Spooky Story Season: Student Reactions to Stephen King’s Short Fiction

I didn’t initially plan to include a unit on Stephen King in my short story course.

When I was an English major in college, I thought of Stephen King as my “guilty pleasure.”  He was awesome and popular, but not someone I expected to encounter in any of my literature courses.  I was enthralled by King’s writing, yet if someone asked what I read in my spare time, I was quick to mention Melville, but not King.

Eventually, I realized that King isn’t a “guilty pleasure” at all, and my fear of “guilty pleasure” embarrassment was one among many universal human fears King actually writes about. In my early years of teaching, I also happily discovered that King does pop up in college classrooms all the time. I’ve successfully used his novels in classes on science fiction, dystopian fiction, and horror.

Back in August, while constructing the reading schedule for my short story course, I noticed that Halloween falls on a Monday this year—a class day—and something clicked.

I love Halloween and wanted to do something “in the Halloween spirit” with my students, so I added Night Shift, Stephen King’s 1978 short story collection, to my textbook adoptions. My class just completed its first week of two with stories from the “master of horror.” Here are the stories I assigned:

  • “Graveyard Shift” (gigantic mutant rats wreak havoc on factory workers)
  • “The Mangler” (speed folding machine at an industrial laundromat is possessed by a demonic spirit)
  • “The Boogeyman” (man seeks psychological help for the guilt he feels for letting his children fall victim to the Boogeyman lurking in the closet)
  • “Grey Matter” (man drinks a contaminated beer and turns into a gigantic carnivorous fungus)
  • “Trucks” (all the trucks in the world come to life and enslave the human race)
  • “Sometimes They Come Back” (ghosts of the teenaged boys who murdered an English teacher’s younger brother sixteen years ago return from the dead)
  • “Strawberry Spring” (serial murderer on the loose on a college campus during unseasonably warm weather)

stephen-king-night-shift

MONDAY’S CLASS: I wrote Stephen King’s well-known “What if?” quote on the board and asked students to draw connections between the quote and the stories they read:

“I get my ideas from everywhere.  But what all of my ideas boil down to is seeing maybe one thing, but in a lot of cases two things and having them come together in some new and interesting way, and then adding the question, ‘What if?’ ‘What if?’ is always the key question.”

In response, students demonstrated suspended disbelief and immersion in the fiction regardless of identifying as “horror lovers” or “horror haters.” One student explained, “Even though I know it’s not real, I still get caught up in the ‘What if?’ of the stories.”

Students also generated a list of King’s seemingly unusual pairings “that come together” in a “new and interesting way.” For example, students explained how King pairs inanimate machinery and animate life in stories like “The Mangler” and “Trucks.” Despite the implausibility of the stories’ premises, students latched on to the truth emerging from “What if?” questions. What if machinery came to life and took over the world? To answer, students close read passages like the closing lines of “Trucks”:

So much of the world is paved now….I can see great convoys of trucks filling the Okefenokee Swamp with sand, the bulldozers ripping through the national parks and wildlands, grading the earth flat, stamping it into one great flat plain.  And then the hot-top trucks arriving. But they’re machines.  No matter what’s happened to them, what mass consciousness we’ve given them, they can’t reproduce.  In fifty or sixty years they’ll be rusting hulks with all menace gone out of them, moveless carcasses for free men to stone and spit at.  And if I close my eyes I can see the production lines in Detroit and Dearborn and Youngstown and Mackinac, new trucks being put together by blue-collars who no longer even punch a clock but only drop and are replaced….Two planes are leaving silver contrails etched across the darkening eastern horizon.  I wish I could believe there are people in them. (221-2)

Students noted that the humans fear what the machines will do in the future, but emphasized that what the machines will do is a process that humans began in the first place. Much of the “paving” of the world occurred before the trucks became “animated,” and, furthermore, “we’ve given” the trucks whatever power they have. Students concluded that the truck-paving trajectory is much like what the human-paving trajectory would have been even if the trucks didn’t come to life.

stephen-king-truck

Also, students noted that the trucks exploit humans in the same way that humans not only exploited the machinery but also other humans. The story, they claimed, represents man’s fear about what happens when he loses control over the technology he creates—reminiscent of an earlier moment in the story when a young girl screams, “We made them!….They can’t!” (204). In the passage, the narrator initially considers the fact that trucks can’t reproduce, but then quickly realizes that if the trucks can force him to fill their gas tanks until he drops, they can also force factory workers to keep “reproducing” trucks until they drop too.

Despite the fact that “Trucks” was published in the 1970s, students felt the story is still relevant in contemporary society where man struggles with both the natural world and the technological world. One student summarized, “Humans create the monstrosities in the world” and another followed up, “Humans destroy everything.

