The Tender Activist: King & Queens

By : Scottie Campbell
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Mom would tell it like she told all of her best stories, barely getting the words out through her laughter and sometimes joyful tears. She and Dad had been to see Carrie. Someone in their party grabbed someone’s arm just prior to Carrie’s hand reaching out of the grave causing that first someone to scream, which made the audience scream, all before the scream Brian De Palma intended but, not to worry, they all screamed then, too.

So I might have connected who the author was when I bought my first Stephen King book when I was 11, but I’m fairly certain it was the cover that drew me in. A silver front with a faceless boy’s head floating on it. The store was B. Dalton Bookstore in the Marquette Mall. That small mall and the McDonald’s down the street were our family’s touchstones to civilization while stationed in the frigid Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Can I tell you about the smell of that book? I cannot, because it smelled like nothing else. The scent of those dull, off-white, pulp pages can only be described in intangibles: raw potential and adventure; that whole store smelled that way.

The book, as King fans probably guessed, was The Shining and I devoured it. There is of course the delicious tale of Jack Torrance going mad in an isolated location, but I was equally fascinated by the detailed history King gave of the Overlook Hotel. I don’t dislike the Stanley Kubrick film as much as King purportedly does, but it’s always pissed me off that the hero of the book, a black man, is killed in that adaptation. What the actual fuck, Stanley? Regardless, as is the case with even the best adaptations of his work, reading Stephen King is a rich experience that will never completely translate to screens, big or small.

As a Constant Reader (as King calls his fans), I was surprised to recently run across articles critical of King’s treatment of gay and lesbian characters. These discussions are surfacing because of the blockbuster success of the recent adaptation of It. Fans wondered if bully Patrick Hockstetter would give gang leader Henry Bowers a hand job as he did in the book. Would a minor plotline with a gay couple being harassed be included? Ironically, there are those who took issue with both of these elements of It since Hockstetter is an animal-torturing psychopath who murdered his baby brother and the couple is portrayed as being flamboyant. Now the lavender hammer would come crashing down on filmdom if the scenes are excluded, as they were in the 1990 television adaptation.

The criticisms take the form of online chatter like reviews on horror sites and Goodreads, to bloggers like “GhoulieJoe” who posits King’s gay characters “can be quantified into five types: the Mannish Lesbian, the Trauma Victim, the Weakling, the Predator, and the Well-Adjusted” in a surprisingly thorough post. There are also learned essays like those from respected film critic Robin Wood who almost seems to assume King’s homophobic tone is a given. Complaints include characters who have chosen to be lesbian due to abusive relationships, gay men being described as small in stature and easily frightened or effeminate, and bisexual characters who are evil. Perhaps I’ve lived a more colorful life than I realize; I’ve known all these people.

GhoulieJoe does allow that King’s treatment of gays has shown growth over his 40-plus years on best seller lists. She cites the second book of the Bill Hodges Trilogy, Finders Keepers, when King describes a waiter from gay man’s perspective: “Longish dark blond hair, clean and tied back at the nape so his elegant cheekbones show.” Herein lies the flaw in these criticisms: as the storyteller, King is writing from the point of view of the characters, not himself. When It’s Officer Gardener comments “This man—if you want to call him a man…” it is no more King’s personal opinion than Jack Torrance noting the way another character’s limp penis floats in a bath means King likes dick. A cursory look at his Twitter will tell you where the man himself stands. Hell, he was calling Mike Pence on his homophobia before most of us knew who the now vice president was. And, not for nothing, his daughter is lesbian.

One thing has always been true about King’s work: he writes for thinkers. Does Patrick Hockstetter masturbating a guy make him gay? Is Pennywise in his head? Does the act mean all psychopaths are a bit gay? Like all good literature, Stephen King’s work helped expanded my worldview by presenting questions like that through quirky, flawed, human characters. He was also writing about homosexual proclivities when few other mainstream authors were.

To riff on a John Denver line, as much as it turns me on to be 50, it turns me on even more to know Stephen King is 70 and still going strong. Two recent major movie releases, a Netflix movie release, and three television series based on his work are among is current projects. Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Night’s has a Shining-themed house — albeit based on the aforementioned Kubrick film). And he’s currently on tour promoting a newly released collaboration with his son, Owen, Sleeping Beauties (with a sold out stop in Sarasota October 6). My pre-ordered copy has arrived and it’s all I can do to not put aside my Orlando Museum of Art Book Club selection and dive into it.

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