“Children of the Corn” by Stephen King

[sorry I didn’t have this up at midnight; I’ll be back to the regular timing by tomorrow]

[spoiler warning]


I’m afraid this one might run a little long, but I suppose that’s fitting to the author under discussion.

I don’t think it’s a particularly unique observation that Stephen King is a divisive figure when it comes to American literature.  Literary critic Harold Bloom, with his usual propensity for getting people to know his name, attacked King in a 2003 editorial called “Dumbing down American readers” after King received the National Book Foundation’s annual award for “distinguished contribution.”  Bloom, who has also written a book-length treatment of King that, if Amazon reviews are anything to be believed (and that’s a big if), is nothing but vitriol, spends the article lamenting the disappearance of “authentic study of the humanities” in favor of newer writers “who just can’t write.”  He points to other authors who deserve the award more like Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon, and Don DeLillo.  He calls King “a writer of penny dreadfuls” and “an immensely inadequate writer on a sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph, book-by-book basis.”

While I don’t like his holier-than-thou tone, particularly when he seems fully committed to a very specific Wordsworthian perspective on literature (he does, after all, take time to point out that he “began as a scholar of the romantic poets”), I can’t really disagree with the basis of Bloom’s statement.  On a fundamental level, our understanding of literature has been changing as good literature is increasingly sidelined by popular literature, and the institutions that deal with literature—universities and organizations like the National Book Foundation—are floundering in response.  There are now at least two key metrics of literature: that ineffable aesthetic principle that elevates writers like Shelley and Coleridge and McCarthy (and for the record, I think McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is the best American novel of the past half century if not longer), and the overly effable quantifiable metric known as sales, which promotes a list of authors and books you can probably name off the top of your head: Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Stephanie Meyer. . .  you know these names.  You see the books everywhere.  Chances are that you’ve read them, better than the chances that you’ve read something like Milton’s Paradise Lost let alone Blood Meridian.

This, I agree with Bloom, is a problem.  Not because there’s something wrong with populist literature—or rather, I’m not prepared at this point to defend that kind of a claim—but more because it means that in the limited amount of time people spend reading, they’re spending it on Fifty Shades of Grey not Tropic of Cancer.  In such an environment, it does seem to me that it’s the job of organizations like the National Book Foundation and certain kinds of university classes to promote a specific group of literary works that normally wouldn’t receive as much attention, and the organizations and classes that deal with literature on the metric of ‘what are people reading’ rather than ‘what is worth reading’ should be focused on cultural analysis.

Now, with that out of the way, clearly I’m not as rigid in my categories as Bloom.  I mean, I’ve spent the past two and a half weeks reading largely ‘popular fiction’ and I do think that some of it—Brite and Lansdale in particular—is quite good.  Sure, their technical skill is eclipsed by some of our more ‘literary’ authors, but technical skill isn’t where the focus is placed in popular fiction, it’s narrative (and yes, sometime I will deal with the question of the commodification of narrative) and mood.  So, acknowledging that King is not the wordslinger that McCarthy is, does he still succeed on these other metrics?

Yes . . . and no.  With King I am in a unique position relative to the other authors I’m looking at this month, because I have read a lot of his work.  Not just one or two novels, something on the order of 35 books, including just about everything he wrote prior to Duma Key (excluding, though, Misery, for no particular reason).  King was one of the first ‘adult’ authors I read, and I read a lot of him: he was not only my introduction to horror fiction, he was actually my introduction to literary fiction in that his writing got me interested in stream-of-consciousness writing whereas before I had been constricted to sterile third-person narration.

