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Tormentors and the Tormented: Bullies in the World of Stephen King

Bullies have played a significant and recurring role in Stephen King’s work from his earliest days as a published author. In these works, the bullies represent a significant and (generally) familiar villain for his protagonist(s) to overcome, often amid their journeys to overcome an even greater obstacle. His 1986 novel It is one of the finest examples of this.

It is unclear whether or not King himself was bullied by his peers as a young man, but it seems likely. (While not a traditional high school-aged bully, King has described a babysitter he referred to as “Eula-Beulah” who would bully him as a child, holding him down and farting in his face.) All known photos and descriptions of King as a young man establish him as a skinny, clumsy, classically-defined nerdy bookworm obsessed with science fiction and comic books—the type of kid the bullies in King’s work most frequently target. At the very least it seems that he was adjacent to those being bullied, given his often similar, expertly-detailed descriptions of 1950s and 1960s teen bullies—the era in which King himself was in middle school and high school.

King himself has never spoken much about his high school years, saying “I hated high school. I don’t trust anybody who looks back on the years from fourteen to eighteen with any enjoyment. If you liked being a teenager, there’s something wrong with you.” King was a loner who had “bad experiences” and went through a “tough stage.” One of his few childhood pals, Chris Chesley, has said, “I’ve always assumed that he didn’t have a wonderful high school experience, that it wasn’t that great a time for him in his life.” Chesley has also stated that the high school King had homicidal impulses. (King himself has also admitted to having been obsessed with spree killer Charles Starkweather, having kept a scrapbook of clippings about him.)

A bullied outsider focused on violence and desiring to turn it on his tormentors is the backstory of just about every school shooting ever, and it may have been King’s motivation for penning his early novel Rage (1977), which he began writing at age nineteen. It should be noted that King wrote and published (in Ubris magazine) the similar storyCain Rose Up” (1968) one year earlier. (The key difference between “Cain” and Rage being that Cain is about a homicidal college student where Rage is about a high school student.) Rage was written with the working title Getting It On (named after the T. Rex Song “Bang a Gong (Get It On)”) and was later published under King’s “Richard Bachman” pseudonym. This novel and his first published novel Carrie (1974) are essentially stories about bullied high school kids finding vengeance by murdering their teachers and classmates. Assuming King was bullied, it would appear that King found a way to defeat his (possible) tormentors—through fiction—in a way he couldn’t in real life. This isn’t uncommon; author Harlan Ellison actually went so far as to name antagonists in his stories after bullies who’d picked on him as a child.

One key difference between Carrie and most of King’s other works that feature school-age bullies is that it takes place in the 1970s. One might think by this time King’s notions of high school bullying would have been at least slightly outdated as he himself had graduated half a decade prior, but at the time he wrote the book he was working as a high school teacher in Hampden, Maine, and was very much aware of the fact that bullying was still alive and well in American high schools. Maybe the look of the tormentors had changed a tad from those who seem to have made the biggest impression on him—bullies in numerous King works are 50s-style greasers in white tees who carry themselves in pretty much the same manner (It, “Sometimes They Come Back,” 1974, and The Body, 1982, come to mind.) This may well be coincidence, but these bullies being similar makes one wonder if they were inspired by real-life tormentors in King’s formative years. To those who have experienced this type of bullying, it might seem obvious how school bullies carry themselves and how they behave, but the reality is that those who haven’t experienced bullying from the receiving end are often oblivious to it to the point of not even realizing it exists.

An example of this is a woman named Margaret Carter who has a Ph.D in English Literature and Gothic Novels (from the University of California, Irvine) whose response to a question regarding bullying in King’s work appears on the website Quora. “To me, the bully who abuses other kids for no particular reason, just because he gets a thrill out of it, feels less believable and ‘realistic’ than a supernatural monster,” she writes. “Yet, when I asked one of my own sons, he assured me that the ‘class bully’ like the sterotypical character in books (not only King’s, but lots of novels I’ve read about children and teenagers) does exist.” Given her credentials, one would assume Margaret Carter is a reasonably intelligent person, yet she was completely unaware sadistic bullies were an age-old fixture in American schools. This obliviousness in those who haven’t experienced bullying firsthand makes it seem even more apparent that King was likely bullied and recreated variations of those who tormented him in his work.

