ubi sunt qui ante nos fuerunt

The PlayCo toy store in Escondido, gone many years now.

The PlayCo toy store in Escondido, lost to the sands of time.

I recently acquired a copy of Night Below, a 1995 AD&D boxed set outlining a sprawling fantasy campaign set in the Underdark setting. I remember drooling over it at a toy store—I think it was the late, lamented PlayCo in Escondido, CA, if my memory has the year right.

The copy I acquired has been lovingly used. And by that, I mean the owner really liked highlighting text:


Every page looks like that. My reaction upon seeing it was twofold:

  1. When you reach a point when there’s more highlighted text on a page than non-highlighted text, have you defeated the purpose of highlighting?
  2. Why doesn’t every game book look this colorful?

I’ll be honest: I love this. (Here’s another example of the sort of awesome gaming artifacts you find in old boxed sets, if you’re lucky.) Back in the day, I was pretty neurotic about keeping my books and game material in pristine, mint condition. But a banged-up, highlighter-inundated, notes-scrawled-in-the-margins game book like this has been played, and that’s a lot more fun than a perfect-condition rulebook that looks like nobody’s ever so much as opened it.

The owner of this copy of Night Below didn’t just read through it and highlight interesting items; he/she and their game group played the heck out of it. You can tell they played through it in its entirety, because all the way to the end, the encounter descriptions are marked up with notes that must have originated from actual play. Here, for example, is a description of one of the final “boss battles;” you can see that the DM has jotted down ever-decreasing hit points in the margins, and has crossed out spells that have been cast:


There’s a thrill in holding—and, I hope, one day playing!—a game that was important to real, actual gamers before me. A campaign like this might have taken months or years to play through. The DM must have spent hours and hours pouring through this campaign planning each new game session, marking up important parts of the text with a color-coding system that made sense to them but not to me (the same color is used in some places to mark spells, in others to mark hit points—it’s madness, but a madness that meant something to somebody). Perhaps the players still recount stories and anecdotes from it to this day.

TSR1125_Night_Below_An_Underdark_CampaignAnd having provided hundreds of hours of collective entertainment, how did this boxed set wind up being sold on the internet for a few measly bucks? Surely there’s a story there too, of a hobby abandoned, a game group graduating and getting married and heading to different corners of the country, a family clearing out a garage storage bin after a death, or whatever else you might imagine.

There’s also a bit of a rebuke in a heavily-used game like this: why aren’t more of my games lovingly defaced like this? As I look through my collection and ponder trimming it down, I see too many books in great condition, and not enough books with cracked spines and falling-out pages caused by years of regular use at the gaming table.

So here’s to the anonymous Dungeon Master and their players, who adventurered their way through this campaign all the way to the end. And left behind lots of mile markers for me to follow.

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What I thought my six-year-old daughter would learn in tae-kwon-do class What she actually learned
The Way of the Exploding Fist Report bullying behavior to a trusted adult
Death Before Dishonor Never practice martial arts manuvers on a sibling or pet
Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique Share with the class something kind you did this week, like you picked up your Legos without being asked or something
Foe-shaming Mantra of the Ineffable Bodhisvatta It’s easier if you tie the right side of your uniform first
If You Meet the Buddha, Kill Him We don’t use real weapons at this martial arts studio except for this one bo staff that is just for show and actually you’re not allowed near it
Drunken Master Style Annual membership in the American Taekwondo Association costs how much?!?
killbill zorrogirl
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Stephen King Short Story Project, #28: “The Fifth Quarter”

The story: “The Fifth Quarter,” collected in Nightmares and Dreamscapes. First published in 1979. Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: A crook named Jerry Tarkanian sets out to avenge the death of a friend (and crook) who was double-crossed after a lucrative heist. And while he’s exacting his revenge, if he happens to come into possession of the four pieces of a map to the villains’ buried treasure, well…

maltestfalconMy thoughts: It’s occurred to me more than once this month, as I’ve made my way through King’s short stories, that King’s writing strength is in suspense as much as horror. There are certainly exceptions, and obviously the two genres have a lot in common—a good horror story usually involves a lot of suspense. But I’d venture to say that King is at least as good at writing non-supernatural suspense as he is at writing scenes of supernatural terror. In non-supernatural stories like “In the Deathroom,” “Survivor Type,” and this one, he ratchets up the tension quite effectively without calling in the ghosts and goblins.

That’s one reason I’m glad my short story project is ending on this, a straight-up crime story. King seems to loves pulpy crime stories (in fact, he just published one, and his earlier novel The Dark Half sees him exploring this interest), and that’s what “The Fifth Quarter” is.

My own knowledge of the noir and crime genres is almost non-existent, so I can’t compare this to other examples of the form. The plot includes the expected elements of mistrust, backstabbing, and overly-complex criminal plans, all of which are neatly resolved in a few scenes of deadly violence. The backstory feels like a cross between The Usual Suspects and Treasure Island: four crooks carry out a heist, but to avoid drawing the attention of the law, they agree to hide away the ill-gotten gains for a number of years. They arrange for a map of the cache’s location to be drawn up—and then split into four “quarters” that must be combined in order to learn the precise location of the loot. Each of the four crooks takes a piece of the map and they go their separate ways, promising to meet up again after the heat of police attention has passed.

