Is there a better writer for the current political moment than Stephen King? Insert joke about horror stories here—but seriously: one of King’s greatest strengths is his well-drawn observations of a certain kind of American. Open up any of his sixty-plus novels and you will find a plethora of well-observed, blue-collar characters. Some are heroic and lovable (Ralph Roberts in Insomnia, Stu Redman in The Stand) and some are homicidal nightmares (Henry Bowers in It), but all, I would argue feel true-to-life and a great many of them are in mourning for their country. This melancholy seems more pronounced in King’s more recent effort like “Premium Harmony” (a 2009 short story set in a Walmart) and novels like Mr. Mercedes (which, though written three years before the events of Charlottesville, Virginia features a red-neck killer driving the titular vehicle into a crowd of civilians) but the idea of a (largely white) working underclass features prominently in all his work. At a time when this same idea has risen from the ashes of the Trump presidency, when “deaths of despair” and opioid addiction fill our headlines, and white working-class resentment has pervaded the culture in a resurgence of Nationalist sentiment and alt-right hate, King’s work doesn’t just seem en pointe – it feels spookily prescient.
King, of course, grew up educated but lower class, working in laundry presses on his summers off from teaching. As he vividly describes in his memoir On Writing, his young family lived in a trailer and, when fortune finally knocked in the form of a book deal for Carrie, the most lavish gift he could think to splurge on was a hair dryer for his wife, purchased from the local drugstore. Unlike many of our modern novelists who came from money (or, at least means) and attended Ivy League schools, King is intimately acquainted with the Rite-Aid version of America and of working people either too exhausted, exasperated, or deranged to identify with the liberal elite. King himself, now a member of this elite, a man who has publicly warred with Trump, has nevertheless retained his keen eye for the idiosyncrasies of the demographic (arguably) responsible for last year’s political outcome. His characterizations are by turns poignant and frightening, but like any good novelist always empathetic.
In his short story “Herman Wouk is Still Alive” (2011), Kings delves into the psyche of a poor, white single mother who wins two- thousand dollars on a lottery scratcher. As she and a friend round up their combined seven children and splurge on an outing in a shiny new rental car, their sudden stroke of good luck only acts to highlight the underlying despair of their existence.
Brenda should be happy. The kids are quiet, the road stretches ahead of her like an airport runway, she’s behind the wheel of a brand-new van, and the traffic is light once they leave Portland. The digital speedometer reads 70, and this baby hasn’t even broken a sweat. Nonetheless, that grayness has begun to creep over her again.
The van isn’t hers, after all. She’ll have to give it back. A foolish expense, really, because what’s at the far end of this trip? Mars Hill. Mars…fucking…Hill. Food brought in from the Round-Up, where she used to waitress when she was in high school and still had a figure. Hamburgers and fries covered in plastic wrap. The kids splashing in the pool before and maybe after. At least one of them will get hurt and bawl. Maybe more. Glory will complain that the water is too cold, even if it isn’t. Glory always complains. She will complain her whole life. Brenda hates that whining and likes to tell Glory it’s her father coming out…but the truth is the kid gets it from both sides. Poor kid. All of them, really. And the years stretch ahead, a march beneath the sun that never goes down.
(“Herman Wouk is Still Alive,” as collected in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams (p. 278)
“Herman Wouk” is one of King’s more on-the-nose populist stories. Aside from Glory, the remaining children in the rental car have names like Freedom, Destiny, and Delight—and the action is building towards a suicidal crash in which they will all be killed. But the names aren’t only there to prop up the metaphor. They’re the kinds of names sported by the kids of right-leaning parents. This is the sort of detail that King excels at—the swift, suggestive brushstroke that paints an entire picture. Elegantly, King intercuts the growing despair of the people in the rental car with scenes of two elderly, liberal poets (natch) lunching together at a rest stop. While he gets the unglamorous details of their itinerant lives dead on (“Beige food…Visiting poet food is always beige,” thinks the female poet, Pauline, as she contemplates what will be served at that night’s University soiree) it’s clear that this pair are more well-to-do than their counterparts. They have time to discuss fine arts, and have less angst about their “old crock” lives as Brenda and her friend Jasmine have at half their age. What’s about to happen is not just a car crash, but the collision of two separate realities.
The story takes its name from the poets’ conversation. They’ve just read a profile of Herman Wouk and, as they contemplate their own mortality, find the aged novelist’s vitality reassuring. (That an immaterial notion like this can comfort while a tangible reward—like Brenda’s lottery win—can torment is the bitter irony at the heart of the story.) Then Brenda’s rental comes screaming through the rest-stop, literally and figuratively exploding the comfortable trappings of their educated liberal idyll.
