Queer Horror

Queens in King
Queers in the stories of Stephen King


If you have not read these books, there may be spoilers in the page below. I have tried to avoid giving away anything of any importance in the plots, but if you are planning on reading these books, read this article with caution

[ Hero | Villain | Sage | Victim | Homophobe | Molester | Other | Overall ]

PennywiseUnlike many other popular authors of our time, one thing that can be said for Stephen King is that he does not ignore the GLBT community. In his 154 works, queer characters are found in about 10% of them. King's gift is in portraying a real world, which includes the crassness found in each of us that we attempt to hide, and in displaying it unapologetically for the world to see. Unfortunately, this less than politically correct style can show a potentially damaging light on a community that is being constantly scrutinized for any aspect less than perfect.

But while we are visible in his works, this visibility is definitely not glamorized. Many of his GLBT characters represent the worst stereotypes of our community, and die in horribly vicious ways. This makes it easy to peg King as being homophobic, but the label may not fit as well as first impression may imply. While he is cruel to his queer characters, he is also cruel to most of his other characters. Heterosexual characters are often seen in an unflattering light, and give in to their base desires. As most of his fans would agree, King's books would not be the same if people didn't die in horridly grotesque manners. So, the real test in determining any homophobia on his part would be seeing if his queer characters are treated on a level equal to the straights.

The most obvious way to check if the queer community lives up to the straight community, in his view, is to find out what roles he assigns his queer characters.

The Hero
In looking at the roles his queer characters play, one thing that's sadly lacking is their being the center of attention. In his works, the central "hero" of the story is never queer. While his works generally center on heterosexual heroes, none focus on an alternative persuasion. This does not say that heterosexuality itself is seen in a positive light. A couple of examples of this include his short story "The Raft", where heterosexual sex leads to the death of the last two characters; and both Carrie and Gerald's Game features heterosexuality being the cause of horror, pain and suffering.

The Villain
The StandOn the flip side, homosexuality, or bisexuality, or even abusive sex or rape with a same-sex partner, has been associated with the central villains. In The Stand, the ultimate force of evil, Flagg, is stated to have had sexual relations with both males and females. The Stand deals with a super-virus that destroys most of the world's population, leaving only a few survivors in its wake. These survivors find themselves drawn either to a force of good, or the force of evil, with Flagg being the latter. Flagg is closer related to the devil than to an actual human and has numerous evil powers. As he is not truly human, his relationships may be less based on bisexual desires than they are based on not having the same hang-ups as mortals do. However, few readers are likely to make this distinction.

Desperation "Desperation" is the story of a straight cop who gets consumed by an evil spirit. This spirit forces him to perform evil acts in the name of the devil. At one point in the story, he stops a straight guy in the desert and forces him to suck him off. A similar plotline in Rose Madder offers us a cop tormenting and sexually injuring a gay guy until the guy confesses to having seen a murder.

In Gerald's Game, we follow the life of a woman handcuffed to a bed who is trying to figure out a way to escape before she dies. While lying there, she encounters a sinister and disfigured figure who torments her and who she believes is Death coming to claim her. During most of the story, we are unsure whether this was a real being, or whether it was madness gripping her during her desperation to escape. However, in the last several chapters, we learn that this was a disfigured man who breaks into crypts to steal body parts from the dead and to have sex with the male corpses. This character is far from powerful and is only seen as a weak, pathetic and perverse man.

The Sage
Gerald's GameIn spite of the above examples, homosexuality is not always associated with 'evil' in his books. While queer characters have not ranked the role of central hero, they still are found in supportive heroic roles, generally as the wise ones that the true heroes turn to. Occasionally the main characters are even completely dependent on them. While Gerald's Game had a horribly negative gay character in it, it had a positively portrayed lesbian. As the main character is chained to a bed, the plot is furthered through a series of flashbacks into her past, and of voices in her head speaking to her and offering her advice. During these flashbacks, we learn that the voices in her head are of people who have affected her strongly in the past. Her main positive influence is Ruth, a tough, no-nonsense gal, who was her roommate in college. The last time she had heard from Ruth:

The card had borne a blurry Arizona postmark and the information that Ruth had joined a lesbian commune. Jessie hadn't been terribly surprised at the news; had even mused that perhaps her old friend, who could be wildly irritating and surprisingly, wistfully sweet (sometimes in the same breath) had finally found the hole on the great gameboard of life which had been drilled to accept her own oddly shaped peg.

