THE DARKNESS WITHIN
Hello all! For my take on this month’s subject matter I will be focusing on internal darkness as a concept, and how that darkness has been used by a specific author I have been reading all of my life. Living as I do in Maine, the subject couldn’t be more appropriate as Maine is the home state of a man who for decades has reigned over America’s fear and anxieties with the authority of a King.
Stephen King is traditionally cited as a ‘horror’ writer, which is a genre as broad and multifaceted as fantasy or science fiction. When people think of King, they likely conjure up monstrous images such as the vampires of Salem’s Lot or the horrific creatures of in The Mist. As a young reader growing up in the 70s and 80s, this was the King that fascinated me. Horrifying demonic clowns (It), cemeteries that reanimated the dead (Pet Semetary) and possessed killer machines (Christine, Trucks, The Mangler). I could name countless more- -the short story collection Night Shift was particularly loaded with these wild monster stories.
As a kid, I ate it up. Great stuff, with more than a bit of pulp to it too.
As an adult though when I go back and read King, I see a different type of horror. One that is much more unsettling, because it is more familiar. It is one thing to look in the mirror and see a monster behind you, it is quite another to look in the mirror and see the monster in yourself. To me, the real potency of King’s work is not in the boogeymen, but rather in the darkness he would show in the average person.
Sometimes, he’d highlight people who were basically good, if damaged- -then force us to watch as they were slowly overcome by the darkness of some external force. A great instance of this is Jack Torrance in The Shining, his baser natures and fears preyed upon by the supernatural Overlook Hotel. Sure, a ghost in Room 217 is scary- -but looking at Jack’s slow transition from well-intentioned husband and father to family destroying monster? Horrifying. Another example could be Louis Creed from Pet Semetary, who allows grief to push him into incredibly dark places.
In other cases, a supernatural event allows people who were already dark an opportunity that had not presented itself. Big Jim from Under the Dome was a monster from page 1, with far more evil in his heart than the actual villains responsible for the town’s isolation. All he needed was that moment, that crack in the door that society normally kept shut. You can see this same dynamic in the short story The Mist, as well as multiple instances of it in Needful Things. There might be rage and evil inside anyone, just waiting for the right circumstances.
I feel these stories are so potent because they prey on a fear within all of us that is much darker than any skeleton or zombie could induce. The fear we have of each other, and ourselves. We wonder, could that be my neighbor? My spouse? Could that be me? Could I be driven to that dark a place? Could I do those horrible things?
What would it take? Not much, those dark whispers of King’s stories say. Maybe much less than you think.
Pardon me, I just felt a chill go up my spine.
I have found this a useful lesson for my own writing, when writing not just my villains but also my heroes. Darkness is a naturally occurring part of the human condition. Including a hint of it in any character makes them a bit more real, but also a bit more dangerous. Readers who care for you hero might worry that in his or her rage they might let that dark part take over, driving them to do something that is not in their best interests. It helps make bad choices believable, allowing for more opportunities for things to go wrong for your hero.
As writers, we all want things going wrong for our heroes, right?
As a fellow Mainer, I couldn’t be prouder to focus on Stephen King for my walk down the dark road as it were. In addition to his superlative On Writing, I recommend writers check out his lesser known Danse Macabre, which is an interesting discussion on what the master himself finds scary.
See you next month!