There is another possibility though; perhaps King himself was never bullied. For starters, there don’t seem to be any direct quotes from anyone (including King) flat-out stating he was bullied. As an impressionable youth, King was an avid reader of E.C. Comics like Tales of Terror and Tales from the Crypt, which were filled with stories about bullies receiving violent comeuppance. King has frequently credited these comics as inspirations and his cinematic effort (and graphic novel) Creepshow (1982) was crafted as an homage to them. Perhaps King recognized early on that the stereotypical bullies in those stories created conflict and having protagonists overcome them by often violent means produces a satisfying read. Perhaps adding credence to this theory, those comics saw their heyday in the 1950s, and many of the bullies presented in them were quite similar to the greaser bullies in some of King’s most well-known works.

Every author has themes and ideas which resonate with them and rear their heads repeatedly in their work. Cruel sadistic bullies are one of the most obvious examples of this in King’s oeuvre. If one were to judge King or attempt to decipher who he is based only on his work, it would appear that bullies occupy a significant place in his mind, perhaps to the point of obsession. The fact that bullies show up, even as secondary characters causing secondary problems in the backdrop of more significant storyline obstacles, would seem to confirm this. It also seems apparent that in writing about things he finds horrifying—and to be fair, not all King tales featuring bullies are in the horror genre—that he sees bullies as a real-life terror. By using bullies as a secondary conflict in some of his works, such as It and Christine (1983), he is able to give the reader a sense of horror they can relate to while simultaneously adding depth and dimension to his characters, all while doing a sleight of hand in making the work’s supernatural themes (a demonic clown and a haunted Plymouth Fury) seem real and plausible.

Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) from the film version of It (2017).

There are several variations of bullies present in King’s work. Of course there is Henry Bowers, the psychopathic bully from It, who, along with his Bowers Gang, terrorize the Losers Club. He is the typical King school-age bully (especially of the greaser variation). John “Ace” Merrill of the novella The Body (and later Needful Things, 1991) is a predecessor to Bowers and they are essentially the same character. They feature many of the same character traits, act and dress the same, reside in the same time frame, and both lead their own gangs and terrorize naive groups of misfits. As Bowers is only twelve in It, and Merrill is three years older in The Body, Bowers can be seen as a younger incarnation of Merrill. They are not really the same characters, but they are definitely the same King prototype. The menacing greaser gang who inhabit “Sometimes They Come Back”Robert Lawson, David Garcia, and Donald Nell—seem to be rougher, less fleshed-out versions of this same prototype.

These prototypes are cowards at heart. At the moment of truth, when their targets finally get the courage to stand up to them, they back down, revealing their true selves. Again, most notably, Ace Merrill and Henry Bowers are extremely similar. As such, each of them suffers an embarrassing blow to their pride in their respective stories when confronted by those they’ve bullied. King does this best in It, when the members of the Losers catch Bowers in the barrens. They, along with their newest member, Mike Hanlon, defeat Bowers and his gang in an embarrassing rock fight. Then, later in the novel when Bowers watches It kill his friends (as Frankenstein’s monster), he runs away in fear.

Jumping forward to stories taking place in the 1970s, Carrie’s Billy Nolan and Christine’s Buddy Repperton are also high school gang leaders. Billy Nolan appears on the surface as a lesser tough guy bully gang leader because he is manipulated by his girlfriend Chris Hargensen, playing Macbeth to her Lady Macbeth. But in reality, he is very much the same in that almost all of King’s villainous male schoolyard bullies are stupid. Henry Bowers is the primary example of the stupid bully, as King notes multiple times that Bowers has been held back in school. These schoolyard bullies act tough and put on airs as if they are the smartest guys in the room at any given moment, but King often hints that their own feelings of inadequacy fuel their rage and cruelty. Aside from Vic Criss from It, King’s male bullies rarely feature any semblance of intelligence. Chris Hargensen is one of the more intelligent bullies in King work, but she seems to be treated slightly different because she’s a female. King paints her with a sharper brush than he does when creating most of his male bully characters, giving her brains.

An interesting detail to consider is that almost every male King high school bully comes from a place of extreme poverty (but Chris Hargensen, his female bully, is the offspring of wealthy parents), showing us that King has a very narrow view of who and what these boys are and what may or may not cause them to become the angry tormentors they’ve become.

