Mormon literature: the horror, the horror?

July 20, 2007 | 32 comments
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One of the frequent laments about Mormon literature is that so much of the Mormon experience is tied to spiritual experience, which is very difficult to describe in prose. Mormon authors facing that problem could learn a trick or two from Stephen King.

Quick, name a book from a non-religious, mainstream publisher that includes literal and miraculous answers to a child’s prayers. Well, there’s…Desperation, by Stephen King (Viking, 1996). The scenes of supplication and revelation are believable in the context of the book, handled with dignity, and are integral to the plot. King himself has observed that horror is the only fiction genre that admits the possibility of supernatural interference in the mundane world, rather than projecting the miraculous onto technological utopias or ahistorical fantasies. Horror is perhaps the only genre that regularly sets aside the quaintly modern notion that human weakness is the ultimate source of all evil, and the only genre with a toolset prepared to address everyday people and their uncommon gods and demons.

In some important ways, Mormon readers are prepared to read horror, if not by that name and without the black dust jacket. Mormonism, like the horror genre, rests on the thinness of the veil between natural and supernatural, between living and dead. In our active belief, Mormons suspend disbelief in ways that might make us receptive readers of horror fiction. Martians and elves are no more real for us than the tooth fairy, but some of our grandest architectural works and most important spiritual experiences come in the service of what might be called, with little exaggeration and less disrespect, ghosts. Temple worship is not supposed to be about names on a slip of paper, but about real people who once lived, about people who notice what we’re doing, about people who are one day coming back.

Mormon culture is also past due for a Mormon Stephen King, as dubious as that project sounds. Perhaps half-forgotten folk doctrines and unmentionable past crimes are irritations in the realms of theology and public relations, but they are also landmarks in the Mormon subconscious, half-buried traumas waiting for a chance to surface, half-closed wounds waiting for someone to stick their thumb in and twist. Once upon a time, fairly tales would have performed that kind of irregular maintenance work on our collective subconscious, but now other kinds of literature are more likely to play that role. In addition to the unswept corners of the Mormon imagination, there is also the buried Mormon geography of North America, from San Bernardino to Las Vegas to Nephi, from Alberta to the Colonies, from New England to Nauvoo and on into the Valley. To drive across American is to disturb Mormon bones.

It’s striking how closely the geography of Stephen King’s imagination sometimes parallels Mormon history. For King, of course, the original magical realm is Maine, while for Mormonism it is Palmyra, but other parts of our story and his stories live in the same neighborhoods. Bag of Bones shares its basic premise with The Fate of the Persecutors of the Prophet Joseph Smith. The Stand is nothing more than the story of a gathering to the midst of the Rocky Mountains before the Last Day. What would it take for a handcart re-enactment to end up neck-and-neck with The Long Walk? Like in Salem’s Lot, set somewhere off in the New England forest, and in Desperation, set somewhere off in the western desert, we know in our gut that things can go badly wrong when you get too far from the interstate. If you want to make genealogy come alive for your Sunday School students, Pet Sematary isn’t the best option…but across the street from the best option, there is a big house with boarded-up windows and an ominous stain splashed on the ceiling in the front room, just waiting for a bunch of kids to dare each other to go inside.

Although I think Stephen King is a fine writer, readers who find Kurt Vonnegut objectionable will not like King’s novels, unfortunately. King’s On Writing is the only book about writing I know that is worth reading, however, and LDS authors looking for models of how to describe spiritual experiences in prose could do worse than to take a page from King. And there are still questions waiting to be answered, like, What would happen if you gave a baby the blessing of telekinesis? What happens if you don’t dedicate a home, or a grave? What effect might consecrated oil have on the undead? When, exactly, are we going to use all that wheat, and what is TVP made from, anyway? Although Mormonism may still await its Shakespeare, I’m probably more likely to buy and read the books of Mormonism’s Stephen King.

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32 Responses to Mormon literature: the horror, the horror?

