Stephen King’s Kaleidoscopic Work

Posted by Jessica Folio on May 18, 2014 in Dr Jessica Folio, Guest Blog tagged with


“In anything fit to be called by the name of reading, the process itself should be absorbing and voluptuous; we should gloat over a book, be rapt clean out of ourselves, and rise from the peruse, our mind filled with the busiest, kaleidoscopic dance of images […].”[1]

Kaleidoscopic: such is the way I have aimed to envision King’s narratives, a multiplicity of viewpoints and interpretations offered to the readers to lead them in a transfixing danse macabre.

In his essay, “The Literature of Exhaustion,” John Barth has pointed out thatthe conventional modes of literary representation had been overused, that modernism had exhausted itself and he foreshadowed the notion of rewriting as a leitmotiv in postmodern works.In this article, I situate myself in the wake of postmodern studies –being aware of the controversial term itself- to try and account for the fact that King has not literarily exhausted himself in spite of his thirty-nine years of writing and that his appeal has not ebbed away among the readers. This would be in part explained by the postmodernist touch brought to his narratives implying the absence of a unique interpretation and, therefore, the kaleidoscopic effect they create.

In A Poetics of Postmodernism (1988), Linda Hutcheon points out the ironic quote marks characterizing the postmodern fiction. Irony is often combined with black humour and verges on parody. As a hybrid movement, postmodernism stresses the mingling of unexpected, incongruous elements often depicted by the term “kitsch.” Postmodernism is also associated with the notion of the “grotesque’ in the Bakhtinian sense of the carnivalesque liberation of repressed elements and reversal of values. The use of the term “quote marks” by Hutcheon suggests that postmodern works are related to past references, leading to the notion of intertextuality in an echo to Kristeva’s depiction of texts as all being interwoven in a web.[2] Works of the past are revisited, often deconstructed. Jacques Derrida,[3] father of the deconstructionist movement, implies by this notion the absence of a unique meaning, of an absolute link between signifiers and signified.[4] Postmodern works reveal different layers of interpretations, blur narrative genres and confuse the readers’ expectations.

In Dissecting Stephen King: From the Gothic to Literary Naturalism (2005),Heidi Strengell shows the reworking of common myths, fairy tales or the Gothic literary genre by King. This theme of remolding, revisiting common landmarks is one of the red threads allowing the author to weave the intricate cloth of his narratives. I will consider here some of King’s long form narratives being aware of the impossibility to cast a light on each of their intricate recesses.

In King’s first eponymous novel, Carrie (1974), the heroine, who has been the scapegoat of her mother and her peers at school all her life, discovers her telekinetic abilities. The feeling of entrapment running through the veins of the Gothic genre is transposed to Carrie White’s familial house. The house plays the role commonly held by the Gothic castle which “confines, walls up and tortures by its mere architectural presence” (Lévy 2002, 10). Carrie’s house is depicted as the lair of a monster, a devouring cave where even daylight doesnot get through. The abusive, sadistic male figure is replaced by Carrie’s fanatically religious quasi castrative mother, Margaret White, who wishes to control Carrie and shuts her out from the surrounding world. The town of Chamberlain itself is a locus of entrapment where Carrie tries to escape from people’s prejudices.

Carrie has been written about extensively. For instance, Heidi Strengell established a relation between King’s protagonist and the fairy tale character Cinderella in his chapter, “Carrie: a modern Cinderella.” He states that “with the exception of the glass slippers, King has retained the essential elements of the classic fairy tale in his version of Cinderella: familial discord, peer pressure, and sexuality with its bloody connotations” (Strengell 2005, 161). The adjective “bloody” is meaningful for the blood images give King’s narrative its circularity: Carrie bathes in her menstrual blood at the beginning, she is soaked in pig’s blood at the promp. Sue Snell finds out Carrie dying from the wound inflected by her mother and this blood-circling image ends up with Sue having her period. Blood is a vehicle of death and abjection. For Julia Kristeva, bodily waste or the feminine (menstrual blood, lactation) are auxiliaries of abjection. Abjection marks a preoccupation with the body and the self threatened by a split, a collapse in meaning; this split is the sign of the primary anxiety of the separation with the mother. In Kristeva’s analysis, the motherly figure both engenders fascination and horror. Carrie constantly rejects her mother while searching for her forgiveness; she perceives her own body as a waste when she makes no attempt at stopping her survival fluid flow out of the wound inflicted by Margaret White.

