John Sears, Stephen King’s Gothic

Posted by Natasha Rebry on October 18, 2011 in Natasha Rebry, Reviews tagged with , ,

John Sears, Stephen King’s Gothic, U of Wales P, 2011. ISBN: 978-0-7083-2402-8

Reviewed by: Natasha Rebry, University of British Columbia, Okanagan

In Stephen King’s Gothic John Sears examines the Gothic underpinnings of the ubiquitous work of author Stephen King via a broad sample of King’s works, ranging from his earliest writings to some of his most recent novels, stories, criticism and interviews.  Sears offers an insightful and nuanced analysis of how King’s narratives both speak to and work against major Gothic writings, traditions and themes such as repetition, doubling and allusion, secrecy and concealment, the writer and the text, uncanny features of time and place, resurrection and its hazards, degeneration, abjection and monstrosity. One of Sears’ primary goals is to carve out a previously overlooked niche in Gothic criticism for a serious examination of King’s fiction, often dismissed by critics as shallow, repetitious, and clichéd. According to Sears, scholarship around King’s work fails to acknowledge the sophisticated and reflective ways that King engages with the Gothic, which, for Sears, functions by its recycling and repetition of tropes, characters and locations. According to Sears, King’s fiction offers ways of encountering and understanding some of our deepest fears about life and death, the past and the future, technological change, other people, monsters, ghosts, and the supernatural.

What is particularly interesting about this book is the way in which Sears explores his subject matter, via a deconstructionist unravelling of key concepts and repeated ideas revealed through a close-reading of selections from King’s fiction, critical writings and interviews. Sears is concerned with examining how encounters with otherness are confronted, worked through, and recurrently unresolved in King’s work. His primary argument is that such encounters are frequently interrogated through King’s preoccupations with the figure of the writer and the acts and products of writing. These concerns, Sears suggests, are detectable throughout King’s oeuvre and are structural to his Gothic vision, which locates texts and their production and consumption “at the moral and political centres of the universes [King] constructs” and establishes writing as crucial to his construction of social relations (3). Via close-reading, Sears demonstrates how key words and ideas are embedded throughout King’s work, sometimes revealing themselves to the reader in unexpected ways. For example, in his chapter on King’s use of Gothic place, Sears takes the word ‘curlicue,’ meaning a “fantastic curl or twist,” from Paul Sheldon of Misery (1987) and demonstrates how this word and its connotations are woven throughout much of King’s fiction, including Salem’s Lot (1975), The Shining (1980), and Pet Sematary (1983). Using the definition of ‘fantastic curl or twist,’ Sears takes curlicue to mean both a turn or twist in writing or a set of spirals or concentric circles in architecture, as in the Micmac burial ground of Pet Sematary. Such a reading points to an understanding of King’s work as heavily predicated upon intertextual and intratextual relations that create a labyrinthine “immense and complex textual space” (Sears 2), which for Sears is best understood comprehensively.

Methodologically, Sears formulates this understanding of King’s oeuvre in two distinct parts of his book. As King’s body of work is immense, Sears explores only a handful of King’s major works while continuously evoking and gesturing towards many others in the way he returns to previous discussions and explores ideas and tropes in new contexts. The first half of the text establishes King’s persistent exploration of writers and writing in his fiction and outlines King’s relations to Gothic as well as several other traditions and genres, such as science fiction and the western. Sears begins his examination of King’s Gothic with his first published novel, Carrie (1974), which Sears argues establishes King’s central concern with the Gothic tradition of writing. He then moves into a discussion of various facets of the writer’s experience, such as his relationship with himself, as explored in The Dark Half (1989) and “Secret Window, Secret Garden” (1990); his relationship with genre and tradition, as seen in the blending of the Gothic and science fiction in The Tommyknockers (1987); and lastly, his relationship with his reader, as presented in Misery (1987). The second half of Sears’ text explores some of King’s major Gothic tropes: temporality and chronological disjunction, place and the location of horror, and the monstrosity of otherness and its tendency to become a feminine ‘Other’. The concluding chapter explores King’s narrative endings and suggests possible future routes of critical enquiry and engagement with King’s works.

In some instances, Sears’s tracing of central tropes in King’s fiction develops a less cohesive argument. In his discussion on Gothic monstrosity, for example, the discussion on King’s gendering of monstrosity gets subsumed by a discussion on the face as a complex signifying system of horror. Sears claims that King genders objects of horror in his fiction in one of two ways: by recurrently feminising these objects for consumption by a male reader (188) or by regendering the feminine as genderless, “as ‘it’” (191); yet the examination of gender is occasionally obscured by his discussion of the face, which Sears claims can be used as a signifier to chart representations of monstrosity in King’s fiction. Many of the examples Sears uses to build this analysis move away from a discussion of gender. While Sears does eventually link the two strands of this discussion in his closing examination of the final scene in Pet Sematary, the issues surrounding King’s gendering of monstrosity are overshadowed by many of the intervening examples focused on interpretations of the face.

In critically examining King’s works as Gothic, Sears continues a trend in Gothic criticism that seeks to expand the traditional definition from a genre with certain stock features and characters to a narrative mode “predicated on varieties of repetition, on the recycling of narratives and forms, on revisiting older, pre-existent texts, on labyrinthine texts and spaces, and on the seemingly endless resurrection of an apparently dead, outmoded tradition” (Sears 2). At the same time, however, Sears’ understanding of the Gothic can be shifting, reading it sometimes as a mode and other times as a genre. This fluid understanding of the Gothic arises from Sears’ premise that the Gothic, by its very nature, resists the classification his discussion of key repetition in King’s oeuvre seeks to enact. The tension between Sears’ attempt to define King’s fiction as Gothic on the one hand, and his claim that the relations between King’s oeuvre and conventional understandings of the Gothic “are best understood as mobile, flexible, [and] sometimes contradictory” (5) on the other, demonstrates Sears’ contention that mobility is key to both King’s fiction and also Gothic itself. While this tension is at times uncomfortable for the reader interested in clear definitions, these critical moves point to the deconstructionist concerns with reading, writing and decoding underlying Sears’ text and demonstrate what is at stake in the field of Gothic studies, particularly for readers who are not specialists.

Overall, Sears has produced a sound critical examination of Stephen King’s Gothic that is both thoroughly researched and highly readable. His study provides an opening for more serious and comprehensive critical examinations of King’s work and suggests that King’s fiction is best understood as part of an intricate intra- and inter-textual network. Sears’ text is one of the few that offers an extended critical-theoretical engagement with King’s writing, and it will be of interest to critics and fans of Gothic fiction alike.

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