“What a Wonderful World”: Stephen King’s Multiverse – William Proctor, University of Sunderland

Recently, the scholarly work on so-called ‘imaginary worlds’ has been given a profound facelift thanks to the publication of two academic books: Michael Saler’s As If: The Literary History of Virtual Worlds; and Mark J.P Wolf’s Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation. Both books are required reading for scholars in the fields of film, literature, media, cultural studies and fandom – amongst other disciplines.Wolf’s painstakingly crafted and erudite blueprint of the architecture of world building is certain to become a seminal text in the field and one which will fill a gap in the study of popular culture. Saler’s study interbreeds with Wolf’s, but diverges into a focus on world-building in literature (his three case studies explore classic authors such as J.R.R Tolkien’s Arda and Middle-Earth; H.P Lovecraft’s Cthulu Mythos; and the grand narrative of Arthur Conan-Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Both books operate in conjunction to provide framing devices with which to study imaginary worlds across the cultural mainframe. Hopefully, these two important works will open up the field to rich and varied investigations into the phenomenon of world-building. I anticipate the next phase of this exciting scholarly focus with baited breath.

Wolf’s book has arrived at an inopportune time, at least, for me. I only wish it had been published two years previously and then I wouldn’t have felt the need to rewrite entire swathes of my PhD thesis. Then again, I can honestly say that Wolf’s book has functioned as osmosis does, and strengthened my own work – and for that I must express my gratitude. (I would also like to express my thanks to Mark Wolf for discussing reboots with me in a number of lengthy e-mails that he answered with kindness and thought. I have been very lucky over the years and have had similar experiences with Will Brooker, Matt Hills, Henry Jenkins and Jonathan Gray who all joined in lengthy discussions via e-mail. Thanks also to Jenkins for pointing me in the direction of both Wolf and Saler).

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This brings me to my current post: after reading Wolf and Saler, I became haunted (read – ‘obsessed’) by the story-world scenario. Bear in mind, that I had been working hard on an article about the Star Trek story-system and the changes wrought by J.J Abrams, so world-building was on my mind (so much so, that I interpreted elements of the Trek hyperdiegesis through the lens of quantum mechanics! Actually, I must revisit that and see if it makes any sense whatsoever…I have a feeling that it may be poppycock masquerading as intelligence).

I don’t know how other scholars operate, but I need to get in ‘the zone.’ Everyone’s ‘zone’ is surely different, but, for me, this means no external interference – no people, no phone calls, no small-talk with the neighbours. It is not enough to inhabit ‘the zone’ – I must become president of ‘the zone.’ In short, I tend towards obsession. When researching and writing about Star Trek, for example, I live and breathe Star Trek: magazine articles, websites, books, films, TV episodes, comic books. I traverse the story-system as a visitor to another plain of existence; I trawl the imaginary world looking for fissures, cracks and interconnections in the ontological realm (and yes, there are legion); I visit online fan-sites and read the comments of ‘Trekkers’ who occupy this universe as active ‘fictionauts’,  mentally ‘living in’ the text. My evenings are spent digesting Star Trek episodes that may or may not be integral to my research.

But I still try to read a while before sleep and this will most certainly not be project-related. This week I read NOS4R2 by Joe Hill and a project started to form in my mind. I’d like to tell you about it, if I may.

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Joe Hill is the author of three novels – Heart-Shaped Box, Horns (soon-to-be-a-motion-picture starring Harry Potter, or Daniel Radcliffe as he is known by his parents), and the recent NOS4R2 – and a short story collection, 20th Century Ghosts. He is also the writer of the Eisner-award winning comic book series Locke and Key.

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And his dad is Stephen King.

The fact that Stephen King is Joe Hill’s father should mean nothing…

But it does, does it not?

Every article or interview I have read informs us of the familial connection. Why? Well, perhaps King, along with wife Tabitha (also a novelist), succeeded in passing on the ‘writing gene’ to their son…which is nonsense, I know, essentialist claptrap…

Yet maybe, perhaps, what-if?

