Let’s get this out of the way first: Stephen King did not create Donald Trump.
It’s an easy enough mistake to make. For those on the left who observe the current administration with horror and disdain, the Trump presidency could be described as a national nightmare — and there is likely no writer responsible for more of our collective nightmares than King. This is the man who gave us Jack Torrance in The Shining, Pennywise in It, the rabid Saint Bernard in Cujo, and the titular telepathic teen in his first novel, Carrie. Then there’s The Dead Zone’s Greg Stillson, an outsider politician obsessed with greatness who cons his way into elected office and, according to a vision from psychic Johnny Smith, will one day end up in the White House where he’ll start a nuclear war.
The comparisons between the fictional Stillson and Donald Trump first emerged during the latter’s 2016 presidential campaign; King even reflected on the link between the two figures in an April 2017 article for the Guardian. Now, over a year and countless Trump-centric news cycles later, King continues to see the connection — but he’s careful to note that he himself is no Johnny Smith.
“Greg Stillson really is like Donald Trump in a lot of ways. [Trump]’s got the same sort of combination of real sinister behavioral characteristics, where you could actually believe that he would push the button, the way that Greg Stillson did in Johnny Smith’s vision, but he also has something that’s very appealing to people, which is truth telling, simple answers to complex problems, and humor,” King told BuzzFeed News from the Scribner offices in Midtown Manhattan. “But it isn’t like I predicted Trump.”
Still, it’s not a surprise that so many have viewed Trump through the lens of King’s work. (See also: Saturday Night Live’s portrayal of Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway as Pennywise.) These associations are undoubtedly informed by the film adaptations of King’s novels: The SNL sketch came on the heels of the 2017 It, and Martin Sheen immortalized Greg Stillson in David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone. But while the movies may amplify King’s work, these characters are his creations. They have become cultural touchstones for millions of Americans, who use King references to process a real world that sometimes seems stranger than fiction.
"I know about small towns, and they do have their dark side to them."
And novels aside, King hasn’t been quiet about Trump. Throughout the campaign and since the election, King has relentlessly derided the president, his policies, and his administration in tweets to his 4.8 million followers. Yes, he compared “populist demagogue” Trump to Greg Stillson — but more recently, King has spoken out against Fox News, the NRA, and Trump’s relationship with Vladimir Putin. Alongside photos of his corgi, Molly, and recommendations of the books, TV shows, and movies he’s enjoying, King’s anti-Trump missives have been a fixture of his Twitter feed. While King’s widespread appeal as a writer has been largely apolitical, he has suddenly become a fixture of “#Resistance Twitter.” And to those who have long turned to King’s work as a way of grounding their fears and anxieties, there’s comfort to be found in the author’s role as a voice of reason through what some view as a time of unmitigated horror.
That doesn’t mean that King is ready to trade in the title of storyteller for political activist. His politics are one thing, he insists, and his novels are another. The latest, The Outsider, follows Detective Ralph Anderson as he investigates the sexual assault and murder of an 11-year-old boy. It’s a cut-and-dried case with all the evidence pointing to beloved Little League coach Terry Maitland — but Terry has an airtight alibi. And Ralph, despite a lifelong devotion to facts, must come to terms with an explanation that doesn’t conform to the natural world. It’s an original story that King believes has little to do with his feelings about the president, but that didn’t stop the AV Club from calling The Outsider “an It for the Trump era.”
“I’m thinking to myself, That’s a fucking reach,” King said. “It’s really not that at all.”
The It comparison is reasonable, even if it doesn’t quite seem to fit, least of all to the writer himself. The Outsider, like so many of King’s works, is in part an exploration of the ugliness festering within small towns. It’s a thematic through-line to so many of King’s books: Consider the vampiric infestation of the eponymous town in 'Salem’s Lot; the death that hovers around the boys of Castle Rock in The Body, the novella that became the film Stand by Me; and yes, It’s Derry, Maine, a town built on violent bigotry and bloodshed, fed by the ancient evil quite literally lurking beneath it.