Phil stops twenty yards from the burning remains, the heat baking his face. He sees what he knew he would see –no survivors—but he never imagined so many non-survivors. He sees blood on timothy and clover. He sees a shatter of taillight glass like a patch of strawberries. He sees a severed arm caught in a bush. In the flames he sees a melting baby seat. He sees shoes.
King is known as a horror writer but he needs no slithery creatures to raise the hair on your neck. It is often his wielding of the most mundane, familiar details—shoes and taillights—that he obtains the sublime. This isn’t just true of his descriptions of carnage but also in more human details. As Pauline stumbles away from the wreckage to call the ambulance, her horror at witnessing the car crash is also life-shattering:
Climbing the hill, she thinks that their lifelong efforts to make beauty out of words are an illusion. Either that or a joke played on children who have selfishly refused to grow up. Yes, probably that. Stupid, selfish children like that, she thinks, deserve to be pranked.
As she reaches the parking lot, now gasping for breath, she sees the Times Arts & Leisure section flipping lazily through the grass on the breath of a light breeze…
It’s important to note that, while Pauline criticizes her own world view here, King never does. “Herman Wouk” could easily have dissolved into a trite depiction of class war but King picks no sides—he juxtaposes, not judges. One world ends in fire and one in the flimsy flapping of the Times, drifting away like Pauline’s sense of certainty—but King’s empathy is nondiscriminatory, and the audience comes away shaken on both accounts.
King is no bland saint, of course. Any proper horror writer must curate a sense of sympathy for the devil. In Mr. Mercedes (2014) he spends as much time developing the psyche of the disturbed killer, Brady Hartsfield, as he does the hero, the (far blander) detective Bill Hodges. In a plot that seems ripped from this year’s headlines but isn’t, Brady has killed a number of people by driving a stolen Mercedes into a crowd at a job fair. The act—as well as Brady himself: a working-class racist complete with a monstrous, perpetually drugged-out mother—anticipates our current political moment, all its disasters (mass murder, racial resentment, income inequality, addiction) embodied in the life and acts of its central character. The ugly underbelly of America, which so shocked liberals when it rolled topside during the 2016 election, has been on King’s radar his entire career.
“Life is a crap carnival with shit prizes,” thinks Brady. This isn’t just his life philosophy, but a sentiment ascribed to Trump supporters and, not coincidentally, a reflection of the reality facing any number of working people left behind by the Great Recession. As one of Brady’s victims thinks at the beginning of the novel:
Two years ago, everything had been fine. He hadn’t exactly been living large in the ‘hood, but he had been making ends meet, with a little left over at the end of most months. Now everything had turned to shit. They had done something to the money. He didn’t understand it; he’d been an office drone in the shipping department…and what he knew about was invoices and using a computer to route stuff…
(Mr. Mercedes, p. 5)
The Recession haunts the entirety of Mr. Mercedes. Later, hero Bill Hodges describes Brady’s victims as “lost souls.” “People so desperate for jobs they got up in the middle of the night and stood waiting [at the City Center] in a dank fog for the doors to open.” Their economic vulnerability is what makes them vulnerable, in turn, to a predator like Brady (and maybe a certain blond-haired demagogue).
Brady himself, smart but underemployed, seems to have been pushed over the edge by class resentment. As a follow-up to the massacre of his fellow working people he plots to blow up an “artsy fartsy” cultural arts center where a more affluent crowd is about to enjoy a concert by One Direction stand-in ‘Round Here. “There’s only going to be one show … this summer,” Brady thinks with typical black humor, “a short one ending with a punk ditty called ‘Die, You Useless Motherfuckers.’” Again, the action is too close for comfort.
King’s talent for capturing how people actually talk—to themselves and to each other—is one of his greatest strengths as a novelist. His ability to draw humor out of bleak situations or find some idiosyncratic speech tick (a recurring King motif is the ear worm: a nagging phrase that gets into a character’s head, often driving them insane) is what lends so much realism to his work. We don’t want to laugh along with a psychopath but Brady’s bravado is funny—and by adding that small layer of humanity to his monsters, King allows some grudgingly sympathy for their plight.
For any good writer, sympathy—and its handmaidens compassion and understanding—is an artistic goal in and of itself—and nowhere does King express this more profoundly than in his Dark Tower series about a world that has “moved on.” In this long, long tale about a knightly gunslinger named Roland Deschain and his quest to reach a mystical tower, King’s influences run the gamut from The Lord of the Rings, to spaghetti westerns, to Robert Browning’s poems – but his settings strongly evoke (and in many cases are) a ruined version of our own world.
