[Q&A] Stephen King on fear and politics

Stephen King knows as much as anyone really can know about the power fear has over people. In terms of politics, fear is an incredible weapon since it can't -- unlike the fictional fear he deals in -- be placed under what the 65-year-old author calls a "glass lid." This fear, especially the fear of the other, was on King's mind when I spoke with him by telephone before Thanksgiving ahead of his December 7 appearance at UMass Lowell.


How do you think fear manipulates large groups of people? More specifically, what's the difference between the fear elicited in fiction writing and the fear that is elicited in the news media?

It depends on how much of a news junkie you are. When you see something like what's going on in Gaza and in Israel right now ... that is a fear of some kind of escalation, of things getting out of control. And it's a kind of pervasive thing, it's like a whole-body fever. There's a feeling that you can't do anything about it. That you're sort of a helpless spectator to [it]. The only thing that you can do with a real-life situation like what's going on right now in the Middle East is to turn off the TV, and that's a little bit akin to an ostrich burying its head in the sand. The difference is that with make believe, you're really in charge of the thing and you know on some level that this isn't happening, that it's all a fiction.


So you can step outside of it?

Right. You can step outside of it. It's interesting for somebody like me who's dealt with fear and paranoia for [his] whole career to watch the political campaign that just took place and see how people play on [other] people's fears. It's a little bit depressing in a way to see people saying not "You should vote for me because I'll do this and make it better," but,  "You should vote against the other guy because he's gonna do these terrible things." That sort of installation of fear. It's very 1984.


That's the ‘lesser of two evils', right?



What experiences or authors have cultivated this belief in you? In other words, what informs your view?

The first one who spoke to me that way was William Golding in Lord of the Flies. It's enough to keep you awake at night because he shows how thin the veneer of civilization is. In a political sense, I think one of the great horror novels of all time is 1984, because it shows what happens if politics runs wild. I mean, you can talk about it being either a novel that talks about the horrors of communism or the horrors of some sort of right-wing dictatorship but what it really is talking about is what happens when the government takes complete control over individual lives.
And the more time that goes by, the more it starts to look like the life that we're living right now where there are video screens everywhere and, a lot of times, when you're looking at the video, the video is looking back at you.


I'm glad you mentioned George Orwell. If you've read Politics and the English Language the point is that when you don't know how to use words, you can't think very well and, like Lewis Lapham said, that leads to bad politics. That leads to "The War on Terror", which is kind of a nebulous term, right?

Right, and a lot of different catch phrases. Or before Michael Crichton came along with some of those novels, which I think are disguised horror novels, about technology. You've got a book like Colossus by D.F. Jones. And it talks about (and this is long before macs and PCs and all that) computers taking over the world. So we get a chance to look at these things in fiction and it's kind of fun, but there is a reality subtext here.


Yeah. Space Odyssey, too.

Right. "Don't turn me off, Dave."

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