Stephen King's Characters Might Be Controversial, But They Are Very Real
It will surprise almost no one that I am a huge Stephen King fan. The first article I wrote for this website was about the first Stephen King book I had ever read: Pet Sematary. He’s an author with a massive catalog of work spanning over decades. He’s also a writer who receives both affection and eye-rolls upon the mention of his name, often from the same people.
As a writer, King has written books that are well-loved by horror fans, such as Pet Sematary and Misery. He has also written Cell and Dreamcatcher, and the less said about those books, the better. Everybody can list off Stephen King tropes, and doing so has made for many a tedious YouTube video. He’s a mixed bag, as one would expect from a writer who has been publishing nearly every year, sometimes multiple times, for fifty years.
Stephen King is a flawed writer, and I’m perfectly happy to acknowledge that while also stating that I adore the man’s work.
One of the clichés that people bring up is that almost all of King’s novels are set in rural Maine, which is true. The standard retort is that many of these books are set in the same world, which is also true. However, before the Dark Tower series, I will point out that the connection between his books was sometimes more consistent than others. Some books would build on each other, while other books, like Bag of Bones, got by on one or two vague references to previous works.
My personal response has always been, “well, someone needs to write about Maine, so why not him?” It’s not like the media is infiltrated with references to Maine. Even if you’re a northeasterner, you probably think about Maine as “that place that has relatively inexpensive vacation spots.”
But, in truth, I really like the Maine setting, and for a reason:
Stephen King was the first author I ever really related to.
I grew up in upstate New York, which has several differences from rural Maine, but enough close similarities that I felt like I could understand what he was getting at. It’s a world that is a very, very mixed bag.
The rural northeast is aesthetically beautiful. Everybody in a particular small town knows each other, for better or for worse. I definitely was the kind of kid who would walk down the street barefoot. Heck, I even lived in a rural neighborhood in the middle of the woods that no one had really heard of. It was paradoxically close to a busy road that has definitely “used up” many pets. Yeah, city folk, that is absolutely a thing.
It’s a world that, much like Stephen King’s world, has a lot of contradictions. People are very nice- except when they’re not. People take care of each other- except when they’re looking away from the problem. People really don’t want trouble, even to the point where they’ll ignore the danger just to avoid facing it.
And when you ignore the monsters, they start to grow in numbers.
And much like Stephen King’s Maine, I really wouldn’t refer to it as an imperfect world so much as a complicated world. It’s a world with hideous flaws, but much like the characters Louis Creed (Pet Sematary) and Mike Noonan (Bag of Bones) discover, there’s something about it that draws you in. For all of the criticisms his books have towards rural Maine, King himself still lives there most of the year.
The north-eastern “Yankee” character you see in many of his books is certainly a thing. However, in New York, that specific phrasing was less commonly used unless we talked about baseball. That culture, however, is very much alive in upstate New York, and I’ve always felt like King did a good job capturing it.
There is a particularly complicated nature of this “Yankee” character. The older ones, such as Jud Crandell, have eased to them. They’re easy to talk to, they’re easy to make friends with, and they’re easy to like. But there’s another side to it.
There’s that small-town mentality that people who move into your neighborhood are outsiders. Sometimes, it’s not unkind. Jud Crandell, for instance, clearly cares about Louis and his family tremendously, and Louis refers to him as a father figure. But Pet Sematary takes place over the course of a year, and there’s always an implied sense that Jud never really got around to seeing them as locals. He never talked to Louis like he was a local; instead treating him like a friendly outsider. That’s a thing.
The bigotry you see represented in his books is also a thing.
I’ve seen a lot of writers call Stephen King’s books homophobic for the simple fact that he’s a straight guy who has written a lot of homophobic characters. While I tend not to take it personally when I see negative reviews I disagree with, this comment honestly angers me. I find that grossly unfair.
Homophobia is a consistent problem in Stephen King’s world. But that’s the key: it is a problem. Homophobia isn’t presented as positive in his work. It is shown for being exactly as scary as it is: from villains with revoltingly homophobic attitudes, to hate crimes demonstrated in books like It, to the everyday homophobia that lets it happen, the homophobia in his world is the homophobia I grew up around.
It’s the homophobia that made it impossible for me to come out until I was in my mid-twenties.
I was a young kid growing up in the nineties in a town distressingly like Derry. There was a sense of dread in realizing my sexual orientation that I don’t think I can easily express independently. The closest thing I can really come to is pointing to a Stephen King book. You can feel uncomfortable with how he portrays homophobia all you want; that was the homophobia I grew up around.
The reality of the Stephen King universe is that it’s genuine. It’s a place I’ve lived, with its upsides and downsides. The people are very nice- except when they’re not.
Thank heavens the possessed car is in California, though, because I’m not sure how I’d deal with that.