Monday, March 27, 2006

Stephen King's Religious Stories


I was putting my daughter in bed awhile ago and as I was pulling the blanket up over her, she said, "Daddy, tell me a scary story." Ah, the scary story. Children love the scary story -- the suspense, excitement, the thrill of being scared in an environment that is at the same time safe and comfortable (kind of like Burger King -- the fat content in the Whopper is terrifying, and yet eating it makes me feel all warm and cozy).

But many adults love scary stories too. This is a fact that Stephen King knows well and it has made him quite a bit of money. During the summer of my nineteenth year, I read "IT," after which I refused to go near a storm drain for the next six months. My friend Brant, who read the book at the same time, discovered that chance encounters with balloons tended to ruin his day ever after.

Recently, I finished reading a Stephen King novel titled "The Wolves of the Calla." It is the fifth book in a seven book series called "The Dark Tower." It got me thinking again about why people are drawn to fantasy stories that have an edge of the horrific to them.

Andrew Greeley, Roman Catholic priest, Professor of Sociology, and author of the book God in Popular Culture, has a theory. He suggests that fantasy, science fiction, and horror stories are ultimately religious stories. Now the pairing of Stephen King with religion to many might make about as much sense as a union between Janet Jackson and Paul Tagliabue. Stephen King's stories are populated with zombies, vampires, demonic cars, and child-eating clowns. But notice he does not say "Christian" stories. By "religious" he means stories that are all about meaning and hope. As if to test his theory, Greeley once attended a literary guild cocktail party in New York and Stephen King happened to be present. According to his book, Greeley approached King and questioned him about his writings. The conversation went like this:

GREELEY: You’re writing religious stories.

KING: Of course I am. Most people don’t believe me, but that’s exactly what I’m doing.

GREELEY: Anyone who writes about hope is writing about religion.

KING: Absolutely.

According to Greeley, some of the features that mark these as religious stories are the emphasis on hope, the achievement of salvation through suffering, and the dualism of good versus evil.

In The Dark Tower series, which is a mingling of the fantasy, horror, and western genres, a group of gunslingers journey across several worlds in a quest to save the Dark Tower, which represents the nexus of all worlds and reality, from the clutches of the evil Crimson King. It is an apocalyptic battle between the forces of good and evil for the salvation or destruction of the world. "Wolves of the Calla" is indeed a story about hope and so, according to Greeley at least, it is a religious story. This battle between hope and hopelessness is perhaps best revealed in the following exchange between Walter, an agent of the Crimson King, and Callahan, one of the protagonists of the story:

"No one's above ka, false priest," the man in black spits at him. "And the room at the top of the Tower is empty. I know it is."
Although Callahan is not entirely sure what the man is talking about, his response is quick and sure. "You're wrong. There is a God. He waits and sees all from His high place."


It is not my intention to recommend these novels. If you are not a fan of horror or fantasy novels, you probably will not take to them. But they serve as another reminder that just as with the violent and frankly terrifying parable that Jesus tells in Luke 19 in line with the expectation of his kingdom (check out verses 22-27) or Revelation's violent visions of demonic entities, religious stories may come in surprising packages.

7 Comments:

At 1:14 AM, Blogger Ron Cox said...

Interesting Post. Does King consistently come out on the side of those who hope? If so, I wonder why.

As to scary stories for the kids, I am not sure how we got into the habbit, but a couple years ago, Joel would have to go potty before bed and would expect a story while, well, you know. So I told him scary stories about underwear (the underwear were possesed of the ability to move about on their own and often met a grizzly fate at the hand of a light saber or sword wielding hero). It's hard to come up with a scarry story about underwear every night.

 
At 9:08 AM, Blogger Greg said...

Ron,
I feel your pain. Nicholas wants a Spider-Man story every night and I've run out of scenarios to concoct, although I imagine my range of options are a bit wider than for underwear stories. Interesting visuals you provoke there.
As for the King question, I'm not sure. I would have to go back and look. Certainly I think his more recent novels of the last ten years or so have been more dominated by hope, but at the same time I think it may be possible to write about hope without necessarily coming down on the side of the hopeful each time. I'll have to think about that some more.

 
At 6:25 PM, Anonymous Naomi said...

Perhaps you two could co-write a "Spiderman and the Underwear" story (it's a working title) and tell it to both your children. As they are practically light years apart, they'll never know you were essentially two-timing them. And conveniently, you both have blogs on which you could post this lovely bedtime tale.

 
At 7:56 PM, Blogger chris said...

Greg,
It seems that stories about the struggle between good and evil inspire our attention and sometimes our devotion to the feelings and emotions we experience while we watch them. How else do you explain people watching Star Wars and Lord of the Rings dozens of times? (Leave out the really bored and lazy people, of course.) Somehow, these stories inspire us to see ourselves in the places of our favorite characters and dream of living out these kinds of great adventures and overcoming our enemies and our own fears. Have you ever felt invigorated physically and motivated emotionally after watching a movie? There is a visceral resonse to these action movies and movies depicting great struggle and conflict. We want to see them over and over just like we want to hear or read the great stories of the Bible over and over. In a great story, there is always something new to understand that enhances your experience each time you hear or see it.

 
At 9:33 PM, Blogger Jim said...

I love comic books and comic book movies, and these themes are prevalent through both. But I think you've pinpointed why I had so much trouble with Sin City. I can (almost) see the theme of salvation through suffering. But the dualism of good versus evil comes more across as the dualism of Not-Really-Evil versus Evil, and in the end, it's just more hopeless than hopeful.

 
At 9:17 AM, Blogger Greg said...

Chris,
I think you are right. On one level, it comes down to the power of a story well-told.

 
At 9:18 AM, Blogger Greg said...

Jim,
Yeah, I saw Sin City and had a pretty similar reaction to it.

 

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