From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Mr. King’s Shortcut: Evolution, Gossip, and Character

For years, snooty critics have said that Stephen King is writing for cavemen and monkeys. If certain theories of evolutionary psychology are correct, they may well have been right in the best possible way. King’s depictions of anecdotal (and seemingly superfluous) interpersonal detail just might be using our deeply-programmed interest in gossip to involve us more deeply in his stories and characterizations.

Alice Roosevelt Longworth once said, “If you haven’t got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me.” Sometimes nicely and sometimes not, Stephen King’s characters and narrators are often gossips—and many of us love it when they sit beside us and dish.

First, let’s talk about gossip, preferably behind its back.

(Did you see what it wore to Mrs. Verchek’s funeral last Sunday, all cheery colors and six-inch stilettos? Oh. My. God.)

Alternately its victims or its purveyors, we all know that gossip is the discussion of the activities and character of others, especially in relationships. We know gossip can, right or wrong, encapsulate a person in a single representative incident or anecdote. We know it can be accurate or inaccurate, harmful or helpful. We know, most of all, that it is strangely compelling.

There may be a reason for that. According to evolutionary biologist Robin Dunbar’s book Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, there is evidence suggesting that language may have developed initially as a means of delivering gossip: communicating the reliability and trustworthiness of others in a group to form protective alliances.

Primates usually cement their relationships with grooming in a literal “you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours” society; when I scratch your back, you owe me. In numerous experiments, groomed apes respond more quickly to the calls of their groomers, and baboons who groom each other are more likely to work together in fights.

But as a group grows larger for protection from predators, one member cannot directly know the dependability of all the others. Dunbar suggests that second-hand stories of grooming—”That mooch over there doesn’t groom back!”—might partially account for the development of language as a replacement for social grooming. Knowing which apes to trust and which not to trust, which are above in the social hierarchy and which are below, became an early survival advantage conferred by language.

There are big leaps from grooming to language to gossip, certainly, and no “smoking gun” so far to prove them. Still, regardless of why language evolved, there’s no denying that we use a large proportion of it to talk about others, discussing their behavior in relationships and estimating their characters. Thoreau once wrote that to the philosopher, all news is gossip; a few spins in the twenty-four hour news cycle could make anyone a philosopher. Celebrity news is just the most obvious form. What is sports journalism but gossip about the accomplishments and failings of athletes? What is political reporting but gossip about the trustworthiness of our officials? What is fiction but the gossip of people who don’t exist?

Wherever it came from, however it functions to establish our hierarchies or keep us in the pack or get us organized, gossip seems very satisfying to human beings—and some authors seem to use that deep satisfaction in specific ways to make their fiction more compelling.

Now let’s talk about Stephen King, also behind his back.

(I heard that he once donated money to fly a Make-a-Wish kid to some town he had all labeled up to be Derry. No, really. He paid a bum to wear clown makeup in the sewer and everything.)

Stephen King, as you may have heard, sells a lot of books to a wide variety of people; he is an accomplished gossip for people who don’t exist, giving readers something they want in a different way than other authors.

Critics and fans alike may chuckle over King’s characters, major and minor alike, about whom we know seemingly useless information. King is not afraid to take a long paragraph or a page or even more to give us an anecdote, written in a conversational voice with all the conspiratorial juiciness of gossip, to better represent a character with a telling example of behavior than a simple physical description or summary.

To give us these telling examples, many of Stephen King’s characters and narrators are gossips. In “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” Red proves to be quite a gossip before he gets very far with Andy’s story, telling us first about Robert Alan Cote’s bloody bank robbery and interest in coin collecting, then about Rooster McBride, the “heavy-gutted farmer who was in for beating his stepdaughter to death,” and even about crooked Warden George Dunahy, who isn’t even the warden during the time of the story.

These characters aren’t very important, but they serve to show Red’s perception and moral sense. “Rooster died in here, I’m happy to add,” says Red. The gossip Red relates is as much about him as them, and we’re learning that Red—despite being a convicted murderer—is reliable enough to tell us the truth about Andy Dufresne.

Red quickly fesses up that this will be a long tale of gossip about Andy Dufresne: “You may have noticed how much of what I’ve told you already is hearsay—someone saw something and told me and I told you.” Less important than the strict facts of this hearsay, however, is the character Andy shows during his life in Shawshank prison; this novella-anecdote is trying to convey the substance of a man one small incident at a time. “You may have also gotten the idea that I’m describing someone who’s more legend than man,” writes Red as narrator, “and there’s some truth to that. To us long-timers who knew Andy over a space of years, there was an element of fantasy to him, a sense, almost, of myth-magic, if you get what I mean.”

