Last January Stephen King was criticized for comments he made about voting for the Academy Awards, something he is apparently entitled to do as a member of that august body. “For me, the diversity issue — as it applies to individual actors and directors, anyway — did not come up…That said, I would never consider diversity in matters of art. Only quality. It seems to me that to do otherwise would be wrong” he tweeted.
Well, Stephen King is anything if not consistent. From what I can gather his literary output reflects no concern whatsoever with ‘diversity’ other than as a license to express forms of racism so extreme they might shame a klansman.
Ava DuVernay, director of the 2015 film Selma (not nominated by the Academy for best director) described King’s comments above as “backward and ignorant.” I think that’s being charitable. Even by the standards of the 1970s and 1980s King’s novels have always trafficked in what can only be described as gratuitous bigotry. So why have his works always been so popular? How is it that so much of King’s work challenges even the Urban Dictionary in depravity and yet still rakes in millions of avid readers and millions of dollars? Why does he leaven so much of his writing with grotesque stereotypes?
The common defense takes the form of a non-denial denial, insisting that because what King writes is horror it should shock and sicken; nothing shocks and sickens like racism so that’s why there is so much of it in his novels. Implied here is that he uses such bigotries in a constructive manner; they serve a larger, more edifying purpose, or so the argument goes. But this is really the Tarantino defense: it’s just plot and character development, nothing more. The problem here is that so much bigotry in King’s novels so obviously serves no purpose. It is gratuitous; which is to say unneeded and unwarranted, therefore casual bigotries that do not forward plot or character development, or, at least go far beyond such development. There is just no way to excuse or explain away the naked racism peppered throughout King’s oeuvre (we will get to examples below).
So as to undermine the Tarantino defense, I’m going to quote a couple characters from a Tarantino film. Upholding King’s legacy sans his bigotry amounts to the position that John Travolta stakes out regarding eating bacon in Tarantino’s film Pulp Fiction. You know the scene. Samuel L. Jackson holds that “Pigs sleep and root in shit. That’s a filthy animal. I don’t eat nothing that ain’t got sense enough to disregard its own feces.” Travolta counters, “How about a dog? A dog eats its own feces.” Jackson quips, “I don’t eat dog either.” To which Travolta asks whether Jackson considers dogs a filthy animal. Jackson says a dog’s “got personality. Personality goes a long way.” Travolta counters, “by that rationale if a pig had a better personality it would cease to be a filthy animal.” Jackson famously responds, “We would have to be talking about one charming motherfucking pig!”
King’s writing is as that pig wallowing in its own shit; don’t eat the bacon.
Regardless of how one answers these questions, King’s comments should come as no surprise, as his output betrays an unbearable whiteness of being, something that remains pervasive within elite and popular culture. And in this sense, no matter how charming it may be, a pig is still a filthy animal. (That there is a literary device. For what it’s worth, I consider pigs adorable).
Do you need some evidence as to rank racism in Stephen King novels? In the unfortunately titled “Stephen King Needs More Black Friends” (Scott Woods, Medium, January 15, 2020) the image of Black people in the ‘Stephen King Universe’ is made clear. And mind you, this recounting is from a fan:
King writes almost all of his Black characters, magical or otherwise, in problematic ways. When they are not magical they are horrendous stereotypes: dope fiends and brutes (The Stand), jive-talking thugs (End of Watch), and worse (the short story “Dedication”). More, King’s characters never happen to be Black; he intentionally makes it clear that they are Black from the outset, usually with jaw-droppingly offensive descriptions: Mother Abigail in The Stand is “coal-black” and further described as looking like an “old black Everglades alligator.” The Black junta of The Stand are also Black, “huge,” nude (save for a loincloth, so sexualized to boot) and actively murdering White people with intent. The chief villain in The Running Man is a game show producer named Dan Killian who is “minstrel show” Black. The Green Mile’s John Coffey is hit with a litany of racist descriptors, including “monkey,” “big mutt,” and “big boy.” Some of these are character embellishments, insults provided through the mouths of virulently racist characters — aka the Tarantino Defense. But some of them come from the universal narrator of a given story.
Getting a bit more granular, this is from my essay “King vs. Kubrick” (Mozzochi.wordpress.com, January 22, 2019) where I compare King’s The Shining to Kubrick’s The Shining:
What the Ghosts Represent:
Book: All the ghosts are evil; all desire to continue their evil deeds–marital infidelity, gangsterism, murder, as a manifestation of their “single group intelligence”. The source of this evil is not institutional, structural, historical, political or otherwise outside of the individual. It is located within us, in our denial of the possessive individualism at the heart of the bourgeois family.
Movie: The source of evil is the hotel itself, which cannot be separated from its history, in part erected on the bones of indigenous peoples. It is rabidly racist and demands absolute servility on the part of inferiors, most pointedly workers and their families.
Racist, Homophobic, Classist or Misogynist Scenes That Contribute To Plot Or Character Development.
