Tag Archives: stephen king

We ARE the triggers


Horror writers are a diverse bunch of people.  We come tall and short, fat and thin, and all ages and races.  Some live in cities, others in the countryside.  Some are drinkers, and some teetotalers. Most certainly, we come in both liberal and conservative strains.

Since my first book was published in 2007, I’ve gotten to know the larger horror community as an incredibly dynamic, vibrant, and above all varied group of people.  Indeed, it sometimes feels impossible to identify any unifying trait that we might share. . .other than a deep and abiding dedication to scaring the living hell out of people.

However, in recent years a threat has emerged—a sinister shadow falling over our community, you might say—leaving us even darker than usual.  And I believe that a uniform opposition to it has finally become that elusive unifying quality I could never otherwise find.

This shadow is the movement—in academe and, increasingly, elsewhere—to protect readers from ideas that might trigger feelings of discomfort or trauma.  This trend is disconcerting to horror writers because creating discomfort and trauma is—more or less—what we aim to do.

Making people feel uncomfortable is not a byproduct of our project.  It is our project.  We write novels and stories (and sometimes even poems) precisely so that readers should jump at an unexpected noise, or pull the covers closer in bed that night.  Our goal is to horrify.  To traumatize whenever possible.  To trigger the deepest, darkest fears that we can.

We don’t do this out of allegiance to any form of historical oppression.  Certainly, we do not do it for the money—at least not chiefly.  (Since the “horror boom” of the 1990s, advances in our genre have decreased drastically.) Instead, we do this because we think something important is going on when people are scared.  We think it’s possible to be sublimely and transcendently frightened.  We believe fear and discomfort are sensations which, rightly conjured, can put one in touch with some of the most interesting and profound aspects of human existence.  And, yes, also with vampires and zombies and tentacle monsters.

Though they might agree about little else, horror writers uniformly (and acutely) understand the problematic aspects of protecting readers from discomfort. Encouragingly, there are signs that our community has had about enough.  We are, finally, starting to push back.

This month sees the release of a new collection of stories from horror and fantasy titan Neil Gaiman called Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances.  No part of this title is a coincidence.  Gaiman is—blessedly, gloriously—owning that horror writers have a sacred duty to “disturb.” And to challenge.  And, yes, to horrify.

And earlier this year when the Horror Writers Association released its Preliminary Ballot for the 2014 Bram Stoker Awards (like the Pulitzer Prizes of horror), the Short Fiction category was revealed to contain a story also titled “Trigger Warning” by emerging author Patrick Freivald.

These are Lexington and Concord. If I know horror writers—which I do—this is only the beginning.

Horror serves an important function, and it’s time we found the temerity to point that out.

Anne Rice’s bloodthirsty vampires limn the terror of the 1990’s HIV epidemic in a way that gentle, cry-by-numbers documentaries do not.  Max Brooks’s zombie hordes comport the threat of global pandemic with startling effectiveness.  King’s Carrie makes the case against bullying better than any feelgood, granola documentarian ever could. Blatty’s The Exorcist and Legion cut right to the chase and ask us to wonder whether the world is fundamentally good or evil.  The whole of Lovecraft wonders if it might not be something else entirely. . . with humans only a deluded, self-aggrandizing, and soon-to-be-extinct afterthought. (And innumerable works of contemporary horror are derided as “torture porn” when actual torture has lately been perpetrated under an American flag.)

It is possible, certainly, to consider these concepts through lenses other than horror fiction, but it is not, by any means, the same thing.

A few years ago at the Bram Stoker Awards ceremony, I watched Peter Straub present the Stoker for best Short Fiction collection to Stephen King for Full Dark, No Stars.  King wasn’t able to make it that evening, but his son, the accomplished horror author Joe Hill, accepted on his behalf.  In a short speech, Hill said: “[My dad] just wanted me to say thanks. . .and he thinks you’re all a pack of sick fucks. . . but that’s a quality he admires.”

This line has always stuck with me, because yes, there is something sick about doing this, but also something you might indeed find admirable. There is good evidence that people want or even need to be scared. Unsettling, harrowing, “fucked up” stories are as old as storytelling, and you can find them in every culture.  There is a reason we desire to hear these things.

Contemporary university administrators who believe they are doing students a service by presenting “trigger warnings” before unpleasant texts to create “safe spaces” are delivering spoilers of the very worst kind.  They spoil all that is good and special and salutary about coming into contact with difficult ideas. There is a tangible benefit to being challenged and scared and even horrified.  It makes you grow as a person.  It opens your mind to new and important ways of seeing the world.  Gaiman and Freivald have lately affirmed this through the titles of their works, but it’s something the horror community has known for years.

