Essays

On Predicting Violence

In the wake of the Virginia Tech murders, novelist and Entertainment Weekly contributing editor Stephen King comments on the connection between violent writing and violent acts

Stephen King | KING ''Certainly in this sensitized day and age, my own college writing would have raised red flags, and I'm certain someone would have tabbed me…
Image credit: PHOTOGRAPH BY AMY GUIP
KING ''Certainly in this sensitized day and age, my own college writing would have raised red flags, and I'm certain someone would have tabbed me as mentally ill because of them.''

Stephen King on Virginia Tech

EDITORS' NOTE: In the wake of the Virginia Tech murders and subsequent reports that Cho Seung-Hui had raised alarms in the English department with his writing, we asked novelist and Entertainment Weekly contributing editor Stephen King for his thoughts on the links between the creative process and violence. Where, exactly, does one draw the line between imagination and disturbing expression that should raise red flags?

I've thought about it, of course. Certainly in this sensitized day and age, my own college writing — including a short story called ''Cain Rose Up'' and the novel RAGE — would have raised red flags, and I'm certain someone would have tabbed me as mentally ill because of them, even though I interacted in class, never took pictures of girls' legs with my cell phone (in 1970, WHAT cell phones?), and never signed my work with a ?.

As a teacher, I had one student — I will call him George — who raised red flags galore in my own mind: stories about flaying women alive, dismemberment, and, the capper, ''getting back at THEM.'' George was very quiet, and verbally inarticulate. It was only in his written work that he spewed these relentless scenes of gore and torture. His job was in the University Bookstore, and when I inquired about him once, I was told he was a good worker, but ''quiet.'' I thought, ''Whoa, if some kid is ever gonna blow, it'll be this one.'' He never did. But that was in the days before a gun-totin' serial killer could get top billing on the Nightly News and possibly the covers of national magazines.

For most creative people, the imagination serves as an excretory channel for violence: We visualize what we will never actually do (James Patterson, for instance, a nice man who has all too often worked the street that my old friend George used to work). Cho doesn't strike me as in the least creative, however. Dude was crazy. Dude was, in the memorable phrasing of Nikki Giovanni, ''just mean.'' Essentially there's no story here, except for a paranoid a--hole who went DEFCON-1. He may have been inspired by Columbine, but only because he was too dim to think up such a scenario on his own.

On the whole, I don't think you can pick these guys out based on their work, unless you look for violence unenlivened by any real talent.

Originally posted Apr 20, 2007