“Most of what bein human’s about is makin choices and payin the bills when they come due.”
There are a lot of things that distinguish “Dolores Claiborne” from what many regard as the archetypal Stephen King novel. It’s short, for a start. It’s usually pigeonholed as a psychological thriller. It has no chapter breaks; it doesn’t even have any section breaks, although two different stories are being narrated simultaneously. It’s not written in third person. In fact, it’s written entirely in uninterrupted first person colloquial monologue. None of these things – apart perhaps from the last – are particularly exceptional to King, but taken together, they do result in a novel that is quite unlike any other that he’s ever written.
The plot is fairly simple: at the start of the story, Dolores Claiborne is in her sixties, a housekeeper and carer, living alone on Little Tall Island, Maine, when she falls under suspicion of murdering her long time employer, Vera Donovan. Dolores takes herself down to the local police station, and to convince them of her innocence, she has to tell them the story of a murder that she really did commit: that of her husband, Joe St George, twenty-nine years before in 1963. And that’s essentially it. The rest of the novel switches between past and present, until both stories meet in the middle, and we understand how and why both Vera Donovan and Joe St George died.
“Dolores Claiborne” was published in 1993, right after “Gerald’s Game”, a story about a woman who is left handcuffed to a bed with little hope of being rescued after her husband dies during a sex game gone wrong. King originally intended for “Gerald’s Game” and “Dolores Claiborne” to be one novel called In the Path of the Eclipse, and plenty of threads still join them. There is not much supernatural horror in “Dolores Claiborne”, but on the few occasions where there is, the two novels are inextricably linked – the most obvious example being the eponymous eclipse itself.
Once Dolores has made up her mind to kill her abusive husband, she decides to use the distraction and darkness of the eclipse to push him into an abandoned well. In typical King style, he uses the eclipse as both plot device and metaphor, and even more typically, as a vehicle for magic realism. At the height of the eclipse, and at the very moment that she pushes her husband into the well, Dolores has a vision of a young girl, and knows instinctively that she is being abused by her father, just as Dolores’ daughter is being abused by Joe. The girl is Jessie Burlinghame in “Gerald’s Game”. And the eclipse, long associated with bad omen and destruction and fear of the unknown (it is derived from the Greek word for abandonment), is utilised as a kind of preternatural conduit between the two characters and their related predicaments.
There are other examples of supernatural horror, most notably Vera Donovan’s terror of the dust bunnies under her bed and the wires in the walls, which may or may not be a product of senility (although you’re pretty much predisposed to think not, especially when they end up being the death of her). But even these feel mostly incidental; just one symptom rather than the whole disease. And it’s that which makes me pretty certain that “Dolores Claiborne” was never meant to be what it became – that originally it was supposed to be part of a far bigger, far wider reaching story, incorporating the telepathy, otherness, shining that is so often a part of King’s oeuvre. But that didn’t happen, and instead of being one of his “outies”, Dolores Claiborne became one of his “innies” – and I should probably disclose here that I’m a much, much bigger fan of the latter.
The bigger parallels between “Dolores Claiborne” and “Gerald’s Game” are very far from supernatural: sex, incest, abusive fathers and husbands, the frustration and bondage of inequality. Both stories are about a woman trapped in an uncomfortable present being forced to face her abusive past in order to be free. In fact, all of the books that King wrote in the early nineties have a very definite feminist bias, from “Needful Things” in 1991 (supposedly the first novel that he wrote after sobering up), through to “Insomnia” in 1994 and “Rose Madder” in 1995. As a writer, trying to get a ‘worthy’ point across without appearing either too earnest or too preachy can be a notoriously difficult thing to achieve. You also run the risk of exposing yourself, nearly always at the expense of the story. But while King himself subsequently admitted that both “Insomnia” and “Rose Madder” were “stiff, trying-too-hard novels,” I don’t think that he feels the same way about either “Dolores Claiborne” or “Gerald’s Game”. “Gerald’s Game” is dedicated to King’s wife and her sisters, but perhaps even more significantly, “Dolores Claiborne” is dedicated to his mother.
I’d be willing to bet that there is an awful lot of King’s mother in Dolores Claiborne. Superficially certainly: he has often spoken about how tough her life was; how hard she had to work to bring up two boys after his father abandoned them when King was four years old. But Dolores and, to some extent, Vera, are survivors. Their lives have been hard and mostly thankless; they’ve been mistreated by weak men; they are abrasive and proud and fiercely independent. The famous tagline of the movie: “Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman’s got to hold on to,” is actually delivered by Vera rather than Dolores, and their fascinating relationship is often as destructive as it is empowering – but above all they are each other’s only equal. The real difference between them is that you never feel anything but sympathy and admiration for Dolores, despite everything that she does. And if Dolores is based – no matter how loosely – on his mother, is that why he allows her the kind of voice that no other character of his has ever had?