  1. Costanza on July 20, 2007 at 4:07 pm

    Very interesting post Jonathan. I think you are on to something when it comes to King’s themes and some themes of Mormonism. One under-appreciated aspect of King’s talent is his erudition. He is absolutely steeped in the history and development of modern American literature, and not just the horror genre either.

  2. Adam Greenwood on July 20, 2007 at 4:08 pm

    What’s the common denominator between King and Kurt Vonnegut? Vulgarity, left-wing politics, or what? I’m unfamiliar with the works of both, since in both cases the first book of theirs I picked up couldn’t keep my attention and I haven’t ever tried again.

  3. Costanza on July 20, 2007 at 4:08 pm

    Vulgarity, I’m sure.

  4. Jacob on July 20, 2007 at 4:14 pm

    For those who like a little (or a lot) of optimism combined with supernatural, Dean Koontz should also be recommended. As a matter of fact, in his “Sole Survivor”, he gives a unique description of what we would call the spirit world. As for Stephen King, never read any of his books, but liked at least a couple of the movies based on his books, particularly “The Stand”, where Kareem Abdul-Jabbar plays an apocolyptic hobo. That’s good stuff!

  5. Adam Greenwood on July 20, 2007 at 4:18 pm

    What happens if you don’t dedicate a home, or a grave? What effect might consecrated oil have on the undead?

    Those are spooky questions, seriously.

  6. Ivan Wolfe on July 20, 2007 at 4:22 pm

    Lost Boys by Orson Scott Card was a step in that direction. Homebody and Treasure Box were also Stephen King-ish works by Card, though not as obviously Mormon.

    I think this post is dead on. Considering the number of Stephen King books I’ve seen in Mormon homes (nearly all of them, actually) this seems like an overdue development. However, I think the best approach towards that would be to do as Card does, and aim it at a national market, while using a Mormon worldview to justify/ground the horror.

  7. Ardis Parshall on July 20, 2007 at 4:33 pm

    Thanks for posting this in the middle of July, when I can go outside and bake the shivers out of my bones and squint in the glare of summer sun. I’m not sure I could consider the possibilities under an overcast October sky — it affects me that strongly.

    This from someone whose all-time favorite movie is the original version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

  8. Matt Evans on July 20, 2007 at 5:13 pm

    Great post, Jonathan, especially your ideas in the third paragraph.

  9. Ray on July 20, 2007 at 5:34 pm

    Jonathon, I thought my oldest son was the only person who would think to ask questions like: What would happen if you gave a baby the blessing of telekinesis? What effect might consecrated oil have on the undead? (Someone who asked, very audibly, when the Gospel Doctrine teacher read about the Jews attempting to lay hands on Jesus, “Why would He need a blessing?”)

    Not the point of the thread directly (horror), but I have wondered who the inspiration is for Tom Clancy’s references to Mormonism in his Jack Ryan books. He has a muse about the power of the sacred edifice that focuses on the DC temple in “Clear and Present Danger” and a moving sub-plot about a Mormon POW in “Without Remorse” – the latter book being almost in the horror genre given its dark subject matter and brutal treatment of a descent into becoming a hired assassin. It was disturbing and graphic and almost sickening in some parts, but the Mormon character’s Atonement subplot was a fascinating juxtaposition against the main character’s descent into Hell.

  10. Ray on July 20, 2007 at 5:38 pm

    I asked my 17-year-old son the question about blessing a baby, and he said, tying two different blogs together: “Then we would have to burn it for appearing to be a witch.” Sometimes teenagers just crack me up.

  11. Jonathan Green on July 20, 2007 at 5:44 pm

    Jacob, I tried a Koontz novel once and really liked it. Then I read a second, and the plot was much like the first, as was the third, and the fourth…maybe I just caught Koontz in a phase where he was exploring the artistic possibilities of Very Scary Thing Chases Man and Woman with Hots for Each Other. He’s probably improved in his later work, and you’re certainly right about his basic optimism. (And any film with Kareem in it has got to be a good film, especially if he fights Bruce Lee.)