In my opinion, certain books of his should be entered into the literary canon and read in future centuries: Carrie, The Shining, The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the Three, Salem’s Lot, and possibly It.  A lot of other people would say The Stand, so let’s put that on there.  You might notice a trend here: it’s almost all early works.  This is because King’s quality declines over the course of his career.  I’m not the first person to notice this, and I’m not sure what it means.  Maybe he became complacent in his success and stopped being as critical in his editing and writing.  Maybe, probably given the repetitive content of his books, he ran out of things to say.  Maybe, as horrible as it is to say, he was a better author when he was a stressed alcoholic than a comfortable, happy, sober person.  Whatever the reason, I don’t think we should let mediocre and overgrown books like The Tommyknockers, Dreamcatcher, and Insomnia distract from the fact that he wrote some very good, very effective horror novels that changed the face of American horror forever.  So let’s look at an early collection of his short stories, Night Shift.  Something like eight of the short stories in this collection have been adapted to film and television episodes, with varying degrees of success and very little degree of accuracy.  With an eye to the influence King has had on film, I’m going to choose of the more well-known stories and more well-known adaptations.


Whatever you think of King, he can immediately plunge us into a situation.  Check out the opening paragraphs:

“Burt turned the radio on too loud and didn’t turn it down because they were on the verge of another argument and he didn’t want it to happen.  He was desperate for it not to happen.

“Vicky said something.

“‘What?’ he shouted.

“‘Turn it down!  Do you want to break my eardrums?'”

Yes, it’s the cliché King miserable marriage on the verge of domestic violence, but it also immediately lodges us in a nihilistic universe where even an attempt to do the right thing (as Burt thinks he’s doing) produces the opposite result.  King’s short stories are often much darker than his longer fiction, creating these kinds of situations where characters seem inextricably trapped.  Compared to these, Koji Suzuki’s characters and their dalliances with the supernatural seem absurdly optimistic.

These two characters, Burt and Vicky, are driving through “three hundred miles of corn” on a vacation of sorts.  “We’re saving out marriage, he told himself.  Yes.  We’re doing it the same way us grunts went about saving villages in the war.”  Okay, that was a little ham-handed and cliché, but it does communicate some information: the era, Burt’s military background, etc.  They’re arguing about directions and Burt is just about to propose divorce (one gets the feeling that this is the umpteenth such proposal) when a boy runs out in the road and Burt hits him.

Burt is still in panic, thinking about his future, while Vicky, after vomiting gets out of the car and checks on the body.  This is the kind of passage King handles well (it’s too long to just put in here), invoking the confusion and panic of the situation so that the reader gets the impression of what it would be like to be there.  Perhaps this is one thing that Bloom misses about King, or just doesn’t see as valuable, but for all his poor characterization King has a strong grasp of the paths of a disturbed mind, particularly a mind temporarily disturbed by trauma, and his impressionistic writing style carries the reader through these thoughts.

The happy couple just continues to argue over the corpse of the boy, and he slaps her.  But then, while investigating the corpse, Burt sees something: the boy’s throat was cut.  He tells her to get the rifle.  They put the boy in the car and decide to drive to the nearest town, Gatlin.  The radio is blaring hellfire sermons.  When they get into Gatlin (Population 5431, the sign offers) they find it empty—totally abandoned.  No cars, no people, but the sound of children in the distance.  A sign outside the church reads, THE POWER AND GRACE OF HE WHO WALKS BEHIND THE ROWS.

Vicky, increasingly unsettled by the empty town, is panicking as Burt leaves the car to look for someone.  He finds all kinds of odd signs in the church—strange images of half-corn Christ, a wrecked organ, a Bible with sections chopped out (only from the New Testament—subtle) apparently by scissors, and, lastly, a ledger with birthdates and deathdates, all of the latter exactly 19 years after the former.  He figures out that something strange happened in 1964—specifically, that all the kids apparently killed off their parents, and anyone older than 19.  Then, he realizes, they must have started having children among each other; the first names born ten months after the day things changed are a girl named Eve and a boy named Adam.  Oh gee.  And then the blaring car horn from outside pulls him out to see armies of children running for the car.

The children attack he and his wife, and they fight back, but by the end of it Vicky is gone.  The children chase him and he flees, running down the roads and finally out of town and hiding in the corn.  He thinks he had successfully alluded them, but as he’s hiding, he notices something strange.

“The bugs ought to be crawling all over him . . . but they weren’t. … And he hadn’t seen a single crow.  How was that for weird, a cornpatch with no crows? … No yellow blight.  No tattered leaves, no caterpillar eggs, no burrows, no—

“His eyes widened.