WEDNESDAY’S CLASS: I asked students, “Are Stephen King’s stories scary?” The majority answer was “yes.” A handful of students even described involuntary physiological reactions to the stories:

  • Student loudly gasped after creeping herself out reading the stories in a silent room.
  • Student experienced loss of appetite at lunch after reading the stories.
  • Student threw his book, feeling disgusted by the rat imagery in “Graveyard Shift.”
  • Student experienced nervous panic after reading “Strawberry Spring” and imagining the possibility of a killer on the loose on her own campus.
  • Student felt itchiness all over her skin after reading about the man-becoming-fungus in “Grey Matter.”

Aside from physical reactions, a number of students described King’s “scariest” material as his “psychological horror”—when they weren’t quite sure if events described were actually happening or merely the figments of a deranged narrator’s imagination.

One student noted that the small-town setting of Stratford, Connecticut in “Sometimes They Come Back” fstephen-king-typewriterelt particularly chilling because Stratford is adjacent to the town where she grew up.  The environment struck a chord with her that felt eerily “personal,” and she described the events of the story as “so familiar, yet unexpected.”

Sometimes in horror, as in other genres, the reader is in a privileged position, seeing and knowing what characters don’t know until it’s too late. In response to “The Mangler,” one student lamented, “I wanted to warn the characters, but I couldn’t.” She was aware of the characters’ impending doom, but unable to do anything about it. Another student noted that this type of reader insight helps to build the “tension” in the story.

FRIDAY’S CLASS: The overarching question of the week, which we will continue to explore next week, was: “Why are audiences so attracted to and compelled by horror?” Stephen King, after all, has written over sixty bestselling books, so there must be something engaging about the genre. To generate answers, I offered up a few more King quotes to apply to readings. We started with:

“Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.”

Impressively, students tackled this quote from a number of angles. One student claimed that humans are the “monsters” of history, and another added that all humans have goodness and darkness within them. “Sometimes, they win” suggests what happens when a human’s dark side overcomes the good.

One student noted the subtle difference between “monsters” and “ghosts,” arguing that “ghost” suggests the evil spirit within an individual, while “monster” entails the outward manifestation of the “ghost.” For example, in “Grey Matter,” Richie Grenadine is a cruel father (the “ghost” within) and when he transforms into a carnivorous fungus, his outside changes to match his inside (the inner “ghost” manifests itself outwardly as the “monster”).

Another student added that the quote could be perceived as positive since the “ghosts” people carry within often provoke valuable artistic expressions.

Students used another King quote to develop an argument explaining why horror is so popular and compelling:

“We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.”

Students concluded that horror is a tool allowing humans to work through their fears.  Even though humans don’t want to think about the horrors that King presents in his stories, horror forces readers to confront these fears instead of ignoring, avoiding, or covering them up. Ignoring fears, while easier, may result in a fear growing to unmanageable proportions—reminiscent of how the mutant rat problem is hidden away in a sub-cellar but eventually explodes in the faces of unsuspecting factory workers in “Graveyard Shift.”

Most importantly, my students concluded that the pervasiveness of horror in contemporary culture doesn’t desensitize people, but actually does the opposite. My students couldn’t help but correlate King’s writing with the popularity of a show like “The Walking Dead,” especially since the highly anticipated Season 7 premiere was last Sunday. One student explained, “Horror doesn’t discriminate.” It doesn’t matter if a person is “good” because this is a world where bad things happen to good people all the time.

Well, like many of King’s “good” characters who fall victim to evil, last Sunday we lost some really good people on “The Walking Dead” (R.I.P. Glenn and Abraham). My students overwhelmingly agreed that even in the atmosphere of a zombie apocalypse where death is so frequent that it becomes normalized, viewers are not insensitive to death. Glenn and Abraham are two among dozens lost on the show, but instead of thinking, “Oh well, that’s how it goes,” viewers feel the profound heaviness of each loss.

Linking back to previous discussion, students also noted that Glenn and Abraham are killed by a violent human monster, Negan, not by a zombie. There has been some media controversy about whether or not the human-on-human violence depicted in the Season 7 premiere crossed the line (read more about the controversy here), but my students stood by the show, emphasizing the importance of confronting difficult horrors. The horrors depicted on the show, some argued, are no more atrocious than many of the horrors of history. One student cited the Holocaust as an example. History instructors don’t stop teaching such events just because the horror is graphic and evokes discomfort.

On a lighter note, we ended Friday’s class with King’s claim, “I am the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries.” Students agreed that King’s stories are page-turners. Self-control goes out the window and readers are left “craving” more despite being left with an “unsettling” case of indigestion after the meal.

What I’ve covered here barely scratches the surface of my class’s insightful commentary this past week. I am excited to see what they can do in the second week—especially on Halloween—with stories like “Quitters, Inc.” and “Children of the Corn.”

I would love to hear more from others who use Stephen King in the classroom.

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