But King’s bullies come in different variations. Not all of them are school-age tormentors. For instance, there’s the rage-filled domestic abuser husband. Beverly Marsh’s significant other Tom Rogan in It is a primary example of this. Then there’s Rose Daniels’ abusive cop husband Norman in Rose Madder (1995). Despite their situations and roles being different, these characters are similar to King’s high school bullies in that they seem to torment simply for the satisfaction of doing so; they enjoy hurting people.

Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen) in the film adaptation of Carrie (1976).

Then there is another subset of bullies present in King’s work, which are bully parents. There are several examples of parental bullies in King’s work, such as the aforementioned Henry Bowers’ father, Oscar “Butch” Bowers. One memorable parental bully is the father of It‘s Beverly Marsh, Alvin Marsh. Like the high school bullies Beverly and the other members of the Losers Club are facing outside the home, Alvin Marsh seems to receive pleasure from abusing Beverly and her mother, Elfrida. His reasons for beating Beverly are arbitrary, making it clear he’s simply looking for an excuse to abuse. Another famous King parental bully is Carrie White’s mother, Margaret. However, unlike Butch Bowers and Alvin Marsh, she doesn’t do what she does out of pleasure, but rather because she believes she is saving her daughter, helping her to become closer to God. (Although Butch Bowers also claims he’s trying to help Beverly, saying he has to abuse her because he “worries about her,” this is clearly a ruse. Another similarity between these three parental figures is that they all have mental issues. While Bowers and Marsh are at the very least psychotic, Margaret White seems to have different, perhaps more substantial mental issues.) The Shining’s (1977) protagonist-turned-antagonist Jack Torrance is another glaring example of a King parent who is a bully. Even at the beginning of the story, when Torrance is still a “good” and “loving” father, he has issues, breaking his son Danny’s arm in a fit of rage. But this is explained away as simply being an unfortunate incident involving alcohol. Like a lot of King bullies, Torrance also has mental issues, which ultimately escalate to sheer insanity once he’s under the influence of the Overlook Hotel. At that point, he becomes a classic, sadistic bully hellbent on hurting (and killing) his wife Wendy and their son.

With Margaret White, there is some intersectionality as she also belongs to another minor subset, which are religious zealot bullies. While religious zealots are generally looked upon unfavorably in King’s work, White and The Mist’s (1980) Mrs. Carmody are the author’s primary religious zealot bullies. Both of them do bad things to people, citing their religion as their motive.

Yet another subset of King bullies are people who are present to provide care to a vulnerable protagonist and eventually use these stations to do harmful things. One such example is John Rainbird, the Shop employee in Firestarter (1980) who pretends to be an orderly trying to take care of and befriend Charlie McGee. Rainbird isn’t as overtly bullying as a lot of other King characters, but his motives are horrendous and his true nature isn’t revealed to Charlie until he attempts to kill her and her father. A more obvious bully in this tradition is Misery‘s (1987) Annie Wilkes. Like Rainbird, Wilkes pretends she wants to provide care for injured novelist Paul Sheldon, but eventually becomes a bully in the traditional sense, forcing Sheldon to do her bidding and torturing him sadistically. Wilkes possesses a combination of classic King bully traits. Like Rainbird, she’s deceiving Sheldon, trying to befriend him to get the things she desires. But similar to Margaret White, she believes she’s doing the right thing and simply desires to show Sheldon the error of his ways.

While all of the aforementioned bullies cause significant problems for the characters in these works, there are bigger bullies in King’s writing that work on a much bigger scale. These characters are determined to hurt many people rather than just the few they encounter in their day-to-day lives.

Probably the most significant is Roland Flagg, a dark wizard with “quasi-immortality” who appears in numerous King works, under different names (often with the initials R.F.), always doing bad things and hurting people in different ways. (It’s unclear exactly how many works he actually appears in as it’s not always clear who is and who is not a manifestation of him. For instance, it has been discussed in some circles that Flagg is also “He Who Walks Behind the Rows” in the short story “Children of the Corn,” 1977.) In his most literal appearance in The Stand (1978), Flagg enlists the help of the “evil,” the “weak,” and the “lonely” in a post-apocalyptic world to aid him in hurting others. In this sense, he is very much a gang leader like Henry Bowers, Ace Merrill, Billy Nolan, and others like Bogs Diamond (leader of a gang called The Sisters) in the novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption (1984) but with a bigger gang, hurting people on a larger scale.

