Friday, July 21, 2017

Stephen King, Imperialist Ignoramus

Stephen King in 1977, the year he publishe
"Children of the Corn" and The Shining

Stephen King’s short story “Children of the Corn” pisses me off. There, I said it. King admits, in his collection Night Shift, that the story found him while driving through rural Nebraska: he found the miles and miles of corn, planted in ruler-straight rows, highly intimidating, largely because this clearly human landscape was seldom interrupted by anything as humane as houses. Note, he drove through Nebraska; he never mentions bothering to speak to actual Nebraskans.

I always dismissed this shortcoming as a fluke, though, an oversight by a busy, highly popular novelist who didn’t notice his own blinders. That is, until someone recently pointed out to me that, in King’s novel The Shining, the all-important Overlook Hotel closes for the winter. In Colorado. Let me repeat that: a hotel closes for the winter, during the peak of Colorado’s lucrative ski season. What the hell? That’s two states King gets wrong!

Thinking about this, I realized: in both cases, King projects Greater Northeast values onto the American West. In New England, where King lives, white colonial communities were deliberately planted within walking distance, because they were planted in the Seventeenth Century, when twenty miles was a time-consuming overland slog. Farmers lived in towns, and walked brief distances to their fields; human habitation is the norm, not the exception. (It gets more complicated inland, but not much.)

And, in the Northeast, resort hotels do close during winter. Partly, this reflects brutal Northeastern winters, where soil sometimes freezes solid, while blizzards isolate neighboring communities. But it also reflects the Northeastern tourist business, driven primarily by New Yorkers and Bostonians fleeing sweltering big-city summers. The Borscht Belt mainly offered tourists mild countryside temperatures. Even if people could visit tourist resorts during winter, they mostly don’t want to. Winter, in Northeastern cities, is almost pleasant.

Jack Nicholson in Stanley Kubrick's
adaptation of The Shining
King failed to understand that Colorado tourism derives from completely different drives. People band together through shared love of braving the cold to test their athletic endurance. In 1977, when King published both The Shining and “Children of the Corn,” inexpensive transportation was moving Colorado skiing from a regional pastime to a national destination. Formerly an agricultural state, Colorado was slowly transitioning to a tourist economy. Stephen King showed up right during that intermediary stage.

According to legend, which he propagated himself, King chose Boulder, Colorado, as the setting for his next novel by selecting a random location from an atlas. King and his wife spent one October night as the sole guests of the otherwise vacant Stanley Hotel, which inspired The Shining’s massive, sprawling, vacant halls. October is prime foliage-gazing tourism season in New England, where King lives; one wonders whether he even realized he’d chosen Colorado’s off season.

Thing is, if you understand Northeastern history, King’s Overlook Hotel makes perfect sense. He describes a run-down hotel of the 1970s that peaked during the Jazz Age. The building, basically a preserved museum of its heyday, is haunted by the ghosts of big-band musicians and bartenders passing liquor off the books. Jack Torrance stumbles into a tuxedo party and gets handed rotgut booze. The hotel King describes belongs not in Colorado, but the Catskill Mountains.

My memories of the Catskills are dominated by Cub Scout adventures, which is about all that happens there anymore. Ruins of grand hotels built between the world wars remain, but few still do business. Neither particularly tall nor unusually beautiful, the Catskills benefitted from being within driving distance of Manhattan and Boston; when plunging fuel prices before the Arab Oil Embargo made Colorado and Utah viable tourist destinations, the Catskills’ storied hotels fell into disrepair.

Steven Weber in Mick Garris's adaptation of
The Shining, with a script by Stephen King
Follow my reasoning: King can’t handle Nebraska because, in his mind, human habitation means towns; Nebraska’s spread-out human geography looks demonic to him. He can’t imagine tourist business that isn’t circumscribed by warm weather, or haunted by Jazz Age glory. In both cases, he projects regional values onto regions he doesn’t understand. Regions he can’t understand, because he doesn’t bother speaking with locals. If he did this to non-white people, we’d call him an imperialist.

I moved from California to Nebraska at age 18, so I understand the shock of transitioning to spaces sculpted by human activity, but vacant of people. It’s scary… for a while. But I didn’t have to live in Nebraska, near the Colorado border, for very long, to realize the circumstances King describes aren’t horrific. If he’d bothered meeting any Nebraskans or Coloradans, the horror would’ve worn off quickly. Instead, King looks like a world-class dick.

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