There is an opinion among Stephen King’s fans that he has become soft and his novels can hardly be classified as horror novels any more. However, in my opinion, it is unjustified. He has become wiser and more insightful, and if it means fewer gory scenes in his novels, this is the compromise I am more than willing to accept. Sometimes the insight into the mind of an individual can stir more trouble and disquietude than the bloodshed of the visual description.
This is exactly what Stephen King did in his latest novel. One can hardly compartmentalize the novel, and many literary tags can be easily applied to it – it is a coming-of-age story that lasts for decades; it is the story of addiction and the price we have to pay for easy solutions. It is also a parable about what is modern faith and how one would define a spiritual person.
I can see how both evangelicals and staunchest atheists could be mad at Stephen King. The reasoning of the second group is easier to pinpoint. Stephen King is using science to show us through the eyes of his character that there is another world after the death that we are not aware of, an ugly world, a world of human privation and misery, a world we can not explain or see from here and now.
The possible condemnation of the opposing group would be more complex and, I am afraid, more poignant. Prior to this novel, the religious people in King’s novels were of two types – either quiet, truly spiritual people, usually Methodists, who actually were loyal to all the doctrines of the religion they aspire to belong to – loving, forgiving, supportive, nonjudgmental – and let us be honest, they were NOT numerous at all. The other group is the group of loud-mouthed evangelicals, who are in facts haters, who used the religion to plant seeds of hatred, alienation, judgment, supremacy, violence, and bigotry (and their name is legion, and personally – rightly so).
This novel offers a much trickier concept of a man of faith. Charles Jacob is originally a loving and supporting man who quickly wins the hearts and minds of his congregation, but the horrendous drama turns him into a non-believer (although his fascination with electromagnetic science always offered this potential). His sermon after the death of his wife and son is the one where many free-thinkers would like to cheer him.
In fact, King was right again, saying that this man was possibly the most indoctrinated ever, and indeed he was. Charles Jacob lived and died with the thought that faith (spiritual or very worldly) is a thing that can turn many ugly things into beautiful ones, but most importantly it can also turn many beautiful things into ugly and self-seeking.
As a secularist and humanist, the power of faith is a mystery to me, but King is unmistakably bashing at the commercial evangelicals whose main religion is money and delusion of others. His main target is TV evangelicals – people who make money duping others by sending false messages of hope.
The character of Charles Jacob is quite complex, whose existence is driven by two opposing forces – help without strings attached and help with strings attached. Sometimes, his desire to see more, to know more, to understand more is so overwhelming that this urge cannot be even stopped by human losses. He is equally a mad scientist and a mad believer. Maybe, Stephen King is telling us that it is one and the same thing. Human lives cannot fall victims to one’s desire to see what is behind this life. Save lives and treat others without ulterior motives of salvation and curiosity seems to be a correct answer, but King is a wise story teller because he knows we would be nowhere without it, even if it is the saddest fact of our existence.