“Well, I know about small towns, and they do have their dark side to them,” King said. He conceded that there is one moment in The Outsider that does recall It for him, as Ralph takes Terry to his arraignment and sees that the crowd assembled around them — his friends and neighbors — is morphing into a bloodthirsty mob. “[Ralph’s] selective perception kind of breaks down, and he sees everything, and everything that he sees is ugly. He sees the whole ugly side of this town, and in that sense, I guess that it’s part of a thematic ‘back to the beginning’ — with Carrie — about small towns, because that’s what I know and that has a tendency to come out.”
When it comes to The Outsider’s connection to Trump, however, King remains unconvinced. Sure, it’s a novel for the Trump era in the literal sense that it’s set in 2018, with references to the president scattered throughout. At one point, King describes a boulder painted with the declaration “TRUMP MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN TRUMP.” Later on, the characters visit a restaurant where a photo of Trump has been defaced with a Hitler haircut and mustache. “To my mind, that’s not a political statement, that’s part of the whole scene,” King said. “That’s the world that we live in, so that it’s something that people can relate to.”
“To a large extent, [Trump] is the American id, isn’t he?”
But it’s not just the direct references to Trump that place The Outsider squarely in our current reality; it’s also the way King writes, at least in passing, about the issues that plague the country. When Holly, a private investigator helping Ralph, reads the newspaper, she notes a police officer shooting an unarmed black teenager and a synagogue defaced with a swastika. Beyond Flint City, the fictional small town where the novel takes place, there’s a sense that the US as a whole is infected with the same hatred and violence. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of this country’s history knows that’s not unique to the Trump era, but there is a sense among many on the left that the strain of evil that runs throughout the nation is stronger and more widespread now than at any other time in recent history.
King has been writing about that evil, in one way or another, for the past four decades. As a keen observer of the world around him, he has written about horror both supernatural and mundane, with most of his novels including some combination of the two. The Outsider is no exception. When a gun emerges from the crowd around Terry — with at least one of the man’s neighbors looking for more immediate justice than anything the courts could provide — that’s “good old American mobbism, and it predates Trump,” he said.
At the same time, King acknowledged the effect the president has had on exposing and, in some ways, encouraging the spread of that ugliness. “I do think that it’s undeniable — and it’s reprehensible, it’s awful — Trump has given the people in this country permission to be ugly tempered, to be mean,” he said. “When Trump says something like there are fine people on both sides, like he did after that hate rally, permission is given so there is a — I don’t know if it has anything to do with the book, but certainly this is a culture that’s more apt to be violent than the one that I grew up in.”
“To a large extent, [Trump] is the American id, isn’t he?” King continued.
The Outsider presents two alternative facts — Terry Maitland must have murdered that boy, but he couldn’t possibly have done it. In talking about his novel, King displays another fundamental contradiction: The Outsider has no real connection to Donald Trump, but it can’t escape the correlation. Regardless of what King intended, his audience continues to read between the lines.
And you’d have to, because there’s little politics to work with on the surface. Beyond that, there’s much more going on in King’s book than any Trumpian subtext, and it would be a serious misreading to suggest that the novel offers any sort of political allegory. (The only time King wrote an allegory like that, he said, was 2009’s Under the Dome, which was inspired by what he saw as the incompetence of the George W. Bush administration.) Nevertheless, critics persisted. The Guardian review of The Outsider notes, “There is an intriguing political undercurrent throughout: from mentions of the Black Lives Matter movement to the shadowy presence of Donald Trump.”
At times, King seems downright frustrated by these interpretations of his work, which, to his mind, require a conflation of his professional writing with his more overtly liberal-minded tweets. It’s not just his fellow Democrats who find a #Resistance-heavy subtext to his books; it’s also those on the right, many of whom have found themselves forced to give up Stephen King for good. But if he’s resolute in his dismissal of the persistent political reading of his novels, it’s not out of any concern for decreased readership, but because his focus has always been on the story.
