Fiction for the Unwashed Masses: Shit Crit and Stephen King's IT (unabridged)
Editor's Note: The author of this article is attending graduate school with
a focus on "ushering in a new era of scholarship, one whose chief focus is the
scatological." I kid you not.
I am sure we'll be hearing a lot more from Ms. Cortez in the near future.
Enjoy the unabridged article below. If you want to read the abridged version,
Nothing is more bourgeois than fear of the smell of feces.
--Douglas Coupland, Polaroids from the Dead
In short, who, I ask you, would agree to call himself abject, subject of
or subject to abjection? ... Such a frontiersman is a metaphysician who carries
the experience of the impossible to the point of scatology.
--Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror
IT wasn't the first Stephen King novel I finished, but IT was
the first one I started, pages and chapters sneaked furtively, greedily,
illicitly, like handfuls of candy before dinnertime, when I was about ten. This
subterfuge was necessary because, according to my mother, as much concerned and
censorial parent as she was avid King fan, IT was not for the
impressionable eyes of children.
Why not? I asked, profoundly intrigued. What's so bad about IT?
Too much profanity, replied my mother with mysterious finality: case
Or not--for she had never spoken so enticingly, and I would crave the quiet
Saturday afternoons when, she and my father off running errands all afternoon, I
could carefully slide that hefty volume from its place on the living room
bookshelf and curl up on the couch, one ear cocked for the sound of the garage
door gratingly heralding my parents' return. The most critical thing was to
remember not to dogear the pages, lest my mother, casually thumbing through the
novel at some later date, discover my mark, and through it, my transgression. (I
always thought I did a fairly good job of covering my tracks--that is, until I
quite recently related this story to my mother, who looked at me slinty-eyed and
said, Oh, I knew.)
I didn't finish IT then, reading like petty thievery; IT turned
out, however, that at the time I didn't have to: by that point I, and every
other kid in school, had seen the made-for-TV movie. And so IT was that
the tale our mothers didn't want us to know had tentacled its way into our
psyches, sticking to our soft, malleable young brains with the tenacity of the
archetypal, with the persistence and durability of urban legend, fairy tale,
mythology. For years afterward, even before I read the novel with any kind of
critical eye, IT structured my reality like some kind of mythopoetic
framework: I'd look down our bathroom sinkhole, the one with the missing
drainplug, and inadvertently think of Beverly Marsh and the Voices. Or I'd hear
someone stutter and think, Stuttering Bill, the connection swimming up
from hidden mental vaults.
I bring up this personal experience because I think IT arrives at the
central question that informs any endeavor to seriously and critically explore
not only IT as a novel, but Stephen King as horror novelist. For my
personal history in relation to the book, so powerfully affected by King's
storytelling prowess, stands in sharp contrast to King's critical reception, or
lack thereof, within academia. How is it, this disjunction leads me to ask, that
a writer can wield such influence over the imaginations of millions of readers,
and yet meet with such utter and disdainful silence on the part of literary
scholars? How can a writer enjoy, on the one hand, phenomenal popular acclaim,
and on the other hand be so thoroughly and wholeheartedly dismissed and
discredited by the bastions of literary opinion? These questions would not be
necessary if King were simply a bad writer; that he is not, however, and that
King's writing abilities have been noted by nearly everyone except mainstream
literary critics1 points instead, I will argue, to a persistent class
politics at work where the literary canon is concerned. King, in other words, is
trivialized or dismissed because of his mass appeal--because he is read
by those who are, for all practical purposes, illiterate; those who, in Darrell
Schweitzer's words, "don't ordinarily read much more than the MEN/WOMEN signs on
restrooms"2. Because his books are widely accessible, enjoyable, and
sell for cheap on supermarket racks and in bus stations, they do not
merIT serious evaluation; King is dismissed as "storyteller" rather than
This is not to suggest that there has been an absolute silence on the part of
academics in response to popular or genre fiction; on the contrary, cultural
studies--as well as any traditional forum which takes the claims of
postmodernism seriously--is awash in critical discourse that plumbs the depth of
the reputedly low-brow and shallow: romances, Westerns, mysteries, sci-fi,
thrillers, and action/adventure stories are now all fodder for academic
explication3. Even the boundaries of conventional literary studies
have not been entirely unforgiving; there have been various critical attempts to
locate King within an American Gothic tradition, to posIT him as the
scion of such luminaries of horror as Poe, Melville, Hawthorne, and
Lovecraft4. But however sympathetic, most of these attempts are
unsuccessful. Those critics who desire to validate and redeem King by working
him into an established literary tradition find that he simply will not fit: he
is very much like Poe or Lovecraft in some respects, they cautiously aver, and
yet "he fails to create a timeless world that can be appreciated centuries from
now,"5; "one cannot go thirty pages into Cujo without mention of Luke
Skywalker, Hogan's Heroes, Gilligan's Island, Mike Wallace, Jerry
Falwell, Darth Vader, the New York Mets, and the Rolling Stones"6.