Martin Sheen as Greg Stillson in the film adaptation of The Dead Zone (1983).

It is interesting that, like Randall Flagg, who appears in several novels, Ace Merrill and Henry Bowers either show up again or are mentioned in later novels (Needful Things and 11/22/63). These three characters show up multiple times at various times in history, similar to Pennywise in It. What does this mean? One interpretation could be that King is positing that evil repeats itself, and yet another could be that King is saying (as Flagg’s “R.F.” incarnations show) that, no matter what literal face evil wears, it remains the same, never changing; its appearance may change, but the nature of cruelty and sadism does not.

Greg Stillson from The Dead Zone (1979) is an antagonist in the same vein as Flagg. He is a bully who seeks to work on a larger scale. Stillson is a politician with aspirations of becoming President of the United States and leading his own gang (the country) in starting a nuclear war that will kill millions of people. “I was sort of convinced that it was possible that a politician would arise who was so outside the mainstream and so willing to say anything he would capture the imaginations of the American people,” King later said. “My worry at the time that I wrote The Dead Zone was that somebody like Greg Stillson might actually get elected and rise through the ranks, become President of the United States and start World War III.”

In Donald Trump, the 45th President of the United States, many see startling similarities to Stillson. King himself is one of them, even going so far as to say Trump’s presidency is scarier than his story. When talking about the Trump Administration’s ICE raids to capture and imprison illegal immigrants, King said, “First, you stoke hatred and fear of minorities. Then you round them up and put them in camps. Next, you send out raiding parties to get those who have been driven into hiding. The armbands come next, right?.”

This was far from King’s first attack on Trump and his policies. King first began criticizing Trump, pointing out what he felt to be hypocrisy and/or racist behavior as early as 2015—a full year before the election. King has called him such names as “nasty man,” “sulky baby,” and even a “Cthulu.” Over the years, King has repeatedly referred to Trump as a bully, which in King’s world is the worst thing a person can be. In King’s world, a bully is a villain. Trump eventually blocked King on Twitter in 2017. Nevertheless, King has continued to Tweet about Trump, making jokes and poking fun at him. Even when he was initially blocked, King sarcastically joked, “Trump has blocked me from reading his tweets. I may have to kill myself.”

While King’s interactions with Trump aren’t a part of his writing, it is clear that King sees him as a bully. King dislikes bullies and sees them as a genuine horror, which says a lot about why bullies appear so frequently in his work. Bullies cause mischief for his protagonists and create clear hurdles they must overcome. In some King works (such as The Stand, The Dead Zone, Misery, etc.), the bully is the primary antagonist. In others (such as Christine or It), the bully is merely a secondary antagonist to an evil supernatural force. In King’s view, the bully is the most frightening, realistic villain, which is why they turn up time and time again in his work.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter whether King himself faced real-life tormentors or merely copied the conceit of bully as antagonist from his beloved E.C. Comics. They are very much a part of his writing. The bullies discussed in this essay are only but a few of those present in King’s massive body of work, but they represent some of his most fleshed-out, memorable bully characters from some of his finest writings.

About Andrew J. Rausch

Andrew J. Rausch is a a freelance film journalist, author, and celebrity interviewer. He has published more than thirty books including The Films of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, Making Movies with Orson Welles (with Gary Graver), and The Cinematic Misadventures of Ed Wood (with Charles E. Pratt, Jr.). He is a web editor at Diabolique and writes a regular column in Screem magazine. His work has also appeared in Shock Cinema, Scream, Senses of Cinema, Cemetery Dance, Cinema Retro, Creative Screenwriting, Film Threat, Bright Lights Film Journal, and Images: A Journal of Film and Popular Culture. He has written several works of fiction including Mad World, Riding Shotgun and Other American Cruelties, and Bloody Sheets. He has also worked as a screenwriter, producer, and actor on numerous straight-to-video horror films. His newest book, My Best Friend's Birthday: The Making of a Quentin Tarantino Film will be released this Fall.

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