The forests were long gone now, replaced by the monotonous flat prairie country: endless, desolate fields gone to timothy and low shrubs; eerie, deserted estates guarded by brooding, shadowed mansions where demons undeniably walked; leering, empty shanties where the people had either moved on or had been moved along…
It was ugly country…Pass-on-by-country.”
(The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger, pp. 19-20)
While the image of the mystical Dark Tower looms romantically over the action, the real motif of the series is the Dissolving Town. The sinister City of Lud, encountered in The Wastelands (the third book in the series) is a rusted out shell of some future New York. The folksy “Callas” in Wolves of the Calla are gritty-but-idealized Main Street Americas with white church-spires and general stores. Tull, the first town encountered by Roland in The Gunslinger, could be any faceless mid-western town of any era: a place of hitching posts and greasy bars where player pianos churn out endless refrains of “Hey Jude.” Compounding the elegiac feeling of decay and fade-out are number of existential threats including “harriers,” “slow mutants,” and ersatz technology. The series contains an impressive variety of crazed robots—the result, as we learn in The Wastelands, of experiments in artificial intelligence by “the Great Old Ones.” A god-like robot bear (in The Wastelands) and an evil, sentient monorail named Blaine (in both The Wastelands and Wizard and Glass) are some of Kings most gonzo-brilliant creations, but it is the child-stealing robots of Wolves of the Calla who make explicit just what is at stake when machines replace man. The citizens of Calla Brynn Sturgis, forced to give a recurring tithe of children to the Wolves in order to keep the peace find that their prosperous-seeming community is withering from within.
“…[W]hen the Wolves come, they don’t just take our children but our hearts and souls. Each time they steal and we stand by, they cut us a little deeper. If you cut a tree deep enough, it dies. Cut a town deep enough, that dies too.”
(The Dark Tower: Wolves of the Calla, p. 604)
No matter what your political leaning, this quote, spoken by a father as the Calla plans for a last stand against their robot foes, is poignant stuff. It would resonate in any year, with any population, but seems particularly apt if you’re reading it on the butt end of 2016. The systematic hollowing out of the middle class through outsourcing, the shuttering of once-thriving industrial hubs—these are the Wolves harrying the population King writes about best. He has taken the anxieties of fly-over country elevated them to the level of myth.
There is, perhaps, a certain mythology being catered to in both King’s and the media’s focus on the problems of poor and working-class whites in an era of renewed Nationalism. As Ta-Nehesi Coates points out in his post-election Atlantic essay “The First White President,” white people across the class-spectrum overwhelmingly voted for Trump, making protestations on behalf of some idealized and wronged white-working class who opted for the nuclear option if not exactly false, then not entirely true, either.
Asserting that Trump’s rise was primarily powered by cultural resentment and economic reversal has become de rigueur among white pundits and thought leaders [Coates writes]. But evidence for this is, at best, mixed. In a study of preelection polling data, the Gallup researchers Jonathan Rothwell and Pablo Diego-Rosell found that… “[t]hose who approved of Trump were “less likely to be unemployed and less likely to be employed part-time” than those who did not. They also tended to be from areas that were very white: “The racial and ethnic isolation of whites at the zip code level is one of the strongest predictors of Trump support.”
From “The First White President”
To a liberal elite who fail to acknowledge the considerable role race played in Trump’s rise, Coates contends, “…[T]he white working class functions rhetorically not as a real community of people so much as a tool to quiet the demands of those who want a more inclusive America.” As proof of this, he points out that poor or working-class people of color did not flock to Trump.
Seen from this viewpoint, King’s work is merely a companion to America’s tradition of, as Coates puts it, “consistent[ly] awarding…grievance and moral high ground to that class of workers which, by the bonds of whiteness, stands closest to America’s aristocratic class.” Indeed, this could be borne out by narratives like The Dark Tower which sees an aristocratic savior figure (descended from the like of Eld, do ya kennit?) trying to right a world that has gone wrong for a mostly white population. Yet, as King himself has written, what is a novelist but “god’s liar”- using fictions to highlight truths? If his work plays into cultural myths, it is also an honest accounting of what he has observed—and hence, offers a window into what white, working-class America thinks of itself. This isn’t just fiction-from-a-certain-point-of-view, but perhaps a useful exercise for our polarized Democracy. As George Packer writes in response to Coates: “Any writer who wants to understand American politics has to find a way into the minds of Trump voters.” In book after book, story after story, Stephen King has done just that. Through his characters he examines the myths we tell (or are told) about each other, searching for the truth at the center of the lie.