King's problematic status derives not from the simple fact of his popularity,
but rather, like the Marquis de Sade, from his immanence, his
explicitness: he is Poe on Ecstasy, Lovecraft on LSD: too extravagant,
too gross, too gratuitous, too gregarious, too opulent, too decadent, too
commercial. As one reviewer protests, there is so much "blood, mud,
slime, sewage, vomit, urine, feces, and oozing flesh" that King's fiction
exceeds even the classification of horror; "[his] spendthrift elaboration and
gargantuan iteration are more appropriate to the genius of comedy than to the
spirit of horror, which is anal and claustrophiliac"7. Like a bad
case of the shits, Stephen King is explosive; his corpulent epics and profuse
vulgarities of speech and description cannot be contained by the sphincter of
traditional disciplines. He thus must be violently expelled from the literary
corpus and flushed away, out of sight.
IT is for these reasons that any theoretical framework which attempts
to seriously grapple with any of King's novels, and with IT in
particular, must likewise take a scatological approach. Only through scatology
can we fully understand the cultural dynamic at work in King's expulsion; only
by making shit the focal critical point of our reading can we illuminate King's
essentially genius strategy, a strategy which, for the most part, is dismissed
as--but which actually derives its power from--wallowing. How could we
consider King, possibly the epitome of selling out, radical or genius? Literary
critic Todd McGowan, in an essay that traces the thematic importance of waste in
Don DeLillo's Underworld, provides one possible angle on King's unlikely
status as revolutionary:
Capital submits everything to the process of exchange, and under its sway
nothing remains sacred or outside of commodification. ... Through this process,
capital transforms everything, ultimately, into waste. ... But this waste, which
marks the elimination of the sacred, itself comes to occupy the position of the
sacred. ... Garbage achieves this status because, within the structure of global
capitalism, IT is the only thing that exists outside of the
commodification process. Garbage is what doesn't fit, and thus garbage becomes
holy. ... Capitalism produces garbage and then doesn't know what to do with
And though McGowan is talking here about actual, physical garbage, we can see
how these ideas about waste and its place in our culture nonetheless apply to
King. Capitalism, we could say, produces Stephen King and then doesn't know what
to do with him or where to put him. If King is sublime, then, IT is
because he embraces his status as cultural and literary garbage; because
he refuses to strive, refuses to refuse that symbol of profanity--shit--against
which the entire Western project of progress and technology have struggled, and
whose production, ironically, has become the defining hallmark of that project.
Reveling in his brand name status, trumpeting himself as the literary equivalent
of a supersized Big Mac and fries, King makes the profane the central focus of
his work, refusing to look away from the horrific sight of shit--and IT
is for this reason that any exploration of his work must do the same, through a
kind of Shit Crit that refuses to turn away from literary productions with mass
appeal. When we employ such a critical framework to a reading of IT, what we see
is that shit takes on three dimensions in the novel: first, a literal dimension,
in which King is actually writing about shit in the broadest sense of the word;
second, a canonical dimension, in which the novel as popular fiction is
expelled--shat out--from circles of critical regard; and third, a metafictional
dimension, in which we see that this piece of shit novel about shit is actually
a novel about language and about the writing process itself.
