By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature.
In a 2011 article called “Darkness Too Visible,” Wall Street Journal writer Meghan Cox Gurdon bemoaned the “lurid” sexual and violent content of young adult novels. She suggested that “hyper-violent” series like The Hunger Games, but especially books that describe self-injury, make deviant or destructive behavior more plausible for young, impressionable readers.
Like most Young Adult authors, Robin Wasserman had a crucial literary model growing up. Stephen King’s dark, violent books not only helped her endure her personal childhood miseries, they hooked her on reading and made her want to write professionally. In her essay for this series, she explains why King’s books are loved best by teenagers—even though, while they are often about teenagers, they are not really written for them—and makes her case for why, when it comes to kids’ books, darkness should be visible.
Wasserman’s latest novel, The Waking Dark, contains a premise Gurdon might chastise: One morning, five seemingly unrelated murder-suicides take place in a tiny Kansas town. She is the author of many YA books, including The Seven Deadly Sins Series, The Book of Blood and Shadow, and the Cold Awakening trilogy.
Robin Wasserman: Stephen King saved my life.
I say this so often—especially lately, having spent the last two years working on a horror novel and fielding the inevitable questions of how and why—that it’s become somewhat of a catchphrase. I like the pith of it, not to mention the melodrama. I like the way it feels true, if only in the same way a pig’s blood-covered girl slaughtering her prom-mates with psychic rage feels true—which is to say, absolutely and not in the slightest.
The actual, non-allegorical, non-pithy truth: Stephen King saved my life strictly in the sense that after an especially humiliating junior high school afternoon (acid-washed jeans, a chair puddled with red paint, you get the rest), it was re-reading It that persuaded me not to run away and join the circus. Or at least not to quit school and get a job at the Gap. If the Losers Club could defeat knife-wielding bullies and a monstrous sewer clown, I reasoned, then surely I could take a stab at surviving the junior high cafeteria. After that day, the books I loved became the books I lived on. They were fresh air and security blanket in one; they were not only an acknowledgment that evil existed (you needed only meet my gym teacher to buy that) but an assurance that someone like me, needy and lonely and young, could defeat it.
I’m aware this doesn’t make me unique. What Stephen King reader didn’t fall in love with him a teenager? It’s a truism that young teens form an enthusiastic core of King’s fandom—what I’ve been wondering about lately is why. It makes sense teenagers would gravitate toward horror novels (especially those of us who felt trapped in one), and maybe it’s no surprise that, in pursuit of darkness, they’d latch onto its undisputed master. But I think it’s more than that. I think there’s something in King’s books that speaks directly to adolescence—a reason he’s so good at capturing those teenage hearts of darkness. Despite the likelihood (or maybe because of it) that he’s not even trying.
There are some adult books that, for whatever reason, seem specially formulated to wend their way into teenagers’ brains and take root, and I think it’s because—like one of those high-frequency tones the rest of us are too old to notice—these books are whispering secret truths certain teenagers need to hear:
Ender’s Game (along with everything Ayn Rand ever wrote) assures: You are special.
Flower in the Attic commiserates: You are trapped.
While King offers salvation: You are powerful.
We all know literature empowers youth—Stephen King, as is his way, turns the metaphor literal.
The classic King story comes in one of two forms: A young teenager discovers his or her own secret power (think Carrie) or a dissipated man rediscovers the power and promise of his younger self (cf. poor Ben Mears in Salem’s Lot). The best of King’s novels weave these tropes into a single story: The Stand offers us both Harold Lauder’s twisted coming of age and Larry Underwood’s reclamation of his nobler youth. It—King’s epic about the twilight of childhood and the power of youthful belief—offers a kinder and gentler version of this story, if a book featuring so many vivid dismemberments can be called kind or gentle. Seven sad, lonely teenagers band together and discover the strength to be found in their bond—and the evil-trouncing magic to be found in themselves—while, nearly 30 years later, their jaded older selves must find a way to cut through the fat of middle age and reclaim the full force of youth. It’s a vindication of youth over age, losers over bullies, intelligence and heart over intimidation and brute strength, and it’s no wonder that as a scrawny, spectacled tween I took it as my bible.
This was the early ’90s, and though there wasn’t much of a young-adult market to speak of, the books were there, and I read them, as I read everything. None of them felt like they were speaking so directly and truthfully to me as Stephen King.
Which is not to say he was doing so on purpose. It’s not my goal to claim King as an honorary YA author (much as he may have molded the young minds who grew up to build that community), and I imagine he’d be relieved to hear it. While King is a vocal supporter of anything that might get kids and teenagers reading, he doesn’t quite endorse the concept of teen-specific literature. His Entertainment Weekly review of the Hunger Games, which despite its passive aggressive undertones helped launch that book into the stratosphere, notes that “‘young adult novel’ is a dumbbell term I put right up there with ‘jumbo shrimp’ and ‘airline food’ in the oxymoron sweepstakes.”
