This column explores the often subconscious connection between the places we are from, the spaces in which we write, and the places we write about.
I am sitting and writing in a vegan bakery with my friend Kayla, a fellow writer, and I cannot stop thinking about the Midwestern United States. I have ordered a matcha lemonade, a chocolate croissant, and truffle fries with ketchup. Clearly, I have a very refined and cultured palate.
Kayla has ordered a BLT. I do not know and do not ask if the bacon is vegan. It looks suspiciously real when it is brought out, which makes me question the entire establishment and their notion of what vegan means. Are only the baked goods vegan? Is the bread vegan? Is ketchup vegan? In order for a place to label itself vegan, does everything inside of it have to be vegan, right down to the napkins and door stoppers? Or is it just a normally accessorized restaurant with a plant-based mindset and a chef who was likely raised in the Midwestern United States, but is currently living in Queens and has a thumb tattoo?
In addition to worrying about the configuration of Kayla’s bacon, I am talking to Kayla about authors, specifically speculative, dark, and weird authors. Naturally, Stephen King is brought to the table.
“I love Stephen King as a person, but I hate his writing, it’s not for me,” she says, “but everyone back home thinks he’s that guy.”
“Oh, are you from Maine?” I ask, trying to understand, as a Stephen King fan myself, the diehard fan base he has in her hometown.
“No, I’m from Central Illinois.” She eats more of her vague-bacon sandwich.
Kayla is one of the sweetest and most innocent-seeming people I have ever encountered. Her voice is soft and airy and light, she is small in stature, and she wears glasses that make her eyes doe-like. She is bambi. And, if meeting her for the first time, she tells you she hates Stephen King you think “my god, of course you do, how could you ever be reading anything except Pride and Prejudice? HBO shows must make you weep.”
Kayla writes speculative fiction, more precisely, she writes dreamlike fiction that is dark and weird and incredible. She looks precious and kind, which she is, but her pen releases legions of snakes, all bearing fangs, when pressed to paper. And, most importantly, Kayla is from Central Illinois.
When I begin to unpack it, it actually makes a lot of sense. The mundanity of the American Midwest is exactly what makes it so ripe for King followers and more importantly, King-esque happenings. It is a wonderfully absurd paradox, much like the absurdity of Kayla ordering a BLT at a vegan bakery (yes I’m still on this): the more silent and sleepy the state, the more likely it is to be ripped open by flesh-eating ghouls.
“I just feel like his stories don’t do enough,” she says.
He has built up quite the reputation as the King of Horror, so why isn’t Kayla afraid?
King has garnered praise and success for a reason, well, for many reasons, but only one of which is relevant to this column: he made us feel at home in the state of Maine. He offered us tea and friendship, he put up pink second-hand curtains, and then he ripped them off the rod and choked us with them. What did we think of Maine before King brought its ghosts, in neatly printed paperbacks, to our doorsteps?
I believe King’s devotion to his setting is what made his stories so scary: his willingness to make his home into a hunting ground, forcing the reader to confront the monsters in his quiet state’s closet. Because the monster in your closet is scarier when the closet door is nicely painted and unassuming, and the flesh-eating ghoul is scarier when it offers you a casserole before it eats you.
So many horror stories, whether they come in book or movie or campfire tell-all form, feel like known variables, like the legendary amalgam of The Florida Man. You don’t need to read the rest of his news headlines to know he did some predictably unhinged shit. Perhaps the Midwestern United States, and by extension all sleepy, uncovered small towns, are perfect targets for dark and weird happenings precisely because we all love to think that nothing ever happens there.
And perhaps Kayla feels slighted by Stephen King because she has always been in on the secret the rest of us are still pretending not to know: that there is no fiction weirder and darker than real life. Kayla is the Midwestern United States, which in terms of writerly compliments, is one of the highest I can give.
So I guess the question is: is weird fiction seeming more normal because life is becoming weirder? Or has the metaphorical Midwest always been this weird, and we writers are finally catching up?
Do we write esoteric fiction to better understand the catastrophes happening close to home?
Ohio and Wisconsin trains are derailing. Flint, Michigan barely had their water-boiling advisory lifted. The Keystone Pipeline spilled oil throughout Kansas. The Delphi Murders continue to haunt the state of Indiana. These are only the stories that made headlines for longer than a day. Can you imagine what is lurking in Nebraska? Add in some giant crablike creatures or a giant clear dome, and you have a King story.
So maybe Kayla is right. Stephen King isn’t doing enough to be deemed dark and weird if all his stories turn into news headlines. That would make King’s work realistic fiction.
Does writing horror make Stephen King feel at home? Does writing about home make Stephen King feel haunted? These are the same question.
Kayla has finished her BLT, I have consumed my extremely sophisticated combination of snacks, and we are both writing and chatting as it rains outside. Do vegan bakeries exist in the Midwest? I’m sure they must. If ghouls do, vegan bacon must as well.