To my knowledge, there has not yet been any academic work that has dealt with Stephen King’s use of expletives in his fiction work, and this is a shame. This needs to be corrected because it’s a subject that could really benefit from the scientific method. Maybe it would tell us a lot about him, maybe it would teach us something about ourselves–ultimately I think it’d be really entertaining.

Stephen KingWhy I think his use of bad language is particularly remarkable is that it often feels so out of place. “Ostentatious” isn’t quite the word to describe it–I would better describe it as “flamboyant”. If there isn’t an implied drum-roll leading up to it, you definitely get the impression that there is a finishing flourish. It has the effect of bringing you out of the story since I would estimate that 90% of swears happen unconsciously since few people swear for effect and almost nobody does it creatively. So whereas in normal dialogue, expletives are salted away in between phrases, or used as a bridging or time-buying device, or used without thinking at all–as in Robert DeNiro’s character in Midnight Run (1988) –“I have two words for you: shut the fuck up”.  The point is, almost nobody draws attention to the actual swear itself.

Except for Stephen King. He seems to relish a certain inventiveness to his off-colour lyrics, which is sweet. I totally get that the Horror genre is all about creating a world with assumed rules and limitations and then throwing something completely batshit into it–and often this will extend to a character who says something unexpected, or outright offensive, and this even extends into the narration. But even the casual remarks by established characters will stand out awkwardly, in a way that contradicts themselves. For instance, in Under The Dome (2009) James “Big Jim” Rennie is as self-important as he is hypocritical, a man at the centre of the community who has a finger in every pie, runs a meth lab, yet cultivates the image of an Evangelical Christian who goes to church every Sunday. And yet, a word that he’s very fond of referring to unfortunate situations as being “a real clustermug” in front of people, to show how down-the-line he is on the whole issue of swearing. Now, as far as I and the Internet can establish, clustermug was invented and used by King only for this character. Using this word is consistent to the character inasmuch as he is someone who ordinarily would swear horrendously, but stops just short of it for the sake of his image. And yet “clustermug” refers to such a specific and strong expletive, I think most Evangelical hypocrites would simply pretend not to know that word. And by betraying that you do know what “clustermug” is a stand-in for, and that you have just stopped yourself from using it, you’ve gone so far out of your way that you may as well just use the actual word. I mean, I remember my grandmother being upset with my brother and I using the word “geeze”. Even that was too strong for someone of her culture and upbringing.

Clustermug

This method of swearing against character is more than endemic, it’s practically thematic. In Mr Mercedes (2014), a Crime-Thriller, a well-bred woman under interview refers to a certain incident as having “as much a chance of success as a six-months preemie”, in quite an off-hand manner. I find this exceptionally odd. I assume that “preemie” is short for “prematurely delivered infant”, and that the referenced “success” is its chance of living. Now, while it might be reasonable for King to use such an allusion in his narration (I say might because as an author I personally would steer clear from it in case any readers had actually experienced a pre-term delivery) in order to keep the readers on-edge, perhaps. But again it just seems to run counter for such a buttoned-down character to instantly grasp for such a questionable simile, and not only that, but to act so familiarly with the word “premature” that they feel it necessary to knock it down a syllable, to “preemie”.

I wonder what it says about King. It’s clear that no one actually speaks this way, so he can’t have overheard this in a supermarket for instance. Perhaps his friends speak like this? Yet he thinks that people speak like this, and I wonder why. It reminds me of his son Joe Hill’s book Horns (2010) which involves someone being able to hear other people’s thoughts, and at no time does he hear a thought that is not unpleasant. He always hears some sort of dark desire and twisted inner admission–never anyone just trying to figure out their change from five dollars, or struggling to remember what time the mall closes. And while the world that these two particular authors inhabit is open for discussion–what kind of world do they think the rest of us live in?

This is by no means a thorough investigation, and it’s not meant to disparage King or Hill, who are both authors that genuinely enjoy reading. I just think it’s a really rich seam for anyone willing to devote the time needed to this fascinating area of study.