Checking out of the Overlook: 16 ways to survive a Stephen King story

Checking out of the Overlook: 16 ways to survive a Stephen King story

1. Don’t be evil.
In Stephen King’s vast library of work—more than 60 books and nearly 400 short stories written over 35 years, according to The New York Times—the death tolls are vast, and the antagonists are monstrous, powerful, and often arbitrary. The protagonists often make it out in one piece, but there are no guarantees for anyone else. There are a few helpful paths to survival, though, starting with the most boring, obvious one: Don’t be the bad guy. While King’s has drawn from early predecessors like Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, his worlds have never been as amoral and malevolent as theirs; good people suffer and often die, but the evil forces virtually always lose the ultimate battle, and they mostly die. (At least those that weren’t already dead to begin with.) A few, like the perennial baddie sometimes called Randall Flagg (The Stand, the Dark Tower books, Eyes Of The Dragon) escape to fight another day, sometimes under new names and in new forms. But usually, at the end of the day, evil goes down swinging and cursing. Anyone in a King story looking to make it out alive, take note.

2. Don’t go anywhere. 
In King stories, tourism generally equals death. In Gatlin, Nebraska, the title characters of “The Children Of The Corn” are waiting to murder strangers in the name of their horrible god. Somewhere in Oregon, Rock And Roll Heaven pulls in the unwary with offers of great music by the long dead, but the tunes in “You Know They’ve Got A Hell Of A Band” come at a great price. Willow, Maine welcomes newlyweds with friendly locals and storms of killer frogs in “Rainy Season.” The Shining has a resort hotel in Colorado that will kill entire families if they stay too long. In Desperation, a bloated Nevada sheriff will arrest drivers on minor infractions, just so he can shoot them in the back. In spite of its apparent destruction at the end of Salem’s Lot, that town is still open for a bite any time. Really, you’re better off just staying home.

3. Avoid off-brand merchandise.
In King stories, it’s a good idea to make sure your purchases come from accredited brand names and have trustworthy, trackable histories. Otherwise, you might end up paying for something for the rest of your life. (Insert creaky, menacing laughter here.) Nowhere is this more evident than in King’s “deal with the devil” parable Needful Things, in which Castle Rock is laid to waste by a new store that offers exactly what its customers desire. Leland Gaunt, proprietor, deal-maker, and not at all nice fellow, has a special stock of priceless items that he’ll sell to just the right bidder, in exchange for a pittance and a prank that seems harmless but really isn’t. Everyone who buys suffers, just like Arnie Cunningham suffers for investing in a used Plymouth Fury without looking for references in Christine. Or Richie Grenadine suffers, when he learns that incredibly cheap beer isn’t necessarily worth the savings in “Gray Matter.” Sometimes mysterious goods can be lifesavers, as in “Chattery Teeth,” and sometimes even seemingly trustworthy product goes bad, like the Polaroid Camera in “The Sun Dog,” which takes the most awful pictures. But be on the safe side: Shop smart, and always get a receipt.

4. Learn the rules.
Often, King tales are about the process of figuring out the particular, peculiar laws of each new jungle he sets his characters into. When a cell-phone-borne virus turns people into zombies in Cell, protagonist Clayton Riddell has to learn the monsters’ limits and drives in order to have a chance at saving his infected son. The title character in Lisey’s Story has to figure out what Boo’ya Moon is, how to get there, and what it means to her and her late husband. Thad Beaumont has to deduce what a psychopomp is and how to use it to escape his mad brother-thing in The Dark Half. And ignoring the rules, hoping to turn things to his advantage, leads Louis Creed in Pet Sematary to a terrible place. The rules tend to be pretty strange—just look at the bizarro tongue-biting Ritual Of Chüd that the kids in It have to go through (twice!) to deal with their monstrous enemy. And it’s almost never clear who established the rules in the first place. But the rules are always older and stronger than frail humanity, and victims can generally become survivors just by getting their adversaries on the wrong side of immutable cosmic law. 

