Stephen King believes in God.
It’s not that he’s religious, and the beloved author has even said in an interview that he believes religion can be a dangerous tool. But King, known so widely and for so long for his blood-curdling tales of the macabre is, in his own way, a very spiritual person and has publicly stated that he believes in the intelligent design of the universe.
For anyone who’s read more than a few of his books this should come as no surprise since it simply falls in line with the themes that he frequently explores and revisits in his work, usually with heartfelt sincerity and a complete lack of irony.
While reviewing his newest novel, Revival, the religious and philosophical elements contained therein spurred us to look back on the king of horror’s lengthy and illustrious career and come up with a list that we haven’t seen before: his most spiritual books.
“Spiritual,” of course, can mean different things to different people and our interpretation of the word is no less arbitrary. For our purposes, we take “spiritual” to simply mean that which seeks to explore the bigger questions surrounding existence, meaning, morality, human destiny, life after death, and the nature of good vs. evil. In this respect, even though so many of King’s works deal with the supernatural, the supernatural does not necessarily equate to spiritual, and more importantly spiritual does not necessarily equate to religious (though there can be crossover, obviously).
Our vision of spirituality also encompasses all religious traditions and none of them at the same time, meaning that while the Christian, the Jew, the Hindu, the agnostic and the atheist may not agree on the details, they are all in their own way walking the spiritual path.
Finally, to the degree that almost all of King’s works, to some extent or other, are about redemption and transcending evil and adversity, they are all spiritual. But the following books are the ones where we think this comes through in the most effective and entertaining ways. At one level, these stories can be enjoyed simply as spiritually-themed entertainments. On an even deeper level, we suggest that they can even be read like the spiritual parables of antiquity that King himself has surely been influenced by: as beacons lighting the way for those who willfully choose to walk the often confusing and arduous spiritual path, whatever “spiritual” may mean for them.
(Note: We don’t think there are spoilers in these blurbs but, still, if you haven’t read these or at least seen the respective movies, proceed at your own risk).
Since we’ve already mentioned Revival we may as well start with it. This is a cautionary tale about the dangers of both religion and science when used in the wrong ways: religion when used and abused as an opiate to deceive and distract people, and science when practiced without introspection, compassion or ethics. (For more on this, see our full review).
In this sense, Revival is very much an homage to what is, in our opinion, one of the most spiritual and existential horror/sci-fi novels of all time, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, in which knowledge, creativity and the pursuit of truth come with moral responsibility and in which freedom and self-realization come from shedding the need for approval and acceptance from an external or higher authority.
The Green Mile is not only one of King’s most spiritually resonant books, it nearly crosses over into overtly religious territory.
In this serial novel (well adapted by Frank Darabont in the movie with Tom Hanks), John Coffey, initials and all, is an obvious allegorical stand-in for Jesus Christ and a commentary on humanity’s penchant for crucifying its greatest teachers and spiritual leaders. The character of Paul Edgecombe also symbolizes the guilt of otherwise conscientious individuals who see the wrongness of the System but are too dependent on it and entrenched within it to fundamentally change it, certainly not all by themselves. To fight this lost cause would only bring on frustration and, eventually, despair. Paul’s answer, then, is to not fight the System but to simply reach out from his ordained place within it and exhibit as much kindness and compassion as he can.
The Green Mile, therefore, is a paean to those times when we may not be able to change the world by force and revolution but can still affect it through quiet acts of kindness and humanity, one person at a time.
Another borderline-religious novel, Desperation explores the hardship, challenges and sometimes even despair that await one who consciously chooses to walk a spiritual path. Whereas New Age writing often depicts the spiritual life as rosy and beatific, Desperation takes its cue from the Book of Job and of an incomprehensible God who allows even (or especially) his most faithful subjects to endure endless suffering, something perhaps best summed up in the following line: “God says, ‘Sure, take away the safety net. And when that’s gone, take away the tight rope too.'”
The spiritual life does not promise the end of our struggles and hardships, and to turn to it in expectation of that is folly. The spiritual life, at best, only offers a subjective source of strength and wisdom to face those hardships with grace.
God may allow his subjects to suffer but he also gives them the power to save the world as we see in one of King’s most characteristically epic and ambitious novels, The Stand.
In the wake of an apocalyptic pandemic, a diabolical adversary who is pretty much the Antichrist emerges from the ruin to rule in tyranny, and the only ones who can oppose him are a tattered band of survivors comprised of a fragile old woman, a deaf mute and a disabled person among others. This isn’t just an allegorical tale of good vs. evil; it’s a portrait of good taking the form of humility and seeming weakness while evil comes in the form of domineering strength. But, of course, it is the weak who are truly the strong.
The Stand is like King’s own fantastical take on the Book of Revelations by way of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
As with The Stand, we’ve chosen IT for how archetypal it is and how much it encapsulates some of King’s favorite motifs which he has revisited again and again in different forms throughout his lengthy career. First, as in The Stand, there’s the theme of a band of misfits/losers becoming humanity’s salvation. Then there’s the cosmic evil that they must go up against. But the key here is that the evil targets children because It knows they are the key to its vanquishment (evil vs. children being a perennial motif in King’s work).
It’s not that kids are always as innocent as our culture likes to romanticize about. Rather, it is their earthy simplicity and their ability, when they’re at their best, to unconditionally trust in the ultimate goodness of life that makes them so formidable against evil. When the juvenile heroes of IT reappear later as grown-ups, they are able to face down the evil because they have not lost touch with those qualities of their childhood which made them dangerous to that evil in the first place.
