In an excerpt from America’s Dark Theologian: The Religious Imagination of Stephen King (NYU Press, 2018) recently reprinted over at Literary Hub, Douglas E. Cowan observes that King’s body of work, which encompasses a wide range of genres but not contemporary literary fiction, is often dismissed by the critical establishment a bit too easily. Setting aside simple matters of taste—critics are free not to enjoy King’s writing or his chosen genres—Cowan marvels that such critics don’t “seem to realize that many of King’s readers seek their escape in his sinister storyworlds precisely because of the plain, unremarkable, yet profoundly disturbing ‘us’ he presents.”
Let me begin with a confession: I’ve never read a Stephen King novel. He’s one of those writers I keep meaning to get to, and yet keep putting off. Still, I have little doubt regarding his ability to present the reader with a “plain, unremarkable, yet profoundly disturbing ‘us'” within the context of horror, fantasy, crime or what-have-you. Why? Because he manages to do just that in the one piece of his writing I have read, and that comes in the context of one of the most mundane subjects possible: youth baseball.
“Head Down,” originally published in the April 16, 1990 issue of The New Yorker (available, albeit paywalled, here) and later included in Nightmares and Dreamscapes (Viking, 1993), is an essay King wrote about the Bangor West Little League team—that is, his son’s team—which won the Maine state championship in 1989. It’s a well-written and empathetic piece about the 12-year-old boys who take the field and the middle-aged men who help organize the game. Indeed, as if to illustrate Cowan’s point about the reception of King’s work, when I mentioned “Head Down” to a former colleague a few weeks ago, he praised the essay and then cited it as evidence that King has “wasted his talent.”
So how does that haunting perceptiveness that Cowan finds in King’s work show up in an essay about middle-schoolers playing baseball?
Let’s set the scene.
Bangor West is on the road against Hampden, their arch-rival in the first half of the essay, the team they’ll later play against in the district final. It’s getting late in the game. Bangor West leads 2-0 in the fifth inning—Little League only plays six innings—when the wheels start coming off. Pitcher Matt Kinney hits a batter, and then second baseman Casey Kinney (no relation) boots what should be a double play ball, freezing up out of fear he’ll get stung in the face. The coaches try to calm the team down, but then this long passage happens:
Casey begins to relax, begins to get back into the game, and then, beyond the outfield fences, the Hampden Horns begin to blow. Some of them belong to late-model cars—Toyotas and Hondas and snappy little Dodge Colts with U.S. OUT OF CENTRAL AMERICA and SPLIT WOOD NOT ATOMS stickers on the bumpers. But most of the Hampden Horns reside within older cars and pick-up trucks. Many of the pick-ups have rusty doors, FM converters wired up beneath the dashboards, and Leer camper caps built over the truck beds. Who is inside these vehicles, blowing the horns? No one seems to know—not for sure. They are not the parents or relatives of the Hampden players; the parents and relatives (plus a generous complement of ice-cream-smeared little brothers and sisters) are filling the bleachers and lining the fence on the third-base side of the diamond, where the Hampden dugout is. They may be local guys just off work—guys who have stopped to watch some of the game before having a few brewskis at the VFW hall next door—or they may be the ghosts of Hampden Little Leaguers Past, hungry for that long-denied State Championship flag. It seems at least possible; there is something both eerie and inevitable about the Hampden Horns. They toot in harmony—high horns, low horns, a few foghorns powered by dying batteries. Several Bangor West players look uneasily back toward the sound.
For me, this paragraph is where “Head Down” goes from merely interesting to engrossing. Just considered in isolation, the prose here sparkles: the perfectly chosen details for the trucks, the dashed-off asides that stretch on and on, the question halfway through the reader didn’t know needed asking, etc. And to end the paragraph with the main kids looking on is just so ominous. If King applies this same level of craft to rabid dogs and rabid fans, then I want in.
The Hampden Horns, these mysterious and passionate fans, are a striking image in themselves, but when considered in context they approach the “profoundly disturbing.” After all, what kicks them into gear is a rally born of children suffering. There’s the hit batsman, which hurts the hitter’s body and the pitcher’s psyche, and the fielding error, which King describes as “an act of naked self-preservation.” The Hampden Horns sound like a fun group on paper, but are we comfortable with their antics when we know the source of inspiration? They’re really just an exaggerated example of how sports fandom works, right? I know the Yankees fan in me sure gets dark pleasure from watching that grounder skip beneath Bill Buckner’s glove.
What’s more, King doesn’t pass these people off as pure others. Their origins are unknown, sure, but King tries his best to imagine them within the local community, as familiar figures in an unfamiliar context. And the cultural signifiers he finds on their trucks are telling. The Hampden Horns are not reducible to a single stereotype, with the red-blooded sharing parking spaces with the latter-day hippies. Neither experiencing a war nor opposing it makes one immune to cheering children’s mistakes. The more I think about them, the more the Hampden Horns become both human, and menacing.
In sum: it may well be that Stephen King can find the uncomfortable aspects of humanity in a fantastical environment. But “Head Down” shows he’s capable of finding such darkness in the actual world as well.
If, instead of whetting your appetite for Stephen King, I’ve made you crave some more baseball writing, you may want to check out my recommended readings in sports literature, inspired by a short course I taught on the subject.