7 Things I Learned Last Week from Stephen King

I love ghost stories.

Particularly the whole gothic genre of the nineteenth century: intense questioning of reality layered with beautiful houses and dramatic landscapes and sometimes hilariously-dated kitsch. I’ve read all of Mrs. Radcliffe. Whooee!

I especially love the concept that my love for ghost stories is the other side of my utter yellow-bellied, chicken-livered response the few times I’ve thought there was a real ghost in my vicinity. Have you ever seen anyone levitate straight in the air and cling to a chandelier?

Yeah, that was me.

That makes my relationship with ghosts and ghostly ephemera the complete encapsulation of everything I know about the internal conflict that is the driving fuel of all fiction:

  1. Be careful what you wish for or you might just get it

  2. When the gods want to punish us, they answer our prayers

So it will be no shock to any of you to learn that my one of my favorite novels of all time is Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.

My god, what an amazing writer. I stumbled on that book in a second-hand store a few years ago, but I was not surprised to discover later that it is canonical and, in fact, one of the novels that taught Stephen King his trade. (I would love to get into a discussion of all Jackson’s work, and at a some point I probably will, but for now I’m going to content myself with recommending this gorgeous, mysterious novel to writers in general.)

I was interested enough when I heard that King discusses The Haunting of Hill House in his nonfiction exploration of horror to run out and buy a copy of Danse Macabre, which King wrote in 1981 between Firestarter and Cujo (not counting one of the novels he wrote under his Richard Bachman-Turner-Overdrive pseudonym).

Now, it turns out King’s interpretation of Hill House is, sadly, so wildly pedestrian as to be almost useless. He analyzes Hill House at length as the height of narcissism because it’s about the internal world of a young woman with whom he can’t identify (although one of his own favorite novels is Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man, which is about the internal world of a man with whom he apparently can). King finally admits there might be another “truly terrifying” interpretation of Hill House, which is that it’s the house itself that’s generating the ghosts. . .um, bingo, Stephen.

However, King is still heck of smart, his book is a meticulous research project on the horror genre of the twentieth century (largely movies and television, but also fiction), and he’s a very good writer when he wants to be.

I dog-eared dozens of pages of Danse Macabre so I could go back later and copy out quotes and insights, which I am studying right now. And I’m discovering that even when King is a little limited in his exploration of his basic insights, they lead me into truly rich ground in my own understanding of fiction.

  1. Fiction is seeking pressure points

    Wow, do I love this insight.

    Fiction is about reaching into the reader, past their intellectual understanding of both your story and themself, and pressing where it’s sensitive. Some writers—like King—do what they do because for many people the resulting adrenalin rush of terror temporarily deadens all other feeling and gives them some relief from their own fears. And King has learned that readers in an era of political upheaval and economic uncertainty are willing to plunk down a whole lot of cash for relief.

    This is also why romance aka soft-core p*rn is the top-selling genre these days.

    Adrenalin rush through either procreation or running for your life, the two most predictable chemical jolts in the animal kingdom. Temporary relief.

    Yes, indeed.

    But even if you’re not interested in simple-minded triggering of the adrenalin of terror or sex (as I really am not—there are real-life social and personal consequences to addiction to those particular adrenalin triggers, which I’m not going to get into here), your goal is still to trigger emotion in the reader.

    Not in your characters. In the reader. Visceral response.

    Without that, you’re just talking to yourself.

  2. Without belief, there is no reader engagement

    King talks about reader engagement purely in terms of terror and horror, but again this insight applies to all genres, all fiction.

    Is your goal to engage the reader in a fantasy adventure? That reader had better believe the logic behind your fantasy, or they’re not going to feel the thrill of the adventure.

    Is your goal to engage the reader in an exploration of sci-fi? That reader had better believe in your science, or they’re not going to feel invested in the consequences.

    Is your goal to engage the reader in YA or MG? That reader had better believe in the authenticity of your teenagers’ or children’s world, or they’re not going to feel one cotton-pickin’ thing for the dilemmas of your characters.

  3. Fiction is both what you say out loud and what you say in a whisper

    This is called subtext, and it’s essential for all storytelling.

    An enormous amount of the writer’s toolbox is devoted to techniques specifically designed for subtext: structure, pacing, resonance, juxtaposition, dialog, description, action, gesture and mannerism and expression, word choice and and sentence structure and telling detail. The list goes on and on.

    Devote yourself to learning these techniques, and the entire universe of subtext will blossom for you with a complex and unearthly beauty.

  4. Locking the world out is locking the world in

    Again, King discusses this purely in terms of terror—that the character’s efforts to hide (specifically inside a house) lead them very often to closet themself with their enemy.

    But this is, in the greater scheme of things, why readers read: as they sink into fiction to escape their own worries and griefs, they find themselves unconsciously drawn to stories that reflect those very things.

    This is the psychological reflex of healing. We are unconsciously desperate to lock ourselves in with what truly haunts us (not just what pushes our buttons), to face it and triumph once and for all.

  5. Lives and careers can be destroyed in a moment

    Fast, succinct, condensed—these are the hallmarks of great fiction.

    You want your fiction to be powerful, don’t you? Well, power is greatest where matter is most condensed. Don’t stand too close to a black hole, people.

  6. Reader engagement arises from the feeling that the world is ‘unmaking’

    And this is perhaps my very favorite insight. Just that word: ‘unmaking.’ King has put his finger on the pressure point of all humanity with that one.