Among many meaningful scenes, that of the shower opens the path to various analyses. As Carrie has her period for the first time at the age of 16 in the girls’ shower at school and she has no understanding of why she bleeds, the monstrous figures represented by her classmates bombard her with tampons and sanitary towels, chanting “plug it up” (King 1974, 13). There is a grand-guignolesque undertone as King seems to Carrie (2013) 02go one step further in the paradigm of excess. There is a reworking of the signified of hygienic towels which are used by Carrie to blot her lipstick and are no longer means of protection but weapons and the scene becomes all the more grotesque when one of the napkins remains stuck on Carrie’s pubic hair as a stigmata of both her innocence and humiliation. The expression “plug it up” commonly designates the fact of filling up a hole; it is assimilated to cracks, leaks. Here it is associated with Carrie’s vagina perceived as a monstrous hole, a cave whose entrance has to be obstructed.

Carrie’s ordeal in the shower is even draped with an initiatory veil. Mircea Eliade’s works depict the pattern of the initiatory process. During the initiation, the neophyte is confronted to different trials, monstrous figures, ending with both a symbolic death and rebirth as the candidate is ushered into the secrets of the Sacred. The candidate, who is in a trance, is separated from the community and the initiation usually takes place in a cave or a hut. The omnipresence of blood marks a rupture in Carrie’s status; yet, her ordeal takes place in an ordinary place, a girl’s shower, and the monstrous figures are represented by her classmates. Her ordeal is to bear the humiliation and the throwing of tampons and sanitary towels. The neophyte Carrie is not the one submitted to a trance but her classmates are the ones entranced by the parodic incantation ’PER-iod, PER-iod, PER-iod!’” (King 1974, 12) The initiatory process is even hinted at in relation to Carrie’s own house.

The outer world is considered as a locus of sins for the maternal figure and the only place of salvation is the sacralised house; the closet Carrie is enclosed in as a punishment is transformed into a symbolic womb, in which Carrie would die after being confronted with the trials of loneliness and fainting before being reborned after her supposed communion with God and her access to the sacred dimension.

Ironically, evil is at the very core of the place Margaret considers as sacred. Indeed, Carrie, perceived as evil by her mother, defies the maternal law and denies her mother’s extreme interpretation of the bible. Religious figures and sanctuaries are themselves under the yoke of subversion. The process of desacralisation is emphasized by King’s kistchification of the giant statue of Jesus in the living room, as disproportionate as the mother’s folly:

“the room was actually dominated by a huge plaster crucifix on the far wall, fully four feet high. Momma had mail-ordered it special frcarrie3om St Louis. The Jesus impaled upon it was frozen in a grotesque, muscle-straining rictus of pain, mouth drawn down in a greaning curve. His crown of thorns bled scarlet streams down temples and forehead” (King 1974, 40).

The crucifixion holds a masochistic view with the insistence on blood and suffering, creating horror in the spectator. In Carrie’s nightmares, there is even a veiled connection between the Christ figure and rape:

“this corpus had also given Carrie endless nightmares in which the mutilated Christ chased her through dream corridors, holding a mallet and nails, begging her to take up her cross and follow Him. Just lately these dreams had evolved into something less understandable, but more sinister. The object did not seem to be murder but something even more awful” (King 1974, 40).

The Christ figure is associated with an image of blasphemy, taking the role of the villain monk or patriarch pursuing the heroine in the labyrinthine Gothic castle or abbey.

The notions of subversion, parody, intertextuality and the theme of the Grim Reaper appear as leitmotivs throughout King’s novels and, in most cases, death is, in a reverse way, the beginning of a new life.

