The Functions of Unnatural Death in Stephen King – available now!

It’s here! Out now from Lexington, my latest book, The Functions of Unnatural Death in Stephen King: Murder, Sickness, and Plots. Here’s the back of the book blurb:

The Functions of Unnatural Death in Stephen King: Murder, Sickness, and Plots examines over thirty of King’s works and looks at the character deaths within them, placing them first within the chronology of the plot and then assigning them a function. Death is horrific and perhaps the only universal horror because it comes to us all. Stephen King, known as the Master of Horror, rarely writes without including death in his works. However, he keeps death from being repetitious or fully expected because of the ways in which he plays with the subject, maintaining what he himself has called a childlike approach to death. Although character deaths are a constant, the narrative function of those deaths changes depending on their placement within the plot.

By separating out the purposes of early deaths from those that come during the rising action or during the climax, this book examines the myriad ways character deaths in King can affect surviving characters and therefore the plot. Even though character deaths are frequent and hardly ever occur only once in a book, King’s varying approaches to, and uses of, these deaths show how he continues to play with both the subject and its facets of horror throughout his work.

Phew. So. What does that mean?

A couple years ago now, I sat down with my little red notebook full of Stephen King titles and started making two lists: one of characters who were already dead when the story began, and one of the characters who died throughout the course of the book. For example, ‘Salem’s Lot has vampires – Kurt Barlow was dead before the story started. Duma Key also has some undead, but they’re not vampires. And we all know the Overlook Hotel is haunted.

But it’s not just the undead or the long dead or the who-really-knows-what. Stephen King’s books are full of murder. There are human serial killers (The Dead Zone, “A Good Marriage”); animal serial killers (Cujo); and mass death both disease (The Stand) and homicide (Under the Dome). In fact, I think I counted one King novel that didn’t have any death in it at all. Death is, after all, a large part of horror.

But the two lists – deaths before the story opens and death during the story – weren’t specific enough. I needed to divide them up some more and sort them somehow. The “how” came when thinking back to my comps days and Carolyn Miller’s “Genre as Social Action.” Miller says we sort and define genres by what they do, so I started sorting King character deaths by the role they play in the narrative.

Let’s take a look at a plot diagram.

I took my list of deaths and sorted them according to the diagram. I already had “Who dies before the story starts?” but the in-story deaths got categorized along the rest of it. Usually they don’t happen in the exposition, where we learn about the characters’ “normal” life, but they can certainly be inciting events that lead to the rising action; or happen during the rising action; or at the climax of the book. The falling action and resolution usually don’t have death in them, but in each section I was able to sort the deaths into smaller categories of usage.

I ended up with nine reasons:

  1. to create the thread
  2. to perpetuate the monster
  3. to build suspense
  4. to narrow the focus
  5. to urge the characters on to action
  6. as revenge
  7. as the antagonist’s helper
  8. as heroic sacrifice, and
  9. to restore order

… which is still a lot of death, but I always find things more manageable after sorting things. (Eminent King scholar Tony Magistrale calls it “A cadaverous catalog,” which is just about my dad’s favorite phrase ever.) But, once things got sorted, I could start comparing and contrasting before making even smaller categories.

Which, to be honest, was a lot of fun.

I like re-reading King, making scribbled notes connecting this work with another one and creating my own complicated web. I like listening to the audiobooks and hearing things presented in a slightly different way. Conceptualizing and organizing was fun. Writing and revising based on reviewer comments? Well … not as much fun. But necessary.

So why King?

Isn’t he just the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries? Too popular (and maybe too pulp) to be academic?

That sounds familiar. Remember, I also study true crime.

The thing is, the popular stuff – the things it seems everybody reads – is just as worth studying as anything literary or “inaccessible.” The things we read, and especially the things we tend to read without critique, matter because they not only reflect our world and worldview – they shape them. I’ve heard plenty of derisive comments about people devouring true crime or King, especially in paperback form on the beach, but think about how many books get read that way. How many people pick up the paperbacks because of the genre or the author’s name. Just how wide of a reach these things have.

One of the critiques of horror as a genre is indeed its frequent use of death. As Patrick McAleer says in his review of my book, I explore “the numerous and nuanced steps that comprise the ‘danse macabre’ that charge the Constant Reader to look at death as more than happenstance or cheap fright.” After my sorting was done and the analysis started, I ended up writing a generally positive look at King and death. (Yes, that’s a weird sentence to type.)

As often as King might be accused of phoning it in, there are more examples of character deaths taking on a crucial function in the plot of his books. Even when he repeats or makes use of Gothic doubling, there are in fact nuances. As Philip Simpson points out, “Through Dr. Frost’s insightful and refreshingly readable analysis, we discover that the characters who die unnatural deaths in King’s fiction indeed play a significant role in the author’s overall agenda to both support and subvert the generic conventions of horror.”

(Can I just say how grateful I am to have reviews from established scholars in the field that make it clear I hit the notes I meant to?)

King might be prolific, and he might recycle character names (we’ll talk about Alice Maxwell sometime), and not every book hits it out of the park, but there’s a lot to look at and a lot worth analyzing in King.

As a footnote: I know the price of the hardcover and the kindle version. It’s an academic book from an academic publisher.

But! Did you know … you can ask your library to get a copy? And support your favorite authors without having to buy the book yourself? It’s true! If you want to read it but it’s not in your budget, ask a librarian. They’re cool people and experts at getting the right book in your hands.

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