As you might expect, some of the conspirators decide they don’t want to share the wealth, and one of them (possibly with the help of others) kills off a member of the group and takes his part of the map. Unfortunately, the betrayed man was friends with the protagonist Tarkanian, a scoundrel with a certain sense of honor. (It’s funny how much slack we’re willing to cut fictional criminals who follow a code of honor.) Tarkanian is a fun protagonist—we don’t have a lot of sympathy for him, but he’s smart and sneaky… and we do want him to get the bastards who killed his pal. Tarkanian tracks down the three surviving conspirators to find out which of them killed his friend, and do the eye-for-an-eye thing.

The heart of the story is in Tarkanian’s confrontation with the first two conspirators. Holding them at gunpoint, he must match wits and glean information from a pair of thugs who will kill him if he makes even the slightest misstep. His “investigation” then takes him to the home of another conspirator; things go bad quickly and Tarkanian finds himself in a tense shootout. He survives and winds up with three parts of the map—enough, he thinks, to point him in the right direction.

I enjoyed this story. For one thing, after several weeks of different horror subgenres, it was nice to get lost briefly in a world of fast-talking scoundrels and gangsters with codes of honor. The scenes in which Tarkanian is bantering with his enemies are almost nerve-wracking at points. That all said, I didn’t love “The Fifth Quarter”—once Tarkanian’s quest is complete, there isn’t a lot to like (or even know) about him, and at the end of the day this is just a story about criminals backstabbing each other. It’s a nice diversion, and King can write a great suspense scene. But there’s nothing here I’ll remember fondly a year from now.

That’s it! And with this, we wrap up our month of Stephen King short stories. I hope you’ve enjoyed it, and even more, I hope you’ve taken the time to check out at least a couple of these tales. It’s been a huge amount of fun for me. Thanks for reading along!

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Stephen King Short Story Project, #27: “I Am the Doorway”

The story: “I Am the Doorway,” collected in Night Shift. First published in 1971. Wikipedia entry here.

venusSpoiler-filled synopsis: Years after he took part in a space mission to Venus, a crippled astronaut discovers that a hostile alien presence is using him as a “doorway” through which to observe Earth. This is manifested in the appearance of alien eyes on his hands. As the aliens’ influence over the astronaut’s body grows, he is forced to use extreme measures—self-mutiliation and ultimately suicide—to close the “doorway.”

My thoughts: What’s waiting for us out there in the void of outer space? Science fiction has given us many different forms of alien menace to fear. In “I Am the Doorway,” King declines to show us a clear picture of the aliens, but their influence and awareness is spread by something like a virus or mutating agent contracted by an astronaut passing through the orbit of Venus. This is another science fiction story—although typically for King, the science fiction is mostly background for more down-to-earth horror. “I Am the Doorway” plays out much like a “demon possession” story, with the protagonist Richard waging a losing battle to preserve his free will in defiance of an entity that wants to use him to carry out horrible acts.

The horrible acts in this case are two murders: one of a stranger, and the second of a friend in whom Richard tries to confide about his bizarre situation. Many years after a mission to Venus, the wheelchair-bound Richard discovers that eyes are growing in his hands, and that he can dimly perceive the presence and mindset of the beings behind them: they’re alien, and from their perspective, humanity is terrifying and revolting. Seen through the strange lens that is Richard’s body, humans look like monsters to the alien presence—and as its control over Richard grows, the presence begins channeling supernatural-seeming powers through Richard to kill other humans. This seems an unsubtle jab at humanity’s own propensity for reacting violently to things that look different or make us uncomfortable. Whether the aliens have a coherent plan for Richard, or if they’re just using him to randomly strike out in fear and loathing at Richard’s fellow “monsters,” is never explained.

Richard temporarily drives away the presence by dousing his hands with kerosene and setting them on fire before the presence can stop him. But when a new set of eyes appears on his chest years later, he surmises that suicide is the only way to shut the door. But even that may be overly optimistic, as the presence has demonstrated that it can restore Richard’s crippled body long enough to carry out its tasks. Will the presence stop Richard from killing himself, and if not, might it not go on controlling his dead body? That’s a little creepy, and that’s where the story ends.

“I Am the Doorway” is filled with questions—what is the alien presence? what does it want? how did it infect Richard? where does it live? etc.—but answers very few of them. I think that’s probably for the best; too much exposition would dilute the effect of the short, focused narrative. So if you’re here just for the sci-fi and aliens, this story won’t likely satisfy you. There isn’t much depth here, and there doesn’t need to be. “I Am the Doorway” is a sharp little tale that doesn’t rank up there with King’s best, but which you’ll be thinking about for some time after you read it.

