Don’t fret Stephen King, you are still capable of scaring audiences silly

‘Predictable pleasures’ keep horror fans, of any age, coming back for more

What gruesome nightmares torment novelist Stephen King in the middle of the night? The monsters in the attic? The serial killer under the bed? Or perhaps it’s the dreaded Kindle, come to steal all his readers away? Apparently not. According to an interview he gave the BBC earlier this week, the only thing that really gives King the willies is the spectre of the contemporary audience. “They have gotten a lot more savvy about the tricks that novel writers and film-makers use to scare them with.”

I’m a little scared, frankly, by how defeatist this statement sounds. But then since Stephen King is the most successful writer of horror and suspense fiction in the world, I’m inclined to assume instead that this is just a clever bit of early marketing for Doctor Sleep, his forthcoming sequel to The Shining. Like any decent horror writer he intends to lull us into a false sense of security before his latest creation jumps out of the publisher’s cupboard and ambushes us with its brilliance. Remember, if there’s one thing King is even better at that writing horror stories, it’s flogging them; he’s sold 350 million and counting.

Horror isn’t to everyone’s tastes, but if you like a vindaloo curry, or rollercoasters, or industrial techno music, then you can understand the principle of a pleasure which pleases through slight pain. No one would actually want to be stuck in the vast Overlook Hotel with a past-his-prime Jack Nicholson banging on about his creative insecurities (Shelley Duvall’s fate in the film version of The Shining), but when that nightmare is presented from a comfortable distance, in an environment that is ultimately within our control, it transforms into one of life’s great delights.

This also explains why wising up to the tricks of genre is not the same as tiring of them. It’s what cultural theorists call “the predictable pleasures” and it’s this that keeps horror fans – of any age – coming back for more. We know what lies beneath and we’ve also got a fairly good idea whodunit, but the anticipation of these predictions realised makes us grip the paperback all the tighter and scream all the louder.

Perhaps I’m being too cynical (that’s savvy, modern audiences for you) and this isn’t a marketing ploy. Perhaps Stephen King is experiencing a genuine crisis of confidence. If that’s the case, he need only look to Northampton for reassurance. There, a local prankster has succeeded in scaring the bejesus out of residents by simply donning the white face make-up and red nose of Pennywise, from Stephen King’s 1986 novel It.

If some clown (literally) from the East Midlands can terrorise with such minimal effort, then the acknowledged master of horror should have no trouble at all.

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