One of the most popular and best-selling authors in the world, Stephen King (b. 1947) has written a seemingly endless number of novels, short stories, screenplays, nonfiction works, e-books, and graphic novels. Though often controversial—and sometimes banned—King’s work is nevertheless widely respected by writers, filmmakers, and (increasingly) literary critics. Through his fiction, King regularly challenges simple notions of authorship and genre by allowing his creations to be adapted or appropriated across media—including film, television, graphic novels, music, stage productions, even a pop-up book. He has also regularly contributed to adaptations of his work across various media.
As Heidi Strengell (2005, p. 22) explains, King’s approach to storytelling has always been eclectic; his fiction “consists of generic hybrids” developed out of a wide mixture of sources and moods, including the gothic, literary naturalism, myths, fairy tales, and popular culture. King also pushes the limits of genre by blending elements of science fiction, fantasy, and crime fiction within his blended approach to horror. Scholarly commentary also places King’s work within contexts of American literature and culture (Magistrale, 1988, 1992, 2010); the gothic (Sears, 2011); the body (Badley, 1996); gender (Lant and Thompson, 1998); film adaptations (Magistrale, 2003, 2008); and King’s contemporary work (Simpson and McAleer, 2015).
Stephen King’s Bible.
King is perhaps most interested in the problems of American life, particularly as manifested in the microcosms of seemingly tight-knit communities in the state of Maine. This fascination with American behavior, particularly when combined with human tendencies toward doubt, destructiveness, and deception, ties directly to King’s approach to the Bible. The Bible, after all, holds a prominent place within American culture. Likewise, the Puritan legacy of biblical literacy, sermonizing, and the regular application of biblical typology and allusion to life experiences has long provided abundant models for thinking about the Bible that survive well into the twenty-first century, including in King’s fiction. The Bible, therefore, operates on several significant levels, providing at once a language of faith, ritual, and action as well as reflections on the paradoxical relationship of the human to the divine, the problem of evil, and the possibility of salvation or damnation (see Ingebretsen, 1996, pp. xi–xii). Although scholars have recognized King’s regular allusions to the Bible, they have not written about them with the critical attention they deserve. For King, the Bible represents a broad spectrum of its American cultural inheritance, the kind that sees biblical accounts as guides to behavior, sources of prejudice, warnings against destruction, and ideas for fanaticism. Ultimately, King emphasizes a darker approach to the Bible, one that, as Douglas Winter (1984, p. 93) writes, “harkens less to modern Christian values and their source, the New Testament, than to those of the Old Testament, and particularly the Book of Job.”
As a boy, King memorized passages from the Bible in Methodist Youth Fellowship (2000, On Writing, p. 40). He also indulged in the drama and spectacle of the biblical epics playing at his local movie theater (p. 45). Though no longer affiliated with Methodism (or any organized religion), King has always been candid about the impact of the Bible on his thinking, his work, and his belief in God (p. 61). In an interview with Tony Magistrale (1992, p. 3), King acknowledged that he was “most influenced, as a writer, by the Bible and King Arthur’s Tales.” Throughout his fiction, King turns to the Bible frequently, whether by direct quotations, passing comments, or when one of his characters delivers a sermon. Despite this wealth of allusion, King does not demand significant biblical literacy from his readers. When his characters refer to the Bible, they do so mostly through short passages, repetition of core concepts, or through widely recognized biblical expressions. Some characters also misrepresent the Bible, its texts, and possible meanings.
King’s use of the Bible is never passive, an easy means of encouraging general religious feelings, sentimentality, or wisdom; instead, it provides a means of commenting on larger themes of human ambition, despair, or greed—a reminder of human fallibility rather than divine infallibility. Sometimes the Bible even serves as an object of terror, a symbol of human depravity and cruelty. It is also regularly used to justify misplaced notions of sin, justice, damnation, expiation, and atonement. Though King rarely turns to the New Testament, when he does so he avoids discussions of doctrinally specific topics like salvation, redemption, and atonement; instead, he focuses on the universality of sinful behavior and the need for greater love and kindness. As Ross Douthat (2007) explains, King’s “America has passed beyond secularism, but it hasn’t come back to Jesus.” Some examples of King’s New Testament usage include the confession booths in “Mute” that have cards with Romans 3:23—“For all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory”—printed on them and tacked to the wall (King, 2008, p. 265). In Under the Dome, Piper Libby preaches a sermon to the struggling town of Chester’s Mill on John 13:34—“A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another” (2009, p. 192).
