Review: ‘Stephen King and Philosophy’ edited by Jacob Held

Stephen King and Philosophy edited by Jacob Held
Rowman & Littlefield (August 2016)
328 pages; $13.56 paperback; $9.99 e-book
Reviewed by Kevin Lucia

In a documentary filmed many years ago, bestselling author Peter Straub lamented the fact that, ever tongue-in-cheek and self-deprecating, Stephen King once referred to his own work as the equivalent of a “Big Mac and fries.” Straub considered it an unfortunate comparison which didn’t do King justice, that his work was far more substantial than mere intellectual junk food.

Unfortunately, some literary critics—Harold Bloom in particular—have always held this opinion of King’s output. In 2003, when the National Book Foundation gave Stephen King its annual award for “distinguished contribution,” Bloom called it “another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life.” Of course, there will always be critics who consider the horror genre—indeed, genre fiction in general—as the black sheep of the literary family, that one cousin who drinks a little too much and is embarrassing at weddings, the one we don’t want to talk about in public. That’s never going to change.

Because of this, we need more books like Stephen King and Philosophy. A collection of essays examining some of King’s seminal works through the lens of different philosophical viewpoints, Stephen King and Philosophy, like many other works analyzing popular fiction, attempts to bridge the gap between philosophical thought and what popular fiction can tell us about the human experience.

Stephen King and Philosophy aims itself at the King fan and average reader, and if you’re not necessarily a big philosophy buff—which I’m not, admittedly—you’ll find this book very accessible. Much like Noel Carroll’s wonderful The Philosophy of Horror, Stephen King and Philosophy restricts its philosophical musings to examining how King’s works make larger comments on the human experience, morality, our state of being, the conflict between good and evil, existential questions about our purpose in the universe…you know, the questions all good fiction should be asking, anyway.

Among my favorite essays are:

“There is No God in Desperation: Tak and the Problem of Evil” by C. Taylor Sutton and Jacob Held, which examines the problem of the existence of evil and a God which would allow such evil to exist. An excellent, through-provoking essay.

“Female Subjectivity in Carrie” by Kellye Byal. Another interesting essay which prompted new thought for me, because to be honest, I’ve always focused on the zealous religiosity of Carrie White’s mother and what Stephen King could be saying about that, and I never necessarily considered what he might be saying about gender.

“Stephen King and Aristotelian Friendship: An Analysis of The Body and Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” by Bertha Alverez Mannien. An analysis of two of my favorite King stories, looking at his treatment of friendships and relationships in both works against Aristotle’s “Three Types of Friendships.”

“Sometimes Dead is Better: King, Daedalus, Dragon-Tyrants, and Deathism” by Katherine Allen. Really, in spite of the convoluted title, this essay focuses on two more favorites of mine, Pet Sematary and The Tommyknockers, about the important role death plays in our existence, and King’s warnings about the importance of humanity and the dangers of losing it through a desire to advance ourselves past our natural limitations.

An excellent, thought-provoking read unpacking some of King’s finest works, Stephen King and Philosophy attempts to show how King’s work is a lot more than a big greasy burger and fries, and I think it does an admirable job.

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