In beginning to understand what King is doing in his fiction--or not doing,
as I will later argue--the most logical starting point is with the term that,
for my mother, summed up her entire rationale for refusing me license to read
IT: profanity. Too much profanity, she had said--which, at age
ten, I construed as meaning too much swearing, too many ess-words and eff-words
and worse. And, certainly, she did mean swearing when she said
profanity, but she meant something else as well, something that was not
quite so apparent, something implied rather than stated outright. In saying,
Do not read IT because IT is profane, what she was in
effect saying was, But you are free to read Conrad and Shakespeare and
Golding and Hemingway and Fitzgerald and, yes, even Miller, for even though all
of these writers are just as disturbing --if not moreso--than King, they are not
profane, for they present their traumatic material in such a way that your
unformed child's mind cannot readily understand or even recognize it. My
mother's injunction, in other words, implied a distinction between the realm of
Real Literature, in which writers deliver their disturbing messages covertly,
shrouded in layers of complex metaphor or allegory, and the world of popular
fiction, in which the text is bald, eviscerated, meaning gutted and exposed for
the apprehension of all. My mother did not say, Don't read Salinger because
you won't understand him; rather, she said, Don't read King because you
will. Edwin F. Casebeer makes note of this same curious paradox in his
article, "Stephen King's Canon: the Art of Balance", stating that though King's
book sales have netted him an income greater than some Third World countries,
these same novels are top of the charts on lists of censored works9.
I would argue that IT is this sense of the profane--here identified
with explicitness, lucidity, and titillation, with showing
everything--that accounts for the paradox of King's success, for his dual
allure and prohibition, and hence which proves most useful as a means of
understanding both IT as a novel and King as a writer. We can see this
conception of profanity at work in a passage that exemplifies one of the novel's
many instances of ironic self-consciousness; speaking through Patty Uris, and in
reference to a book written by protagonist Stuttering Bill Denbrough--whose
identity as a horror novelist clearly mirrors King's own--King writes that
[i]t had not just been a novel, she told her mother later; IT had been a
horrorbook. She said IT just that way, all one word, the way she would
have said sexbook. ... 'IT was full of monsters,' she said. 'Full of
monsters chasing after little children. There were killings, and...I don't
know...bad feelings and hurt. Stuff like that.' IT had, in fact, struck
her as almost pornographic.10
This element of the pornographic, which to some extent pervades all of King's
novels, stems from the fact that he spares no detail, however grisly or fulsome.
He is not delicate; he exposes and delights in this act of making external what
is internal: and the public, watching, is riveted. Here is a man, his
popularity seems to voice, who is saying what our mothers always told us not
to say. Reading King is thus a vicarious return to the potty-humor of the
preschool child, for whom the disruptive functions and excretions of the
undifferentiated body are a supreme source of pleasure and enjoyment. IT
is a return to the bathroom, that pre-Oedipal site of repugnance and attraction
in which the private and internal become the public and external, subsequently
dividing the one from the other.
King best captures his task as horrorbook writer in a passage describing
Patty Uris's discovery of her husband Stan's suicide. Employing diction so
eerily sparse and minimalist that his prose seems almost puerile, King states
that "[t]he bathroom was lIT by fluorescent tubes. IT was very
bright. There were no shadows. You could see everything, whether you wanted to
or not" (58).
The image of a naked Stan Uris floating in the bathtub, wrists slashed and
bloody, is undoubtedly gruesome. But gruesomeness is not necessarily
profanity--and what I would thus argue is that the profanity of the passage does
not result simply from the act of drawing back the proverbial (and literal)
shower curtain, but from the fact that King sets up the display in a
pre-symbolic fictional space. The image is profane not because King shows us
everything, but because he shows us everything and then insists that we not
mitigate our horror by interpreting what we have just witnessed. By writing from
the bathroom, in fact, what he does is incapacitate this interpretive drive so
that we are forced to confront the abject--Kristeva's term for the fluid
interior we must reject in order to delineate ourselves as discrete subjects,
that "jettisoned object" which "simultaneously beseeches and pulverizes the
subject"11--without the protective, transcendent rationality of
adulthood. The true profanity, for which he is both venerated and prohibited,
lies in King's asking his readers to believe that what they read is only a
story, that there is in fact no subtext: that the madwoman in Jane Eyre
and the skulls atop the fenceposts surrounding Kurtz's Inner Station in Heart
of Darkness are merely plot devices, gratuitous thrills designed to
captivate and entertain the reader. But just because King asks us not to
interpret doesn't mean that we have to comply--or that a subtext doesn't
exist--and so IT is, then, that we can view Stanley Uris, who commits
suicide rather than confront IT as an adult, as the bourgeois reader, the
rationalist scholastic for whom everything must signify something else:
Stan snatched the album from his hands and slammed IT shut. He held
IT closed with both hands, the tendons standing out along the inner
surfaces of his wrists and forearms. He looked around at the others with eyes
that were nearly insane. "No," he said rapidly. "No, no, no."
