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Stephen King: Monsters Live In Ordinary People by Heidi Strengell

01/05/2010. Contributed by Neale Monks

Buy Stephen King: Monsters Live In Ordinary People in the USA - or Buy Stephen King: Monsters Live In Ordinary People in the UK

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pub: Duckworth. 308 page enlarged paperback. Price: 9.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-7156-3659-6.

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As literary criticism goes, 'Monsters Live In Ordinary People' is an authoritative and readable account of the works of Stephen King taken from the perspective of human behaviour and psychology. Essentially, Heidi Strengell's thesis is that King is an incredibly successful horror fiction writer because his work is firmly rooted in established literary traditions. By describing how his characters deal with fear, death and the nature of evil, he has created adult versions of the fairy tales we listened to as children.

One of the central arguments of the book is the notion that King creates what Strengell calls 'generic hybrids'. Although King is often described as a horror fiction writer, Strengell argues that each of his books spans multiple genres. This allows his work to transcend the boundaries typical of any one genre and therein lies his success. A balance exists between carefully studied naturalism on the one hand and cosmic horror on the other.

According to Strengell, the influence of fairy tales on King's fiction is significant. She argues that King in some senses re-works old tales into a more modern format. 'Carrie', for example, can be interpreted as a re-telling of the Cinderella story. Like Cinderella, Carrie White is bullied by her peers and mistreated by a lone parent. Both acquire magical gifts and both gain their Prince Charming. But this being a work of horror, Carrie's revenge on her persecutors goes above simply upstaging them and, rather than a happy ending, there's a catastrophe.

Strengell sees in King's elements seen in myths from around the world. The characters of Randall Flagg in 'The Stand' is both a personification of evil and Strengell argues, a version of the classic Trickster figure. Flagg's role is more than mere destruction though and Strengell maintains that the chaos he creates is part of King's dualistic view of creation, where whatever good humanity does must be in opposition to the forces of evil.

Besides ancient myths and old fairy tales, Strengell draws parallels with the gothic literature of the nineteenth century. Hubris, she argues, is a theme common to both Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein' and King's 'Pet Sematary'. In their different ways, Victor Frankenstein and Louis Creed both play God and in both cases what they create are as much victims as monsters. Much gothic literature has been interpreted as a reaction to the repressed sexuality of the Victorians. Vampires, Strengell argues, are a way to allow characters to enjoy sexual pleasures deemed immoral or perverted by society. With bloodsucking standing in for sexual activity, the vampires in 'Salem's Lot' exhibit not just sexuality but bi-sexuality as well.

Strengell's book is remarkably thorough and includes an index, a bibliography and a review of previous criticism. There's a fine line between psychological insight and mere psychobabble. At times, some readers might feel she has crossed that line. But readers who enjoy the work of Stephen King will certainly find this book rewarding and stimulating.

Neale Monks

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