The instance of Salem’s Lot comes to mind. King has clearly stated the influence of Bram Stoker’s Dracula for his novel but the reader perceives the hyperbolic rewriting of the original work. King enlightens the theme of the body and its violent destruction. Susan’s death in Salem echoes that of Lucy’s in Dracula. If Lucy’s death is described in 13 lines and the term “blood” is only mentioned twice, King highlights the bloody and violent aspect of Susan’s death and has it run on 40 lines:

Her back arched like a bow, and her mouth stretched open until it seemed her jaws must break. A huge explosion of darker blood issued forth from the wound the stake had made -almost black in this chancy, lunatic light: heart’s blood. The scream that welled from the sounding chamber of that gaping mouth came from all the subcellars of deepest race memory and beyond that, to the moist darknesses of the human soul. Blood suddenly boiled from her mouth and nose in a tide… (King 1975, 598)

The reader perceives a hyperbolic style with the use of the superlative, the comparisons and the metaphors. It corresponds to what Denis Mellier calls in his thesis “hypersalemmonstration” to refer to an excessive monstration.

Susan’s body is depicted as an impure double of her former self referred to in terms of negation: “the total impression was not of angelic loveliness but a cold, disconnected beauty. Something in her face -not stated but hinted at” (King 1975, 229). King’s assimilation of Susan’s lips to ribbons, her shrieks to hell’s clarion, her hands to birds, the insistence on her wolf like fangs -thus her objectification and animalisation- highlight the shattering of her identity but also give a grotesque hue to her death.salem2

Marsten House appears as a beacon of evil overlooking the town of Salem as a reminder of Poe’s House of Usher. Evil spreads throughout the town and overwhelms people. The process of subversion affects Father Callahan who is unable to fight against the Dracula figure, Count Barlow, because he lost his faith in God; brandishing a cross is of no avail. Callahan has to face evil on faith alone. The problem is he only pretends to believe and he even doubts the existence of evil, which was for him desacralised because of the consumerisation of religion, its use for social action and the psychoanalytical theories. Forced to drink Barlow’s “cursed” (King 1975, 329) blood, he is then ironically forbidden to enter his own church. The mark of his sin, of his soiled status, is having his hand burnt on the doorknob of his church.

King blurs the frontier between life and death, rationality and irrationality, even good and evil. In The Shining (1977), the Overlook hotel is another version of Salem Lot’s Marsten house, a modernised Gothic castle isolated in the Colorado Mountains.In its maze-like corridors, an innocent hero, Danny, and his mother, Wendy, strive to escape from the lethal grip of the villain represented by the father, Jack Torrance. The gothic underground vault is transformed in King’s narrative into a boiler room situated in the basement of the hotel where Jack discovers notes on the past of the hotel. Jack was already a deviant father and a deviant husband, verbally abusing his wife and breaking his son’s arm. The evil force in the hotel feeds from this deviance, magnifies it until Jack’s former identity is entirely ruined.

Yet, Danny’s utter love for his father is recurrently emphasized: Jack is both his father and a monster and Danny has to separate love and hate for a same person. A total evil character at the end of the narrative, Jack Torrance’s ghost is nevertheless benevolent in Dr Sleep (2013) as he helps his son defeat the leader of the True Knot, quasi immortal beings who feed from the psychic essence produced by children endowed with the gift of the shining.

The Overlook is the entrance into a world of doom and destruction where the double nature of man is enlightened and physically perceived with the omnipresence of mirrors. King has this power of having the reader go beyond the looking-glass and step into an impossible but accepted reality, at least for the time of the reading. King combines the theme of the doppelganger with that of possession and the reshaping of the body. Jack Torrance turns into a grotesque parody of his former self. Two personalities confront each other within one metamorphosed body. The theme of the mask prevails. The ultimate mask is that of the evil entity pretending to be Danny’s father:shining1

“It was not his father. The mask of face and body had been ripped and shredded and made into a bad joke. It was not his daddy, not this Saturday Night Shock Show horror with its rolling eyes and hunched and hulking shoulders and blood-drenched shirt. It was not his daddy” (King 1977, 473).

King destroys the representation of the supposedly protective father image. His body is deformed, negated. Monstrosised, Jack becomes a figure of abjection, otherised by his son, Danny.

