Stephen King is undisputedly the most prominent horror fiction writer of our times, and his stories are undeniably bone-chilling and hair-raising. Nevertheless, there is much more to his stories and novels than we might at first expect.
Indeed, King’s novels are always saturated with social and political implications. For example, “Salem’s Lot,” which was published in 1975, is ostensibly a vampire story set in a small town in Maine. However, it is in fact both a product and a critique of the Watergate era. Its plot and setting evoke the early 1970s atmosphere of a closed society where everyone has dark secrets and skeletons in the closet.
The 1974 short story “Sometimes They Come Back,” is also a powerful criticism of the Watergate scandal. Using the motif of the “return of the ghosts and nightmares of the past,” this horror story warns that if we made a wrong choice in the past, we should prepare to accept the consequences. The story recalls how, in the US presidential election of 1952, the American people chose Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican war hero who promised peace and prosperity, over Adlai Stevenson who was praised as a great statesman. In the events that ensue in “Sometimes They Come Back,” King suggests that the Watergate scandal was an inevitable outcome of America’s wrong choice in the 1950s.
King’s first novel, “Carrie,” is the story of a misfit high school girl who uses her telekinetic powers to take revenge on her sadistic classmates on prom night. However, beyond its seemingly straightforward plot, Carrie can also be read as a profound critique of two mainstream American traditions and mindsets: puritanism and pragmatism, or conservatism and liberalism.
Carrie White, a 16-year-old girl from the fictional town of Chamberlain, Maine, lives with her mother, Margaret, who is a fanatic Christian fundamentalist. Every day, vindictive, self-righteous Margaret torments and physically abuses Carrie with her uncompromising faith. Obsessed with the notion of chastity, Margaret condemns sex as evil and prohibits Carrie from having a boyfriend or going to the prom. Enduring this stifling situation at home, Carrie becomes aloof and introverted.
At school, Carrie is a loner without friends and is bullied by her classmates. When Carrie has her first period while taking a shower after gym class, she is terrified because she does not understand what is happening. Instead of helping Carrie, her classmates use the occasion as an opportunity to jeer at her. Consequently, Carrie is publicly humiliated and psychologically devastated.
On the prom night, Carrie is elected as prom queen through the subterfuge of her mean classmate Chris, who plots to humiliate Carrie one last time. Chris prepares two buckets full of pig’s blood and pours the blood on Carrie while she is standing on the stage. Carrie is enraged. Using her telekinetic powers, she not only kills her classmates but also destroys her town by exploding the local gas station and snapping power lines.
Back at home, Carrie confronts her fanatic mother who believes that her daughter is possessed by Satan. During their fight, Carrie kills her mother in self-defense, but she, too, is mortally wounded. Eventually, Carrie dies and Chamberlain becomes a ghost town.
We may assume that King wants to portray Chamberlain as a microcosm of an American society that was plagued by bipolarity and pushed to the extreme. Carrie’s mother, Margaret, symbolizes an extremely stoic, rigidly austere and self-righteous puritanism or conservatism, whereas Carrie’s classmates represent unruly and anarchic pragmatism or liberalism. When pragmatic liberalism went wayward, people resorted to drugs and sexual dissipation, confusing them with liberal ideals. As a byproduct of extreme social bipolarity, Carrie symbolizes those who are caught in-between and ruthlessly persecuted and victimized by these two extremes. Naturally, Carrie takes revenge on those who are responsible and destroys the entire society.
Reading “Carrie,” one cannot help but think of today’s South Korea that is also sharply divided by two extremes: hopelessly outdated, irreparably damaged conservatism vs. stubbornly self-righteous, seemingly disoriented progressivism. The animosity and irreducible division between these two extremes as represented by Carrie’s obstinate mother and her unruly classmates in the novel inevitably foster a victim like Carrie, who, as the story shows, is destined to take revenge on both extremes and eventually annihilate society.
If King came to Korea, he would be surprised at the remarkable similarities between Korea and America in terms of this bipolarity and extremism. Richard Wright wrote in 1940, which was another deeply polarized period, “If Poe were alive, he would not have to invent horror, horror would invent him.” Likewise, it would not be too farfetched to say, “If Stephen King came to Korea, he would not need to invent a horror story set in the Korean Peninsula; the country’s present reality would be a horror story already.” Of course, that would be the last thing we would like to hear. We should put an end to our chronic disease of bipolarity and extremism now. Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and visiting professor at Kyunghee Cyber University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org -- Ed.