It is interesting to not that Ruth's voice is the driving force that gave the woman the confidence she needed to deal with her situation and to help her keep looking for a way to escape.

InsomniaIn Insomnia, we are told a story about two senior citizens who sleep less and less each night, which causes them to see and ultimately to manipulate mystical forces until they are able to participate in a strange ethereal war between good an evil. This novel has several positive gay characters. One of these characters, Gretchen Tillbury, is described as very feminine, beautiful and lesbian. She worked at WomenCare to help abused and needy women. Bill McGovern is also a positively portrayed gay male character who lives near the main characters.

IT 'It' stands out of the crowd as a surprising tribute to the gay community in general. While the book has some negative gay representations, it spends about a chapter explaining how the gay community coalesced in the small town of Derry. The story of It revolves around an evil force that has the ability to take the form of a person's worst fears and to destroy them with it. This malevolent force has no real body, and almost godlike abilities in the area of fear. Because of this power, It also prefers to work on children, who experience fear the strongest. So, since the misfit children in the town were the only ones to know of the evil, they take it upon themselves to destroy it.

During the course of the book, a gay character is tormented and thrown into a canal by a group of homophobes, while his stereotypically effeminate lover watches on helplessly. We then learn of the homophobia of society and the police force in this town who feel the gay guys brought it on themselves by being obvious about their orientations.

Later, using this couple as a launching point, the book goes on to explain how a gay bar came into existence and a bit about the men who frequented it. The men, as a whole, are described in a very positive light. Through this part of the story, we also learned about the relationship between the two men. As mentioned, this description is quite lengthy, all things considered, and comes across as quite pro-gay.

The Loved Victim
DreamcatcherBut while a limited strength can be seen in some of the queer characters the positive portrayals often times mask their helplessness and passivity. The couple in It was flamboyant, bawdy and effeminate, with the one lover alternately wringing his hands and bursting out into loud sobs, rather than fighting back. The police show very little sympathy for the 'fag', which leads to more displays of helplessness rather than anger or righteous indignation. The character was portrayed as so over the top, complete with a large floppy flower on his hat, that it was difficult to feel for him. This incident was again recounted in the novel Dreamcatcher.

In addition to Bill and Gretchen, Insomnia offered us a third queer character. Helen, the head of a women's health clinic, ends up leaving her abusive husband and becomes a lesbian. The character who discloses this information is an elderly man, who makes it clear that he thinks that she became a lesbian because of this abuse. However, Helen is well portrayed throughout the story.

The Talisman The Talisman, more a dark fantasy novel than actual horror, follows Jack, a 12-year-old boy who sets off across the country to find the magic that will cure his dying mother. Jack's father had died years ago, as had his father's best friends. One of his father's friends, known to Jack as Uncle Tommy, was openly gay. Tommy was portrayed as a positive character, in memorandum. Tommy was killed by another of the father's friends, Morgan Sloat, had killed him off to get him out of his way by hiring some creatures from another dimension to run him down. He felt safe doing this because no one would care that a queer was killed.

The Homophobe
So, while the queer characters are at times the pathetic victims in these stories, sometimes the readers are meant to identify with them. The evil in many of King's books do things just so we know how cruel and evil they are, and picking on queers is often times a way to show this. The homophobes in It are imprisoned by the police. Truly they are despicable folk and are not represented in a way that most folks would want to identify with.

Numerous times in The Talisman, Jack and Wolf, a werewolf that Jack befriended in another dimension before bringing him to this one, are accused of being gay. During the course of the story Jack and Wolf are put into 'The Sunlight Home for Wayward Boys" and are picked on mercilessly by a few of the crueler boys. These boys, at one point, beat them for appearing to be lovers (Jack and Wolf are not gay, which is made very clear throughout the story). But rather that being seen as doing something good, the boys are truly horrific and the readers are glad to see them torn apart by Wolf during his full-moon cycle.

The made for TV movie Storm of the Century brings us a town being tormented both by the storm of the century and by Linoge, a supernatural creature who forces the town to choose a child to sacrifice to him. If the townsfolk refuse, they risk losing every one of their children. This creature confronts the townsfolk with the worst things that they had done, which includes three of the men who had once bashed a gay man.