And suddenly Bill found he was more concerned with Stan's repeated denials
than with the clown, and he understood that this was exactly the sort of
reaction the clown had hoped to provoke. ...
"No," Stan said softly.
"Yes," Bill said.
"No," Stan said again.
"Yes. We a-a-all--"
"--a-a-all suh-haw it, Stan," Bill said. He looked at the others.
"Yes," Ben said.
"Yes," Richie said.
"Yes," Mike said. "Oh my God, yes."
"Yes," Bev said.
Bill looked at Stan, demanding with his eyes that Stan look back at him.
"Duh-don't let IT g-g-get y-you, man," Bill said. "Yuh-you suh-saw it,
"I didn't want to!" Stan wailed. ...
"But y-y-you duh-duh-did." (731-32)
In the end, however, Stan can neither accept nor incorporate that
inexplicable, unreal part of reality; unable to "digest" it, as Ben Hanscom puts
it, he kills himself: not because he is afraid of IT but because
IT offends him, because IT disrupts his belief in an
entirely stable, material, and rational universe, a universe in which the
pictures in photo albums do not leak blood, werewolves do not lurk in school
boiler rooms, and the dead do not come back to life.
This idea of the offensive or horrifying return, the return that rends our
conception of reality, is central to an understanding of the second, canonical
dimension of shit in the Stephen King novel. Slavoj Zizek writes in Looking
Awry that "if there is a phenomenon that fully deserves to be called the
'fundamental fantasy of contemporary mass culture', IT is this fantasy of
the return of the living dead: the fantasy of a person who does not want to stay
dead but returns again and again to pose a threat to the living"12.
IT seems reasonable to suggest that, just as King writes about,
and achieves popularity for writing about, the living dead, so too does the King
novel function as the living dead in relation to the literary canon, returning
again and again, bestseller after bestseller, to satisfy our mass fantasy, to
give us exactly what we want. In addressing the question of why the dead, the
horrific, return, Zizek points to the commonsense answer given to us by our
culture: because they have not been properly interred or given the necessary
symbolic rites, because "they cannot find their proper place in the text of
tradition"13. Thus we can see that, as a writer who catalogs the
offensive, who repudiates the symbolic, insisting on the primacy of style, plot,
and narration, King is not simply excluded from the corpus of Real Literature
but is in fact expelled: shat out as a piece of dead matter in order to maintain
the fiction of the highbrow. What makes IT such a fascinating example of
this dynamic is King's continual awareness of his status as literary offal or
corpse, an ironic consciousness that imbues the novel with a rich and often
deeply satirical wit, and which suggests that, as much as IT is simply a
story, IT is a story about storytelling itself, a profane piece of shit
writing about being a profane piece of shit writer.