Joking aside, I am sure that being socialised and raised in a household of two avid readers, who also write, have much more to do with any ‘passing of the baton’ than a bloodline rich in narrative and storytelling genes. (The King family’s other son, Owen, has also published his first novel recently, Double Feature, taking a different generic route to Hill and dad.)

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Hill’s first two books – Heart-Shaped Box and Horns – are excellent, quirky slices of storytelling. He is clearly working in the ‘house that King built,’ of that there is no doubt, at least in my mind. But let me make one thing clear as crystal: he is not a plagiarist. Hill is carving out a path in the genre of horror and fantasy that is his own (as much as work can be called ‘one’s own’ when dealing with intertext, dialogism and ‘the anxiety of influence,’ to borrow Harold Bloom’s phraseology).

Earlier in the year, when I first read a brief synopsis of Hill’s forthcoming NOS4R2, I felt perplexed. A book about a haunted car? Really? Surely, this is really encroaching on Daddy’s well-worn territory now. We have had the story about a crimson Plymouth Fury called Christine which possessed our ‘geeky’ hero, Archie Cunningham and bestowed him with cojones and cool, calm, collectiveness (which was also adapted into a rip-roaring film by John Carpenter); and From a Buick Eight, a King novel from the mid-2000s that I cannot remember for the life of me (which is strange given my propensity for all things King related). What I do recall, however, is that there is a car featured heavily in the narrative. It is not the same book as Christine by a long shot, not even close. The titular Buick lies dormant in a garage and swallows people whole. It is a story about secrets and the inability to come to terms with the past. (See, I do remember it – not wholesale, I might add, but the fog of memory is clearing somewhat).

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I wasn’t the biggest fan of Buick, but at that moment in my own history, I was focused entirely on King’s sojourns into Mid-World and the ‘Ka-Tet’ of Roland, Susannah, Jake, and Eddie (not forgetting the bumbler called Oy). King’s The Dark Tower opus fascinated me and still does.

But I get ahead of myself.

NOS4R2 is, in Hill’s own words, his senior thesis on horror:

‘…I’ve been describing NOS4A2 as my senior thesis on horror fiction. But, in some ways, that makes it my senior thesis on Stephen King. Because the two things are almost the same. One thing I absorbed from my dad, that I’ve heard him say many times, and that I’ve come to believe, is that anything that seems like a problem can almost always be used to your creative advantage. And I had an idea with NOS4R2—you know, I like to write dark fantasy. I like to write stories of the supernatural, and… here’s my dad. And I thought, “Maybe in this book, instead of ducking from it, I’ll confront that, and see if it’s fun to play with, and goof on people’s expectations.” So yeah, there’s a little Stephen King.’

The novel’s protagonist, Victoria McQueen – or ‘Vic’, as we come to know her – finds that she can travel vast geographical distances by peddling her bike across an old, dilapidated bridge in her neighbourhood. More than this, however, she can travel between worlds, worlds that are a fundamental part of the inner landscape of imagination, what Hills describes as the ‘inscape.’

The narrative begins when Vic is a child and, as she grows older, she loses the ability to find the bridge that catapults her across spatiotemporal distances and into the liminal cracks between realities. The story is as much about Vic’s psychological disintegration as she matures into adulthood and re-interprets her early geographical adventures as psychotic breaks.

The villain of the piece – yes, there always has to be a villain – is Charles Talent Manx III, he of the Rolls Royce Wraith with the number plate, NOS4R2 (which is not a fortuitous happenstance but a ‘pun,’ that Manx gleefully admits to authoring). Manx, too, can travel between worlds and into ‘geographies of the imagination,’ to use Michael Sader’s descritpion (2012). Manx uses the Wraith to transport kidnapped children into his own twisted ‘inscape,’ known as Christmasland, an alternative reality where yuletide celebration is a daily adventure. Of course, Christmasland is as warped as Manx is evil.