The Molester
Sadly though the homophobes are not always seen as worse than the queers themselves. King sometimes descends into the shameful stereotypes of the community and shows how perverse and twisted gay men can be. In addition to few truly horribly evil gay characters in Gerald's Game and The Stand, lesser forms of evil are also seen.

Needful Things Needful Things, shows a twisted look at the hate lurking below the surface in each of us. In this novel, a shopkeeper opens a store that sells nothing but the objects you most desire. The monetary price of the objects is trivial and but is accompanied by a promise to play a small prank on someone you hardly know. The pranks themselves are designed to best enrage the folks and to turn them against each other. For example, to obtain her heart's desire, a piece of Noah's Ark, a Christian woman is told to leave an envelope on the high school principal's desk, and to force open his desk drawer and leave its contents strewn around. The contents turn out to be porn magazines featuring vastly underage boys. When Principal Jewett and his staff see these magazines, he automatically assumes that this was the work of woodshop teacher, who was also gay and had accompanied him to gay sex parties with children. His belief is 'confirmed' when he opens the envelope on his desk which contains a blackmailing note supposedly from this teacher, threatening to reveal his secret. The principal vows to kill him for what he's done to his career. Towards the end of the novel, the two gay men face off in an old-fashioned dual. They shoot simultaneously and their bullets collide in mid-air, deflecting them from their killing paths. The two seem to come to their senses, but are killed in an explosion set by other characters.

The ShiningA book, that was much more popular as a movie, is The Shining, which focuses on a hotel that has seen more than its fair share of evil. The hotel is activated by a psychic child and lets loose a whole slew of 'ghosts'. These ghosts include two secondary male characters that have a sexual relationship. Harry Derwent is an 'AC/DC' man who enjoys the attentions of, and in abusing, Roger. During the course of their relationship Harry delights in tormenting Roger and at one point tells Roger to dress up as a dog in order to humiliate him at a party. This relationship was toned down in the original movie made in 1980, and consisted of showing a man in a dog costume approaching another man in a bed before the hotel room door was closed. The 1997 remake (more faithful except for the crappy ending), watered it down further and only showed a man acting like a dog at a party.

Numerous gay men asked Jack to have sex with them in The Talisman in spite of his being only 12 years of age. Openly gay men in California regularly asked him to have sex and would take it in stride when they were turned down. Closeted gay Midwestern men would freak out and accuse Jack of being gay himself, when he refuted their advances.

Gays are shown to do whatever it takes to get sex in King's short story 'Sneakers', which involves a radio station worker who discovers a ghost in a bathroom stall. His boss, Paul, is gay and puts the moves on him during the story, and is represented as fairly immoral and depraved. Paul is eventually found to be the one who murdered the man in the bathroom, solely to get his drug money.

The Tommyknockers Salem's LotThere are other gay characters found sprinkled throughout his books. The Tommyknockers, a book about an alien spacecraft slowly converting the townsfolk to monsters, introduces us to Alice, an elementary school teacher who is also a lesbian. We don't learn anything about her other than she is the last monster to die at the end. Donny Keegan in The Talisman, was extremely simple, but found that he was completely in love with the main character, Jack. But the realization was as far as this relationship went - and this love could have been read as budding homosexuality or love of God, depending on how it was read. A presidential aide in Dead Zone, a story about a man who gets visions when he touches people, had a penchant for gay bars. A homosexual man was shot in Salem's Lot, which has vampires taking over the planet.

Despite the wide variety of character types that queers have played in his novels, and the tribute found in It, one thing that stands out in his books is that GLBT characters are not at the same level as his majority and other minority characters when it comes to the hero role. King has had black heroes in The Shining and The Stand, females in many stories including It, Gerald's Game, The Shining and Insomnia, and elderly heroes in Insomnia. But no queer characters

Overall, women seem to be better treated than men, but tend to be turned to lesbianism as an alternative to suffering from abusive males, rather than due to their natural attraction to women. Male characters are generally just seen as perverse. But no minority status holds a candle to able-bodied heterosexual Caucasian men, his obvious favorite in both the hero and the villain role.

This slight homophobia is probably more seen as stemming from ignorance than from hatred. The fact that King accepts gays and lesbians has been shown in at least one interview, where King states that he prefers independent bookstores to chains because readers:

"are unlikely to find in chains ... alternative subjects and authors.

"Chains try to remain middle-of-the-road. You can find Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh, but you can't find a gay and lesbian anthology,".

Here's to hoping he creates a queer hero in his future works.

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