King transforms Jack into a parodic Bluebeard and the room 217 into a forbidden room hiding the living corpse of a woman, a grotesque, decomposing figure of seduction. The seal of entrapment is set into each recess of the hotel. In one of the rooms,Danny sees a grayish-white tissue in the wallpaper: “it was like a crazy picture drawn in blood, a surrealistic etching of a man’s face drawn back in terror and pain, the mouth yawning and half the head pulverized” (King 1977, 101). King revisits Charlotte Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” intertwining the images of entrapment, craziness with murder and repulsive bodily fluids.

Tshining2he deconstruction of the image of the patriarchal figure, of the link between signifier and signified (the noun “murder” is transformed into “redrum;” Jack repeatedly utters the order “take your medicine.” The signifier medicine, normally assimilated with the signified cure, health, is here transformed into death) echoes the blurring of frontiers between the self and the other and the shattering of established landmarks and expectations.

King monstrosises common elements, unfamiliarises the familiar. In Cujo (1981), the unfamiliarisation of the familiar, the uncanncujoy, emerges through a reworking of the signified “dog” normally assimilated to a friendly companion of men. Suffering from rabies, a Saint Bernard is transformed into a monster, into an insane creature -even assimilated to a vampire- after being bitten by a bat. The sunlight becomes unbearable and it is obsessed with drinking the blood of its preys it keeps under a quasi hypnotic state. The feeling of confinement traditionally permeating the Gothic castle is transposed into a symbol of the consumption society, a car stuck in a garage’s yard. The naïve heroine is replaced by a cheating wife, Donna Trenton and her son, Tad. The evolution is highlighted between the friendly Cujo at the beginning and the merciless sick beast craving for blood, eventually defeated by a mere baseball bat, a grotesque lethal weapon.

King’s strength lies in the fact that he convinces us that monsters do exist and surround us in our daily lives. He revisits the field of monstrosity and uses unexpected auxiliaries: a dog in Cujo, a clown in It (1986), a car in Christine (1983) or From a Buick 8 (2002) or a cell phone in Cell (2006).

In this narrative, King chooses a modern technological device -the cell phone- as the vehicle of a virus metamorphosing people into “crazies.” The protagonist, Clayton Riddell, who is immune as he owns no cell phone, sees a man chewing a dog’s ear or a young girl biting a woman’s neck. This new form of vampirism engendered by a cell phone enlightens the mingling of traditional themes and incongruous elements. Cell phones become a postmodern villain, leading language to be redefined by the contaminated people; the virus seems to destroy the signifiers themselves as they only speak in guttural sounds such as “rast” or “gluh.” The crazies develop a language only they can understand. The deconstruction process is achieved at several levels: the community, the body, identity and language. When Clayton finds his son, the latter has regressed to 16 months-old baby-talk. Ironically, Clayton hopes to bring his son back to his former state by using a cell phone. The whole USA becomes a locus of entrapment, haunted by crazies who are monstrous figures, grotesque versions of their former selves.

The theme of entrapment and the exploration of the evil nature of men are equally ubiquitous in Under the Dome (2009). Confinement affects the whole town of Chester’s Mil separated from the rest of the world by an impenetrable, alien dome.dome The very way of behaving, the common law is slowly destroyed by the invisible, unnamable barrier. If the Gothic castle had an understandable, concrete shape, the dome is defined by its very unknown origin. If the Gothic castle challenged the 18th century rationalism and was the let out of repressed desires, the dome is a barrier which goes one step beyond by magnifying the villainy of characters and normalizing their deviant and abject behaviours. For instance, Junior Rennie’s natural violent temper leads him to kill two women but this deviancy also drives him to keep their bodies in a cellar and consider them as “his girlfriends.” There is no necrophilic act but the cellar is a shelter in which the corpses constitute a new cure for Junior’s migraines. Big Jim (Junior’s father) is a heartless, cupid villain, a deus-ex-machina taking advantage of the death of the only law-enforcement official to quench his thirst for dominion and fame. Big Jim progressively sets up a totalitarian regime; new rules apply which follow the illogic: “under the Dome, all sorts of things might be possible” (King 2009, 445). Social disruption predominates.

