Stephen King's Clown World (Daniel Knighton/Getty Images)

September 29, 2023   6 mins

Of all the plagues on contemporary literary culture, the absolute worst is the notion that depiction equals endorsement: that every protagonist in every book is just a thinly-veiled authorial insert; that evil characters doing evil things reflect the morals of an evil creator. This inability to separate truth from fiction, is the bane of many a writer’s existence. In fact, if taken to its logical conclusion, it would preclude most stories from existing at all.

For this reason — and also because my own books feature murder, mayhem, and severed body parts in kitchen sinks — I make it a rule never to assume that the views expressed by a fictional character also belong to that character’s creator. But I have made an exception for Stephen King’s latest novel, Holly, because it includes a note from King himself, at the end of the book, stating that the novel’s politics are also his own.

The novel is set in 2021, in the thick of the Covid pandemic and addresses the country’s pandemic policies directly. King writes: “A considerable portion of the American population — not a majority, I’m relieved to say — are anti-vaccination” — but those people, he says, will probably find his heroine’s Covid takes “preachy”. After her own unvaccinated, Trump-supporting mother dies of the virus, the eponymous protagonist, Holly Gibney, spends a good portion of 450 pages obsessively masking, inquiring after other people’s vaccination status, and bemoaning the selfishness of the unwashed, unvaxxed Right-wingers without whom the virus would surely have been tamed by now.

King admits: “It’s true that my opinions match hers on the subject.”

Other critics have lamented King’s lack of subtlety, but to me, what’s more striking is the lack of craft. I’ve read — and in many cases, re-read — virtually everything the man has ever written; this is the first book of his I’ve ever struggled to finish. A hallmark of King’s oeuvre is how human the horror is, how rooted in a world that is familiar and recognisable. Holly, on the other hand, feels like it was written by someone who’d been locked down for so long that he no longer remembers the basic rhythms of normal in-person conversation. Insofar as the world it depicts is recognisable, it’s only because it’s the world as it appeared online during the pandemic, filtered through the lenses of social media and cable news. Holly is nominally a detective novel, but the mystery is like a whisper-thin web that strings together one trendy Covid narrative after another, the kind of stories that went viral on Twitter because they confirmed the biases of its highly educated, politically progressive user base.

The irony is that a number of these viral narratives were themselves fiction, fed to us by a media that had gone all in on the pandemic as a politicised spectator sport and didn’t particularly care if the stories they aired were true. It’s a bit grotesque, to see how fake news becomes repurposed, and legitimised, in fiction: when Holly’s mother catches Covid at an anti-mask rally and dies gasping to her last that the virus is a hoax, one assumes that King must have caught the relevant segment on CNN — but not the later reporting that revealed it to be a fabrication.

And while Stephen King has never shied away from addressing political topics in his work, the pro-lockdown, pro-mask, pro-vax messaging of Holly is different — not in degree, but in kind. If there’s such a thing as a unifying political principle in King’s books, it’s anti-authoritarianism. Look at who his heroes are: bullied teens, rogue gunslingers, plucky outsiders who follow their principles instead of just doing what they’re told. And his villains? They’re the corrupt bureaucrats, the officious rule followers, the control freaks-in-chief who must insist you take your medicine — for your own good, and for the greater good.

Consider The Institute, his 2019 novel in which children with supernatural abilities are kidnapped, tortured, and weaponised by a shadowy government organisation that believes itself to be the keeper of a precarious world peace. Consider Firestarter, featuring a young family on the run from the state agents who want to imprison and experiment on them. Consider Carrie, whose protagonist is failed by every authority figure in her life until the story ends in a literal bloodbath — or The Running Man and The Long Walk, both set in dystopian futures where human suffering doubles as state-sponsored entertainment. Even Annie Wilkes, the iconic villain of Misery, is terrifying not because she’s an agent of chaos but because she’s a stickler for the rules, and as such, capable of perpetuating astonishing cruelty under the guise of giving care. If Wilkes had been around during Covid, she would have loved kicking people out of their dying loved one’s hospital room in the name of social distancing protocols.