Because it is that voice, in my opinion, that really elevates “Dolores Claiborne” from good to great. Writing not just entirely in monologue, but in unrelenting vernacular, is bloody hard to do. It’s also bloody hard to do right. And while hard doesn’t always necessarily mean good, it’s usually at least a prerequisite. Writing is often like acting, and with this style of storytelling, even more so. I don’t believe that King ever got anywhere near enough credit for attempting something so difficult to get right, and so easy to get wrong, especially when he didn’t have to; when he could just have written another “It” or “‘Salem’s Lot” or “The Stand”. With “Dolores Claiborne”, King is out of his comfort zone – wonderfully so, admirably so – and for me, he doesn’t drop the ball once.
A lot of folk have a special kind of hatred for this kind of storytelling though – and I mean special – because they see it as patronising and even bigoted; that it’s the writer going, look, this is me talking how these ignorant folks talk! And everyone, of course, knows who Stephen King is: he’s an educated, rich man, and here he is trying to channel an uneducated, poor woman – the absolute brass neck of him! And so they go hunting for seams: mistakes and inconsistencies that back up their argument. Conversely, I’d like to offer up the argument that it’s not perhaps King’s bigotry that they need to be worrying about, so much as their own. This kind of narration, I think, can’t help but expose your own conscious or indeed unconscious bias. And equally, holding who or what the writer is against him is a form of inverse snobbery all of its own.
That said, my only real niggle about the whole novel is entirely about dialect, and although it is a very small niggle, it’s enduring; I remember it even from my first reading as a teenager. Just before the inquest into her husband’s death, Dolores comes up against a Scottish doctor who believes that she killed him. He isn’t in it for very long (Dolores, of course, gives him very short shrift), but while he is, his character – specifically the way he speaks – is horribly jarring. I don’t know which part of Scotland he was supposed to have come from, but it’s nowhere I’ve ever been. And that for me really is the crux of this type of novel, and this novel in particular. To write a story entirely in character requires both confidence and authenticity. When it doesn’t work, it really doesn’t work; that’s the risk you take. But when it does work, the payoff is huge. If the reader buys it: if they hear the character, believe in the character and in the conversation that they’re essentially having with them, then it hasn’t just worked, it’s worked with bells on.
And that’s why “Dolores Claiborne” is one of Stephen King’s most memorable novels. It’s not for the story, which, although well told, is hardly groundbreaking; it’s not down to all his little nods and winks to the Constant Reader, via references to previous books like “Insomnia”, “Shawshank”, and, of course, “Gerald’s Game”; it’s not down to the odd preternatural instances of more familiar horror. It’s because, as a character, Dolores Claiborne becomes real. It’s because you end up kind of believing that she exists – or, at the very least, existed. It’s because the risk pays off, and it works. With bells on.
Kathy Bates is said to have loved playing Dolores Claiborne more than any other character in her career. Stephen King himself has said, more than once, that the novel is one of his personal favourites, and perhaps that’s down to all or none of the reasons that I’ve mentioned here. I don’t know. What I do know is that he is often accused of always churning out the same old stuff, and while I don’t believe that he does, someone who has written over fifty novels is bound to develop a recognisable style; is bound to revisit the same subjects and themes. Many of his stories are loud and epic and horrific (in the good way, of course!), but just as many are personal and small-scale and affecting. And while I think, by and large, that King is more proud of his “innies” than his “outies”, “Dolores Claiborne” goes in more than most. Although it’s Stephen King trying – very literally – not to be Stephen King, I think it says more about him as a man and as a writer than perhaps anything else that he has ever done. And that’s why I love it.
Carole Johnstone is a British Fantasy Award winning Scottish writer, currently living in Essex, England. Her fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, published by Constable & Robinson, PS Publishing, Tachyon Publications, ChiZine, Running Press, and Night Shade Books, among many others.
Her fiction has also been reprinted in many Best Of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow's Best Horror of the Year, and Salt Publishing's Best British Fantasy series. Her novella, Cold Turkey, and debut short story collection, The Bright Day is Done, have both been shortlisted for 2015 British Fantasy Awards.
More information on the author can be found at carolejohnstone.com.