5. Be a kid.
Being a child isn’t a foolproof path to survival in a Stephen King book: Children periodically die to show just how dangerous and ruthless a given story’s threat is, and how serious the situation has become. From George Denbrough at the very beginning of It to Brian Rusk, the first customer at the shop in Needful Things, King books are littered with child corpses; hell, Jake in the Dark Tower series dies three different times. And yet… King’s stories often have a sentimental twinge toward children, and they’re far more likely to survive than not, often due to other people’s sacrifices and struggles. Sometimes they’re MacGuffins—in the cases of Kyra in Bag Of Bones, Patrick Danville in Insomnia, Charlie in Firestarter, or Danny Torrance in The Shining, their survival is central to the plot. Sometimes their survival is the entire plot, as with Trisha in The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. Sometimes they just get very lucky, like David and Hilly Brown, escaping the cataclysm that takes their town in The Tommyknockers. One way or another, kids have a pretty good chance of making it out alive. Of course, they’ll probably lose their innocence along the way. As “Low Men In Yellow Coats” from Hearts In Atlantis illustrates, sometimes in a conflict, the child survives, but childhood doesn’t.

6. Be resourceful and ruthless.
Again, this one may be obvious, but while King often respects that fragile childish innocence, he tends to reward the bastards who are willing to bite the bullet and do whatever it takes to survive, from Paul Sheldon cramming a burning manuscript into Annie’s mouth in Misery to Jessie Burlingame slashing her own wrists to escape in Gerald’s Game. Andy Dufresne is willing to go to staggering extremes to escape with his sanity and self-respect as well as his life in “Rita Hayworth And The Shawshank Redemption,” while the teacher in “Sometimes They Come Back” is willing to rip off his own fingers and summon a demon in order to deal with his killer-ghost problem. Redemption and rescue never comes easy in a King story; those who make it out usually do so via insane acts of mingled terror and bravado. As Hal Shelburn explains after he risks his life to take out a killer toy in “The Monkey,” fear often numbs any feelings of courage, but it doesn’t matter what you’re feeling, as long as you’re doing the right thing.

7. Accept that you’ll never be cool.
Like most popular authors, King has an affection for the underdog, but that affection is often undone by a deep, unsettling antipathy toward the social outcasts in his fiction. Carrie White of Carrie is to be pitied, but not entirely liked, and while her tragic fall is precipitated by an undeserved act of cruelty committed by her peers, the subtext is unmistakable: Know your place. Carrie pretends she’s a normal girl and goes to the prom, where she gets doused in pig’s blood. Arnie Cunningham, the awkward, nerdy loser at the heart of Christine, finds that the self-confidence and hot girlfriend he gets from having his own wheels means losing himself to the ghost in the machine. Ed Hamner in “I Know What You Need” seems like the perfect mate, in spite of being a dork with a crappy job and a crappy life—so clearly he’s using evil magic to improve his odds with the ladies. Then there’s Harold Lauder, the most miserable bastard in King’s The Stand; he’s a zit-covered, fat-assed freak who has the temerity to fantasize about one of the book’s heroines. Lauder gains some measure of acceptance with the good guys, but his self-hatred leads to a seething resentment of those around him, as well as a fatal pact with the Walking Dude. Had Harold just made peace with his geekiness, he might’ve found salvation along with the rest of his so-called friends, instead of winding up dead in a ditch, a victim of his own insecurities.

