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“You don’t really believe what you read”: Stephen King on the attraction of horror fiction

Night Shift by Stephen King
“The horror-story writer is not so different from the sin-eater,” writes Stephen King

When people ask me how I’ve been coping with the seemingly constant stresses and upheavals of calendar year 2020 – a global pandemic, systemic anti-Black violence, a trainwreck of an American presidential election (itself an outgrowth of a trainwreck of an American presidency), a galloping climate crisis – my response often takes them aback. I tell them I’ve been reading horror.

For me, horror fiction is a balm, a comfort, a soothing buffer against the real terrors of the world beyond my window. Horror fiction offers a visceral, somatic experience of being scared within the confines of an artistic performance, which provides a kind of safety valve that helps take the edge off the evils of the real world.

Stephen King explains the psychology behind this better than I ever could, in the introduction to his 1976 short-story collection, Night Shift:

When you read horror, you don’t really believe what you read. You don’t believe in vampires, werewolves, trucks that suddenly start up and drive themselves. The horrors that we all do believe in are the sort that Dostoevsky and Albee and Macdonald write about: hate alienation, growing lovelessly old, tottering out into a hostile world on the unsteady legs of adolescence. We are, in our real everyday worlds, often like the masks of Comedy and Tragedy, grinning on the outside, grimacing on the inside. There’s a central switching point somewhere inside, a transformer, maybe, where the wires leading from those two masks connect. And that is the place where the horror story so often hits home.

The horror-story writer is not so different from the Welsh sin-eater, who was supposed to take upon himself the sins of the dear departed by partaking of the dear departed’s food. The tale of monstrosity and terror is a basket loosely packed with phobias; when the writer passed by, you take one of his imaginary horrors out of the basket and put one of your real ones in – at least for a time.

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