The Science of Stephen King: The Truth Behind Pennywise, Jack Torrance, Carrie, Cujo, and More Iconic Characters from the Master of Horror
Meg Hafdahl and Kelly Florence, who have previously explored The Science of Monsters and The Science of Women in Horror turn their attention to the King of Horror for their latest book. In The Science of Stephen King, the authors explore the real-world scientific phenomenon that have either inspired or have helped support the various themes, stories, and elements from the last 50 years of King's far-ranging career.
Suitably enough, Hafdahl and Florence start right at the beginning, with King's 1974 debut, Carrie. Rather than try to lend scientific credence to the supernatural abilities of this book's titular lead, the authors instead examine the various components that surround 16-year-old Carrie White, like the psychological damager suffered by the victims of bullying and religious extremism, as well the thematic use of menstruation and blood throughout the book. Because Carrie's first period plays such an important role in the story, the author's exploration of the societal and cultural regard of this biological milestone in a young woman's life reaches back to the creation of the lunar calendar and the first commercially available pads and tampon in 1929. Personally, I was shocked to learn that such mass-produced monthly necessities were only a fairly recent development, which, I suppose, just goes to show you how heavily dominated industries are by men - even those of women's hygiene products!
Over the course of the subsequent chapters, the authors lay out what becomes familiar groundwork for successive King novels, devoting a few pages to each carefully selected title and exploring it through a scientific lens, supported by either research or interviews they've conducted with members of the scientific community. Such topics of discovery include the science of alcohol abuse (The Shining), addiction (The Drawing of the Three), grief (Lisey's Story), the soul (Needful Things), and time travel (11/22/63), to name but a few.
Rather than diving into the deep end on any one of these subjects, Hafdahl and Florence instead take a cursory look at each of these aspects. The Science of Stephen King ends up being more of a collection of precis's rather than a fully realized thesis on his work at large. Nearly any one of the themes discussed in just one of the 30 novels studied here would be enough to fill an entire book on their own, and the authors aren't hurting for a lack of resources, that's for sure. Credit to them, then, for being able to simplify and streamline their discussions so throughly in their summaries of the science behind King's biggest works.
Unfortunately, there were a few times where the author's interests outside of the scientific took root in the book and caused a few issues for me. In their discussion of 2001's Dreamcatcher, for instance, Hafdahl and Florence spend nearly half of the already-short chapter interviewing screenwriter Kara Lee Corthron about her work adapting Caroline Kepnes's Joe Goldberg series for Netflix's You. This discussion is tangentially connected by the simplicity that King has himself adapted several of his own works for film...but, strangely enough, not Dreamcatcher! (That screenplay's credit goes to William Goldman and Lawrence Kasdan.) This interview and its focus on an adaptation of a work by another author altogether is an odd diversion that Hafdahl and Florence attempt to steer toward King by noting the influence of The Shining on a season two episode of You, but it's a bit of a fumbled recovery.
Their discussion on the science behind From a Buick 8 is similarly disrupted by a somewhat lengthy (again, given the short page count devoted to each book) exploration of James Dean's cursed Spyder, that car's own haunted legacy, and the body count it racked up after the actor's death. While this accounting of a (supposedly) real-life cursed car and the unusual accidents attributed to it are supremely interesting, this urban legend is hardly what I would consider scientific.
While there is plenty of interesting honest-to-god science explored here, some of my favorite material in the book related to King's own life and how his personal experiences played a role in shaping his many narratives - and, in the case of his marriage to Tabitha, who saved the manuscript of Carrie from the garbage, his career. The authors do a great job in providing the context within King's own life, and his battles against himself and his addictions, that helped give rise to so many of his books like IT and The Tommyknockers. Similarly, it's hard to ignore how much a long-lasting impact King's own brush with death had on his creativity, following his being struck by a van in the summer of 1999. Accidents similar to King's play out several times in works like the TV miniseries Kingdom Hospital and one of the latter The Dark Tower novels, and provided the impetus for Lisey's Story and Duma Key.
The Science of Stephen King provides enough interesting talking points to satisfy casual Constant Readers, but hardcore King junkies may find themselves disappointed by the superficiality and brief surveys of these author's analyses. More than once, I found myself wishing for a bit more depth on any given topic, but the set of footnotes and resources at book's end should certainly help open up a number of doors for readers seeking deeper scrutinies.