8. Believe in the healing power of art.
King has never been shy about his passion for storytelling, so it’s no surprise to see that love translating itself into his work. Being a writer doesn’t always guarantee a long life, but it certainly improves a character’s odds of survival. Bag Of Bones narrator Mike Noonan finds salvation literally hidden in the prose of his final thriller. Bill Denbrough’s adult turn to horror fiction provides him with a valuable tool for dealing with a childhood that refuses to stay buried in It. Richard Hagstrom in “Word Processor Of The Gods” hates the world he’s trapped in, and sees that it’s slowly killing a boy he cares about, so he literally writes them up a new one. King himself, showing up as a character in the Dark Tower books, keeps his characters alive by writing, and rescues himself in the process. And prose isn’t the only doorway to salvation, either. The painter hero of King’s recent novel Duma Key is nearly destroyed by his work, but he turns the tide by using that same work as a weapon for beating back the forces of darkness. Still, the best example of how art can stave off destruction comes from one of King’s most bizarrely personal novels, Misery, in which romance novelist Paul Sheldon uses his latest, greatest creation to keep his murderous number-one fan at bay.

9. Pack a lunch.
King’s protagonists have bad luck with confined spaces. Witness the fate of poor Donna and Tad Trenton, a mother and son trapped in their car for days by a rabid St. Bernard in Cujo. Or the hero who gets locked in a porta-potty and left for dead in “A Very Tight Place.” While disaster may be impossible to avoid, characters can plan for it by keeping the possibilities in mind, and at the very least, storing up supplies against the storm. Stored food would’ve kept Lloyd Henreid from munching on his cellmates in The Stand, and though it wouldn’t have saved the lives of the auto-entombed mobsters in “Dolan’s Cadillac,” it might have at left them to face those final few moments of gasping for air with a full stomach. Who knows how much more comfortable Jesse Burlingame would’ve spent her time handcuffed to a bed in Gerald’s Game if she’d had the foresight to leave munchies within arm’s reach? At the very least, the surgeon-narrator stranded on a desert island in “Survivor Type” could’ve benefited by brown-bagging it.

10. Keep a decoy buddy around.
Sacrifice is a running theme in King books; once in the frying pan, many characters find that the best way to stay out of the fire is to let someone else jump first. Like Dick Hallorann, showing up to draw Jack’s ire and let his other victims escape in The Shining. (At least in the book, Dick not only survives, but actually manages to do some good in the process.) Or John Coffey, sucking up other people’s death, then quietly going to his own in The Green Mile. Or the unfortunate Jimmy, heading into danger first and setting off the knife trap in ’Salem’s Lot. Or Jonesy in Dreamcatcher and Bobbi’s fearsome sister Ann in The Tommyknockers, each knowing that they’ve been compromised and doomed, and that the best they can manage is to get between their tormentors and anyone who still has a chance of fighting back.

11. Steer clear of Roland.
Speaking of ablative buddies, Dark Tower series protagonist Roland Deschain has a long chain of them, from his childhood friends to the adult companions he pulls out of their own worlds. It’s clear from the beginning that he has an agenda that will brook no compromise, no matter whom he has to sacrifice. He’s also a highly skilled killer who doesn’t allow for interference. Within his radius, friends and foes alike tend to wind up dead; King draws him as a somewhat tragic, lonely figure, but also a right selfish bastard, when it comes right down to it. By the end of King’s magnum opus, he has a body count that rivals the scariest of King’s monsters; the quest just really isn’t worth the lethality of being his friend.

12. Follow God, not religion.
It’s hard to ignore the contempt for organized religion that runs through all of King’s writing, where a commitment to Christianity more often than not translates to tyrannical madness. Witness Margaret White, the domineering fundie mother in Carrie, who locks her daughter in a closet at the slightest hint of sin. Or Mrs. Carmody in “The Mist,” who responds to monsters and death with a series of nonsensical Bible verses and a growing hunger for human sacrifice. But that doesn’t mean King doesn’t believe in God. Faith is a key component in his work, and while that faith boils down to a commitment to basic goodness, respect for a Man Upstairs is still important. Mother Abigail, the elderly woman who serves as a lynchpin for the heroic forces in The Stand, knew her Bible as well as Mrs. White, but she used that knowledge more as a bulwark of her own essential decency. Where the evil “Christers” (as one of the heroes of Cell labels them) use scripture to reinforce their own prejudices, thus dooming themselves to inevitable retribution, the heroes, like David Carver, the child prophet of Desperation, only know that somewhere, Someone is in charge, and the best way to get by is listen to the signs and not get bogged down in the details.