My God, there aren’t any weeds!

It seems silly, but to me, and apparently to a lot of other people, King manages to describe the discovery in a way that’s genuinely creepy.  That seems to define a lot of the greatest stuff in recent horror: silly but creepy.  All the old ideas are used up, so authors like King, Barker, and Junji Ito are presenting new ideas, absurdities that walk the line of bizarre and terrifying.

Burt finds Vicky, crucified, her eyes ripped out and stuffed with cornsilk.  There are other crucified bodies, including a police chief.  Just then Burt hears something coming and realizes it must be He Who Walks Behind the Rows.  “He began to scream.  But he did not scream long.”  Damn that’s hokey.

Then we get a short, page-long account of a girl among the corn-worshippers who wants to leave but can’t because she is afraid of the corn god.  To be honest, this epilogue is totally unnecessary and for me kills the mood established by the preceding narrative that has stuck solely to Burt’s perspective.

King’s writing, including “Children of the Corn,” has gotten a bit of rough treatment in terms of film.  Oftentimes, the best King adaptations—Carrie and The Shining for example—vary heavily from King’s writing in terms of style.  The film Children of the Corn and its sequels is a little creepy but it lacks the eeriness that pervades King’s story.  There’s a couple reasons for this: they front-load the film with the children killing the adults, so there’s no surprise there, no growing horror; the effects for He Who Walks Behind the Rows are incredibly hokey; the direction is uninspired and doesn’t make the best of the scenario.  Unexpectedly, the redeeming quality of the film is the children, who are genuinely creepy, particularly Malachai and John Franklin as Isaac.  But the biggest difficulty this film, and most film adaptations of King, face is that King’s style is all about leading the reader through the thoughts of a fearful mind.  King’s writing may not be the best, but it rarely needs to be since it’s portraying the thoughts of usually middle class or working class individuals who aren’t particularly well-educated or verbose.  That’s not something you can really translate to film.  Movies like Salem’s Lot get it easy since they’re dealing with inherently scary material, but movies like Children of the Corn and Dreamcatcher and even classics like Pet Sematary, Christine, and It falter, because they’re limited by the medium and by having to make situations which are subjectively scary but objectively silly into something that the cold camera eye will pick up as terrifying.

Final statement on King: I’ve spent a lot of this time defending King, but I am well aware of his limitations.  Unless you’re between the ages of 10 and 13 like I was, I don’t recommend trying to read his entire oeuvre—and even still, it would be better to spend some of your time reading other, better authors.  But if you’re even vaguely interested in horror, King is required reading.  Not just recommended, required, because whether or not people like it he has become the face of horror in the last thirty years.  It is subjective fear, it is based around commonplace things and strange creeping fears, it happens to everyday people not antiquarians and aesthetes, it is often eclipsed by or equated to domestic violence, bullying, racism, and corrupt politics.  I give this story a 7/10 because the writing really is ham-handed whenever it’s not tracing the thought patterns of individuals and there’s very little to interest us about the individuals themselves—both Burt and Vicky are characters we’ve seen a million times, and there’s a degree of sexism to the ease with which they occupy those roles.  If you’re going to read Stephen King, I recommend starting with this collection.  I prefer his shorter writings and there’s some good creepy stories here.  The other collections are good as well: I’ve read and enjoyed Skeleton Crew, Nightmares & Dreamscapes, and Everything’s Eventual.  You should also check out the key novels, the early stuff like Carrie and The Shining.  But all that said, King does seem to be something of a poor man’s Joyce Carol Oates, and I wish I had started reading her writing at an age when I would have had the free time to breeze through it like I did through King.

Tomorrow it’s a major change of pace: we’re heading back across the Pacific, but this time checking out the writings of pseudo-anthropologist Lafcadio Hearn as he recounts Chinese ghost stories.

All quotations from Night Shift, copyright Stephen King 1976, 1977, 1978.
Children of the Corn copyright New World Pictures 1984.
Everything else copyright Kile Marshall Bigbee 2012.


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