Stephen King and the American Gothic

by Blake Campbell / Arts Columnist • October 29, 2014

I feel a small flush of embarrassment whenever I admit my affection for horror fiction. As a teenager, it was a full-blown addiction: I devoured the work of Edgar Allan Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, Richard Laymon, and Anne Rice. When I came to college, I found myself in an environment where the works of these authors are often frowned upon, and began to cultivate my literary predispositions toward poetic language and rich character development instead of my pulpier tendencies. But although my taste in literature has since expanded and deepened, I still put aside John Milton and Vladimir Nabokov to indulge my taste for the macabre from time to time, and am rarely disappointed.

My last indulgence was Stephen King’s 1975 novel ’Salem’s Lot. King conceived the book as a modern American version of Dracula, and his 20th-century incarnation of the infamous count is a mysterious antique dealer who intends to make a legion of the undead out of the unsuspecting citizens of a village in rural Maine. As a vampire tale, it holds up remarkably well, even in today’s post-Twilight literary culture; King’s bloodsuckers are unabashedly monstrous and sufficiently creepy, the characters are realistic and compelling, and the plot is paced at just the right speed.

But perhaps the greatest aspect of King’s work is the detail that he pours into his depictions of small-town life, which ring with an incredible authenticity. It seems a given to me that King writes from his own experience of living in rural Maine, partly because his fictional small towns are often startlingly similar to the community in rural Pennsylvania where I grew up. Small towns are fascinating sociological subjects that conceal dark truths beneath unassuming façades.

I am not talking about the suburbs here, which have their own skeletons in their closets, but have been beaten almost to death in contemporary literary fiction. Rural towns operate on a deeper level of intimacy: Almost everyone knows each other, and often, most have spent their entire lives in the community. And just like the fictional Jerusalem’s Lot of King’s novel, they are full of vampires: destructive gossip, blind faith, rigid conformity, prejudice, and fear of the unknown, just to name a few. The apparently minor character of Mabel Werts, an elderly town gossip who monitors the actions of her neighbors with binoculars and picks up the phone whenever she sees something suspicious, is perhaps ’Salem’s Lot’s most effective embodiment of the real and very powerful forces that keep small towns so closely knit.

King, of course, is not the first author to expose real-life monsters by writing about fictional ones; in fact, small-town life is almost a precondition of American horror literature, and particularly that of New England. Consider Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown.” Widely considered one of the greatest short stories in American literature, Hawthorne’s 1835 work also contains the elements of a great horror story, and like ’Salem’s Lot, is chiefly concerned with the hypocrisies and secrets underlying small town life. Hawthorne’s titular protagonist sets out in the woods surrounding his close-knit Christian community of Salem, Massachusetts, only to meet the devil, and soon discovers that almost all of his fellow villagers have chosen the path of sin. Witchcraft and Satanism become powerful metaphors for human duplicity.

H. P. Lovecraft, perhaps the most important of King’s literary precursors, also explored the darkness of small town life in his work. “The Dunwich Horror,” one of his most famous stories, takes place in the fictional town of Dunwich, Massachusetts, a community so depleted and ramshackle it suggests a Yankee remake of Deliverance, where “the wild weeds, brambles, and grasses attain a luxuriance not often found in settled regions” and “unseen whippoorwills chatter and the fireflies come out in abnormal profusion to dance to the raucous, creepily insistent rhythms of stridently piping bullfrogs.” The town is so convincingly rendered that even its most sensational features—like its resident family of inbred amateur sorcerers who give rise to the horror of the story’s title—unsettle the reader and give credence to King’s judgment that his literary forefather was the 20th century’s “greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale.”

Though Lovecraft is a master of setting and story, he all but fails in his portrayals of the everyday people who inhabit the town of Dunwich. We are presented with a cast of generic country bumpkins. At various points in the story, Lovecraft relies on these characters to relay important plot developments to the reader in a hokey rustic New England dialect, perhaps as a misguided attempt to break up the story’s long paragraphs of characteristically purple prose. A sentence of dialogue from a resident of Dunwich is enough to illustrate that Lovecraft’s characterizations of country folk are lacking: “The graoun’ was a’talkin las’ night, an’ towards mornin’ Cha’ncey he heered the whippoorwills so laoud in Col’ Spring Glen he couldn’t sleep nun.” 

By contrast, King’s greatest literary strength is his humanity, or more specifically, his use of the inhuman to reveal the humanity of his characters. Close-mindedness is one of the most destructive side effects of small town life, and results directly from fear—fear of the outside world, fear of failure, fear of people who are different than you, fear of leaving your comfort zone at all. King’s vampires frighten us because they represent the terror of the unknown, a terror that the stubborn and provincial citizens of Jerusalem’s Lot are content to ignore and deny. ’Salem’s Lot is not without its flaws—the characters’ frequent potshots at gay people go beyond mere truthful representation of small-town homophobia, for instance—but it unveils many disquieting and all-too-familiar truths of life, as a work of literature should.