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Stephen King is seen as just a horror author. But this ASU professor argues he's much more

April marks the 50th anniversary of Stephen King’s “Carrie,” the classic horror novel that inspired the also classic film.

"Carrie” is just one of King’s many best sellers over a decades-long career — but Arizona State University professor Jenny Irish doesn’t think he gets enough credit.

Irish teaches courses on popular fiction and literary horror, and she told The Show’s Sam Dingman that there’s more to King’s legacy than monsters and gore.

Full conversation

JENNY IRISH: I think there's a lot of pleasure in King in people recognizing themselves in the work.

SAM DINGMAN: That's a really interesting take on his work because obviously horror is a wildly popular genre. And you know, there's been plenty written about the kind of morbid curiosity that many people have about horror the way it helps people process things they're afraid of. I don't think I've ever heard anybody say what you just said, which is that there's this quality to King's writing that allows people to see themselves reflected on the page, even if the world that the characters are in is full of, you know, dead pets coming to life and whatever else.

IRISH: Well, I think so much of that world, even if there are dead pets coming to life, is really grounded and entirely recognizable. And we think of something like "Pet Sematary," you know, the desire to comfort your child over what for them is a very significant loss, is completely understandable and recognizable. And yes, it has in this case, a horrifying outcome, but the motivation behind it is completely human and completely understandable. And just staying with "Pet Sematary," to continue to return again and again to the "Pet Sematary, " when you know they come back wrong, why would you do that? The characters are motivated by love and loss and grief.

DINGMAN: And we, as people do things we know are wrong all the time because we're compelled by these much deeper things. So that, there really is something very human about that even in a story about inhuman things being reanimated. So let's talk for a second about "Carrie" because this year is the 50th anniversary of that book, which is remarkable. What are your associations with "Carrie?"

IRISH: "Carrie" is amazing in the fact that was written 50 years ago, but there's so much about it that feels really pretty tragically contemporary. If Carrie White had had access to a decent sex ed class, the town of Chamberlain, Maine, would still be standing. Well, and it's hard not to think about that in the midst I feel of our current kind of sociopolitical moment, where there's such an assault on bodily autonomy and considerations of the rights of people to define their own identity and their own bodies and their relationships to them.

DINGMAN: So, when you talk to students in your classes about King, I imagine there are some of them who are encountering him for the first time. What kinds of reactions do they have? Do you find that they connect with these deeper elements of his writing that we've been talking about?

IRISH: Yeah, they do. Absolutely. One of the most common conversations that we have is about how much space Stephen King's work devotes to moral ambiguity. If we're talking about "Carrie," we can talk about the character of Chris who, Chris is horrible. Chris is a bully, but Chris is also this very independent bad girl who goes and does what she wants when she wants. And there's a kind of appeal to that even in her nastiness. And you can see the ways that Chris as a kind of like archetype for like the kind of like, bad b-tch bully.

DINGMAN: In the spirit of all this, I was looking at the syllabus for your course, The Art of Popular Fiction: Stephen King. And there were a couple of the goals of the course on the syllabus that I was really fascinated by and I wonder if you could tell me how King helps you get at these ideas. One was to pay attention to the way that form creates content.

IRISH: My, I think, favorite example of this is in "The Body," the novella from "Different Seasons," which was made into, I think the really classic movie "Stand By Me." What King does in "The Body" is he has a first-person narrator who is a writer. And this writer is placed in a position to reminisce about their own childhood experiences where they and a group of friends, a small close-knit group of friends went off in search of a body thinking that they would find the body of a boy who has sort of wandered away from a care home and that they'll be heroes. And there might be some sort of reward.

What King does in "The Body" is, we learn that the narrator has an experience where their older brother has died. Though, the narrator of the work does not acknowledge how much this loss has affected him. It keeps coming up in his own writing. The narrator of the novel writes a story. It involves a brother being killed and there is a moment where the narrator of the embedded story sees that his brother is going to die and what he hones in on is essentially his brother's spine through a white t-shirt. And what is absolutely wild and just so cool is that in the narrator's search with his friends for this body, they're crossing a train bridge and the train is coming and it's a moment where their lives are genuinely in danger. And the narrator looks in front of him and sees his friend's spine through his white t-shirt and then shoves him and they jump. And he never talks about this being a moment that is stuck with him. But the exact imagery carries over into the stories that he writes. I am just so impressed by the craftsmanship of that.

DINGMAN: When you started writing, did you imitate Stephen King?

IRISH: Oh, goodness. That's such a interesting question. So before I could write, I used to tell myself little stories and I used to actually record them on like a little Fisher Price tape recorder and then I would take them and I would bury them because I was horrified at the idea of them ever being discovered by like a sibling.

DINGMAN: This is a Stephen King premise.

IRISH: So, I was interested, I think, in stories and storytelling before I was reading and certainly before I was writing on my own, the writer that I am now, which is a pretty niche, kind of experimental hybrid writer who's writing, you know, generally speaking feminist narratives. Really King was the first person who really demonstrated successfully, what I would consider experimental forms. Like the epistolary and of what could be considered aridity and kind of meta writing.

But I do think, you know, Stephen King's from Maine. I'm from Maine. Stephen King lived in Durham and I think spent time in Lisbon Falls, and like Lisbon Falls was where I would bike to, to get ice cream. But I do think there's something about rural Maine and the woods, and the tall grass and, you know, farming communities like there's, there's, there's a, there's a spookiness there. And they are inherently spaces that operate around these cyclical relationships with life and death.

DINGMAN: And getting on a bike in a Stephen King novel, often a recipe for disaster.

IRISH: Never good.

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

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Sam Dingman is a reporter and host for KJZZ’s The Show. Prior to KJZZ, Sam was the creator and host of the acclaimed podcast Family Ghosts.