We are here to tell you that the trigger is the point. We are here to tell you that no space is safe.

And we are never going to stop.

Remembering Rocky Wood


Rocky Wood passed away yesterday after a long battle with ALS.

Beyond being arguably the greatest living Stephen King expert– famously possessing such acumen that King himself hired Wood as a fact checker– and beyond his tireless efforts as President of the HWA, I will remember Rocky as someone who inspired others while challenging preconceived notions about living and working with an incapacitating medical condition.  On a personal level, Rocky’s leadership really made me reevaluate how I think about what’s possible– like, say, being the head of an international arts organization– when one’s physical functionality no longer comports with traditional norms.

Many of today’s remembrances will be posted by people who were more closely acquainted with Rocky than I was.  Indeed, I’m one of many who knew him only from his appearances at the Bram Stoker Awards and from his endless work on behalf of the HWA.  But the fact that, even in these strictly administrative capacities, he was still able to have such a powerful impact on my received ideas about people living with conditions like ALS. . .

Well, you see, that’s kind of my point.

My favorite illustrative “Rocky moment” might be at the 2011-2012 Bram Stoker Awards in Salt Lake City when he accepted the Stoker for Stephen King: A Literary Companion.  Physically unable to speak by that point, Rocky had an assistant join him on stage to read a prepared acceptance speech.  Yet– obstreperously and wonderfully– before his helper could start reading, Rocky began to gesture as though he intended the entire acceptance speech should occur through his playing charades with the audience.  (First word…  Two syllables…)  He then flashed a wry smile.  The audience– myself included– loved it and laughed.

To have lost one’s voice permanently. . .and to still choose to use such an occasion to bring delight to others.  Egad!  What bravery and awesomeness!  Yet, for Rocky, this seems to have been typical.

He lived with ALS for about 5 years, and seems to have used all of that time not only to grow the HWA, but to do some of his very best critical work. While, again, I did not know Rocky as a close friend, I suspect I’m not alone in having been deeply impressed and influenced by this extraordinary leader and powerful champion of horror fiction.

Rest in peace, gunslinger. There are other worlds than these.

Stephen King: Class Warrior

A couple of weeks ago, Dwight Allen (a writer previously unknown to me) published a new critique of Stephen King in the Los Angeles Review of Books.  This morning, Sarah Langan published a rebuttal in Salon.  (I am indeed familiar with the talented Ms. Langan, but have always been troubled by her tendency in interviews to make a point of disapproving of flirting and drinking at horror conventions.  [Flirting and drinking are, of course, the BEST PART of horror conventions.])  Though they assume contrary positions, both of these articles make clear that Stephen King criticism is still hamstrung by a uniquely American inability to discuss social class.

In his scathing dismissal of King, Allen seems to use every euphemism for “lower class” or “working class” he can think of, without actually coming out and saying the words.  Langan likewise avoids the “c-word” as she defends King.  I do not think this is a coincidence.  It has been the project of almost every critic who wrestles with King to attempt to criticize (or defend) him without overtly talking about class.

I do not believe this is possible to do.

Unlike British people—or, indeed, most of the world—Americans do not like to acknowledge that class sensibilities exist.  We will readily identify differences along political and geographical lines (they are, often, the same thing), but we balk at designating certain echelons of our society as “upper class” “working class” or even “lower class.”  This is what creates frustration when critics try to discuss the literary merits of Stephen King.  That’s because the very thing that can be offputting about King is that he is—more than occasionally—not classy.

And I can’t believe nobody talks about this!  It’s so, so obvious!

Here’s an example.  In King’s most recent short story collection, Full Dark, No Stars (which won the Stoker Award for Best Fiction Collection last year), we encounter the following admonition to rural paramours (which I excerpt here under the guidelines of fair use):

…she said: “Just make sure when you’re lying down with her in the corn or behind the barn, you’re a no-poke.”  She made her free hand into a fist, poked out the middle finger, then used it to tap a circle around her crotch: left thigh, right thigh, right belly, navel, left belly, back again to the left thigh.  “Explore all you like, and rub around it with your Johnny Mac until it feels good and spits up, but stay out of the home place lest you find yourself locked in for life, just like your mummer and daddy.”

Ugh, right?

In this otherwise sublime and effective tale of supernatural madness (which, incidentally, got my vote for the Stoker, and is worth your time to read), we encounter passages (like this) that make us—some of us, anyway—wince.  Why?

The answer is class.

What we—as good Americans—will not allow ourselves to acknowledge is that the above passage is a profoundly low-class way of talking about sex (or having your characters talk about sex).  We feel sure that an upper-class/educated-class/literary-class writer would have found an elegant and tactful way of describing barnyard frottage.  (In her defense of King, Langan allows that she is “sometimes embarrassed” for King because his work can be “rife with sentimentality.”  I think she is using high-context language to mean “sometimes low class.”)