“I’m a storyteller basically, and that’s apolitical, and I try to jettison as much of the politics as I can without forgetting that I’m a human being and I have a point of view and people have to deal with that, for better or for worse,” King said. “What I really don’t want to do is to write something that’s got an agenda that’s anti-Trump or pro–Elizabeth Warren or anything political. I want to tell a good story.”
Storytelling has never been a problem for King, who is as prolific as ever now that he’s entered his seventies. In addition to The Outsider, 2018 will also see the release of his novel Elevation in October. Last year, he published the novella Gwendy’s Button Box and the novel Sleeping Beauties, which he cowrote with his son, Owen King. But the books are only part of why the general consensus seems to be that “Stephen King is having a moment.” “I think the movies had a lot to do with it,” he said. “The movies in general and It in particular, because it was a huge cultural thing.”
“I’m a storyteller basically, and that’s apolitical."
The 1990 miniseries adaptation of It may have traumatized a generation of young people, but it’s hard to overstate the tremendous, record-breaking success of the 2017 film, which took in $700 million worldwide. And that wasn’t the only King adaptation last year. There was also the long-awaited The Dark Tower (a lamentable failure on every conceivable level) and the Netflix movies Gerald’s Game and 1922 (less a phenomenon than It but still well-received). On the TV side, there was the very good Mr. Mercedes series on the Audience Network and the very awful The Mist on Spike. Regardless of the variable quality of these adaptations, the net result was that King’s name was everywhere.
And his omnipresence shows no signs of abating. Hulu’s Castle Rock, a new series inspired by the fictional location of several King novels and stories, debuts in July. The sequel to It — based on the half of the novel not included in the first film — will be released next year, along with a new version of Pet Sematary, while remakes of Firestarter and The Tommyknockers are also in development. “[It] happened,” King said, “and then people looked around and said, Well, if that’s a success, maybe some other things that are old Stephen King, we can dig these up and redo ’em and we’ll get the same kind of bang for our buck.”
At some point, the moment may quiet. We’ll likely never turn away from King entirely, but the seemingly endless influx of books and adaptations will slow. For his part, King said that he’s slowed down considerably. The ideas don’t come the way that they used to. “When I was in my thirties, it was like somebody yells ‘fire’ in a crowded theater and everybody jams up the doors. I mean, that was my head, because I had all these ideas, all the time,” he said. ”It seemed like I was stronger and I could write more. I think some of that was fueled by beer and cigarettes, but it was also a function of being a younger person.”
Perhaps it’s only a matter of timing that has made King — who has never really not been popular — a particularly hot commodity in 2018. But there could be a more psychologically fruitful explanation. People often gravitate toward horror in times of dread: The genre provides a service to those living in fear, allowing a healthy outlet for experiencing and then, ideally, moving past the anxieties that torment us. And King’s work feels uniquely suited to comprehending the national nightmare those who reject the current administration are facing. His stories tap into the hard truths of what’s lurking beyond idyllic images of Americana. He cracks open towns like Castle Rock and Derry and Flint City, much like Ralph recalls opening a seemingly intact cantaloupe and discovering a mess of maggots writhing within.
King is not a political writer, and it’s understandable that he would want to create some distance between his novels and his personal beliefs. But even as he pushes away from a Trump-specific reading of The Outsider, he draws his own line from the book — which is about a skeptic learning to accept the reality of a monster — to our troubled times.
“What was important to me was the whole idea of, how do we deal with something that we can’t believe but is. Trump’s a good example. How do we deal with that on a day-to-day basis?” King said. “You’re in a situation where you say, I can’t believe that this reality guy who once did the WWF, who doesn’t have a brain, I can’t believe he got elected president. It can’t be. But it is. So you have to try.” ●