A Spectre Haunting Stephen King’s America: Review of Stephen King and American Politics by Michael J. Blouin
Stephen King and American Politics. By Michael J. Blouin. University of Wales Press, 2021.
Stephen King—prolific author of popular fiction and household name for nearly fifty years—is a daunting writer to contend with. King’s works and their adaptations have so suffused our cultural landscape, and he has changed so much as a writer over the decades, that it’s hard to know where to begin, let alone find trajectories or critical through-lines to pursue. Michael J. Blouin, in his new study of King’s work, Stephen King and American Politics, seems to have little problem wading into the vast body of King’s works, finding the tendencies (both overt and covert) of his major novels to both engage with politics and offer readers various imagined responses to the difficult subject positions and group formations that make interpersonal politics work.
The title of Blouin’s study, however, can be a bit misleading. Blouin asserts early on (echoing Marx and Engels) that “there is a spectre haunting Stephen King’s America, and that spectre is the concept of the political,” by which he means not the realm of political discourse, parties, candidates, and elections, but “politics proper, which is to say, the never-ending (re)formation of groups with shared interests.” Thus, Stephen King and American Politics treats much of King’s novel-length fiction, addressing political matters to various degrees across nearly forty of King’s major works from Carrie (1974) to The Institute (2019), with deep dives into sixteen or so key works over its ten main chapters.
An opening “prelude” introduces what Blouin calls the “the (im)possible politics of Stephen King’s fiction” through The Tommyknockers (1987), Needful Things (1991), Gerald’s Game (1991), and The Institute (2019), which he reads to contend that “King’s works do neo-liberal work by stripping democracy of its core antagonisms to espouse in their place a purportedly reasonable non-politics.” This repeated disavowal of the political, found across nearly all of King’s works, is key to Blouin’s claims, as he argues that “King’s canon paints a comprehensive portrait of the mechanisms that drive the political nature of human beings,” and that “King’s fiction, often counter to its stated intentions, endlessly provokes the political.”
What follows from this opening diagnosis of the hidden tendencies within King’s oeuvre are a series of quite detailed readings of some of his major novels along with the political, psychoanalytic, and economic theories they correspond to. The book’s main chapters focus on individual novels or small clusters of works, grouped by the versions of subject formation they present: King’s early novels written under the pen name Richard Bachman (The Long Walk , Roadwork , and The Running Man ) and the American death drive; King’s car novels (Christine  and From a Buick 8 ) and the role of individuals under Post-Fordism; Firestarter (1980) and the neo-liberal subject; IT (1986) and the construction and boundaries of community; The Langoliers (1990) and the political event; Rose Madder (1995) and human capital; Under the Dome (2009) and how the demos may be destined to fall apart; The Outsider (2018) and shape-shifting nature of Trumpism; and a “postlude” on The Stand (1978, expanded 1990) and the possibility of revolution.
At work throughout Stephen King and American Politics is Blouin’s deep attention to the socio-economic context of King’s works, drawing on standard methods of close reading to find what a literary theorist like Fredric Jameson would call their “political unconscious.” Curiously, Blouin does not invoke Jameson beyond referencing his work on language conventions and “plain style,” but Jameson’s thinking (and that of theorists like him) pervades the book, as Blouin often refers to the “unconscious” of a text. For example, diagnosing the Bachman Books, Blouin concludes that “at the very moment that these books resign themselves to the tenets of neo-liberalism—specifically, the rejection of politics as an appropriate answer to community ills—they (unconsciously) conjure radical alternatives.”
Blouin’s readings of these novels are quite accomplished, reading against the grain to reveal their parallels with a wide range of theory and philosophy, engaging with thinkers from Alain Badiou and Jean Baudrillard to Mark Fisher and Wendy Brown, from Michel Foucault and Jacques Lacan to Stuart Hall and Todd McGowan, from Paul Virilio and Charles Taylor to Charles Schmitt and Slavoj Žižek, along with many, many more.
Notably, however, Blouin skips past nearly all of King’s short fiction and some of his recognizable major works like the multi-volume Dark Tower series (1982 on), Pet Semetary (1983), The Talisman (1984) and its sequel Black House (2001), and the more recent Bill Hodges Trilogy (2014-16). This may be because Stephen King and American Politics has a hard time dealing with matters of genre and its constraints. Though Blouin notes the role of genre in his treatment of the fantasy novel The Eyes of the Dragon (1987), he rarely raises it as a frame for the kinds of plots, events, and characters that King works with. Writing of The Langoliers, Blouin notes that readers “must orient themselves with King’s generic signposts while they must, at the same time, acknowledge that his storyworld orbits around an interminable void,” namely the void consuming the landscape and plot of the travelers in the novel.
But genre functions to orient readers while also giving shape to and bounding storyworlds. So, for example, when Blouin considers IT, he writes that the “figure at the centre of King’s story, Pennywise the Clown, embodies all that is wrong with the concept of community.” While this may be what Blouin would call the “unconscious” sense of Pennywise, it ignores that, within the plot, he is a shape-shifting alien with psychic powers who must consume fearful children to survive. These dismissals are not a fatal flaw for the book, but it would be more productive to engage with the genre trappings that King is so willing to explore, rather than dismissing them so systematically.
That said, Stephen King and American Politics is a very convincing and quite accomplished reading of the Stephen King canon and will need to be taken seriously by anyone hoping to read across King’s works. While the book may rely at times on a thin model of readership and could have introduced readings of King’s contemporaries to show counterexamples, it stands well in our present moment, ultimately concluding, as Blouin puts it: “[b]y politicising the study of King’s fiction, we recognise its renewed relevance for the unavoidably contentious days to come.”
Shawn Gilmore (he/him) is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and writes on comics, prose, film, and the like, teaching the same. He is the editor of The Vault of Culture, a public scholarship site that features work by a range of scholars and lay writers over a variety of cultural objects, from comics to film to novels to video games and everything in between. You can find him on Twitter.
This review was commissioned by editor Sean Guynes in January 2021 after an invitation to review was extended to the author; the author and editor are mutual academic acquaintances. A digital review copy was arranged by ARB from University of Wales Press.