Of course Stephen King doesn’t believe in teen novels. I’ve started to suspect he doesn’t even believe in teenagers.
And that that’s exactly why he’s so good at writing them.
The best of King’s teen characters are on the younger side of the spectrum, 12 or 13—unquestionably adolescent (with their crushes, their awkward sexual encounters, their dramatically awkward puberties) but still getting used to the idea. He seems less interested in the 16-year-old heart of the teen experience than on its liminal zones—adolescence not as a state unto itself but as a twilight crossing between light and dark, youth and age. For King, childhood is magic, adulthood the silence left in its wake. Adolescence is interesting only as a consequence of the tensions between the two: one long, drawn out day the music died.
King is one of J.K. Rowling’s most famous fans, and a good part of his appreciation for the books stems from the fact that over the course of the series, Rowling allowed her characters to grow up. When he says that, I don’t think he’s talking about Harry’s Goblet of Fire foray into teen angst—like many of us, King has little patience for that book’s “moderately tiresome amount of adolescent squabbling.” He notes that “adults can safely speed through these bits; it’s a teenage thing.” On its face, this seems like a strange thing to say for a guy who’s written some truly electrifying scenes of “adolescent squabbling” (It’s playtime in the barrens; Carrie’s locker room bullying; the entirety of Rage). The way he talks about the Harry Potter characters suggests that in his mind, they skip directly from childhood to adulthood, much the way The Shining’s Danny Torrance left us as a precocious child and returned, in Doctor Sleep, as a dissipated adult.
It’s common wisdom that adolescence is a relatively recent invention. Historians may not agree on its birthdate (read Jonathan Franzen’s translation of Spring Awakening or—if you’re short on time—listen to the Broadway soundtrack), but they agree “teenager” is a cultural construction. Somewhere in there, 15-year-olds stopped tilling the fields and started swooning at the Beatles. Now, adolescence is a given, with a booming literary genre grown up around it. As someone who writes and teaches YA fiction, I spend a lot of time trying to define its character and readership, and I don’t think I’m alone—genres are all about boundary drawing, and the YA genre is, in a lot of ways, about carving out boundaries around adolescence, a space for teenagers to do teenage things. Don’t include too many “adult” characters or concerns, I tell my students; don’t rest the story on younger children. Teen fiction should be about teenagers—no matter how many arguments there are about what YA lit should be, this seems like the one thing we can all agree on. All of us, maybe, except Stephen King.
There’s a 19th-century theory of physics that argued matter didn’t exist. Solidity was an illusion generated by the dynamic equilibrium of opposing forces. (Imagine making your way through a strong wind—if it’s blowing exactly hard enough in the wrong direction, it will be indistinguishable from a solid wall.) When I say Stephen King doesn’t believe in adolescence, I mean it in the way those physicists dismissed matter. What if there is no such thing as a teenager? What if “teenager” is simply an illusion created by the dynamic equilibrium of two opposing forces: childhood and adulthood?
Amid It’s dismembered limbs and buckets of gore lies a small, sweet moment that’s stayed bright in my memory long after the book’s vivid horrors have faded. Lovestruck fifth-grader Ben Hanscom writes a haiku to the object of his affections:
Your hair is winter fire,
My heart burns there,
Has there ever been a more perfect outpouring of the awkward pre-adolescent heart? The poem is offered as a sweet and naïve gesture, a child’s valentine—but note the references to fire, to burning, the unconscious invocation of a very adult desire—surely no accident in a book that ends with a sacred childhood oath being sealed by sex. (And when that time comes, and timid Ben proves afraid to consummate his desire, it’s a reminder of the poem that gets him through it.) There is no middle ground for King, no “teenage thing”—there is only schoolboy love and adult lust, only the songs of innocence and experience, and dissonance and harmony when the two collide.
King’s teenagers are exactly that, a collision of innocence and experience, and the uneasy tension between the two is what gives the best of his books their narrative energy. He’s not interested in boundary drawing, in creating a narrative space for teenagers as easily demarcated as the shelves in Barnes & Noble. For him there are no boundaries, or rather, there is nothing but boundary—no space in between, just two warring forces and battles they wage.
Maybe this is why teens love his work so much, why even now—when figures suggest there may be about 10,000 “young adult” books published each year—they seem to find something in King they can’t find anywhere else. His worlds—often rooted in the past and replete with young children, old adults, and any manner of monster—may have less surface resemblance to their daily lives. His teen characters—full of childlike innocence and adult concerns—might offer less of a mirror image. But in the same way that King’s supernatural creatures speak to the ugly realities of human nature, King’s non-adolescent adolescents may offer a different kind of truth, a deeper one, about what it means to grow up. And maybe that’s why so many of us couldn’t have done it without him.