Dear Stephen King

MATTHEW WAGSTAFFE (M.Arch I, ’19)

Dear Stephen King,

Allow me to introduce myself: My name is Matthew Wagstaffe and I am a student at the Yale School of Architecture. Together with my colleagues Ethan Zisson and Nicholas Miller, I am editing an issue of our school’s student-run architecture publication Paprika!. To be released near Halloween, our issue will focus on the relationship between architecture and horror, and I am hoping that you might find the time for an interview. I think you would have a lot to say.

I will never forget the moment early in your novel It when George Denborough has to retrieve a bottle of wax from his family’s basement. You capture, in great detail, the terror this normal household space evokes: the view into darkness from the top of the stairs, the deep breath required to make that initial descent into the unknown, and the sheer horror of the basement itself, its unsettling un-finishedness, the exposed pipes and radiators, the house’s insides all turned out. George runs back upstairs, to the familiarity of moulding and polished floors, as quickly as possible.

This sequence is, among other things, a forensic analysis of an architectural moment and its frightful qualities. That you would undertake such a study is not surprising: the careful consideration of built space and its terrors has almost exclusively been the province of the supposedly lower-brow artiste—the horror writer, the grind house auteur, the haunted house designer. Those within our profession turn nary a theoretical eye to this important subject.

My fellow editors and I believe that this neglect does the field of architecture a disservice. There is, we contend, an elective affinity between the production of horror and the production of spatial experiences. Both require total control of light and darkness, of temperature and mood, of ambient noise and formal language; both operate through objects that stir memories in their user; both play with symbolic tropes and invoke primordial narratives.

Luckily, where architects have ignorance, you have expertise: throughout your career, you have considered the architecture of fear with great thoroughness, and, most impressively, at a variety of scales. It, after all, is not just about one scary basement, it is about the haunting of an entire town. The novel narrates hundred of years of Derry’s history, showing how the historical traumas of the town have concretized themselves in particularly spatial ways: the charred remains of a racialized act of arson that now stands as a macabre monument, the defunct exurban manufacturing centers that endure as dangerous playgrounds, and the terrible town planning that has resulted in a labyrinthine sewer network ripe for demonic inhabitation.

The novel is a remarkable urban study, and, frankly, I find it ridiculous that while the Situationists’ psychogeography or Kevin Lynch’s notion of imageability have become mainstays in urban studies classes, your method of analysis—the tracing of a town’s history and planning dysfunctions through a narrative of haunting—has not managed to gain even a toehold in the hallowed halls of the academy.

Perhaps, this is because you never let haunting settle down into the neutered realm of allegory; in your work you hold out the possibility that there truly is another world, full of demons and ghouls, capable of exerting its strange influence on our own. Such a paranormal leaning doesn’t sit well with us architects—we like to pretend that we’re in total control of what gets into our spaces. No matter how hard we try to ignore the signs of this ghostly other world, however, we know it’s there: it’s in the discomfort we feel when alone in large spaces, in our aversion to musty attics, in our need to check the shower for intruders when we first step into an empty motel room.

This neglect of the fear-inducing in architecture cannot continue. It is high time that our profession lets these ghosts in, and we hope that your interview will show us how.

Sincerely,

Matthew Wagstaffe

Yale School of Architecture, Class of 2019

 

Dear Stephen King,

It’s been two weeks now and you still have not written back. I hope there has not been a situation at the post office; sometimes I scribble addresses too sloppy. On this letter, I wrote them perfectly, to insure that the postman, our trusted civil servant, will have no trouble with its delivery.

I cannot stress enough how essential it is that you participate in this issue: Without your contributions, architecture discourse will continue to do the field a disservice, failing to explore the fear-inducing powers of our profession.

I’d be lying, though, if I said my interests were purely academic. I’ll come out and say it: I am one of your biggest fans. I have read all your books, seen all the film adaptations, and even know by heart every line of Maximum Overdrive. Actually, fandom, that base concept, doesn’t adequately describe my connection to your work. There’s something more going on here, a true coincidence of souls. Your works were fated for me, and I was fated for them: Shirley Jackson, one of your greatest influences, hails from my hometown of Burlingame, CA. And the Winchester Mystery House, another of your obsessions, is but minutes away from my high school. I doubt, Stephen, that these overlaps of geography and interest are mere happenstance. Might there be something common to our psyches—some discontentment with the normal, some infernal drive towards the world’s dark underside—that is driving the two of us together? Sometimes, when I am reading your stories, my pulse quickened in fear, I feel deeply connected to you, Stephen—do you feel this connection too?

You must admit that scaring someone is an intimate act: the frightener exerts his power over the frightened, the frightened submits entirely. It is a game of power, the game of horror, not unlike an amorous relationship, and I’ve played it with you for a long time. Let’s see what happens, Stephen, when I ask you questions; when my words influence you and not the other way around.

I very much hope you write back, not just for the sake of our issue of Paprika!, but because I believe that something truly powerful may happen where the two of us to meet.

Sincerely,

Matthew Wagstaffe

Yale School of Architecture, Class of 2019

 

Stephen Stephen Stephen,

Still no answer. I send these letters—I pour my heart out to you, I tell you of our connection, I analyze your work, trying to exorcise the fears you’ve implanted, and you give me NOTHING, not a word of encouragement.

Do you think it’s fair, Stephen, to send your dark missives out into the world, to send your books into our hands and our homes, forcing us to stay up late into the night, imbibing your words until they’ve entered our consciousnesses, neigh or souls, where they lay dormant, waiting for us to close our eyes so they can lurch into our dreams as ghouls and demons, horrifying us into a restless state of wakeful terror? Do you think that’s fair, Stephen, to keep this communication, this haunting, so one-sided? Why can you take over my brain in its entirety, and when I ask for just a smidgen of your brain, just a little itty bitty peek inside your skull, you give me nothing but silence? LET ME IN STEPHEN. LET ME IN.

Because you owe me, Stephen—I’ve let you in over and over, and don’t pretend you don’t know EXACTLY what I’m talking about. You’ve said so yourself: “the good horror tale will dance its way to the center of your life and find the secret door you believed no one but you knew of.” I’ve let you in that secret door, you’ve haunted my private chambers. That’s the only architecture that matters to me any more, I could give a damn about this silly Paprika!. They can print this letter for all I care, by the time it comes out I’ll be long gone anyway, burning rubber on my way north. Because I’ve seen your house in Bangor, Maine, your little Victorian Mansion. Oh, I know where you live, Stephen, and I’m going to bust down your secret door and do some haunting of my own.

Sincerely,

Matthew Wagstaffe
Yale School of Architecture, Class of 2019