    Constanza, Adam, yes, the vulgarity was what I had in mind. Some readers have lower thresholds than others. And another thing about King is that the man can write–I discovered a lot of writers in high school that I have since come to recognize as dreck, but King held up well.

    Ivan, that’s an interesting observation about Mormons owning King. I can’t confirm it with my own observations, but I’d certainly believe it.

  12. Jacob on July 20, 2007 at 6:27 pm

    Ray! Thanks for the Tom Clancy nod. I forgot about the POW in “Without Remorse.” Great stuff there.

    Jonathan, the footprint is classic! With Koontz, after his “Dark Rivers of the Heart” he really started breaking up his earlier formula and has some great books, although that one does have some graphic sexual content. And I also loved “Slaughterhouse-five”!

    Oh, I’m Mormon, and I’ve never bought a book by King! Even though this blog is making me question why. . .

  13. Margaret Young on July 20, 2007 at 8:01 pm

    I’ve got Stephen King’s audio tapes on writing, and they’re quite good. I haven’t given his books much of a chance, however. I think Reynolds Price does brilliantly what Jonathan describes in his post. I’d recommend him, along with Andre Dubus and Marilynne Robinson (_Gilead_ and _Housekeeping_–did I get her name right?).

    To the sentence: “Quick, name a book from a non-religious, mainstream publisher that includes literal and miraculous answers to a child’s prayers”–try Reynolds Price’s “His Final Mother” (short story).

  14. Proud Daughter of Eve on July 20, 2007 at 9:39 pm

    Quick, name a book from a non-religious, mainstream publisher that includes literal and miraculous evidence for foreordination. John Irving’s “A Prayer for Owen Meany.”

    You have an interesting point but I wouldn’t read horror if Gordon B. Hinckley wrote it. I wouldn’t read it if someone found a long-lost stash of Joseph Smith’s horror fiction. There is more than enough ugliness in the world already. I don’t need that stuff in my head, pure and simple.

    I had the misfortune to be introduced to Stephen King’s books by a friend in high school. Look, there’s vulgarity and then there’s Stephen King. He’s a completely different order of vulgarity. I heard an interview with him once. I’m a writer myself; I know what the writing process is like. I’m familiar with the old tropes we use to explain it to others. What he described sounded like literal demonic possession to me. Having seen some of his work, I’d believe it. As far as I’m concerned, his stuff ought to be burned not emulated.

  15. Costanza on July 20, 2007 at 10:31 pm

    PDOE,
    We aren’t going to get anywhere if you keep holding back :)

  16. Clark on July 20, 2007 at 10:38 pm

    There’s no doubt King’s written some pretty disturbing graphic stuff. The third volume of The Gunslinger in particular was problematic in that regard. On the other hand go read some of O. S. Card’s early short stories. He had a reputation for being rather shocking. (As I recall someone said reading Card was like being punched in the gut – interestingly two other LDS artists, Brian Evenson and Neil LeBute, also had that reputation) His original Planet Called Treason was pretty wild, even though it was also a very facinating view of priesthood in terms of the theology of Orson Scott Card for those who noticed what he was doing.

    Anyway, my point being that one ought be careful about getting too wild regarding King. King’s far more egregious problem is needing a good editor. Most his books could do with some pretty heavy paring. His shorter works tend to be better typically. (I think this of Card as well)

    Having said that though, King definitely has some disturbing stuff, but a lot that isn’t that bad. And, as others have said, he is able to discuss religion in a way most can’t. The end of The Stand where the literal hand of God comes down to stop the nuke is pretty brazen, when you stop to think about it. Even his Gunslinger series, which came to dominate in most ways of his writings of the last 10 years, was profoundly religious in many ways without being overtly so.

    It’s kind of interesting in light of the new Harry Potter book which also seems to grapple with religious issues while eschewing most religion. (Although a lot think this last book will be more religious in many ways)

  17. worm on July 20, 2007 at 11:12 pm

    “In some important ways, Mormon readers are prepared to read horror . . . . Mormons suspend disbelief in ways that might make us receptive readers of horror fiction.”