“In this they are like children and in harmony with the Tao.” (Tao Te Ching, tr. Stephen Mitchell).
While this is actually a novella contained in the collection Different Seasons, we’ve singled it out because the others in the book aren’t as effective as spiritual parables as this one is.
While Shawshank’s theme of hope is obvious enough from the novella’s subtitle (“Hope Springs Eternal”), it can also be seen as an allegory for spiritual rebirth and liberation. In many ways, Andy Dufresne’s unjust imprisonment represents each of us at birth, thrown into a harsh and brutal world bound to break us though we be without guilt or wrongdoing.
Despite the unfairness of life, the path Andy chooses is the path of the spiritual seeker. Rather than adopt the same kind of brutal lifestyle that promises survival, he uses his intelligence and wisdom to ensure his survival in a way that doesn’t hurt others (“right livelihood” in Buddhism). Then, in his spare time, he privately and patiently seeks a freedom both spiritual and literal. Meanwhile, for the more mystically inclined, the posters of various bombshells which adorn Andy’s cell wall can almost be seen as manifestations of the goddesses of the different wisdom traditions (Kuan Yin, Kali, the Virgin Mary, etc.) spurring him, and us, along the path of self-liberation.
This richly atmospheric tale can almost be read as a Spider-Man-like parable of power and responsibility as well as the spiritual struggle against futility and the unknown. Never mind the clichéd time travel question of “Would you go back in time and kill Hitler?” that appears in the book. Less about altering history, The Dead Zone is more about each of us coming to recognize our unique gifts (sometimes it takes half our lifetimes or more) and then taking responsibility and using those gifts to try and make a difference.
In trying to make a difference, we can never be certain of the outcome but it behooves us to try because, like Johnny Smith (and his generic name is no coincidence), we’re all pretty much staring death in the face whether we realize it or not. And whether we try to do good or not, we’re all going to die soon anyway. The choices we therefore face are apathy, resigned despair, or resolute action irrespective of success or failure. As Krishna said to Arjuna on the battlefield, “You have a right to your actions, but never to your actions’ fruits. Act for the action’s sake.”
And: “If you are killed, you gain heaven; triumph, and you gain the earth. Therefore stand up, Arjuna; steady your mind to fight.” (The Bhagavad Gita, tr. Stephen Mitchell)
Of course, this philosophy only applies if you believe that some form of “heaven” or greater reality exists as it does in The Dead Zone. In fact, that is what “the Dead Zone” referred to in the title is.
Obviously not a single book but a series, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to view this sprawling, messy and uber-ambitious epic as symbolizing the individual or humanity’s overarching quest towards spiritual completion and a kind of non-dualistic union with the cosmos. For instance, it’s hard to read descriptions of the Dark Tower, located as it is at the nexus of all of reality and multiverses, and not think of it as King’s symbol for the Godhead itself. Thus, Roland’s quest to find and enter the Tower is basically a quest to be united with God, the universe, or whatever term one prefers.
Of the many mystical utterances in the series, one of our favorites is this one:
“All you imagined, no matter how wild it might seem, was no more than a disguised version of what you already knew.” (Song of Susannah, The Dark Tower, Book 6)
This strikes us as pretty much summing up King’s career in a way, with his entire oeuvre being one great imaginative, fantastical and perhaps subconscious way of dressing up certain basic spiritual ideas that he happens to have always believed in.
No Pop Mythology list would be complete without a couple of choices from left-field, and two of our all-time favorite Stephen King books that we consider to be spiritual are actually not even what he’s best known for, his novels.
The first, Danse Macabre, is a superb demonstration of King’s intellect and non-fiction writing prowess, so much so that we wish he’d write more non-fic (and trust us, not all best-selling authors are equally good at writing non-fiction as they are at fiction).
In Danse, King analyzes what he feels are the three primary archetypes from which all of our fictitious monsters come and then goes on to lay out the uses and purposes of horror. Rather than call this an overtly spiritual book, it’s more accurate to say that Danse explores horror from the lenses of psychology, philosophy and literary analysis. But the cumulative result of this is that Danse Macabre is actually one of the finest expositions of the horror genre and why it matters. Indeed, it shows why horror can be so potentially redemptive and spiritual despite what might be said about it by ultra-conservative and religious folk who think that all pop culture, especially horror, is pretty much the work of Satan.
Any act of writing that seeks to do more than just transmit the most banal information—whether it’s to educate, entertain, inspire or some combination thereof—becomes a potentially spiritual act (this website wouldn’t exist otherwise). And if Danse Macabre does a great job of arguing how the horror genre can be spiritual, On Writing is partly about the transformative power of writing, and by extension reading, and how these things can constitute an act of spiritual communion.
Part memoir and part self-help instructional, King brings a very personal, unorthodox approach to the how-to genre and, in the process, makes this book every bit a work of art as any of his other books. The most poignant moments come when he discusses his horrific near-death accident, the grueling recovery process, and how through it all writing was the key to his resilience just as it had always been throughout his entire life.
In closing, here are two of our favorite quotes from a book with many quotable passages:
“Writing is not life, but I think that sometimes it can be a way back to life.”
“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well.”
And if that isn’t spiritual, dear friends, then we don’t know what is.
Much as we love Steve-O, the guys is insanely prolific that we just haven’t read all his books so we’re bound to have missed one that you feel is very spiritual. If so, we’d love to hear about it in the comments below!