Don’t judge Stephen King by his covers

From the Stephen King movie, “It”
From the Stephen King movie, “It”

I couldn’t help but chuckle and roll my eyes at the views of Brian Shoemaker, expressed so obtusely and emphatically in the May 25 op-ed, “Our Stephen King-ishy culture undermines the value of all life.” The name of my favorite author grabbed my attention, but I quickly understood why it was co-opted with so little understanding of King’s work, his stories, and the point behind all fiction.

The author wrote, “We seem to have evolved into a predatory culture, feeding on the vulnerable, the innocent, and the ignorant,” while painting all of Stephen King’s works with such a broad brush that I suspect Shoemaker has never read any of it. He mentions numerous novels, but focuses specifically on “It,” the most recent cinematic adaptation of King’s work. I wonder if Shoemaker expected the movie to be something other than a work of horror and suspense, especially since a maniacal clown is depicted on all of the publicity materials. He went on to mention other novels, “Salem’s Lot,” “Carrie” and “Cujo” in a thinly-veiled attack on society and our tendency to focus on and fantasize about “blood-lusty novels, many of which target innocent children and teens with intentional brutality.”

It appears that Shoemaker fell for the trap that unprepared students stumble into on a daily basis: Looking up a quick synopsis of each of these novels, grasping for the most disturbing component, and then passing them off as if he has cracked open the pages of any of King’s amazing fiction. If he had, he would surely see that although King uses vivid imagery, violence and sometimes disturbing components in his stories, he is also an absolute master of character development. The characters in his novels, especially the teenagers and children he so often writes about, have immense depth and complexity. Combined with his masterful prose and his absolute genius in crafting lively and moving stories, these characters come alive. In the op-ed, Shoemaker references “Carrie,” King’s first novel and commercial success. He mentions Carrie exacting telekinetic revenge, with no mention of the book’s real point: understanding the complex challenges of teenage women who struggle with their lives and bodies in very real and difficult ways. Sure, King mixes it with some science fiction, but the point remains.

Shoemaker also fails to mention other novels and short stories by King that are not so disturbing, and have become absolute classics in American literature and cinema. How about “Stand by Me”? “The Shawshank Redemption”? “The Green Mile”?

I don’t mean to say that King’s work is for everyone. It most certainly isn’t, but it is also wrong and irresponsible to co-opt the outstanding work of an author to fit a moral or political argument that it does not address nor weigh in on. As I read through Shoemaker’s column, I simply assumed that he did not care for the violence and sometimes disturbing imagery employed by King in telling his outstanding stories. Then I got to his last paragraph.

“It” is not about abortion, and King never writes specifically about the issue in his work. I didn’t write this response to weigh in on this issue; I respect Shoemaker’s opinions and his dedication, even if I do not agree with him explicitly. I do disagree with someone ridiculing fiction based on a tenuous connection to cultural issues. There are people who enjoy and actually get something real and pure from King’s work. Blaming his stories for cultural issues treads too closely to past efforts to ban the works of Orwell, Nabokov, Golding, Joyce, Harper Lee and Alice Walker.

Next time support your argument with fact and reason instead of grasping for whatever is in the popular consciousness. Oh, and try reading some of King’s books before you judge their covers.

Matthew Strandmark of Lexington is education archivist at the University of Kentucky Special Collections Research Center. Reach him at mstrandmark@gmail.com.