The Bible also functions as a broad source of themes, narratives, teachings, expressions, symbols, motivations, and rituals. If, in King’s work, characters tend to overlook the Bible’s messages of forgiveness and salvation, grace and charity, it is because stories of religious violence, fanaticism, oppression, and abuse may also be found both in biblical texts and in the discourse surrounding them.
In this sense, the Bible forms part of the liquid language and imagery of what Stephen King calls a “language-pool” or “mythpool,” the metaphorical, imaginative, and intertextual space to which writers (and readers) turn as they engage with plots, characters, and ideas (2006, Lisey’s Story, p. 512). Originally defined by Burton Hatlen, one of King’s English professors at the University of Maine, the mythpool suggests all the various stories, assumptions, misunderstandings, plots, and beliefs that make up much of human thought.
In Danse Macabre (1981, p. 62), King illustrates how the mythpool functions by commenting on the numerous retellings and adaptations of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the way they have collectively lodged the story in the popular imagination. At the same time, most versions of the story never corrected the popular misunderstanding that “Frankenstein” refers to the name of the creature rather than his creator. The mythpool, therefore, contains every version of human storytelling, including all their subsequent misreadings and misunderstandings.
Though King does not mention the Bible in his discussion of the mythpool, it seems obvious that, given its impact, it would also hold a prominent place there (see Strengell, 2005, p. 155).
Portraits of Fanaticism.
In terms of religion, King is perhaps best known for his unflinching portrayals of religious fanaticism, particularly the sort where individuals think loosely in terms of Old Testament notions of justice, violence, and atonement. Willfully ignorant of the positive power of the Hebrew scriptures, such individuals insist that God’s relationship with his covenant people was based largely on appeasement and punishments, often meted out with little reason and less explanation. Though acts of atonement are possible, they are typically understood in terms of violent sacrifice, sometimes even human sacrifice. King typically draws on the Old Testament to suggest a world without redemption, a world that is bleak, damned, destroyed, and purposeless. In Carrie, Margaret White cites nonexistent passages from Genesis to instruct her daughter concerning Adam and Eve, the “first sin” of sexual intercourse, and the consequent “Curse of Blood” (menstruation; 1974, p. 56). Likewise, in “The Mist,” Mrs. Carmody claims authority from the Bible to cry out for “expiation” in the form of human sacrifice while she and a group of others are trapped in a local supermarket (1985, p. 142).
In Under the Dome, King returns to Old Testament punishments through his representation of Lester Coggins, minister at Christ the Holy Redeemer Church. For Coggins, the invisible dome that covers Chester’s Mill is a clear sign of God’s judgments, not only on the community, but also on Coggins himself for his contributions to Jim Rennie’s methamphetamine business. Driven by his guilt—and his own sense of fanaticism—Coggins regularly flagellates himself while repeating the phrase “God hear my prayer” (2009, p. 160). Later, he hears the voice of the Lord commanding him to seek inspiration through bibliomancy—seeking inspiration by randomly pointing to a page or passage. As Lester grabs the book, he avoids the New Testament, thinking “this was an Old Testament job if ever there had been one” (p. 161). Coggins, pointing to Deuteronomy 28:28–29, interprets the themes of madness and blindness in those verses as signifying God’s wrath against Chester’s Mill.