It is a traditional tale of good vs evil: in the morality corner, we have Vic McQueen, royal fuck up and denizen of many rehab clinics, married with one child, Wayne Bruce Carmody (Vic’s partner is a cross between The Simpsons’ ‘Comic Book Guy’, and Leonard Hofsteder of Big Bang Theory fame, hence the ‘Batmanisation’ of his son).

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In the eldritch corner, stands Charlie Manx, emblem of evil and Prime Minister of Christmasland, imbibed with eternal life and soul by the vehicle with the ‘punny’ number- plate. Vic is the only victim to have escaped his clutches and he needs to revise this disorder by, first, stealing her son, and then, engaging in final battle on the hallowed grounds of Christmasland itself.

What interests me here is not the story itself – although it is a ripping yarn and highly recommended. At one point in the novel, Manx explains the inscape paradigm:

‘I know all about roads that can only be found with the mind. One of them is how I find my way to Christmasland. There is the Night Road, and the train tracks to Orphanhenge, and the doors to Mid-World, and the old trail to the Treehouse of the Mind, and then there is Victoria’s wonderful covered bridge’ (p.368)

At another point, Daltry, a cop who wants Vic in custody, discusses a man he knows who introduced a ‘Buddist-themed therapy group’ which is ‘popular on his cell block in Shawshank’ (p. 387).

As the police and Vic try to track the whereabouts of Vic’s kidnapped son through his iphone, a map of The United Inscapes of America pops up to inform them of Wayne’s locations. This cartography of the mind features such delightful locations as the Lovecraft Keyhole, and the Pennywise Circus among the others listed above in Manx’s speech.

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Later in the novel, we learn that the ‘true knot’ are on the move (the ‘true knot’ being a group of travellers that feature in King’s forthcoming sequel to The Shining, Doctor Sleep).

What we have here is a cross-hatched interbreeding exercise that links Hill’s fictional worlds with his fathers and positions them within one large hyperdiegesis:

Pennywise Circus: Pennywise is the evil protagonist of King’s IT.

The Lovecraft Keyhole: From Hill’s Locke and Key.

Shawshank Prison: From King’s Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.

The Treehouse of the Mind: From Hill’s Horns.

The True Knot: From King’s Doctor Sleep.

Orphanhenge: Hill explains that Orphanhenge is only an idea for a novel that he may or may not work on in the near future.

Mid-World: From King’s Dark Tower novels and more such as Insomnia, Rose Madder, and Hearts in Atlantis.

What the frak is going on here, one might ask?

When Joe Hill began writing and publishing, he repudiated the King surname so he could ‘make his own way,’ without having to rely on the power of his father’s reputation. Following the publication of his short story collection, 20th Century Ghosts, however, the proverbial cat leapt out of the bag. The reason bought Hill’s first novel was, first and foremost, because he is Stephen King’s son. And I’m sure that was the case for many.

In NOS4R2, however, and the creation of hyperlinkages to King’s oeuvre, he is embracing the connection. And I, for one, am interested in where this could go.

For those of you not au fait with King’s Dark Tower sequence I first say, shame on you. Secondly, I want to argue that the novels set out to spin a parallel world scenario for all of King’s novels to exist within the same hyper-system that has governed the continuity of comic books since the 1960s– I am thinking of vast, cavernous systems like DC and Marvel here. The Dark Tower stands at the centre of existence and links an infinity of alternate universes together, much in the same way that DC and Marvel’s multiverse connects the many variations of Earths inhabited by different and revised rosters of characters. This allows multiple versions of, say, Batman and Superman, to co-exist within a spatiotemporal framework that does not corrupt that most sacrosanct conceit – that is, continuity.