The critical consensus in certain corners is that this is the result of King having gone woke — perhaps in an attempt to stave off cancellation for work that hasn’t aged well. There may be something to this — King’s pre-Y2K oeuvre makes heavy use of the Magical Negro trope, not to mention the n-word, which white authors are no longer allowed to put in the mouths of their characters. And some of his more recent books do carry a whiff of attempted atonement for past political incorrectness. Sleeping Beauties, co-written with son Owen, is an enjoyable thriller that nevertheless also reads like a 700-page plea for membership in the Good Male Feminist club (as do many of King’s tweets). Billy Summers, published in 2021, features a protagonist whose inner monologue is deeply disdainful of Donald Trump, and King himself has said that The Institute is intended as an allegory for the Trump administration’s border policies.

Pandemic aside, Holly definitely has the fingerprints of 2020 political Twitter all over it. The book’s female villain, one half of a pair of cannibal murderers who think they’ve found the proverbial fountain of youth in the form of human brain parfaits, is basically Karen incarnate, written to embody the stereotype of the older white woman who became a national object of fear and loathing during the pandemic. She’s not only anti-vax and anti-mask, but also anti-black and anti-gay. In one particularly on-the-nose scene from the book’s denouement, the female villain’s diaries are discovered: they contain a detailed record of her crimes interspersed with page upon page of all-caps racial slurs, in keeping with the contemporary belief that people do not contain multitudes, that any person who is one kind of bad thing must be every kind of bad thing.

But there’s something different, and tragic, about how this plays out for Holly — not the book, but the character. Holly Gibney had all the makings of a classic Stephen King heroine, an eccentric and iconoclastic outsider who has become an increasingly complex and confident character over the course of several books. Yet here, in this novel with her name on it, she’s practically unrecognisable: a model of pandemic paranoia, the personification of dull and dutiful compliance. King’s author’s note suggests that Holly just happens to share his views on the topic of Covid, but reading the book, she seems more like a mouthpiece for them, a character being used by her creator to send a message rather than tell a story. If you had any fondness for Holly Gibney, this hollowed-out version of her is dismaying to see.

Still more dismaying is to see an author who has written so poignantly about the triumph of the human spirit, of heroic free will, tweeting his earnest belief that unvaccinated people should be fired from their jobs and unpersoned by their government: “We are in a war here. Thousands of Americans die each week.” This sudden enthusiasm for empowering the state to strong-arm people into compliance is quite a change, coming from a guy who used to have nothing but contempt for such meddlesome overreach into ordinary people’s lives. As the narrator of Firestarter observes, “No one likes to see a government folder with his name on it.”

There’s something decidedly Boomer about King’s political and creative evolution. His was a generation that fancied themselves revolutionaries, that fetishised youthful irreverence and made “Never trust anyone over 30” into a catechism; imagine their horror at waking up one day to discover that they had become the ones with all the wealth, all the power, all the butts in all the seats of our nation’s elected offices. For some, this identity crisis expresses itself in the form of frantic current thing-ism, as aging members of the protest generation glom onto LGBT pride, or the war in Ukraine, or anti-racist book clubs, all for the sake of aligning themselves with whatever passes for a movement these days; for others, it’s all about white-knuckling those last few years pre-retirement, praying to make it through without being cancelled by their 23-year-old assistants.

But if the boomers were set off balance by culture’s great awokening, the pandemic awakened something else: the terrifying and unavoidable awareness of their own mortality. The virus, as it turns out, does not care how young you feel.

Which brings us back to Holly, and more particularly to its villains. This couple, these cannibals, are terrified of aging, deteriorating, dying; consuming the flesh of younger, fitter people is how they buy themselves more time. It’s a perverse inversion, to sacrifice those at the beginning of their lives for the sake of those who’ve already lived full ones. But it’s one that we might recognise: what did so many of our pandemic policies accomplish, if not to prioritise the safety of vulnerable octogenarians over the health and happiness of kids?

There was a time, not long ago, when Stephen King might have objected. “Sane people don’t sacrifice children on the altar of probability. That’s not science, it’s superstition,” he wrote in The Institute. But of course, that was before the Science, and its self-appointed interpreters, decided that children were nasty little vectors for disease, and that maybe a little sacrifice on the altar of probability — just the education of an entire generation or so — was in order.

When you’re old, and scared, and vulnerable, maybe a government folder with your name on it suddenly doesn’t seem so bad. Someone has to protect you, after all, from all those irresponsible youths who don’t understand that it’s more important to be safe than free.

Kat Rosenfield is an UnHerd columnist and co-host of the Feminine Chaos podcast. Her latest novel is You Must Remember This.