    Both anticipation and anxiety are the key human responses to the possibility that something we want and need will all our souls is being ‘unmade.’ And those are two of the most powerful push/pull emotions a writer can use.

    Push the reader away with anxiety—oh, no! things are falling apart!

    Pull the reader in with anticipation—oh, boy! things are falling apart!

    The ways in which the reader feels these developments depend entirely upon how you craft your characters, what needs you give them, what illumination you cast upon their endless struggles to meet their needs.

    This is the core of the writer’s work: employing the myriad wonderful techniques of fiction to play upon the reader’s emotions like a xylophone.

    Oh, yes.

  7. Stephen King did a lot of cocaine in the early ’80s

    And you can sure tell.

    You get this from the last third of Danse Macabre, which escalates into the final chapters until you can veritably hear that ole razor scraping the mirror. “Just one more last thing,” he starts saying. “Just one more last thing.”

    Notice how he loses reader engagement when it stops being about leading the reader where he’s decided he wants them to go and begins to be only about him and his frantic, hopped-up need to just keep talking?

    Take a lesson from Stephen King.

This post was brought to you by M. Terry Green, author of Shaman, Healer, Heretic, who asked me a simple question in email this morning (“How are you?”) and started an avalanche.

19 thoughts on “7 Things I Learned Last Week from Stephen King

  1. Heather Webb says:

    I love your blog! Thanks for sharing another great article.

  2. Jen says:

    I read Danse Macabre only once, perhaps when I was too young to really dig it, but I remember being disappointed. Perhaps it’s time for a re-read?

    The Haunting of Hill House is also one of my favorite novels! It involves the inner world of a woman that I can totally relate to πŸ˜‰

  3. Of course I *had* to come see. Geez am I glad I did. This is one of those fabulous Analysis meets Book Review meets Writing Advice meets Life Coach articles that seem to be your specialty. Just reading it sends me running back to my WIP with new thoughts. Plus a mention on your blog? The highlight of January!



    I am, of course, now bound to ask: how are you, how are you, how are you?

    1. Victoria says:

      Just fine, thanks. And you?

      1. I’m pretty much okay.

        Oh wait. Am I supposed to write some monumental blog post now?

  4. I have not read DANSE MACABRE in years…I need to get another copy. I always feel that King makes us believe in things that do not exist, like vampires, werewolves, and other abnormal things, etc., and I always read King with all the lights on. He’s also my favorite when it comes to humor in horror. I think I get part of my sick sense of humor from having read him.

  5. Michelle says:

    I’m a fraidy cat and love ghost stories, too. I enjoyed Northanger Abbey, and Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black is possibly my favourite; I can’t wait to read more of her writing. I’d never heard of Ann Radcliffe, so thanks for mentioning that. I must read Danse Macabre: I work part time as a cleaner and the office I clean (an old Victorian house) was once a nursing home and is supposed to be haunted. It’s now a fostering agency. I’m filling in all the gaps and writing a novella about it. Fun stuff. πŸ™‚

  6. Bill Polm says:

    Excellent post, M. Terry,
    That is a rich analysis of King’s book with helpful and enlightening info. I think I saw the Hill House movie quite a while back, but I have not read the novel, and I will now. I should be studying writing that good. I’ll be getting a copy of Danse Macabre too.

    In that general horror category, I’ve been re-watching episodes of the TV series “Poltergeist the Legacy” which I enjoyed a lot way back when. Ever seen that? Good writing and special effects.

    “With that in mind, I’m considering how best to use those days–and I am writing.” me too!

  7. First I must agree – this is a fatastically inspiring post! Upon the introduction I thought for sure you would be talking about King’s book 11/22/63, (which is one of his best stories IMO), but I’m glad you didn’t because you turned me on to others I didn’t know about, and I’m shocked that I didn’t, especially Shirley Jackson’s – I love her work and just can’t believe I haven’t even heard of The Haunting of Hill House. Must buy today!
    Is that run-on enough for you? πŸ˜‰ I am a sucker for ghost stories, mainly because I’ve encountered at least four, possibly more, in my life and oh, what a thrill! You’d think that would inspire me to produce more paranormal work, and I have done some but not nearly enough. Maybe it’s time to pick up Dance Macabre and get to work.

    Thanks for another great post Victoria!

  8. I mean Danse Macabre – duh…

    1. Victoria says:

      Actually, King managed to create confusion with that title, himself.

      His collection of stories Night Shift was published in French as Danse Macabre.

  9. Kelly Leiter says:

    I got SO MUCH from this article. And it was delievered at the perfect time for me as these are a big reminder of the things I am desperate to remember as I work on my own project. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  10. I will have to remember #8. Could change my writing career.

  11. Jenny Hansen says:

    Fantastic post, Victoria! I love Stephen King and I ALWAYS walk away from your blog with lots to think about. πŸ™‚

  12. Laura Drake says:

    This is insightful and wonderful, Victoria, thank you. I’m a HUGE King fan, but I too didn’t appreciate that phase of his writing. He’s also wrong about Hill House – one of the best horror novels of all time. The first time I read it, I was in the living room, my mother was in the kitchen next door. I read a critical scene (talk about pressure points!) and was literally frozen in terror – I couldn’t even call to her.

    Wow, those are great times!

  13. tomwisk says:

    I carried Danse Macabre around for a long time before it pushed me into writing. Stephen KIng explained storytelling. And I’m no longer ashamed when we play “Who’s your favorite author?” I pipe up “Stephen King” and let those who read one classic piece of literature and adopted it.

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