King additionally intermingles science fiction elements. The dome is generated by a little box that has been set up by aliens which are depicted as unclear shapes and defined by what they are not. They are perceived as leatherheads “leaning together and laughing in obscenely childish conspiracy” (King 2009, 605). Those mischievous heartless advanced beings consider humans as mere toys. The dome is a new Big Brother controlled by alien children. As the explosion of a meth lab makes the air unbreathable and car tires are used as a source of oxygen by some survivors, a character, Julia Shumway, mentally communicates with one of the alien child. She uses a traumatic humiliating childhood event to appeal to the alien. Thus, the encounter with the Other rimes with a self rediscovery and a resilience of repressed traumatic events. In King’s imaginary world, pity felt by the superior race is a step towards love.

Love is also at issue in the final novel I will consider here: 11/22/63 (2011). King combines an historical event -John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s assassination- with a tragic romance. King revisits, communizes the literature of time travel.[5] The action takes place in 2011 and King inserts a gateway for Sept11 22 63ember 9, 1958 in the kitchen of Al Templeton’s diner. Al has regularly travelled through time for four years buying his meat from the 1960s; he has compiled enough evidence in his blue notebook to assert Oswald’s guilt in Kennedy’s assassination and ask the hero, Jake Epping, to save the president’s life. It is an example of what Linda Hutcheon calls “historiographic metafiction,” a fictionalisation of actual historical events or figures. The reader is ledinto “the fog of unreality” (King 2011,22). Narrative and narrated time are fragmented as time coherence and convergence do not apply. 24 hours in 2011 correspond to 7 months in the sixties. In 2011, the journey always corresponds to 2 minutes but it is always 11.58 a.m on September 9th 1958. Al calls the passage “the rabbit hole” (King 2011,42). Al’s pantry door is a time tunnel replacing Alice’s rabbit hole, an entrance to the Land of Ago” (King 2011, 276).

The protagonist not only desires to stop Kennedy’s assassination but to reverse the cruel shooting of one of his students’ family -Harry Dunning’s- that left the latter with a limp. The atrocious murder of Harry’s family by the villain father figure takes place on Halloween night; on Jake’s second journey to the 60s, Dunning uses a sledgehammer and Jake is powerless to stop all the murders. The emphasis is laid on the bloody, repulsive aspect of one of the murders: “Dunning brought the sledge down on Tugga’s head. The boy’s face was obliterated in a sheet of blood. Bone fragments and clumps of hair leaped high in the air; droplets of blood splattered the overhead light fixture” (King 2011, 149).

Jake’s relation with a teacher, Sadie Dunhill, during his third time in “the Land of Ago” provides the romance and the double tragic turn of the story. Sadie’s over religious violent husband John Clayton -a modern villain who grotesquely used a broom to separate his space and Sadie’s in the marital bed- assaults her in her house, causing her to be badly disfigured. Jake’s attempt at saving Sadie causes her husband to cut open his throat with a knife. King’s narrative is replete with images of violence. The figure of the villain itself appears as multiplied: Sadie’s husband, Lee Harvey Oswald and Jake himself who becomes a spy to stop Oswald and kills Frank Dunning. Oswald’s violent behavior towards his Russian wife, Marina, is stressed as well as his hubris and desire for recognition.

Returning in 2011, the butterfly effect reveals a dystopian, post apocalyptic world: Al’s diner is an abandoned convenience store; thkennedyere are no stars in the sky, buildings are derelict. Society is characterized by asocial behaviour.King rewrites history itself. Terrible earthquakes have occurred in the Midwest, Europe, and China. Four of the Japanese islands are gone; the earth’s crust is damaged. Kennedy did not withdraw all the troops from Vietnam; there were no civil rights reforms in the 1960s but race riots. Martin L. King was assassinated in Chicago by a FBI agent. Religious extremists movements blossomed. Nuclear weapons were sold to terrorist groups. Finally, Bill Clinton died of a heart attack and Hillary is the new president.