Movie: Grady calls Dick Hallorran a “nigger” in the all important restroom scene. Elsewhere Jack says, “just a little problem with the old sperm bank upstairs. Nothing I can’t handle, though.” That’s about it. Sparing, short and devastating. But Kubrick doesn’t wallow in it as King does–as a teenager expressing unfiltered repressed emotions.
Gratuitous Racist, Homophobic, Classist or Misogynist Scenes That Don’t Contribute To Plot Or Character Development.
Book: an endless parade of cringe worthy and vicarious bigotries apparently pleasurable for some people to read. Emblematic is where King has a young Dick Hallorran fire a “Nigger Chaser” firework (bottle rocket) at a wasps nest. This makes no sense even on its own terms.
From Ben Goldstein, “Stephen King’s The Stand is Bloated, Racist and (Somehow) Still a Masterpiece” (Medium, May 10, 2015). Again, this is from a fan:
King didn’t invent the Magical Negro literary trope, but he’s spent much of his career coasting on it. Consider the psychic hotel caretaker Dick Hallorann in The Shining, who comes back to rescue Danny Torrance when Jack loses his mind. Or the hulking and simple-minded John Coffey of The Green Mile, who heals the innocent by absorbing their pain, and dies as a savior figure.
In The Stand, we’re presented with Mother Abigail Freemantle, a religiously devout beacon of benevolence…” Within the entire Boulder Free Zone community — which eventually numbers in the thousands — Mother Abigail is the only person who is described as black. That’s right, kids: Stephen King’s utopic Free Zone society contains exactly one (1) black person. Other than that, the Free Zone is a diverse tapestry, featuring white people from Maine, white people from Texas, white people from New York, and white people from Ohio.
Of course there are other black people in The Stand. You’ve got the jive-talkin’ Rat Man, who’s so creepy that even the nymphomaniac Julie Lawry wont fuck him. There’s Richard Hoggins, the young black drug addict from Detroit mentioned in the “second epidemic” section. (“He had been addicted to the fine white powder he called ‘hehrawn’ for the last five years.”) Hoggins breaks into a drug dealer’s house after the Captain Trips virus kills everyone and OD’s on the stash he discovers there. “No great loss,” King writes directly afterwards. But wait, it gets worse. I regretfully present the beginning of the aforementioned “black junta” scene:
Huge black men wearing loincloths! “Amazingly even and white teeth in his coal-black face”! Oh man, Steve, what are you doing here? And let’s not forget the “brown, smooth skinned” band of spear-carrying natives that Flagg encounters at the very end of the book. Savages. They don’t speak jive, but that’s only because they don’t speak English at all.”
…Every notable black character in King’s novels — Hallorann, Coffey, Mother Abigail, Mike Hanlon in It, Susannah Dean in The Dark Tower: Song of Susannah, Nan Melda in Duma Key, etc. — is referred to as a “nigger” at some point by another character. Usually, this is meant to signify villainy or ignorance in the character using the word. But you’d think a writer with as expansive an imagination as King would find different ways to make that point.”
No, I wouldn’t. It’s the liberal version of the unfiltered bile Trump spews. And again, the above is from Stephen King fandom. I’m not a fan of Stephen King. But I am a fan of tearing down monuments that glorify inequality, racism and reaction.
King’s comments about diversity and the Academy Awards above are classic meritocratic nonsense–the real ‘virtue signaling’ we hear so much about–that practiced by business elites, cultural influencers and celebrities designed to remind us how talented they are and how in awe we should be of that talent and the money and power it commands. Much of this ‘race blind’ and ‘post-racial’ narrative nonsense gets packaged with brutal class war attacks against the poor and vulnerable.
King stands in this artistic and political tradition, one that is thankfully under assault by antiracists everywhere. See that Robert E. Lee statue being taken down? How about the confederate flag being banned at NASCAR? Remarkable. But such atrocity exhibitions extend beyond statues and flags, to art and entertainment and government policy that goes from The Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind through The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (aka The Moynihan Report) onwards through King’s The Stand and The Shining and Game of Thrones, which I have described elsewhere as a “blood and soil zombie soap opera that utilizes medieval fantasy conventions.”
This tradition needs to be hog-tied, pulled down and tossed into a river, just like those confederate statues.
King is not exceptional in this regard; but he is an exceptionally rich and prolific scribbler whose work should be a focus of criticism during this amazing period of resistance, rebellion and (dare we say it) revolution. Might we be in the midst of a Third Reconstruction in America? If we are, I expect this sacred cow to be sacrificed forthwith. For if we are in a Third Reconstruction, then how could we ever accept as penance King’s frequent twitter attacks on the psychotic flaming Cheeto? Or anyone’s, for that matter? That’s a bar set so low that a hedge fund vampire like Mitt Romney can step over it and march in a protest for George Floyd without a public shaming such as that endured the mayor of Minneapolis, Jacob Frey. That just won’t do.
Isn’t it past time we chucked the Stephen King monument into the Castle Rock River?