King’s writing frustrates mainstream literary critics because it shifts from high-class to low-class and back again.   It moves from highbrow literary style to rude airport potboiler on a single page.  The “lit crit” conclusion to be derived from all this is simple enough, but I have never seen it articulated anywhere.  That is, Stephen King doesn’t care about social class in narrative voice.

Though he has identified himself as a “redneck” in moments of (false?) humility, King is clearly capable of writing for audiences with upper-class sensibilities when he wants to.  He just doesn’t always want to.  Sure, when he’s in the mood, King can limn with sublimity and artfulness a world that feels “right” and “comfortable” even to those with a professional investment in being a part of the lettered elite  (like Mr. Allen).  But my suspicion is that—for King—that’s not the point.  That’s not why he sits down to write.

The “Constant Reader(s)”—whom King addresses in so many of his introductions and afterwords—do not read King because his novels will jive with the mores of their social caste.  Rather, they read him for the joy of reading.  For the love of a good scare.  For the pleasure of meeting a character or situation to whom they can relate.  They read Stephen King because he says: “I will take you somewhere strange and amazing and horrible and wonderful (…and I may or may not be classy about it).”

King’s work reliably and regularly brings these things to millions of people.  What flummoxes critics is that it does so without consistent fealty to a particular set of narrative norms.  But this “eccentricity” is not a good reason to dismiss King’s writing.  Doing so would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

My favorite writer is H.P. Lovecraft.  (He is also one of King’s favorites.)  For many years, Lovecraft’s work was not deemed worthy of academic consideration.  During my lifetime, I have experienced the joy of watching that fact change, and seeing academics accept him—some, grudgingly—as worthy of a place in the canon.  I remember professors I had in college who seemed to turn up their noses at Lovecraft.  Now they have to teach him.  It makes me feel like a civil rights activist who gets to watch the silently fuming racists as the first nonwhite genially strolls the grounds of their country club.

The literary canon is not as fixed as you may have been given to believe.  Writers kept out by a variety of prejudices in their own lifetimes can be admitted by subsequent generations.  And contemporary canonical writers can be “de-Nortoned” with a frequency that many find alarming.  (Ask an MFA poet what I am talking about.)

I wonder if, in 100 years’ time, literature students speaking of our era may head-scratchingly ask:  “What did they have against Stephen King, again?”  (The answer, incidentally, will be “class.”)

Pride & Prejudice & Zombies & Entertainment Weekly

"I could come to your house... I don't understand... why you're not calling..."

About three months ago, issues of Entertainment Weekly started showing up unbidden at my apartment.  They contained neither a return address nor a customer-service number to call if receiving the magazine in error.

Bafflingly, our culture has evolved such that now Entertainment Weekly is something you have to “opt-out of.”  Like when I buy something at Best Buy, the clerk who rings me up always asks if I want to receive a free Entertainment Weekly subscription.  (I always say “no.”)  When I buy plane tickets or book a hotel online, there are sometimes boxes to check if you want to try a free trial Entertainment Weekly subscription.  Ditto buying books online.  (And frequently, the boxes you click to add “3 Free Months of Entertainment Weekly” arrive on the page pre-checked. )

And gosh, once the issues start arriving, they take over fast.  I’ve started to feel like the villain in Good Omens whose magical car eventually turns any cassette left inside it into Queen’s Greatest Hits.  All of the magazines in my stack have turned in EW.


Anyhow, yes, in my idle moments, I do read them.  And this unsolicited immersion into Entertainment Weekly has allowed me to notice the heroic zombie-like assault that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the book by Seth Grahame-Smith, has made upon the fortifications of EW.  First, there was a cutsie, dismissive note about the book on January 29.  Then,  a more serious interview on February 21.  Then, in the issue arriving at my home over the weekend, the glowing full-page review. 

Most books–even ones by canonical and/or best-selling authors– seem to get a cursory 100-word review in a quarter-page in “infobox” in Entertainment Weekly.  It can only be a testimony to the inveterate dedication of zombie fans everywhere that such an institution as the insipidly-tied-to-the-latest-whim-of-the-public Entertainment Weekly has now thrice bowed before the altar of the zombie.  Woe betide the institution that would seek to halt our undead advance!!!

Final Thought:  Bidden or not, the magazine is not all bad.  I have enjoyed reading Stephen King’s column “The Pop of King.”  (Though sometimes I feel I must be the only reader left in America who enjoys both Stephen King and John C. Gardner, two men who hated the other virulently in real life, and whose conflict almost seemed to propose a literary culture-war… in which a side required to be chosen.)