Nowhere in the novel is this more clear than in one wildly funny and key
scene in which King seems to tell the story of his own life as a writer through
the character of Bill Denbrough. "Here," he writes,
is a poor boy from the state of Maine who goes to the University on a
scholarship. All his life he has wanted to be a writer, but when he enrolls in
the writing courses he finds himself lost without a compass in a strange and
frightening land. There's one guy who wants to be Updike. There's another
one who wants to be a New England version of Faulkner. ... There's a girl who
admires Joyce Carol Oates but feels that because Oates was nurtured in a sexist
society she is 'radioactive in a literary sense'. Oates is unable to be clean,
this girl says. She will be cleaner. (124)
Bill's talent, however, lies in writing science fiction and horror
stories--productions that earn him, at best, Bs and Cs in his creative writing
seminar. His classmates' ideas about writing confound him; he doesn't understand
why stories have to be "socio-anything": "' ... politics...culture... history",
he asks in class one day, "aren't those natural ingredients in any story, if
it's told well?'"(125)
When the instructor snidely inquires whether Bill believes Shakespeare and
Faulkner were simply telling tales to make a quick buck, Bill replies that, yes,
actually, he thinks just that--after which he goes home and writes a story
called "The Dark", a tale about a boy who discovers, battles, and defeats a
monster that lives in the cellar of his house. He turns the story in to his
instructor, only to get IT back with an enormous F across the
title page and "two words ... scrawled across beneath, in capital letters. PULP,
screams one. CRAP, screams another" (126). Humiliated, he is about to discard
his story when, suddenly reconsidering, he decides to submit "The Dark" to a
men's magazine. And though he expects further rejection, expects to be once more
shat out, the story is accepted with much accolades, Bill Denbrough is two
hundred dollars richer, and, along with his drop card, he tacks his acceptance
letter to the bulletin board outside his instructor's door, on which he writes:
"If fiction and politics ever really do become interchangeable, I'm going to
kill myself, because I won't know what else to do. You see, politics always
change. Stories never do" (127, my italics).
Two ideas emerge from these brief lines: first, that lest Stan Uris's fate
become our own, IT is imperative that as writers and readers we not
separate private from public, scatological from symbolic, rationality from that
which is inexplicable. If we are to survive without self-destructing, we must
preserve that horrific aspect of fiction, that core kernel of unreality which,
in its demand that we confront and accept IT as reality, allows us to
live with the text, with ourselves, and within the inscribing context of
culture. The second thing to emerge from Denbrough's defiant note, and
especially from its last lines, is that there is something almost archetypal or
archaic about Stephen King's stories--an observation that gains additional
credence when we consider that "The Dark", Bill Denbrough's story, is simply a
supercondensed version of IT, Stephen King's story. What this instance of
metafictional imbedding suggests is that in addition to simply being a monster
story, IT is also a novel about writing; is, in fact, the story of the
creative process itself, which King describes as an act of excretion:
"'I'm so stuffed with talent,'" he quips through Richie Tozier, "'I have to plug
up all my bodily orifices to keep IT from running out like...well, just
running out'" (61). If, as opposed to politics, stories do not change--if, that
is to say, stories are archaic or archetypal--IT is because they precede
the trauma of symbolization, because they originate in the bathroom. Thus do we
see that, even as King writes about shit and is subsequently shat out of the
literary body, he also envisions the writing process as defecation. One
might argue, then, that King writes horrorbooks because nothing else can come
out: for what is, to the writer, more horrific than language itself, that
structure to which we submit in order to become fully human? What is more
terrifying than the creative process, that act of excretion which reeks of the
repressed at the same time that IT indicates the proper functioning of a
healthy, self-regulating psyche? As Kristeva asks in Powers of Horror,
"Does one write under any other condition than being possessed by abjection, in
an indefinite catharsis?"14
What I want to propose is that It, then, is shit: IT is the
monster that refuses interpretation, refuses language, refuses to be
refused and constricted by the symbolic. As Kristeva's abject, das Es,
"King's Thing ... is primitive, an ingredient of the evolutionary soup that
still simmers in our veins"15: IT is the internal goop whose
elimination both terrifies and fascinates, beckons and repulses, for its outward
manifestation reminds us of the terrible cost we exact in order to participate
in a culture based on Enlightenment assumptions of a mechanical, material
universe--namely, our ties to the cyclical, the natural, and the numinous. If
the IT of the novel is frightening, then, if shit is frightening,
IT is because both remind us of the conflicted truth of our existence:
that even as we thrive we decay, that the processes of life and death, vitality
and entropy, are commingled and inextricably bound. IT is, after all, the
very expulsion of wastes that assures us of the integrity of the living
organism, even as those wastes are the definitive evidence of our corruptibility
and inescapable mortality. Thus, even as King's novel chronicles, on the level
of plot and exposition, the descent of the Loser's Club into the Derry sewers to
slay the child-devouring beast, on a deeper level IT is also a story
about the writer's regression into the bathroom, into that pre-symbolic space in
which the child must confront the internal matter which becomes external, that
unstable and compelling ooze which, though IT stinks of chaos and death,
is also the source and determinant of all ideas, order, and creative expression.
