Hi, my name is Tug and I’m a Constant Reader.
It’s been, maybe ten seconds, since my last exploration of a recurring theme in Stephen King’s work and there have been recent events in the real world around me that bring this one into much sharper focus. But, I am very glad to be working through this here and with all of you.
In the last week, I have seen several fine people of various ages and stages in life fall victim to bullying. These instances of emotional warfare are not even veiled. They were glaring and grotesque in their bold cruelty and would have seemed more at home within the pages of a King work than out walking in the world. As surely as Henry Bowers and Ace Merrill practiced the art of humiliation and intimidation in the King-a-verse, we can certainly take some tips from their victims in how to deal with their kind.
King frequently drags a bully out into the spotlight to call attention to their particular brand of punishment. Singular bullies appear in the forms as familiar as the abusive and controlling mother in Carrie to Big Jim Rennie’s Napoleon Complex in Under the Dome. These machines of abuse are powered by their own insecurities and are often former victims of bullying themselves. Much like real life, these characters take whatever power that they can accumulate and, whether a single horrid household as in Carrie or an entire town in Under the Dome, they wield that power to inflict pain in retribution for all that they had to endure. Well past the level of their own suffering, their “revenge” is given to others in quantities far beyond what they “got” themselves.
These insecurities and former abuses suffered by the bullies themselves are still there and boiling just beneath the surface only to be recognized and spectacularly used as weapons against them by supernaturally-enhanced “Bully Slayers” like the psychic Ted Brautigan from Hearts in Atlantis. An escapee from the realm of the Dark Tower, Brautigan confronts a group of bullies not with violence but by revealing their own secrets and weaknesses. In groups, the bully finds power but it is fragile and once the illusion of strength is broken, so then is the spell cast over their victims and cohorts alike.
In groups, the leader of bullies is the cruelest and most flawed. The support of their cowardly cronies empowers the violence and abuse of others in the same way that the groups of victims that battle them somehow find the strength to fight back. For every Ace Merrill and his group of thugs terrorizing the prepubescent foursome (of the short story “The Body” and the movie adaptation as Stand By Me), there seems to be an equal and opposite reaction from that group in a penultimate moment where the light shone harshly on the villain causes them to shrink away. Ace is a bad enough baddie to appear in two different King works doing evil and yet Gordie Lachance still finds the gathered strength from his crew to stand face to face with Ace.
The Losers Club in Derry gather their weaknesses to generate strength and face the otherworldly evil called Pennywise the Dancing Clown. The force of their collective will is enough to withstand the onslaughts of the supernatural, dream-stealing, fear-eating pseudo-demon and that is no small feat considering the entity is eons old and has feasted upon hundreds of people in Derry before them. To say that the group of imperfect and fearful preteens faced the clown once and were victorious is a testament to strength in numbers but this posse faced Pennywise twice!
One of the greatest collectives to ever face a King bully is also one of the most flawed. In King’s The Stand, a group with physical, mental, character, and addiction challenges face and overcome a worldwide epidemic. That, incredibly enough, is only the first round of what they are faced with and as they outlast betrayals and death, the group is face-to-face with King’s ultimate bully, Randall Flagg and the apocalypse.
In my humble opinion, the greatest of all of the King groups is from his masterwork and is truly the epitome of the theme. In the world of the Gunslingers, a group held by bonds of love and honor that will live or die for one another is called “Ka-Tet”. Roland Deschain (The Gunslinger) is raised into a group of friends and fellow Gunslingers in the house of his father the king. This original group (a Ka-Tet) is embroiled in an epic battle with The Man in Black for the survival of the universe and all the connected universes as well. They are destroyed. All, save Roland, are dealt their demise and Roland wanders, chasing The Man in Black, on a seemingly endless quest.
That is, until, Roland is confronted with a gathering of misfits that he bands together into a new Ka-Tet that wields their guns and honor against the Man in Black in a final showdown. It is, again, putting aside the obvious differences, faults, and weaknesses held by the group and their love, honor, and faith in one another that enable them to face the ultimate threat. You see, The Man in Black is also Randall Flagg. He is also Leland Gaunt (Ace Merrill’s evil mentor in Needful Things) and,in different forms with various names, is King’s Greatest devil and the Bully to end all Bullies.
King digs deeply into our collective fears to pull out the biggest and baddest of them to shake in front of our faces. It would be as interesting to know exactly why he chooses to do that as it would be to know why we like to have that done. Terrors such as the loss of a child, being powerless and pursued, and the confrontation by the undead are recurring themes and we repeatedly climb aboard his literary roller coasters as we would…well…a roller coaster. We strap in for both rides for the same reason; to be exposed to the terrifying possibility of terror or death and to deal with the emotions that result without the real consequences. But, life is not a roller coaster because it is not safe.
King hates flying in airplanes because, “…there is no breakdown lane.” This is also true with real bullying. The victims have no control of the threats, the abuse, and the humiliation and they exist in cornered state of crisis where unspeakable actions in response are born. It is King’s concept of Ka-Tet and what that term really means that bring forward all the truth we need to defeat our own bullies. With enough support of one another, with enough honor and care in dealing with the shortcomings and needs of those we care about, and with the commitment to stand together no matter the odds we can find the light to shine on even the greatest bullies. No matter if they be kings or corner-store thugs, no bully can withstand a Ka-Tet. We all need our own Ka-Tet and wherever we can find it we should.