Work­ing-Class Hero

Hor­ror made Stephen King rich. Writ­ing about the poor makes him great

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - By Naben Ruth­num

Hor­ror made Stephen King rich. Writ­ing about the poor makes him great

In Stephen King’s 1982 ­novella The Body , twelve-year- old Chris ­Cham­bers re­veals to his best friend, ­Gordie Lachance, what hap­pened when he re­turned the class milk money he stole. The teacher he came clean to, “old lady ­Si­mons,” pock­eted the nearly seven dol­lars, bought a new skirt, and let ­Cham­bers take the fall. The story is set in King’s ­fre­quently used fic­tional town, Cas­tle Rock, dur­ing the sum­mer of 1960. Cham­bers, who dreams of es­cap­ing the drink-soaked life of hard labour that awaits him af­ter grad­u­a­tion, says that Si­mons was free to do what she did only be­cause his fam­ily was poor. “Do you think that bitch would have dared try some­thing like that if it had been one of those dootch­bags from up on The View that had taken the money?”

It’s a blunt as­sess­ment of the class strug­gle that not only shapes King’s ­fic­tion — from small-town ter­rors to apoc­a­lyp­tic epics — but saves his strangest works from be­ing purely es­capist. Car­rie, the ­bul­lied tele­ki­netic girl who made King’s for­tune, has a mother who toils on the speed ironer and folder at the Blue ­Rib­bon Laun­dry, then comes home to take out her rage on her daugh­ter. In Cujo (1981), a ra­bid dog traps a woman and a boy in a stalling Ford Pinto af­ter her hus­band ­em­barks on a des­per­ate busi­ness trip to save his ad agency and pre­vent the col­lapse of the fam­ily fi­nances. The time por­tal in 11/22/63 (2011) is ac­ci­dently dis­cov­ered by a diner owner, who, at first, uses it to save money by visit­ing 1958 to buy ground beef at 54 cents a pound.

“He knows fear,” de­tec­tive writer ­Wal­ter Mosley said about King in 2003, “and not the fear of de­monic forces alone but ­also of lone­li­ness and poverty, of hunger and the un­known.” That fear has been at the cen­tre of King’s writ­ing since he was a broke school­teacher in Maine. For the last four decades, Amer­ica’s best-known hor­ror writer has also been one of the coun­try’s most bril­liant so­cial re­al­ists.

Set in an un­named post-re­ces­sion Mid­west­ern city, King’s new book, End of Watch , con­cludes a tril­ogy about ­re­tired pri­vate eye Bill Hodges and the ­Mercedes Killer — so-named be­cause he killed eight peo­ple by plow­ing a stolen Mercedes through a pre-dawn lineup at a job fair. Be­fore car­ry­ing out this mas­sacre, Brady Harts­field had been a frus­trated tech ­prodigy cursed with bad tim­ing. He thinks his pre-Siri voice-ac­ti­vated pro­gram should have made him rich. But ­in­stead, he was left “a day late and a dol­lar short. Or, in this case, a few bil­lion.”

Stuck work­ing dead- end jobs at an ­elec­tron­ics shop and an ice-cream truck, Harts­field turns to mass mur­der as a way of ­mak­ing his mark on his­tory. Or that’s what he tells him­self. “The truth is dark­ness,” he thinks, “and the only thing that mat­ters is mak­ing a state­ment be­fore one en­ters it. Cut­ting the skin of the world and leav­ing a scar. That’s all his­tory is, af­ter all: scar tis­sue.” But while his lack of money and sta­tus feeds Harts­field’s need for glory, his rage also draws on an­other source: racism.