    This is something I’ve thought about, and maybe it’s one reason I’ve always been drawn to fiction involving ghosts, even (especially?) malevolent ones. I have quite a few books, movies, and even a few video games with this theme. I’m especially impressed when someone manages to make a story effective without much, or any, violence–those are the ones I really try to look out for. I don’t think it would be difficult to come up with good ideas for LDS-themed ghost stories, but I can’t imagine them being something I’d want to read or write–they’d be much too irreverent, I’m afraid.

    I read a lot of Stephen King books in high school, but he never became one of my favorite authors–I found his books too long, too vulgar, and too full of popular culture references. I do like some of his short stories, though, in which he sometimes manages to avoid all three of these issues. I read King’s “On Writing” recently. Although it had some good practical advice, I think I got more out of Orson Scott Card’s “How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy.”

  18. Kristine on July 20, 2007 at 11:52 pm

    What Margaret said. And then read all the rest of Reynolds Price’s books.

    It is possible that this post has stumbled upon the one thing in the world about which I agree with PDOE :).

  19. Kaimi Wenger on July 21, 2007 at 12:11 am

    Jonathan,

    Don’t forget The Green Mile. It’s a story about a prison official who, because of illness and distractedness and internal office politics and complacency and lack of information, allows to go forward the execution of a wrongfully accused prisoner, who is also a bona fide miracle worker.

    In other words, it’s a fascinating and beautiful retelling of the Pontius Pilate story — akin to (though not quite the same as) Anatole France’s wonderful short story, The Procurator of Judea.

  20. Clark on July 21, 2007 at 12:26 am

    The Green Mile had tons of NT parallels. Almost distractingly so. It was my only complaint with the movie.

  21. Ivan Wolfe on July 21, 2007 at 1:33 am

    Clark –

    that was my biggest complaint with Superman Returns. Every five minutes or so, there was another “Superman=Christ” motif.

    (of course, the nonsensical plot, banal acting, and pointless evil plan didn’t help either).

  22. Kyle R on July 21, 2007 at 6:07 am

    I think Mormonism needs a Tolstoy, rather than a Stephen King.

  23. gst on July 21, 2007 at 9:28 am

    No, Mormonism needs first a Wodehouse, then a Lovecraft, an Ambler, and finally a guy that writes Mormon-themed automotive repair and maintenance manuals (focusing on minivans, I suppose).

  24. William Morris on July 21, 2007 at 10:22 am

    _Brother Brigham_ by D. Michael Martindale and _Kindred Spirits_ by Christopher Bigelow, both published last fall by Bigelow’s Zarahemla Books, both have elements that sort of do what Jonathan is sort of getting at. _Brother Brigham_ is more in the horror category than _Kindred Spirits_; however, I would compare either to Stephen King. They take their cues more from Orson Scott Card’s work.

    Incidentally, the AML List has been having a rather interesting discussion about this — sparked by Martindale’s claims about his novel being the first speculative Mormon fiction. Magic realism was also tossed out in the discussion.

    My preference was for the term Mormon folk realism, but even that is problematic. But what I meant by that is fiction that takes Mormon doctrine and or folk doctrine as realistic and as defining the boundaries and metaphysics of the world the work takes place in.

    At any rate, I don’t think Mormon literature needs a Stephen King. But I do think that Mormon folk realism as a category (whether the plots are horror, thriller, mystery, romance or whatever) is one that could be very interesting, especially if it continues to produce works that have a sort of strong “Mormon folk realism” (like in _Brother Brigham_) as opposed to the weak Mormon folk realism of the works Covenant publishes. I’m not sure what kind of readership it would get, though.

  25. Adam Greenwood on July 21, 2007 at 11:02 am

    #23,
    The Zion of Minivan Maintenance?

  26. Adam Greenwood on July 21, 2007 at 11:06 am

    PDOE, #14, that comment was fantastic. I’ve never read King and for all I know you’re barking mad but that was still a fantastic comment. Perversely, the comment seems like a great plot for the kind of fiction J. Green is calling for. Demon-possessed author writes fiction that ends up in nearly every Mormon home, gives writing advice on how to open yourself up to possession . . .