King’s Old Testament terrors appear in their fullest extent in “Children of the Corn” (published as part of the collection Night Shift). In the story, a group of teenagers sacrifice themselves on their 19th birthday to placate a mysterious creature known as “He Who Walks Behind the Rows” (1978, p. 274). As part of their cultic activity, teenagers give themselves Old Testament names such as Adam, Eve, Amos, Isaac, Rachel, Moses, Malachi, Ruth, and Job. Moreover, the children transform a portrait of Jesus Christ into a hybrid deity, “an Old Testament Christ, or a pagan Christ that might slaughter his sheep for sacrifice instead of leading them” (p. 273). Below this frightening image, a lectern holds up a Bible opened to Job 38, from which the protagonist reads verses 2 and 4, both of which cite the Lord’s voice from the whirlwind defying human beings to explain the will of the Lord. This Bible is also unusual because several sections, “mostly from the New Testament,” were forcibly removed with scissors, suggesting an attempt to redefine the world in terms of Old Testament justice (p. 274). More frightening still, the nearby cornfields show no signs of blight, bugs, or weeds, as if the teenagers and their cult have recreated Eden.
Not all of King’s religiously inclined characters and events are so fanatical. Nevertheless, persons of faith, particularly the clergy, typically struggle with sinfulness, hypocrisy, or disbelief—among the best known of these characters are Father Callahan (’Salem’s Lot), the Reverend Lester Lowe (Cycle of the Werewolf), and Lester Coggins (Under the Dome). Even though some of King’s ministers have heroic qualities, most of his positive religious characters are women (e.g., Mother Abagail from The Stand) or children (e.g., David Carver from Desperation and Trisha McFarland from The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon).
The Stand is widely considered King’s most religious novel; it is also one of his most popular. An allegory of the fight between good and evil, the frailty of human civilization, and the triumph of the human spirit, The Stand offers a sustained reflection on the end of the world and the human sources of goodness and morality (see Danse Macabre, 1981, p. 374).
King references the Bible consistently throughout The Stand, lending its cultural weight to his already broad themes of eschatology, theodicy, and grit. The Stand also suggests that certain biblical narratives are essential to understanding why human beings must fight against the uncertainty of destruction, whether in the form of Captain Trips, the superflu that devastates the human population, or Randall Flagg, the novel’s satanic antagonist. Mother Abagail, the Moses-like spiritual center of The Stand, foresees the ultimate conflict between good and evil and responds to it by turning to God and the Bible. Although she believes that Captain Trips came as a “harsh judgment” sent from God for his own inscrutable reasons, she also knows that she must lead a small band of survivors to safety—and then to the ultimate conflict (p. 467). In her hard-won battle to understand—and to accept—God’s will, she learns that God often answers questions vaguely. As God told Moses, he also tells Mother Abagail: “I Am, Who I AM, and that was the end” (p. 468). Simply put, God does not explain himself to human beings, a lesson that David Carver also learns in Desperation, another of King’s explicitly religious novels.
God Helps Those Who Help Themselves.
Though not actually a biblical teaching, the popular (and very American) idea that God helps those who help themselves routinely intersects with King’s biblical allusions. In The Stand, Mother Abagail’s reflections on Moses lead her to the same conclusion, which she understands thus: “The Lord provides strength, not taxicabs” (1991, p. 481). Similarly, in Under the Dome, Pete Randolph thinks about praying for help, but decides “there was too much on his mind” to pray and concludes that “the Lord helped those who helped themselves” (2009, p. 541). Though unsure of the expression’s source, Pete believes that it “was true just the same” (p. 541). If miracles do occur, they do so only when people work hard, follow God’s will, and find their own way.
Of the major biblical narratives, Job holds pride of place because of its largely unresolved reflections on the problem of human suffering. For King, Job captures certain essential truths about the nature of God—that his will is inscrutable and that human beings sometimes experience sudden and dramatic negative reversals of fortune. As Mike Anderson explains in Storm of the Century, the “part [of Job] that never got written down” is when God tells Job—in response to the question “why me?”—“there’s just something about you that pisses me off” (2009, p. 272). In Danse Macabre, King describes Job as a “classic horror tale” of things attacking from the outside—and with no apparent reason (1981, p. 71). King also describes Job himself as “the human Astro-Turf in a kind of spiritual Superbowl between God and Satan” (p. 71).
