The Dark Theology of Stephen King
Stephen King’s brand isn’t exactly synonymous with spirituality. He’s undoubtedly best known for his prominence as a writer of horror fiction—from “Carrie” and “Cujo” to “Pet Sematary” and “Desperation.” His books are drenched in macabre darkness, packed from start to finish with imagery that ranges from horrifyingly visceral to utterly surreal.
I’ve been a King aficionado for the better part of a decade (and have written about this subject before). I continue to find myself surprised by how often he’s been labeled simply a “genre writer.” His novels—which, though casual readers might not realize it, all unfold within a shared fictional universe—reflect a haunting, complex theological perspective that defies easy labeling or classification. Indeed, King’s work is no less suffused with moral drama than Flannery O’Connor’s Southern Gothic canon. Virtually no analyses I’ve read, however, have sought to probe this drama, despite King’s longtime presence in the world of American fiction. I aim to consider that subject here.
Any study of King’s cosmology must begin with “The Dark Tower,” an eight-volume fantasy series spanning multiple interconnected realities. The books’ protagonist is Roland Deschain, wandering scion of a long-dead world, driven by some inner compulsion to seek the mysterious “Dark Tower” at the very heart of all existence. King’s multiversal realities extend outward from the Tower like the spokes of a wheel; his villains, who seek to destroy or conquer the Tower, are in so doing attempting to unweave the fabric of the cosmos itself. The Tower, in turn, is “supported” by “beams” (the “spokes” of ultimate reality) that are grounded at each end by archetypal cosmic beings (the “Turtle,” which plays a key role in King’s killer-clown novel “It,” is one such being). Essentially, if you imagine that the metaphor of angels holding up the four corners of the world (Rev. 7:1) is a representation of objective reality, you’re pretty close to grasping King’s metaphysical scheme.
Just as a wheel turns inevitably around its axle, so too do inevitable forces operate on King’s characters. Chief among these is ka, a concept that works something like a combination of Divine Providence and “doom” (or “fate”) in Norse folklore. Ka does not operate atomistically, but affects the world by bringing agents together into ka-tets, units upon which the ka force then exerts its influence. This dynamic suffuses King’s work with a terrifying sense of unavoidability: given King’s roots in New England and his offhanded appropriation of Puritan imagery (see, for example, “’Salem’s Lot”), one might even venture to call his works predestinarian horror stories.
Even after facing any manner of inhuman evils during life, King’s characters are spared no suffering upon death. In the closing pages of “Revival”—a book which exists within the same fictional continuity as King’s others—a lapsed minister is granted a horrifying glimpse into the afterlife when a resurrection experiment goes awry. The truth is dreadful: not only is there an afterlife, but everyone—no matter their faith or morals—ends up in the same place. The afterlife is actually a Lovecraftian hellscape ruled by creatures of gibbering insanity, who consign all souls to labor and suffer in eternal darkness. Such a fate awaits all of King’s protagonists—a theological vision that feels rather like a Christless Calvinism, in which no one is elect and all are abandoned to damnation.
And what of God Himself? While King admits to holding a personal belief in God, the Almighty is noticeably absent from most of King’s storytelling. While a literal “act of God” figures prominently in the concluding pages of “The Stand,” the hallmarks of a beneficent deity are otherwise almost nonexistent. But why?
Perhaps King’s most sober meditations about God are found in “The Green Mile,” which tells the story of condemned prisoner John Coffey (J.C.), an almost-certainly-innocent casualty of the justice system sentenced to the electric chair. Narrated by one of Coffey’s guards on death row, “The Green Mile” depicts Coffey performing miracles—healings, resurrections—but ultimately going to his death. It’s undoubtedly the most powerful Christian imagery in any of King’s novels—a moment of evocative transcendence in the midst of overwhelming grimness. But “The Green Mile” ends on a much bleaker note: the death of the narrator’s wife in a sudden, seemingly random car accident. From the depths of anguished isolation, the narrator cries out to God in desperation, begging for answers to the great question of human suffering. He is met only with silence: Coffey remains dead, and the wheel of ka keeps turning.
The God of King’s cosmos is a cold and graceless God—a God who might have once been incarnated into our world, but whom we killed, and so guaranteed our own condemnation. This God does not atone for us, but allows us to wreak horror upon ourselves in endless cycles. This God saves none and reunites none with Himself, but allows every immortal soul to go shrieking into eternal, conscious torment.
This vision is utterly, existentially horrifying—the most horrifying possibility a human mind can comprehend. Instead of a hateful God against whom humanity, with Satan, might revolt in antiheroic Miltonian fashion, here God is simply indifferent. The atrocities humanity sows, it reaps for age upon age. In that dark gospel rests the real, lurking power of King’s fiction: his are stories of Puritan-inflected cosmic horror, in which depraved humans truly and finally get what they deserve. Perhaps this vision of nihilistic theism is what makes his books so compulsively readable: those seeking a literary experience of bone-chilling dread can hardly do better than to visit a cosmos drained of hope.
At the same time, however, there are notes of real beauty and grace throughout King’s books. In many of his novels, good ultimately does prevail over evil (if only for a time). Selfless sacrifice is valorized, and faith itself manifests in displays of real supernatural power. Perhaps these moments are King’s homage to common grace—the fact that God’s rain falls on the evil and good alike, and that all are capable of experiencing the very gift that is conscious existence.
If nothing else, King’s books leave one eminently grateful for the undeserved reality of grace, and for a God of love rather than indifference. Viewed from a point outside ourselves, the redemption of humanity was never necessary, and in the face of King’s predestinarian horror, the awesome gratuitousness of salvation comes into brilliant relief.