When it comes to my least favourite King novels, Cujo is third. Why? It’s disjointed, for one; a lot of the book is taken up by the foibles of the Sharp Cereal Professor and honestly I can’t bring myself to care enough about the dying art of marketing kid’s cereals in the early 1980s. Also, the Trentons are not sympathetic characters. Look, I’ve written elsewhere about how your characters don’t necessarily need to be likable. I’ve gone off at length about how needing your characters to be the reader’s best friend is just a trap that encourages an immature fanbase that will rise up and kidnap you when you decide to kill those characters off…
The third Bachman novel, Roadwork, is another portrait of a seethingly angry man acting out against his grievances with society. In Rage, the protagonist dealt with his anti-social angst by taking his classroom hostage and killing two teachers. In The Long Walk, the protagonist deals with it by joining a ghastly game show that runs people down to their deaths. Roadwork is a little less kinetic than either; the protagonist here, George Dawes, simply gives into inertia and refuses to progress along with everyone else. A highway extension is slated to destroy an old suburban neighbourhood and Dawes is in charge of finding both a new house to live and a new location for the industrial laundry he works for. In an act of rebellion against the inherent unfairness of the situation, he decides to do neither. He refuses to vacate his property, and ends up getting shot and killed in a stand-off with the police.
Firestarter: another classic King tale of a troubled young girl who develops strange psychic powers and uses them to literally burn people alive. Charlie and her dad are chased by a mysterious U.S. alphabet agency bent on weaponizing the intersection of science and paranormal research. Half the book is the chase; the other half is the catch, and that combination makes for some interesting results, as we’ll see.
You want to talk about an out-there outlier for what we’ve seen of Stephen King’s bibliography so far, let’s talk about The Dead Zone.
A quick run-down: John Smith suffers a head injury as a kid but comes out mostly ok. Greg Stillson is a crazy but wildly charismatic traveling salesman. Johnny becomes a teacher, falls in love, and then is driven into a coma by a car accident. When he emerges he has wild psychic powers where he can touch people and know both their secrets and their future. He endures some tabloid celebrity, solves murders, tries to keep teaching and being normal, saves some kids from dying, and then discovers that Stillson, now running for office, is going to win and eventually become President briefly before destroying the world in a nuclear holocaust. Johnny becomes a would-be assassin, dying but also revealing Stillson to be a huge coward and an electoral loser after he grabs a kid as a human shield. It’s a timely examination of the American hunger for an end to the seemingly endless corrupt two-party circus and a bit of a satire of the then-blossoming American Tabloid market.
Now that we’ve established that there is a link between key scenes in the plot progress of a Stephen King novel and mapped sentiment peaks coded from the text, we can spend significantly less time on analyzing each peak to show this. This will allow us to go through books with a little less ponderous text.
The Long Walk (1979)
The Long Walk is another short Bachman novel about sexually frustrated young men. This time it’s about the contestants of a gruelling, cruel national sport instituted after America’s loss in the Second World War and the institution of military rule by “The Squads.” The backdrop is briefly described but evocative for that when it is mentioned. At any rate, the protagonist is one of 100 contestants who start the Long Walk. They have to keep walking at a certain speed or they are shot by soldiers who are driving around beside them. They get three warnings to get their speed back up, otherwise the guns ring out and down goes another contestant. It’s a pretty horrifying idea when it comes right down to it, if only for how weirdly plausible it is given the modern love of both spectacle and fascism. It’s also pretty psychologically taxing, especially once the weakest contestants die off and it becomes a game to walk your opponents into the ground.
Alright, now that we’ve established there’s some preliminary evidence of a link between emotional sentiment peaks and the plot progress of a Stephen King novel let’s keep going so we can start to see if there are patterns and also to generate a corpus of King material that we can use for topic modeling and other fun supervised/unsupervised machine learning stuff.
So, let’s go to the Lot as it slowly turns into a vampire colony.
My wife is doing her PhD in political science on the topic of political interest groups and how they use social media to disseminate information and reach new audiences, and how they utilize this new(ish wow we’re old) medium to effect voting behaviour. Part of this has meant learning how to mine Twitter data and analyze it through the R programming language; in order to provide technical support and to have someone to troubleshoot coding issues, I’ve also been learning to use R to mine and analyze texts. What I’ve been concentrating on, in order to learn the language and the processes, is using it to mine and visualize data gathered from fictional texts, specifically the bibliography of Stephen King. What I want to do is to analyze plot trajectories drawn from sentiment data – quantitative measures of emotional sentiment words based on established dictionaries used for that sort of thing. Research questions on this would include things like: is there a pattern that King has for his plots, based on emotional language cues? Is this pattern, if any, different from other well-known horror writers? Furthermore, are there established “archetypal” emotional plot patterns for horror books, and do these patterns differ when you switch genres – say, to fantasy, military science fiction, paranormal romance, etc. etc. down the fracture lines of human experience.