Say what you will about Stephen King, but the man has staying power. Last year’s Dark Tower may have flopped, but the big screen adaptation of It raked in oodles of cash (part two is currently in pre-production). And this summer witnesses Sissy Spacek’s long-awaited return to the Maine hinterlands of King’s Castle Rock, her first time collaborating with the author since her career-defining role as Carrie in 1976. King himself shows no sign of slowing down, with an epic new novel on stands this summer, The Outsider, and another on the horizon.
With each passing year, the horror master’s shadow only grows longer. The Duffer Brothers, creators of Stranger Things, went so far as to pay tribute to their hero with the logo of their hit Netflix show. Meanwhile, King’s own sons, Joe Hill and Owen King, are both novelists in the same vein as their dad, each boasting significant followings of their own. (His daughter, Naomi, is a Unitarian minister.) Even critics have begun acknowledging the man’s dazzling versatility.
King’s profile has been so high for so long that it’s a bit surprising that Douglas Cowan’s America’s Dark Theologian marks the first full-length treatment of the religious themes in his work. “Constant readers,” as King aficionados are known, are already well aware that he doesn’t shy away from the subject.
While it’s true that organized religion seldom comes off well in his books, King handles the Christian faith itself in a myriad of ways—as the motivator for bravery just as often as cruelty, a reservoir of strength as well as a shield for cowardice. Characters regularly wrestle with the divine, and rarely the same way twice. Sometimes a character’s faith wavers, sometimes it evaporates, sometimes it morphs, and sometimes it triumphs. But it’s almost always there in some way.
Cowan’s title is, by his own admission, a bit of a misnomer. King has little interest in laying out anything like a coherent theology or cosmology. He doesn’t make assertions about metaphysics so much as he explores the relationship between the seen and the unseen—a relationship that William James memorably described as the province of religion. In this respect, King has few peers. He knows full well that the unseen can be a repository of fear just as much as hope, if not more so.
Much of the horror of King’s stories derives from the notion that the unseen order is far more fraught and sinister than conventional religion would lead you to believe. You could even describe his novels as a catalog of the potential permutations of what lies beyond human perception—and how these mysteries break in on our ordinary lives. Sometimes that unseen order is monstrous, sometimes extraterrestrial, sometimes incomprehensible, and yes, sometimes divine. What remains constant in his oeuvre is the sense that there is a lot more going on than we know, and not all of it good.
Sincere, Complicated Faith
When it comes to belief itself, the truth, as they say, is complicated. King is on record as believing in God and clearly harbors a faint nostalgia for his Methodist upbringing. Pastors crop up as characters in his books nearly as often as writers, and they’re far from a monochrome lot. For every Bible-beating fanatic terrorizing his protagonists (like Margaret White, Carrie’s cruelly fundamentalist mother) or church failing to live up to its calling (see Needful Things or Children of the Corn), there’s a protagonist with a sincere if complicated faith (David Carver in Desperation, Donald Callahan in The Dark Tower).
The Stand, which many consider King’s magnum opus (David Foster Wallace once listed it as his second favorite book of all time, just behind The Screwtape Letters), borders in places on Christian allegory, not just in its post-apocalyptic standoff between good and evil, but also in the way that conflict is resolved. The film adaptation of The Green Mile has featured in too many youth group talks to count, the central character being the closest King has ever come to a bona fide Christ figure (John Coffey—get it?). And then there’s Shawshank Redemption, a film based on one of his stories that almost boasts a religion of its own at this point, having held the top spot on the user-generated top 250 films ranking on IMDb since 2008.
Of course, an aversion to organized religion does not imply an aversion to grace. The heroes in King’s books are nearly always broken people: physically frail, alcoholic, disabled, marginalized, and lonely, who against all odds carry the day. In It, the motley group of kids who do battle with the forces of darkness dub themselves The Losers Club. Even his villains are regularly rendered with compassion. And what to make of the fact that good nearly always triumphs, often through some sudden, unpredictable reversal of fortune?
Not that you’d pick up on this from Cowan, who not only shares King’s disdain for organized religion but extends those reservations to religious belief itself. Indeed, the Canadian academic’s skepticism lies thick over the book—hardly a page goes by without some poke at believers. So The Gospel According to Stephen King, this is not. Nor perhaps should we expect it to be. Appreciating King involves appreciating some menace. A cuddlier take wouldn’t do him justice. Whatever the case, America’s Dark Theologian will be more at home on the shelves of religious studies graduate students than the hordes of religiously inclined horror fans out there.
This is not to suggest that Cowan’s skepticism sours his passion for the material. Indeed, his erudition and insight appear throughout, shining especially brightly in his discussions of less popular works like Desperation, Bag of Bones, and Duma Key. Longtime fans will find much to chew on.
They will surely have gripes of their own as well. I would have loved to see Cowan interact a bit more with some of King’s more spiritually sympathetic works. For example, apart from some cursory remarks about its clear Christian overtones, The Standis completely ignored. I was also surprised that one of King’s most beloved and complicated religious characters, Father Callahan from both Salem’s Lot and the Dark Tower series, garners not a single mention. And when it comes to “the unseen order,” surely the lengthy and admiring treatment of Alcoholics Anonymous in Doctor Sleephas relevance?
Of course, with an oeuvre as expansive as King’s, it is perhaps unfair to expect a comprehensive treatment. But I couldn’t shake the suspicion that King’s religious imagination outstretches Cowan’s by several degrees.
David Zahl is the director of Mockingbird Ministries and the editor-in-chief of the Mockingbird blog.