*If you know nothing of Stephen King’s Carrie, this may contain a spoiler or two.
Not to make generalizations here, but almost everyone likes Metallica. Fine. Let me correct my hyperbole: the vast majority of people who have heard them like at least one Metallica song. Stephen King is like the Metallica of literature; he is accessible, even to those readers who don’t particularly care for horror, just as Metallica is enjoyed by people that prefer all types of music to metal. My best friend is a self-professed pop and top 40 lover. I’ve had coworkers and acquaintances which were hardcore fans of rap and others fans of country, predominately. What do they have in common? Well, none of them would say they really enjoyed metal, but they all also liked Metallica. Maybe they aren’t Metallica fans, but they enjoyed the music. Something about Metallica is accessible. Maybe it is in James Hetfield’s just gritty enough voice, or in Kirk Hammet’s and Hetfield’s just catchy enough riffs that are metal while employing easy-to-nod-your-head-to (otherwise known as head-banging) time signatures, so as to have you belting out Enter Sandman while in the car with grandma.
No offense to the hardcore or longtime Metallica fans. I can appreciate their less accessible, complex work from the early days and their recent return to that sound with Death Magnetic (know nothing of the newest album). But the fact is, some of their music is more popular among the masses, just as authors sometimes tap into exactly what the public unwittingly desires at a given moment (YA dystopian, right now. Who knew?). I am not saying that accessibility here means tame horror in King’s case or less profound music in Metallica’s. Merely, that King and Metallica both have something to offer those who don’t dabble in these sometimes intimidating genres.
This post is not a foray into music history; I’m not enough of an expert–or any kind of expert, really–on music or Metallica to claim that. It’s about Stephen King. The point is King’s horror is accessible. That is why people consider it popular literature. Does that mean it has less literary value? No, just the opposite. There are moments in his work that leave you in awe, leave you thinking, this guy knows how to spin a yarn, or, THIS GUY knows how to tap into the human experience, all stardust and muck that it is. And because he can appeal to a wide audience with deep human themes and superior writing that often characterizes literary fiction, he repeatedly presides at the top of bestseller lists.
There is some misconception out there that popularity means less respectable or that one is only truly successful as an artist if they are obscure and only appeal to a select group of refined taste. But that’s just not true.
King has a story for everyone, a tone, a theme, and speaks in the language of the everyman. A well-read, damn talented everyman albeit. That is how Stephen King is like the Metallica of literature. Who could make any kind of argument that Metallica, millionaires they are now, aren’t talented even though they’re popular?
The People’s Exhibit A
Where do I take this pain of mine / I run, but it stays right my side / So tear me open, pour me out / There’s things inside that scream and shout / And the pain still hates me / So hold me, until it sleeps / Just like the curse, just like the stray / You feed it once, and now it stays / So tear me open, but beware / There’s things inside without a care / And the dirt still stains me / So wash me, until I’m clean
–from “Until It Sleeps” by Metallica
Poetry. And universal. Of course you can’t hear it, but you’ve heard them. So you know.
Okay, back to King.
After listening to Carrie on audiobook in my 2015-read-King’s-first-5-books goal, I erroneously assumed it would be boring, that I wouldn’t enjoy it because I’d already seen the two movies and therefore knew the premise. But the truth is, I didn’t know that King’s first book could be so powerful. As I admit in this article for Unnoffical Stephen King Month over at Dark Moon Digest, upon writing it, I had only ever read the beginning two books—terrifying in their own right—of the Dark Tower Series and On Writing, so I knew he was good. But I didn’t think this storyline, which I had assumed was common knowledge, could be so magnificently written, that it could be rife with lessons on storytelling for writers. The thing is, the movies can’t hold a candle to the subplots and tension that King weaves into the novel’s coarse threads. For one, the cinema always goes with a pretty lead and that’s just not the case in King’s version, which makes a big difference. I could go on with other things the movies don’t quite capture, but primarily, in the novel, we see more of Carrie’s rage as it builds and builds to eventually explode in the natural disaster that it does in the end.
The People’s Exhibit B
“Let the streets be filled with the smell of their sacrifice. Let this place be called racca, icahbod, wormwood.
And power transformers atop lightpoles bloomed into nacreous purple light, spitting Catherine-wheel sparks. High tension wires fell into the street in pick-up-sticks tangles…”
–from Carrie, Chapter 17
Need I even defend my choice of this excerpt as proof that King’s masterful storytelling is enough to turn any horror naysayer into a believer in its power, at the very least?
This novel has shown me ‘fear in a handful of dust’. Carrie gives us a sheltered and strange girl, mocked and tortured all of her life, and shows us the monsters we construct out of the very darkest parts of ourselves. Carrie shows us that our stories continue being written long after we’re gone, our monsters shaped and molded to the will and needs of those that survive us, regardless of what we wanted to be remembered by.
Even if you don’t like horror, you should give Stephen King a try. He offers a wide buffet, and a few of the dishes really must be sampled before writing him or the entire genre off. He is, after all, a student of human nature, writing about all of its highs and terrifying lows. Stephen King, like Metallica, is a gateway to his genre, a key master to the realm of horror. You don’t have to like being scared or uncomfortable, or like gore to connect with his characters and their startlingly, terrifyingly real circumstances.
Do you agree that Stephen King is accessible horror? Do you know of other authors or works that fit this characterization of gateway to the horror genre? Please recommend them so that we can show the horror-haters there’s really not all that much to fear. 😉
Some other enlightening posts on this grave matter:
Again, Annie Neugebauer’s 3 Amazing Horror Authors and Why You Should Read Them
Fellow Unnofficial Stephen King Month contributors:
And just for fun: