Kathy Bates and Jennifer Jason Leigh (Dolores Claiborne, 1995)

The Women of Stephen King: the Good, the Bad, and the Best

Stephen King is going through a bit of a revival right now and I, for one, couldn’t be happier about it. In 2017, we’re getting film adaptations of The Dark Tower, Gerald’s Game, and the first half of It. In 2018, we’re getting a Dark Tower series that ties to the films and, I hope, the Mr. Mercedes miniseries that’s been in development hell for years now. All these young whipper-snappers are discovering his work for the first time and I’m just so giddy, seeing more people discovering one of the greatest writers of our time!

Yeah. I said it. I’m kind of an unrepentant fangirl. I don’t kid myself that King is perfect. I have a love/hate or even a hate/hate and toss-the-book-across-the-room relationship with a pretty large number of his endings, but he’s still the one horror author who drags me into his clown infested sewer time and again. Why?

GAH! BELIEVE ME, IT’S NOT BECAUSE I LOVE CLOWNS! NOT EVEN WHEN THEY’RE PLAYED BY TIM CURRY!

You know that moment in your childhood where you find out werewolves, fairies, and dragons (spoiler warning) don’t exist? That moment left me with a problem suspending disbelief, and King was the author who pulled me back in.

He just gets me there every time. No matter the premise, he makes every fantastical happening seem plausible, not just through great exposition and world building but through the characters themselves. He gets in their head and helps you understand them and what they’re experiencing.

Now, he obviously has more iconic men in his body of work than women, both heroes and villains. I also give him points for exploring the emotions of men in a way other authors might shy away from. If there was a man-on-man version of The Bechdel Test (in which men bond in way that isn’t your standard hate-to-grudging-friendship buddy cop trope), he would pass with flying colors.

POSSIBLY FOR THE BODY/STAND BY ME ALONE

But he also really does try to understand women, to get into their heads, to write them as more than who they are only in relation to the men in the book. Sometimes he gets it so very deeply wrong (I’m looking at you, Beverly Marsh), but he can also get it right. I give King points for making a real effort, more and more through the years, to write strong, resilient, and sometimes even iconic women. Let’s look at my favorites…

10. Abagail “Mother Abagail” Freemantle

RUBY DEE IN THE TV MINISERIES

She would be higher on this list if I were writing this as the preteen girl who first read this. I loved her as a kid, thought she was fascinating and kind and magical and wise. She is all those things, but now I know she’s also a trope that King has used a few times. Even if it was kindly meant at the time, there’s a bit of racism to the “Magical Negro” characterization, something that is more condescending than complimentary nowadays. Still, tropey as she is, I can’t help but give Mother Abagail points for being the mouthpiece of God, the embodiment of good in an apocalyptic world, and for being not just magically okay with everything — expressing self doubt and a healthy fear of her savior status.

9. Jessie Burlingame (Gerald’s Game)

SOME GREAT FANART AS WE WAIT FOR THE FILM. IMAGE CREDIT ABOVE.

The situation Jessie has to survive is one of the worst imaginable. Handcuffed to a bed and naked with her (accidentally killed) husband on the floor below and no way out. And that’s just where the novel starts. King really digs deep, describing not just her current predicament, but every important moment in her past that led her to this moment as she fights to survive against all odds. Carla Gugino (Wayward Pines) is cast to play her in the upcoming film. I’m sure it’s going to be a grueling (mostly) one-woman show. Also, if you look closely, you’ll see a little tie-in to Dolores Claiborne, but we’ll get to her below. Honorable mentions to Donna Trenton (Cujo) and Wendy Torrance (The Shining) for being resourceful and brave while trying to save themselves and their sons from certain death. Either of them might have made my list, but we’re just so close to Jessie that it’s nearly a claustrophobic experience — in a good way.

8. Jane Coslaw (Silver Bullet/Cycle of the Werewolf)

FOLLOWS WITH COREY HAIM FROM THE 1985 FILM

This is definitely more for the film than for the short story it’s based on. I know it got terrible reviews, but it’s an old favorite for me. I mean, find me better casting than Gary Busey as everyone’s drunk and crazy uncle! I dare you! The film is told from her POV and narrated by her older self (Tovah Feldshuh). It doesn’t hurt that she’s played by Megan Follows, the once and future “Anne with an E” (Yes, I will be watching the new Netflix adaptation of Anne of Green Gables with a semi-open mind, but Megan will be next to me the whole time!). She might resent her little brother for getting all the attention (in all fairness, he is paraplegic, so he does need more attention than the average little brother), but she is the legs of this investigation into the strange killings in her town, and instrumental in stopping them and protecting her brother. She even learns to say she loves him, something that had been hard for her before.

7. Fran Goldsmith (The Stand)

MOLLY RINGWALD IN THE TV MINISERIES

I admit, it’s been years since I’ve seen the TV miniseries of The Stand. It hasn’t aged well with its terrible makeup and effects and hit-or-miss casting, but I won’t hold that against Frannie. We spend a lot of time with Book Fran. In fact, she’s the first character we meet. Fran has to survive an unplanned pregnancy, being one of the few survivors of a disease based apocalypse, not knowing if her kid will be born with the immunity to survive said apocalypse, and — worst of all — Harold’s “nice guy” flirtations (which immediately turn into hatred upon rejection, as is typical).

6. Rose Daniels (Rose Madder)

A DARK AND LOVELY PIECE OF FANART FROM THIS ARTIST.

Rose breaks away from 14 years of domestic abuse and makes a new life for herself, finds out who she is again, only to continue to be hunted by her husband. There’s a bit of dark fantasy and mythology to this story, even if it is grounded in a very real struggle. It’s not my favorite King novel (cartoonish villain, forced love interest, strange resolution, heavy-handed symbolism) and even King thinks it’s one of his weaker works, but I can’t blame Rose for that. She is very well fleshed-out and the way we watch her grow stronger and the visual imagery are some solid work.

5. Annie Wilkes (Misery)

This list isn’t just for Team Good. Wilkes may be the character manifestation of all the angry letters sent by King fans when things don’t go their way, but she is also a fascinating character (and she got Kathy Bates her first Academy Award). She has a big problem with foul language, but no problem with violence, if her hobbling a man is any indication. She might kind of want happiness for herself, but not as much as she wants happiness for Misery Chastain. I have been there sometimes. Not so much with the violence and crazy follow-through, but I have cared about fictional characters to the point of obsession and mild to moderate self-neglect. Annie Wilkes is the personification of where that could go if left unchecked. Just look at all the word rage on Twitter directed at writers, actors, directors, or showrunners. It’s basically Annie Wilkes with a direct line for when things don’t go her way!

4. Trisha McFarland (The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon)

NICE BIT OF FANART FROM THIS GUY.

Speaking of surviving terrible things, there’s Trisha, who has a harrowing experience in the woods when she is separated from her family. Much like in Gerald’s Game, King is able find the horror in an everyday what-if. Honorable mentions to Eileen “Ellie” Creed (Pet Sematary) and Charlie McGee (Firestarter). They are way too young for what they experience as well, but Trisha wins for sheer bravado and the amount of time we spend right there with her as she finds the strength within her and struggles to survive.

3. Susannah Dean (The Dark Tower)

I should probably also add Detta and Odetta, considering she starts out as both of these women — one a well-educated activist and the other a murder-plotting rage-a-holic. Whichever personality takes over, this woman is always a fighter. When she resolves her two sides into Susannah Dean, she becomes a whole person, not to mention the kind of badass Gunslinger who gives the titular character (of book one, at least) a run for his money. Not bad for a woman without legs.

2. Dolores Claiborne

I love her in the book, I adore her in the film. The book is told from her point of view alone, even narrated by her in a heavy Maine dialect (which some people found tiresome, but I didn’t mind), but the film does it one better by giving her direct interaction with her daughter, Selena (played with wonderful pain by Jennifer Jason Leigh) and her almost adversarial friendship with Vera, the employer she’s accused of killing. But she isn’t really on trial for that. No, it’s one they think she committed years ago. Dolores might put up with her own abuse, but she’ll be damned if she’ll let her husband mess with (in the worst possible way) her daughter. She’s hardened and tested and strong and vulnerable. I have to confess, though, I think she’s so high on this list for the quotes alone.

1. Carrie White (and Sue Snell, Miss Desjardin, even Margaret White and Chris)

“What?” you might say. “Carrie’s an insane mass murderer! Also, that’s more than one character, you cheater!” Eh. I’m not being graded or anything. And, really, none of these characters can really stand on their own as great examples. It’s really all of them that make the story interesting; in fact, they are the story. As King put it:

“Some woman said, ‘You write all those macho things, but you can’t write about women.’ I said, ‘I’m not scared of women. I could write about them if I wanted to.’ So I got an idea for a story about this incident in a girls’ shower room, and the girl would be telekinetic.”

He started it, intending it to be a short story, then threw it away until Tabitha King fished it out of the trash and insisted it had potential and that he finish it. She was right. It became his first published novel.

But what’s special about it, especially for the time, was that he wrote a story driven by only the women in it — their wants, their hurts, their prejudices, their pettiness, kindness, and even their insanity.

WELL, THAT LAST IS MOSTLY FOR MAMA.

They aren’t all perfect people, but they are all interesting and their actions alone and interactions with each other make things happen, for better or worse. The men in this story react to the women rather than the other way around, and there are only two men who really stand out, turning the Smurfette Principle on its head.

This list is all in my opinion, of course. Did I miss your favorite, demote your favorite, exalt your least favorite? Feel free to tell me your thoughts.

Other Notes…

I do love the original miniseries of It, but not enough that I don’t hope the new films improve on it. The best things about it are Tim Curry (always awesome in everything he has ever done and I will hear no argument) as Pennywise and the child actors in part one. If you were to take those two strengths away, it’s pretty cheesy. I’d love to see a version of It that I can recommend all the way through and I truly hope this new film duo manages to make it happen.

While we’re on It, you might have noticed me complaining about Beverly Marsh above. If we took the Beverly only from the first half of the book, then she would have been on this list, no question. She was a pro with a slingshot, a survivor of abuse, and probably the most respected badass among a ‘60s era boy’s club (no small feat for the time). But it was all erased when she deals with her guilt over her budding sexuality with an underage sewer orgy.

Please, new It, find some way around that. Why not a kiss for each? I mean, that’s a big enough deal for a gang of kids at that age in that time. I love that book apart from that scene and the ending weirdness— adore it, even. But it ruins everything before and after because…

That being said, bring on the Stephen King Renaissance! I eagerly await every time I see someone discovering my favorite author for the first time!

*****

All images used are for illustration and analysis only under fair use guidelines.

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