Ultimately, King's genius as both novelist and cultural phenomenon is a
result of his complicity with, rather than his resistance to, the profligacy of
consumer culture. IT demonstrates that the gratuitous display of what is
most mundane, quotidian, and banal, what attracts the broadest base by selling
out to "people's baser natures" (41) is actually the most radical move: King is
radical because, as a literary man who chooses to stay in the muck, he refuses
to struggle or oppose, and through this politics of absolute investment and
absolute affirmation, King demonstrates the untenability of an economy and
culture based upon the repudiation of natural processes. By giving us exactly
what we want, by indulging the fantasies of mass culture, he not only escapes,
but does so while holding up a mirror to the material conditions from which
these fantasies and desires emerge. Even now, as shit theory, he dances away
from me, laughing, calling out: just a story, just a plot device, you
bourgeois reader! You're reading too much into it! And herein lies the very
heart and essence of the scatological project: in resisting nothing and baring
all, in exploding, the scatological--that which we must flush--liberates
us from the illusion of liberation itself, frees us from the confinement of a
transcendental ideal. The reality, as King suggests through his fiction, is that
we cannot escape the horrors of the Symbolic Order any more than we can escape
the horrors of an ensnaring corporeality. But nor should we try: our task
instead must be to plunge into the sewer of what we have rejected and
forgotten, into that monstrous and profane ITness that we can neither explain
away nor interpret but must simply--like children--incorporate. The horror that
King elicits in his readers does not offer, as some critics derisively attest,
an escape from the rigors of culture, but rather "offer[s] an avenue by which a
direct confrontation with the problematic nature of the modern American
experience can be launched"16. In resisting interpretation, in
resisting the urge to flush, in forcing us, over and over again, to look at what
we don't want to see, King thus transforms the horror of bodily and social
existence into something mundane, familiar, ordinary, and human: into the
original delight of the child, into a recognition of the body's essential,
humorous instability. King's horrorbooks, then, are actually
lullabies--IT is a strident Brahms for a civilization that has not slept
since Francis Bacon, since Plato, since agriculture.
-- by M. Cortez
- Darrell Schweitzer, "Introduction," in Discovering Stephen King, ed. Darrell Schweitzer (Mercer Island, WA: Starmont House, Inc., 1985), 5.
- Ibid., 5.
- George Stade, "The Big Chiller," The Nation 244 (1987): 259.
- Jesse W. Nash, "Postmodern Gothic: Stephen King's Pet Sematary," Journal of Popular Culture 30 (1997): 151.
- Gary William Crawford, "Stephen King's American Gothic," in Discovering Stephen King, ed. Darrell Schweitzer (Mercer Island, WA: Starmont House, Inc., 1985), 41.
- Alan Warren, "Has Success Spoiled Stephen King?" in Discovering Stephen King, ed. Darrell Schweitzer (Mercer Island, WA: Starmont House, Inc., 1985), 17.
- Stade, "The Big Chiller," 262.
- Todd McGowan, "The Obsolescence of Mystery and the Accumulation of Waste in Don DeLillo's Underworld," unpublished essay, 18.
- Edwin F. Casebeer, "Stephen King's Canon: the Art of Balance," in A Dark Night's Dreaming: Contemporary American Horror Fiction, eds. Tony Magistrale and Michael A. Morrison (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1996), 42.
- Stephen King, IT (New York: Doubleday, 1985), 40-41. All subsequent in-text references to this edition will be documented parenthetically.
- Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: an Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Rondiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 5.
- Slavoj Zizek, Looking Awry: an Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture, (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1991), 22.
- Ibid., 23.
- Kristeva, Powers of Horror, 208.
- Stade, "The Big Chiller," 261.
- Nash, "Postmodern Gothic," 154.