The rest of the novella conveys that sense of myth-magic in a series of gossipy anecdotes, not just ordered by chronology but by ascending significance to Andy Dufresne’s character. From Andy’s offer to help Byron Hadley with the taxes for his inheritance to his reaction to Tommy Williams’s revelation to his continued financial work for the warden, each story further refines our image of Andy Dufresne’s reputation as a human being. When Andy escapes, we already know that he is just the man we’d want in our tribe, full of determination, integrity, and cleverness.

Likewise, Gordon Lachance in “The Body” gossips about his friends, showing their character not only in the novella’s defining adventure—the search for Ray Brower’s body—but in the smaller stories Gordon tells about them, too. He tells us how Teddy lost his ear and what Chris may have done with the class lunch money, how Teddy’s father is in a mental hospital and Chris’s is usually at a bar, how Teddy’s the kind of kid who dodges a train, how Chris is the kind of kid who makes peace. Gordon even tells us the painful gossip of their deaths.

None of this social information is superfluous; we’re learning social information about Gordon’s friends and how they function in the human tribe.

For example, any writer could have described Vern Tessio simply like this:

“Vern Tessio, one of the other regulars, pulled himself into the clubhouse. He was sweating buckets and his hair, which he usually kept combed in a perfect imitation of his rock and roll idol, Bobby Rydell, was plastered to his bullet head in chunks and strings.”

Yet Gordon and King choose to take a page to talk about Vern’s pennies: “Four years ago, when he was eight, Vern buried a quart jar of pennies under the long Tessio front porch.”

Sure, that’s something we need to know, explaining why Vern could overhear his brother’s conversation about Ray Brower. Yet Gordon gives us even more: “Vern called the dark space under the porch his ‘cave.’ He was playing a pirate sort of game, and the pennies were buried treasure—only if you were playing pirate with Vern, you had to call it ‘booty.’” He goes on even longer, helping us draw conclusions about who Vern is by what he does: imaginative, dense, and concerned with doing things a certain way.

There are many more examples of gossip throughout the King canon. “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut” is an entire short story of gossip, two old men characterizing “that Todd woman” with representative anecdotes of her fascination for speed and her need for independence. Dolores Claiborne, likewise, is an entire novel of gossip in which Dolores provides the necessary social information about her husband Joe and her employer Vera Donovan to establish their reputations and hers. Much of The Shining involves gossip about the history of the Overlook Hotel. In The Colorado Kid, we may well be meeting the prototypical Maine old-timers who taught King the art of gossip, David Bowie and Vince Teague, who tell new reporter Stephanie McCann about their neighbors (and the occasional murder) from comfortable chairs. The students in “Strawberry Spring” gossip about the victims found on campus.

Again and again, King provides illustrative anecdotes about his characters, sometimes seemingly superfluous to the action of the story, just so we can know more about the kind of people they are by their social behavior. Many authors stop at all the necessary details, the physical and emotional ones, the action and the speech, but King lets us use our abiding interest in gossip to know some of his characters even better, to judge them as worthy or unworthy members of the tribe. In a sense, we’re characterizing the people for him…just as we always do when we hear social information.

If, as Dunbar suggests, gossip and social information are fundamental reasons for language to exist at all, aren’t all authors using a form of gossip in their stories? To greater and lesser extents, yes. Yet few do it as explicitly as King, following all the structures of real gossip: conversational style, extra interpersonal detail, anecdotal behavior under pressure, moral judgments. King, consciously or not, knows we like to sit beside the person in the know at parties, listening as he or she points out each guest to solidify them with a single story. He may even enjoy being that person.

What King gains from his use of gossip, regardless of whether Dunbar is right or wrong about its power behind all our language, are characterizations with all the details we really want to know, less a person’s height or weight and more how we can trust him or her to scratch our back if we scratch his or hers. Sometimes, a whispered aside is worth more than a thousand adjectives.

So if you people sneer at your interest in Stephen King, you now have an evolutionary excuse for your compulsion. Simply shriek, club your detractors with a bone, and retreat to your inner ape.


Will Ludwigsen’s fiction has appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Asimov’s Science Fiction, and Weird Tales among many other venues. When he isn’t writing weird fiction, he writes weird non-fiction for the Federal government, challenging genre boundaries with disquieting documentation and training materials. He lives in Jacksonville, Florida, with writer Aimee Payne and two greyhounds, also possibly writers of some sort.

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