, from Shawshank Redemption, would tell him, “Get busy living or get busy dying” — no adverbs there either.

Any likeness in their handling of scary things?

King, like Shakespeare, doesn’t shy from gore. But what makes them both masters of terror is their ability to prey on our imaginations and take us inside the suffering minds of their protagonists. Think about Macbeth. The witches themselves don’t terrify him — it’s the way that their words stir up his “horrible imaginings.” His own fantastical thoughts are making his hair stand on end and his heart knock against his ribs. He’s much more scared by the “dagger of the mind” — the “fatal vision” he imagines — than by the actual murder he commits.

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