Imagine being a college student in the 1970s. You’re poor and hungry and are being offered $200 (around $1,300 in our current economy) to participate in a voluntary drug study.
Imagine developing a supernatural ability, or two. Telekinesis, mind control, who knows what else.
Imagine waking one morning to your infant daughter screaming in her crib. You rush to her side to find her head engulfed in flames: her hair is on fire. You have miraculously passed your “X factor” on to her.
Imagine being a third grader. You can move things with your mind. Sometimes when you get angry, something in the vicinity combusts: a pair of shoes, a plate of food, a face…
Imagine being the head of the government operation that performed experimental drugs tests on naive participants. You find out one day about a daughter. She’s so powerful that she has the potential to crack the planet into halves. You are faced with determining the lesser of two evils: test her and use her for the benefit of national security…or kill her.
This is like one of those empirical decision exercises I remember doing in high school, and they only affirmed my feelings that I would never be involved in politics. Told from the perspective of the young girl and her father, it’s so easy to empathize, to want them to win. But when told from the perspective of the officials in national security, you start to understand their reasoning as well. If these extraordinary people continued to try to live normal lives without supervision, without professionals there to reign them in when their emotions spin their abilities out of control, what would happen then? How many people would be in mortal peril before the threat was neutralized?
But what if the threat was a little girl? What if the only reason she couldn’t control her abilities is simply because of her age and lack of experience? She was born into adversity, she did not choose it, so why should she be punished? For the good of all mankind? At what point does the greater good outweigh basic human rights?
“[He remembered] a Chinese curse, a curse that sounded deceptively pleasant until you sat down and really thought about it. May you live in interesting times. For the last year and a half he had lived in interesting times. He felt that just one more interesting thing would drive him totally insane.”Part IV, Chapter 2
Honestly, who doesn’t relate to this quote on a spiritual level? The consequences surrounding it are obviously not universal, but the sentiment is the same. It was spoken by John Rainbird, and Rainbird just may be one of the most interesting and captivating characters in modern literature. Almost seven feet tall, son of a full-blooded Cherokee, with a mangled face and only one eye. One of his first introductions puts him in a hotel room, sitting naked in front of the TV, waiting. After a minute you realize that he is an assassin. He waits for hours, eternally patient, until the perfect time to sneak into a neighboring room and snuff out the man sleeping just inside the door.
Characters like these keep me coming back to Stephen King again and again. He is a master of developing a personality with one sentence, enforcing empathy right off the bat.
However, there is one thing I can’t always give him credit for, and that is writing action scenes. To be fair, I don’t know of many authors that are very good at this. It’s too easy to force an unnatural perspective, making it hard for the reader to understand what is happening and where.
Another trope I see with S.K.’s climactic chapters (and many other authors) is that the exciting things seem to happen in slow motion. I don’t know about you, but when things get interesting I start reading faster, swallowing sentences whole in order to get to the end and find out how everything resolved. It’s excruciating to read content that splits sheer seconds into long paragraphs.
So, again, King delivers a cult classic and we read and make movies and write blogs about it. It’s not often one gets a great supernatural story along with a lesson in ethics and empirical decision-making. The day he dies is the day the horror genre starts its slow descent into mediocrity.
What do you think of all these hypotheticals? What’s your favorite book that challenged your worldview or moral compass? Leave a comment, I’d love to know, and if you have any recommendations you can leave them down in the comment section or throw them at me on Goodreads.