Monday, March 19, 2007

Douthat on the Horror Novel

Indeed, insofar as King has a theology, it involves an Almighty who wills not only sacrifice but also suffering and death to serve a larger purpose that's beyond any mortal ken. Such a God is awesome and cruel all at once, with no interest in answering to his creatures-even if many of King's characters react with appropriately Joban outrage to his demands. "He can't take them all and leave me!" wails David Carver, the preteen prophet from Desperation, when it becomes clear that his whole family will die at the demon's hands while he is required to live. "Killer God," a woman screams in The Stand, when Mother Abagail delivers God’s demand that her husband go out into the desert unarmed to confront their adversary. "Killer God! . . . Millions-maybe billions-dead in the plague. Millions more afterward . . . Isn’t he done yet? Does it just have to go on and on until the earth belongs to the roaches? He's no God. He's a daemon, and you're His witch."


Nor is King's God disposed to handle every supernatural flare-up. He coexists with a multitude of lesser powers, and he allows most of them more or less free rein. Not only ghosts and demons are loose in King’s post-secular landscape but also a Who’s Who of stranger spiritual influences, some benign and some malignant, some distinctively American and some very much Old World. In Rose Madder, there’s Circe and the Minotaur; in Insomnia, the three Fates, spinning, measuring, and cleaving away; in Pet Sematary, the Native American Wendigo. And then there is the host of quasi-mythic beings that King himself invents, from the dizzying cast of his Dark Tower saga to the unearthly Long Boy, which haunts the visions of a writer and his wife in last year's Lisey’s Story, fixing them with "the hideous pressure of its insane regard." Writing in Books and Culture several years ago, Susan Wise Bauer complained that the willingness of King's God to tolerate these lesser rivals-and his insistence that his human surrogates take them on-made him "an undemanding fellow" who outsources the hard work to human beings "and then desperately hopes they can pull it off." King’s Almighty, she suggested, "is much like Rabbi Kushner’s God-creative, good, well-meaning, but limited."

But, if anything, the opposite is true. King's God isn't a well-meaning weakling, holding our hands and hoping things turn out OK; rather, he's so far above the various adversaries, from Tak to Randall Flagg, that the possibility of their winning passing victories concerns him not at all. The demons are a means to chastise and test a struggling humanity, not a threat to God himself; they are the potter's wheel on which King's characters can be broken without placing God's providence in doubt.

This is questionable theology, but it is genius as a literary move and a perfect solution to the problem that God's omnipotence poses for dramatic tension in a supernatural novel.

Ross Douthat, Stephen King's American Apocalypse

One of the better pop-culture analyses I've read.

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