Monday, July 20, 2009

Books: The literary legacy of Stephen Eff'ing King.

One of the odder phenomena of 1990s horror was the high-culture canonization of Stephen King. From genre hit to book-factory, the commercial success of the King author-function was secured by the end of the 1980s. But, sometime in the mid-1990s, King made the leap from household product (as Clive Barker remarked, there are two books in every American household: one is the Bible and one is a novel by Stephen King) to respected lit lion. In 1994 short works bearing his byline started popping up in The New Yorker. A few years later, in the Whitney approached him for a handmade art book project, slapping the highbrow seal of approval on him. By the time the decade was over, The New Yorker was running profile pieces declaring him America's most essential storyteller. King's rep as a master of narrative is now firmly established in literary culture.

However, there's an unexamined tradition of verbal innovation that we should not overlook. According to Jesse Sheidlower's The F Word, a pleasingly comprehensive historical dictionary of the development of swear word, Stephen King can claim credit for the first written instance of not one, but two variants on "the F bomb" (though not the term "the F bomb" itself, which first appeared in print in 1988 in the pages of Newsday).

King's first major contribution to mankind's understanding of the many nuances of the fucking, in its literal and metaphorical senses, appears in his never-quite-done milestone The Stand. In that ever-metastasizing novel, King added a meaning to the nearly century-old term fuckery.

The word fuckery, meaning a brothel, first appeared in print in 1906, gaining a second sense of "intercourse" by the 1961. In 1978, Stephen King innovated a third sense that, stunningly, moved strictly into the abstract realm of ethical philosophy. King used fuckery to mean "despicable behavior, (also) treachery." From The Strand:

This was an act of pure human fuckery.

King's second inno-fucking-vation appeared in the pages of his 1986 novel It. There King fused two popular derogatories to create the portmanteau word fucknuts, meaning "a stupid or contemptible person." Here comes the literature:

"Why did you do that?"
"Because I felt like it, fucknuts!" Henry roared back.

I feel fucknuts is a particularly charming coinage in its combination of a classic obscene term with a coyly infantile euphemism. That mixture of cynical bitterness and awkward innocence is true art.


Sean T. Collins said...

Do the Strand, love
When you feel love
It's the new way
That's why we say
Do the Strand

Sean T. Collins said...

That being said, King really is a genius of obscenity. And racial epithets, too. Without him I wouldn't be able to refer to my non-lapsed Catholic family as "mackerel snappers."

CRwM said...

Had your fill of quadrilles
The madison and cheap thrills
Bored with the beguine
The samba isn´t your scene

In "The F Word," King's rate is crushed by Henry Miller, but I suspect that has to do with restricting the dictionary to Henry's favorite verb and it's off-shoots. If had just been blue language in general, King's full range could have been brought to bear.

Still, two novel f-bomb coinages is two more than I can claim.

Monster Scholar said...

It reminds me of "fuckass" from Donnie Darko.
Cujo and It both scared the bejesus out of me and I just read the books!
The man is a master of supense.

Anonymous said...

That post is equal parts interesting and depressing - I had no idea anyone would consider King to be a serious writer.

CRwM said...


I'm especially fond of that flick as Maggie is my neighbor and I'm constantly told by wife that it would not be appropriate to ask her how to "suck a f**k."

CRwM said...


Take it up with The New Yorker, who also made Gossip Girls essential viewing for anybody over 30. I have no control over the issue.

Ms Harker said...

Just to lower the tone, lets not forget the walking pharmacy crooning of Ms Amy Winehouse "What kind of fuckery is this?" on the track Me and Mr Jones. Which I may be known to commit my dulcet tones to after too many red wines ;)

Jeff Allard said...

King's contributions to popular culture are apparently endless! And to 'Anonymous', I'm surprised that anyone would debate King's skill as a writer at this point. Like him or not, or whether you consider him past his prime or not, if you "had no idea" anyone would consider him as a serious author, that's a case of myopia on your part.

Rabid Fox said...

What a cool accolade to have. "I coined a new definition for 'fuckery.' You're welcome." Hah.