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 childâ€™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.