King has ad­dressed race be­fore in the small-town back­drops of his nov­els; how­ever, he has rarely mar­ried the theme with the idea of class. For the most part, he ­de­picts the dis­con­tent of cer­tain kinds of strug­gling white fig­ures: elec­tri­cians, ­gas-sta­tion at­ten­dants, fac­tory work­ers. End of Watch makes it clear that King’s

vi­sion of Amer­ica’s eco­nomic de­cline in­cludes the re­al­ity of racial in­tol­er­ance and the rise of trou­bled lon­ers such as Dy­lann Roof, who is al­leged to have killed nine ­African Amer­i­cans dur­ing a Bi­ble study in South Carolina, in 2015.

Harts­field con­stantly refers to ­Hodges’s black side­kick, Jerome Robin­son, as the “nig­ger lawn­boy” and, through­out the first novel, ob­sesses over the Robin­son fam­ily’s up­per-mid­dle-class sta­tus. ­Jerome’s ­char­tered-ac­coun­tant mother and col­lege-pro­fes­sor fa­ther ex­em­plify a truth the killer can’t ad­mit: while class jump­ing is hard, it’s not im­pos­si­ble. Two of King’s most fa­mous writer-­pro­tag­o­nists, Bill ­Den­brough in It (1986) and Paul ­Shel­don in Mis­ery (1987), man­age to climb the so­cial lad­der through a mix of tal­ent, luck, and dogged­ness. The real bar­rier hold­ing Harts­field back, in other words, is his own sense of en­ti­tle­ment. (He’s ­also ­crim­i­nally in­sane, which doesn’t help.)

The killer turns up in End of Watch in the same place we left him in the ­pre­vi­ous vol­ume: at a brain-in­jury clinic, in a nearveg­e­ta­tive state. Harts­field took a bad blow to the head when Hodges and his in­ves­tiga­tive team thwarted his plans to bomb a boy-band con­cert that Jerome’s mother and lit­tle sis­ter were sched­uled to at­tend. Con­fined to his bed, Harts­field’s par­a­lyzed state re­flects the frus­tra­tion of an an­gry young man who blames so­ci­ety for what he’s be­come.

His grey mat­ter is re­gen­er­at­ing, how­ever, and the tele­ki­netic abil­i­ties that were bud­ding in Find­ers Keep­ers (2015), the tril­ogy’s se­cond book, strengthen. Able to con­trol ob­jects and minds, Harts­field plots to have a bet­ter life — and maybe fi­nally force the world to no­tice him — by tak­ing over a body more suited to his ge­nius, with a bankroll to match.

King’s child­hood in Con­necti­cut and Maine was some­thing of a blend of the lives he cre­ated for Lachance and Cham­bers in The Body . Like Lachance, King had a tal­ent for sto­ry­telling. Like Cham­bers, he grew up with­out much money. King’s mother raised her two sons alone in the 1950s by tak­ing on a series of low-pay­ing jobs: shifts in a bak­ery and an in­dus­trial laun­dry, and house­keep­ing at a fa­cil­ity for the men­tally ill. The strong women who pop­u­late King’s work — Wendy ­Tor­rance in The Shin­ing (1977), a far cry from the trem­bling Shel­ley Duvall in the ­movie, and hard­work­ing house­keeper Dolores ­Clai­borne — re­flect King’s ad­mi­ra­tion for his own mother’s ef­forts to get her boys a col­lege ed­u­ca­tion.

The stakes were high. In 1966, when King was in his last year of high school, the Viet­nam war ma­chine was at full ­throt­tle. Not be­ing ad­mit­ted into col­lege would have meant get­ting drafted. To help with tu­ition, King got a job at a mill, a place he later de­scribed as “a dingy fuck­hole over­hang­ing the pol­luted An­droscog­gin

King isn’t a mor­al­izer. Bad things hap­pen to good peo­ple in his fic­tion. But King’s best books also cel­e­brate the en­nobling na­ture of in­dus­tri­ous­ness.

