ANALYSIS: Dysfunctional communities in the work of Stephen King

Melissa Cox unpacks the dark heart of many of King’s communities…

One of the most notable aspects of Stephen King’s writing is his impressively detailed world-building. The towns of Derry and Castle Rock are horror icons in themselves, providing the settings for interweaving stories spanning decades. As well as helping to convince generations of readers that there’s something very rotten in the state of Maine, these fictional towns are a means for King to explore themes of communities – what brings them together, and what can break them apart. 

King’s 1999 TV miniseries Storm of the Century is one of his bleaker looks at small town life. Set on the island of Little Tall (previously featured in the novel Dolores Claiborne) it sees a community at a crisis point during an intense snowstorm that cuts the island completely off from the mainland. Along with the storm, the islanders must contend with another danger – a murderous stranger named Andre Linoge (Colm Feore) who somehow knows intimate details of their lives. Linoge also demonstrates formidable supernatural powers, and threatens to destroy the community unless they strike a bargain with him, repeatedly promising: “give me what I want and I’ll go away”. 

When it becomes apparent that the price for Linoge’s disappearance is one of their children, it is only town constable Mike Anderson (Tim Daly) who believes that they should stand together and resist Linoge. Although the rest of the townspeople feel they are powerless to fight, they still insist that Mike fulfil his obligation to the community and allow his son to be included in the ballot to determine which child will be given up. When it is Mike’s son Ralphie (Dyllan Christopher) who is chosen, the town allows him to be taken. In eventually siding with Linoge for their own self-preservation, this collective action by the community gives a horrible irony to the statement Mike makes in voiceover at the start – “We pull together when we have to”.

Linoge uses a number of tactics to achieve his ends, including physical violence and mind control through dreams and hallucinations, but his most effective tactic is to use emotional manipulation to fracture the community of Little Tall. On his arrest in the crowded grocery store, he reveals the secrets of several local people – ones that specifically will turn others against them.  Mike says in voiceover at the beginning that the islanders can “keep a secret when we have to”, and keeping these secrets is apparently an integral part of what keeps their society together – when Linoge shows that he reveals them, and trust between neighbours begins to fracture irreparably. 

Linoge not only knows the town’s secrets, he also condemns the islanders for their alleged sins, calling them “murderers, bullies, scoundrels”. This leads some to speculate that, despite his seeming malevolence, Linoge might actually be an avenging angel sent to test the faith of the town or to punish them for their transgressions. King frequently characterises small towns as dysfunctional – at best full of petty squabbles, and at worst violently corrupt.

Derry, the setting for his novel IT, is a town seemingly under a curse. Over the years it has been the site of fatal explosions, devastating fires, deadly shoot-outs, and child disappearances. The major catastrophes happen on a 27-year cycle, and are apparently connected to the presence of IT – an ancient being that landed in Derry before the evolution of the human race. IT seems to have a malign influence on the town – it is at the scene of every disaster, and responsible for the child murders. However, many of Derry’s tragedies have very human causes – The Black Spot club is burned down by a racist mob; the Bradley Gang massacre is supported by ordinary townspeople. These violent impulses already exist in the populace, and IT is both feeding off and stoking the malignancy in an unending cycle. The people of Derry also wilfully ignore the more everyday evils in their town: when Bev is fleeing from her home she sees people deliberately turning away from her even while she’s in obvious distress, and Henry Bowers’ violent bullying of the Losers happens largely unnoticed and unchecked.

King’s other major fictional town, Castle Rock, faces its greatest crisis in Needful Things. Sinister shop owner Leland Gaunt uses the locals’ secret, selfish desires against them, selling them coveted objects that have an unusual price tag. He asks the residents to play small, seemingly harmless pranks against each other – throwing mud on some sheets, or hiding a note. These actions spark feelings of suspicion which  become a frenzy of paranoia that escalate into increasingly violent retaliations. Like IT and Linoge, Leland Gaunt uses the residents’ existing secrets and resentments to manipulate them, turning neighbours against each other and causing Castle Rock to almost destroy itself from within. The community is seen to be fragile and precarious, made vulnerable to Gaunt’s scheming by a lack of mutual trust. 

The common factor shared by these communities is a degree of isolation from the outside world. This is sometimes caused by outside forces – as in Storm of the Century or Under The Dome – or by an inward-looking mentality that characterises Derry and Castle Rock. Being cut off from the outside world leads characters to place exaggerated importance on petty disputes and to harbour long-term grudges. Families that have long been resident have disproportionate power, and for those like the Merrills of Castle Rock that influence is corrupting.

A microcosm of an isolated community is formed in the supermarket that is the main setting in novella The Mist. Forced to seek refuge in the store from a fog and the creatures within it, the people inside form their own miniature society over the course of a few days. While there is an initial attempt to pull together, and practical work like sandbagging the windows is carried out, any sense of cohesion soon falls apart. Existing tensions flare and factions start to form amongst the captive residents. One woman decides to leave and pleads for assistance getting to her car, but no-one volunteers to help. After a few days of isolation, the residents are exhausted, warring with each other, and with religious fanatic Mrs Carmody and her followers demanding blood sacrifices, the improvised society is on the verge of implosion.

There is one kind of community that does thrive in Kings’ fiction: small groups of people thrust together by circumstance, working together against a common adversary. The Losers’ Club in IT initially bond after the apocalyptic rock fight against the group of bullies, and their friendship is cemented after facing down Pennywise. Strong relationships are formed between the members of the small groups in The Stand, and they then join together to form a reasonably well-functioning society in Boulder. In the Dark Tower series, Roland, Jake, Eddie, Susannah and Oy join forces to create a small but powerful community, who together are capable of overcoming vast and innumerable challenges. 

There is much cynicism in King’s work towards society – especially the notion of small-town American community spirit – exemplified by the terrible events that happen in Derry, Castle Rock and Little Tall Island. Yet there is hope for the idea of humans managing to get along, and even to try and make the world a better place (or at least a place less rife with supernatural evils). Seven school friends can defeat an ancient intergalactic being; a small Ka-Tet can travel across alternate realities to restore balance to multiple worlds. In King’s universe the communities we choose to form are often stronger than those that come about because of areas on a map.

Melissa Cox

Looking for more Stephen King content? You can find more think pieces here, or check out our pod mini-series on the films adapted from King’s work here.

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