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In the first volume of The Dark Tower, The Gunslinger, Roland Deschain chases the Man in Black across the desert. At one point, the man in black (not Johnny Cash, no) palavers with Roland and explains how the universe functions:

‘Imagine the sands of the Mohaine desert, which you crossed to find me, and imagine a trillion universe – not worlds but universes – encapsulated in each grain of that desert; and within each universe an infinity of others. We tower over these universes from our pitiful grass vantage point; one swing of your boot and you may knock a billion worlds flying off into darkness, in a chain never to be completed.

‘Size, gunslinger,…size

‘Yet suppose further. Suppose that all worlds, all universes met in a single nexus, a single pylon, a Tower’ (p. 229 – 30).

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In the final volume of The Dark Tower, the seventh (and he’s not finished yet as he keeps grafting new episodes onto the narrative architecture), King argues that his ‘idea was to use The Dark Tower stories as a kind of summation, a way of unifying as many of my previous stories as possible beneath the arch of some uber-tale’ (p.685).

King’s back catalogue of over fifty books can now be thought of as an interconnected story-system that has no parallel in literature.

The parallel world device has been marshalled into action by many writers over the decades since DC’s seminal game-changer, ‘Flash of Two Worlds,’ which introduced the multiverse conceit into comic books. At the time of writing, DC Comics’ multiverse consists of 52 worlds and Grant Morrison’s forthcoming Multiversity mini-series promises to provide a coherent cartography. Of course, the multiverse has been destroyed before. DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths collapsed the parallel world structure due to a plethora of inconsistencies that threatened the ontology of the story-system. However, twenty years after the fact, Infinite Crisis and, more notably, the year-long 52, re-introduced the multiverse back into the narrative schematic.

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Marvel, too, have an inordinate structure that pulls all its divergent iterations into the parallel universe system going so far as to include the Marvel films into the hyperdiegesis, something even DC has been unwilling to do. For Marvel, everything is in continuity.

Michael Moorcock’s Elric books and others feature a multiverse; as does Bryan Talbot’s Luther Arkwright series and its sequel Heart of Empire; the Star Trek universe has a series of alternate worlds such as the ‘Mirror Universe’ and the new timeline inaugurated by Abrams and co. Others, such as television’s Fringe, introduced the notion of parallel worlds into the narrative which provided many opportunities for storytelling as did the short-lived series, Sliders.

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Interestingly, science itself has grappled with the possibility of multiple realities spinning into infinitude. The ‘many worlds interpretation’ (MWI) of quantum physics hypothesized by Everett posits that there are multiplicities of universes that inhabit different spatiotemporal plains of existence.

Science writer, Michio Kaku, defines the ‘real’ multiverse thus:

‘Multiple universes. Once considered highly speculative, today the concept of the multiverse is considered essential to understanding the early universe. Any quantum theory has a multitude of quantum states. Applied to the universe, it means that there must be an infinite number of parallel universes which have been decohered from each other. String theory introduces the multiverse because of its large number of possible solutions. In M-Theory, these universes may actually collide with each other. On philosophical grounds, one introduces the multiverse to explain the anthropic principle (2010: 394).

Can this quantum paradigm be applied to texts? Is it possible to construct a ‘Unified Field Theory’ that pulls all texts into a quantum relationship with each other?

In King’s latest Dark Tower book, The Wind Through the Keyhole, written and published after the final volume, but situated between books three and four, Aslan is briefly mentioned as existing in this world. We have already seen Oz in an earlier book.

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Can all fiction be situated within a quantum reality of infinite universes? Is this simply intertextuality?

I think it is intertextual, but I also believe we can understand or formulate a hypothesis that makes logical sense by drawing upon the quantum paradigm of multiple worlds.

This is a project I am working on in my own inscape. Possibly a book or an article later in the day.

What do you think? Since a young child (discussed in a blog post to come) I have always wanted to write about King. Is this my opportunity?

Perhaps a generic article about parallel worlds?

I must dash now as my head is threatening to collapse in on itself. In another universe, however?

I never even wrote this post. Or, I have already written the book. The article. The novel…bought the t-shirt…

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