­River like a work­house in a Charles Dick­ens novel.” Ev­ery day af­ter school, he punched in for an eight-hour shift, went home to sleep for ­sev­eral hours, at­tended classes, then punched in again. His first no­table story sale, in 1970, to a men’s mag­a­zine called ­Cav­a­lier , was about the enor­mous rats un­der the mill. The grimy hor­ror tale, “Grave­yard Shift,” landed him the ­equiv­a­lent of a few weeks’ pay.

By the time he’d been out of col­lege for a cou­ple of years, King was mar­ried with two kids. His wife, Tabitha, was do­ing the evening shift at a Dunkin’ Donuts, while he pumped gas at a fill­ing sta­tion and — like his mother — pressed sheets in an in­dus­trial laun­dry. Respite came in the form of a job as a high-school teacher, for which King was paid $6,400 a year. How­ever, this was still not nearly enough to fix his Buick, move the fam­ily out of their dou­blewide trailer, or even pur­chase a phone. The sale of pa­per­back rights for his first novel, Car­rie (1974), changed all that. The $200,000 pay­day al­lowed King to quit his teach­ing post and de­vote him­self to writ­ing.

Few of King’s char­ac­ters catch such a break. In The Shin­ing , failed writer and ­al­co­holic Jack Tor­rance has been fired from a Ver­mont prep school af­ter hit­ting one of his stu­dents. He ac­cepts an off-sea­son po­si­tion main­tain­ing the Over­look ­Ho­tel, be­liev­ing he can dry out and use the down­time to com­plete his book. ­In­stead, he suc­cumbs to the ghosts haunt­ing the Over­look and lays siege to his fam­ily. Evil spir­its are, in large part, re­spon­si­ble for Jack’s ram­page, but it’s his “un­rav­el­ing fi­nances” that force Wendy Tor­rance and her son to stay in the ho­tel with a man who is clearly com­ing apart. The ab­ject shame of turn­ing to her smug mother for a handout scares Wendy as much as her de­ranged hus­band does.

King isn’t a mor­al­izer. Bad things hap­pen to good peo­ple in his fic­tion, like the un­em­ployed vic­tims killed by Harts­field’s deadly joyride. But King’s best books also cel­e­brate the en­nobling na­ture of in­dus­tri­ous­ness. In The Stand (1978), a deadly flu wipes out so­ci­ety. The sur­vivors from rich, com­fort­able back­grounds don’t make it far: they wear the wrong shoes, can’t give up their pills, and even­tu­ally die. The fac­tory work­ers, the farm-raised, the chil­dren of work­ing, sin­gle-par­ent fam­i­lies? King sees them through to the end.

Hodges, a tire­less in­ves­ti­ga­tor, is one of the “saved.” His self­less­ness makes him the ideal neme­sis for the schem­ing Harts­field, who at­tempts to rein­vent him­self through heinous acts. In a ­par­tic­u­larly ­con­temp­tu­ous class-charged at­tack, the killer en­ters the head of Jerome’s ­teenaged sis­ter, Bar­bara, and preys on her fears that her fam­ily’s money has made her in­au­then­tic, or “black­ish” — “She can live that won­der­ful white life be­cause she is a threat to no one,” in­tones the voice in her head. Harts­field be­lieves that the fi­nan­cial com­forts that fate has with­held from him should also be with­held from any­one lower down on his imag­ined so­cial ­lad­der. Black­ness and priv­i­lege are, for him, in­com­pat­i­ble.

Harts­field’s gam­bit against Bar­bara fails, giv­ing Hodges the ma­jor lead he needs. But Harts­field’s un­do­ing ul­ti­mately stems from his re­fusal to grasp the rea­son for the Robin­son fam­ily’s suc­cess: their un­will­ing­ness to buckle un­der the weight of cir­cum­stance. A com­mit­ted re­la­tion­ship to hon­est work of­ten is what helps King’s char­ac­ters ­escape their ori­gins. The au­thor’s clear-eyed de­pic­tion of that strug­gle — in books that also hap­pen to fea­ture were­wolves, vam­pires, and aliens — has made him one of our premier sto­ry­tellers.

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