Stephen King and Philosophy, ed. Jacob Held: Free review copy. I particularly enjoyed the opening essay by Held and C. Taylor Sutton on the problem of evil: how could God be both omnipotent and beneficient, when there is so much suffering in the world? (If a fawn dies slowly in a forest fire with no one to see, for example, that suffering can’t educate or otherwise improve anyone else.) The author runs through a number of philosophical treatments of the issue, including the lesson of Job, and King after him: suffering just is, and if it is consistent with an all-powerful and all-good God, humans can’t comprehend why. “If we claim that we see no reason for evil, is that a claim about God or about us? Is our lack of imagination proof against God?” I particularly liked the discussion of theodicy, and the argument that free will is a good that accounts for human evil: “If I build some kind of autonomous cleaning robot, few would say that I could improve it by giving it the capability to murder, even if it is not programmed to use that capability.” [But cf. Tony Stark.] Ultimately, however, he argues that a finite, embodied existence must have suffering; a world without evil would lack the differentiation and finiteness that are conditions of specifically human consciousness. Then the argument turns Bayseian: The existence of suffering doesn’t argue for or against the existence of God because we have no idea about what the prior probabilities involved are. Instead of the problem of evil, he argues, we need a strategy to cope with suffering, because suffering isn’t an argument, “but a condition to be tolerated, and perhaps redeemed.” And that returns us to King, whose works are generally about that issue, and whose recommended strategy is to care, to struggle, even if there is no ultimate answer.

Another chapter, by Kellye Byal, covers female subjectivity in Carrie—one bad mother encourages Carrie to harm herself, while another motherly figure tries to get her to fit in, but that’s not a solution either. Another, by Katherine Allen, discusses Pet Sematary and The Tommyknockers as “bioconservative fables,” cautionary tales about trying to exceed human boundaries. “When knocking down a wall, one should first check that it is not load bearing; our limitations may frustrate us, may often cause us great suffering, but they are also central to our identity.” Another, by Greg Littman, covers The Dark Tower and the idea that Roland’s flaw is his vision of his life as a linear quest rather than a circle; if it is a circle, then the only way for him to find meaning in it is to make it meaningful. Like Sisyphus, the author suggests, one must imagine Roland happy. Another chapter, by Michael Potter and Cam Cobb, covers Apt Pupil, the need for propaganda in successful teaching, and the way that power is fluid.

Elizabeth Hornbeck treats the Overlook Hotel as a Foucauldian heterotopia—a place that challenges ordinary social arrangements and brings together elements that aren’t supposed to exist together; the hotel is particularly suited to this function because a “home” isn’t supposed to be heterotopic, but is rather one of the normative social spaces against which heterotopias are defined. Heterotopias both protect “normal” spaces from transgressive activity and provide a space for those activities to take place: it is vital that they are both isolated and penetrable by those with the right permissions, as hotels are.

Joseph Foy & Timothy Dale examine Richard Bachman’s works in which humans—particularly humans mediated by a reality-TV culture—are the real monsters, and bread and circuses pacify the masses. Drawing on Hannah Arendt, the authors suggest that repressive cultures such as those in the Bachman books use violence to break down connections between people that might otherwise lead to political change. Yet the more violence is required, the more people question or distrust or resist the power of the state. The Bachman books are not hopeful, in that they end with individual rebellion rather than a joining together. (I didn’t realize that King allowed Rage to go out of print because he didn’t want to inspire school shootings; I think it’s probably too late.)

Greg Littman addresses the ethical/artistic role of horror, comparing the attitudes of Aristotle and Plato towards fiction. “Sadism toward imaginary people hurts nobody in itself, so need not be a wicked pleasure, but if it conveys any moral lessons at all, they aren’t good ones.” Yet horror fiction can be a useful way of thinking through, for example, what we’re justified in doing in order to survive. Horror can’t just be a way of purging negative emotions, because those of us who like it don’t feel like we’ve purged ourselves; we feel that it’s affirmatively pleasurable to read, and not really because of the author’s literary skill. “[T]he more we are sucked into the story like a child down a sewer, the less literary evaluation is likely to enter our head,” and horror connoisseurs “can get a taste for really shitty art.” Instead, the author proposes, the pleasure of horror is the pleasure of exercising our imaginations—and that’s why even bad horror can be so much fun; the work supplies a basic structure and our imaginations do the rest.

Charles Bane deals with the vagaries of intertextuality, and how King now says that the film version of The Shining was bad—because it was so “cold,” with Jack being crazy from the beginning, and the book was “hot,” with Jack trying and failing to be good. But, as the author points out, King actually uses a lot of other authors’ works, in quotations (especially song lyrics). The beginning epigrams set the novel’s tone even though King didn’t write them; this same intertextuality means that Jack seems disturbed from the outset in the movie because Jack Nicholson’s presence inherently evokes One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. King added a scene in the TV adaptation of The Shining in which Jack’s ghost visits Danny and they share an intimate moment, “reminding viewers that Jack wasn’t such a bad guy after all. Why this change? Perhaps King simply wanted to revise Kubrick’s reading, or perhaps he had begun to suspect, like Kubrick, that maybe Jack wasn’t such a good guy.” Ultimately, King doesn’t have interpretive authority over The Shining, any more than anyone else does.

Paul Daniels deals with time travel and the question of linear time in The Langoliers: is time like space, in that every moment in it exists now but we’re not there, or is there something special about the present? The eternalist says “it’d be a mistake to conclude that Pluto doesn’t exist merely because it’s not here, and likewise it’d be a mistake to conclude that Julius Caesar doesn’t exist merely because 49 BCE isn’t now.” The promise that there will be only one future, only one outcome, is the way that we hold ourselves together psychologically as we move through time, and King’s implicit argument in his books that deal with time are that ordinary people can hold up against the assault of many possibilities, even horrible ones, quite well.

Randall Auxier discusses time in the Dark Tower series and other books, including UR (which was released twice, once as a Kindle Single and once in edited form as part of a collection, removing references to JFK as well as to Gore’s loss in 2000).

Finally, Held returns to the problem of evil, this time invoking Schopenhauer. As he points out, King’s characters always face a choice: run (or drink), or fight against evil. There’s no ultimate victory, and no God-given goal. King’s children in particular suffer intensely, and often without hope of rescue, which is King’s view of our shared condition. But if suffering is inevitable, then Schopenhauer says that the best life is a heroic life, “struggling against overwhelming odds in some way and some affair that will benefit the whole of mankind,” even if they don’t reach their reward. And this struggle can be extending compassion to just one person who needs it. As King writes, “One kid doesn’t matter—not in the face of this… It was logical, but it was croupier’s logic. Ultimately, killer logic … The kid matters or nothing matters.”
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