An everyman, Job is the perennially suffering mortal, accepting the Lord’s judgments humbly, despite his pains. Indeed, King often turns to Job 38:4—God’s rhetorical question of “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”—in response to times when his characters pray to understand why they suffer. In The Stand, Mother Abagail hears the question in response to her own prayers for help (1991, p. 511). Likewise, in Under the Dome, Piper Libby raises the same question in a sermon on understanding the purposes of human tribulation. Moreover, in Revival, the Reverend Charles Jacobs channels his personal grief into a controversial sermon in which he claims that the Bible offers no conclusive answers to the fundamental human question “why?” (2014, p. 69). Turning, again, to Job 38:4, Reverend Jacobs explains that God is simply saying “Buzz off, Bunky” (p. 70).
In the promotional materials for The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, King explains that “I have been writing about God—the possibility of God and the consequences for humans if God does exist—for 20 years now, ever since The Stand” (Strengell, 2005, p. 234). King’s interest in the possibility of God regularly appears through allusions to certain core biblical themes and passages. Although the Bible sometimes serves as a tool for fanatics, it more likely provides a means of thinking through the larger questions of human life, suffering, and death. King is loath to answer such questions, of course, but his interest in them nevertheless provides small glimmers of hope in a fictional universe populated with monsters.
Works of King
- Carrie. New York: Pocket Books, 1974.
- “Children of the Corn.” In Night Shift, pp. 257–286. New York: Doubleday, 1978.
- Cycle of the Werewolf. New York: Signet, 1985.
- Danse Macabre. New York: Everest House, 1981.
- Desperation. New York: Viking, 1996.
- The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. New York: Pocket Books, 1999.
- Lisey’s Story. New York: Scribner, 2006.
- “Mute.” In Just After Sunset, pp. 265–288. New York: Scribner, 2008.
- “The Mist.” In Skeleton Crew, pp. 24–154. New York: Signet, 1985.
- On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Scribner, 2000.
- Revival. New York: Scribner, 2014.
- ’Salem’s Lot. New York: Doubleday, 1975.
- The Stand: The Complete and Uncut Edition. New York: Signet, 1991.
- Storm of the Century: An Original Screenplay. New York: Book of the Month Club, 1999.
- Under the Dome. New York: Scribner, 2009.
- Badley, Linda. Writing Horror and the Body: The Fiction of Stephen King, Clive Barker, and Anne Rice. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1996.
- Douthat, Ross. “Stephen King’s American Apocalypse.” First Things, 2007. www.firstthings.com/article/2007/02/stephen-kings-american-apocalypse.
- Ingebretsen, Edward J. Maps of Heaven, Maps of Hell: Religious Terror as Memory from the Puritans to Stephen King. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1996.
- Magistrale, Tony. Stephen King—Second Decade, ‘Danse Macabre’ to ‘The Dark Half.’ New York: Twayne, 1992.
- Magistrale, Tony. Hollywood’s Stephen King. New York: Palgrave, 2003.
- Magistrale, Tony, ed. The Films of Stephen King: From Carrie to Secret Window. New York: Palgrave, 2008.
- Simpson, Philip L., and Patrick McAleer, eds. Stephen King’s Contemporary Classics: Reflections on the Modern Master of Horror. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.
- Strengell, Heidi. Dissecting Stephen King: From the Gothic to Literary Naturalism. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005.
- Winter, Douglas E. Stephen King: The Art of Darkness. New York: New American Library, 1984.
- Lant, Kathleen Margaret, and Theresa Thompson. Imagining the Worst: Stephen King and the Representation of Women. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1998.
- Magistrale, Tony. Landscape of Fear: Stephen King’s American Gothic. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1988.
- Magistrale, Tony. Stephen King: America’s Storyteller. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Praeger, 2010.
- Sears, John. Stephen King’s Gothic. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2011.
Carl H. Sederholm