The narratives are haunted by the return of the dead and on a larger scale by the return of the past. There is nevertheless a spiralling vision of the past: “the past does not want to be changed. The past is obdurate” (King 2011, 132). Jake repeats his actions which keep bringing him back to the beginning. This emphasis on repetition likens Jake to a prisoner in Piranesi’s carceri, a character condemned to an endless wandering on the vertiginous, maze-like halls and stairs of time. Time itself is a maze, an infernal machine whose gears cannot be altered. The fight of King’s characters against other characters in his early novels is magnified to a fight against time itself in 11/22/63.

King’s novels offer a multiplicity of viewpoints on common elements for they are, in fact, based on the bottomless pit of thematic, narrative, identical, linguistic instability. His texts are suffused with intertextual references and his writing can be likened to the oscillation of a pendulum having a hypnotic effect on the reader. On the chessboard of postmodernism, King advances the pawns of intertextuality, rewriting, irony, parody, and deconstruction. It is this very entanglement, this absence of compartmentalization that may account for an apparent cornucopia of creation. Dealing with the instability of the body, with the rupture of boundaries or with the unfamiliarisation of the familiar, King’s span for the exploration of our fears seems then as endless and as transfixing as his hero’s quest in The Dark Tower series. King’s hourglass of creation is bound to know no finitude, trapping the reader at each reading beyond its magical kaleidoscopic glass.



[1]Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘A Gossip on Romance’, Longman’s Magazine 1.1 (1882): 69.

[2]We are aware of the retribution Kristeva holds to Bakhtin’s notion of dialogism which establishes the relations between texts originating from socio-ideological consciousness. In Semiotike, Kristeva shows that each signified echoes other signified. Each text nourishes itself from past texts and nourishes the text to come.

[3]In Of Grammatology, Derrida precises his idea of logocentrism; it refers to a ‘presence’ behind language and texts which explains that language acts are vehicles of expression. The notion of deconstruction constitutes a break from this form of rationalism, questioning the univocal meaning of texts. There is no longer one universal truth as the key words are instability and shifts in meaning.

[4]Ferdinand de Saussure, through his analysis of language, established the link between the signifier, the acoustic image, and the signified, the concept. Postmodernism disrupts this link, hence a constant search for meaning.

[5]Jake’s almost enchanted vision of the 60s recalls William Morris’s News From Nowhere (1890) in which the protagonist wakes up in a utopian future.


References :

Stephen King’s fiction:

King, Stephen. Carrie. New York: Doubleday, 1974.

King, Stephen. Salem’s lot. New York: Doubleday, 1975.

King, Stephen. The Shining. New York: Doubleday, 1977.

King, Stephen. The Stand. New York: Doubleday, 1978.

King, Stephen. Cujo. New York: Viking Press, 1981.

King, Stephen. Christine. New York: Viking Press, 1983.

King, Stephen. It. New York: Viking Press, 1986.

King, Stephen. From a Buick 8. New York: Scribner,2002.

King, Stephen. Cell. New York: Scribner, 2006.

King, Stephen. Under the dome. New York: Scribner, 2009.

King, Stephen. 11/22/63. New York: Scribner, 2011.


Critical reading:

Bakhtin, Michael. Rabelais and his World. 2nd ed. Translated by H. Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968.

Barth, John. The Literature of Exhaustion. The Friday Book: Essays and Other Non-Fiction, 63-76. London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1984.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology (De la grammatologie). Paris: les Éditions de Minuit, 1967.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York: Routledge, 1988.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

Lévy, Maurice. ‘Châteaux’. Otrante12 (2002): 7-10.

Mellier, Denis. ‘La terreur fantastique et l’écriture de l’excès: théorie et pratique du récit terrifiant’. PhD Dissertation, Universite? de Lille III,1994.

Mircea, Eliade. Myths, Dreams and Mysteries. New York: Harper, 1961.

___. Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return. New York: Harper, 1959.

___. Rites and Symbols of Initiation: The Mysteries of Birth and Rebirth. Translated by R. Trask. New York: Harper and Row, 1965.

Strengell, Heidi. Dissecting Stephen King: From the Gothic to Literary Naturalism. Wisconsin: the University of Wisconsin Press, 2005.



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