13. Don’t fall in love with the hero.
Pity Susan Norton. In ’Salem’s Lot, she doesn’t do anything wrong—in fact, she’s barely there at all. As one of a long line of less-than-convincing King love interests, she meets Ben Mears, the novel’s protagonist, is dutifully impressed by his writing prowess, becomes interested in his suspicions about a dark force rising in the town, and then ends up as vampire chow. Her purpose in the narrative is to add tragedy to Ben’s fight against evil, but it also points out one the essential dangers of romance in genre fiction. And King is no exception to the rule. See also Rachel Creed in Pet Sematary, who marries a doctor, then gets dragged across the country to a small town in Maine where an evil Indian burial ground claims her cat, her toddler son, her neighbor, and eventually, her. The never-seen lover in “The Ledge” is murdered off the page and still gets used to force the hero to go for a very dangerous walk. Tommy Ross, the boyfriend of Sue Snell and target of Carrie White’s infatuation in Carrie, ends up unconscious, then electrocuted. Ben Richards’ wife Sheila is murdered so her husband can have a spectacular finish in The Running Man. And of course, poor Susan Delgado’s fate in Wizard & Glass serves as the perfect haunting backstory for Roland in Dark Tower. (See above.) Falling for a King hero means a lover who will remember your name, forget your birthday, and likely lead you to your ugly, agonizing demise.

14. Don’t trust technology.
Sure, it seems shiny. Who wouldn’t want the ability to talk to anyone anywhere, travel the stars in comfort and speed, or generate full novels without ever having to write anything down? But in King-land, the tech that makes all these things possible is almost always something the world would’ve been better off without. “The Jaunt” tells of a future where instantaneous transportation is possible, but only if you stick to the rules. In Cell, the real, relatable magic of cell phones leads to mass insanity, murder, and the disintegration of society. But the Faustian bargain struck between science and our immature need for power comes through plainest in The Tommyknockers, where a group of long-dead aliens control a small Maine town by offering the locals access to astonishing innovations and otherworldly devices. While King has publicly admitted the book is as much about his drug addiction as about technology, its cautionary advice is still useful to any future protagonists: Behind every high-speed mail-sorting machine is a bald woman with tentacles where her vagina used to be.

15. Listen to the magic voices in your head.
As we’ve said before and will say again, latter-day King stories tend to get deterministic, with the fight between good and evil going on way above the protagonists’ heads. So people tend to get a lot of help from the other side, generally in the form of internal voices that guide them and provide key hints as to the best path to take. This plot device reaches its apex in Rose Madder, where both the abused-wife protagonist and her insane abuser husband essentially become chess pieces on an unseen board, piloted through the plot step by step. But most of King’s novels have these guiding voices in some form or the other. Usually they sound like someone the protagonist used to know and love. Usually they know far more than the protagonist does. And while they aren’t always benevolent, they don’t lie and they don’t fail. The question is, why do they care?

16. If all else fails, redefine survival.
Sometimes you can’t beat ’em. So why not join ’em? Maybe that means becoming a hideous fungoid beast, as in “Gray Matter.” Or becoming a slave to brutal machines, as in “Trucks.” Or losing your faith and your soul, like Father Callahan from ’Salem’s Lot. Or finding a way into another world, like Seth Garin and Audrey Wyler in The Regulators. (Or Father Callahan again, for that matter.) Or winding up as an armless proto-alien in “I Am The Doorway,” or a crazed murderer in “The Man Who Loved Flowers.” Actually, survival in King books often seems to be paired with horrific madness and murder, but come on, who wouldn’t willingly slaughter a few dozen executives (“The Ten O’Clock People”) or kids (“Suffer The Little Children”) in order to save their own necks? No one ever said survival in a King story would be easy, after all.

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