  27. John C. on July 21, 2007 at 1:13 pm

    I just want to once again state my belief that there is no problem in life that cannot be solved by killing a magical black man. Also, I hate the Green Mile (but I do like Desperation).

  28. Costanza on July 21, 2007 at 4:13 pm

    I thought that the Green Mile was a bit ham-fisted in its Christian symbolism. But then again, Dickens was hardly subtle (don’t worry though, I’m not putting King and Dickens in same league).

  29. Jonathan N on July 21, 2007 at 7:57 pm

    Outstanding post. Years ago, when we\’d discuss favorite books, I\’d always say my favorite two authors were Stephen King and Bruce R. McConkie, who I see as writing about the same topics. I think King holds up better, though.

    I can understand why many people don\’t like King; I\’ve thrown away a few of his books myself. But with those exceptions, I have an entire shelf of King\’s books and I find them highly insightful and thought-provoking. I can\’t think of another author who has explored the nature of good and evil as effectively and comprehensively–except maybe Shakespeare.

    However, I\’m not sure how a \”Mormon\” Stephen King would write any differently than he does, apart perhaps from location or historical references–but that\’s assuming the \”Mormon\” King would use Intermountain locations or LDS history. Why couldn\’t the \”Mormon\” King write from New Zealand or Argentina?

    Martindale\’s \”Brother Brigham\” is a good example of how LDS symbols can be used effectively, but I don\’t see why an LDS author would have to include such symbols or why a non-LDS author couldn\’t use them.

    But Jonathan has posed some interesting plot ideas and it would be fun to read them if anyone develops them.

  30. Bookslinger on July 21, 2007 at 10:58 pm

    In my head I have several outlines of horror short-stories based on the LDS singles program.

    – You’re the last one to enter the cultural hall for the singles dinner. There is one seat left, in between the 450 pound woman and the smelly man.

    – You give the 84 year old widow a ride to the weekly singles Family Home Evening. You feel good about being of service, thinking “In as much as you have done it unto one of these the least of my brethren…” Then she starts writing you love notes and leaving them in your car.

    – You’re new in the ward. At a pot-luck singles dinner, you notice one dish in the buffet line that hasn’t been touched. You don’t want that person to feel bad that nobody tried their food, so you take a serving. No one told you that was Sister Brown’s casserole, and there’s a reason no one eats her food.

    – You’re at a dance. Sister X wants to start a conga line. But she grabs your waist from behind before she informs you she’s starting a conga line on you.

    – Sister Y imposes on you for a ride to a one-day singles conference two hours away. Around 5pm, she pulls out a pill case and starts taking her “medications.” She cries and blubbers about her failed marriages on the drive home.

    But the best horror story might be written by the American guy called to preside over a third world mission who described it as “camping out for 3 years with 150 priests.”

    Aiieeeeeeeeeeeeee!

  31. Jonathan Green on July 23, 2007 at 6:51 am

    Thanks for all the comments, several of which deserve an individual response. But now that Deathly Hallows is out, who wants to talk about any other book?

    William Morris, I particularly like your category of Mormon folk realism, which might be a category under which a Mormon horror fiction would fall. “Mormon Horror” is probably not viable as a genre name, because it suggests too strongly the kind of thing that many Mormon readers would instinctively avoid. But with a neutral or pseudo-devotional cover, and an absence of overt sex or gore, I think it has potential as a literary enterprise. (As an economic one, I don’t know.) I think a skilled writer could render the handcart experience, for example, or Missouri or select chapters of “The Miracle of Forgiveness” into fiction and come up with something deeply inspiring and very, very scary.

    But that’s neither here nor there. What is here is Deathly Hallows. I don’t know how much longer it will be until full-blown Harry Potter discussion breaks out.

  32. Jonathan Green on July 24, 2007 at 2:53 am

    Also, we really do need a master of offbeat Mormon horror fiction, so that we could finally have our very own King of Funky MoHo.