Next up: OK, we’ve got time for one more King story before October ends. Let’s go with… “The Fifth Quarter,” from Nightmares and Dreamscapes.

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Stephen King Short Story Project, #26: “Graveyard Shift”

The story: “Graveyard Shift,” collected in Night Shift. First published in 1970. Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: Workers at an old, run-down textile mill are tasked with cleaning out the mill’s long-unused basement level. To their disgust, it’s crawling with huge rats. In the course of their job, they discover an entrance to a sealed sub-basement. They descend to investigate, and stumble across a hideous ecosystem of giant, mutated rats and other vermin. It doesn’t end well.

My thoughts: An empire of rats living undiscovered beneath our feet. What’s more repulsive than that? “Graveyard Shift” is primarily an exercise in exploiting our general disgust with rats, bats, and other vermin, and to a lesser extent our mingled fascination and discomfort with the idea of “lost ecosystems.”

The classic “lost kingdom” inhabited by holdovers from a past age (often dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasts) is fun but not especially horrifying. Creepier is the idea that deep (or worse, not so deep) beneath the Earth’s surface are inhuman beings darkly mirroring human society above (morlocks). But perhaps even worse than the latter idea is the special twist provided by Charles Darwin’s insights into evolution: the thought that the dark and harsh conditions underground might be breeding survivors—creatures much better at surviving than comparatively pampered surface-dwellers. And what type of creature would we least like to see enhanced in this way? Yeah. Stephen King thinks so too. That’s the fear that King taps into with “Graveyard Shift,” where we’re asked to imagine an ecosystem of vermin that have for years (centuries?) been evolving and mutating into monstrosities that aren’t quite so intimidated by humans.

The protagonist here is a drifter named Hall, who for the first half of the story is a reasonably relate-able character, but who slips into a strange obsession in the story’s final pages. The central tension of the story is not actually related to the rat empire; it’s the conflict between Hall and Warwick, a cruel mill foreman who’s ordered his cleanup crew into the clearly unsafe basement level. Warwick shows little sympathy for (and often mocks) men who are bitten by rats or who show signs of breaking down. When, after several days of this abuse, Hall discovers an entrance to a long-forgotten sub-basement, he and Warwick descend to investigate, neither of them willing to “chicken out” in front of the other.

It’s here that Hall’s madness begins to manifest; he has an inkling of what lies in store, but pushes on anyway so as not to lose face in front of Warwick… and when they stumble across a cow-sized rat queen attended by countless thousands of giant rats, Hall (possibly driven insane by what they’ve discovered) actually shoves Warwick into the “royal chamber” and to his death. By that point, though, it’s obvious they’re both doomed; Hall is swarmed (laughing hysterically) before he can make it back to the stairs and safety. The story ends as the rest of the cleanup crew descend into the sub-basement to find out what happened to Hall and Warwick; we’re left to imagine what will happen next.

We don’t learn much about the rat-world beyond this, although King seeds “Graveyard Shift” with some tantalizing hints at the backstory. The door into the sub-basement is actually sealed from below, and Hall and Warwick come across a human skeleton in the sub-basement—what would have led somebody to seal themselves down there with the rats? They also come across objects in the sub-basement dating into the early 1800s, and before they die they realize that the underground chambers extend far beyond the mill property.

Little details like this, and the time King spends developing the animosity between Hall and Warwick, make this story more effective than it would otherwise have been. But really, this story is mostly about the gross-out. Disgust with rats seems to be a nearly universal human characteristic, so it’s unlikely many readers won’t be at least a little creeped out by this story. That said, I’ll confess that I don’t find rats to be inherently upsetting (spiders, on the other hand…), so this story didn’t hit a nerve in me the way it might for others. It comes down to this: do rats freak you out? Then, Dear Reader, this story was written for you with love. If not… well, let’s be honest. It’s still pretty gross.

Next up: “I Am the Doorway,” also from Night Shift.

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Stephen King Short Story Project, #25: “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut”

The story: “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut,” collected in Skeleton Crew. First published in 1984. Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: An old man recounts the story of a woman who disappeared years ago from their rural Maine town: Ophelia Todd, who was obsessed with finding shortcuts whenever she had to drive somewhere. Her shortcuts went from impressive to slightly frightening, as she started covering distances faster than physics should allow. When she vanishes, it’s suggested that she has found her way to an otherworldly realm through which her shortcuts have been taking her.

dianaMy thoughts: “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut” isn’t a horror story—it’s a “let me tell you about something weird I once saw” campfire tale, told in the form of an old man’s reminiscences. There’s no gore or violence to be found, and it has a happy ending—it’s almost sweet. It’s wistful and maybe a little melancholy, but in a pleasant way.

Of the stories I’ve read so far this month, “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut” is probably most similar to “The Man in the Black Suit,” although the latter has a horror element whereas this story feels more like a milder episodes of The Twilight Zone. It’s narrated as a mostly one-way conversation between two elderly rural Maine geezers. Homer, one of the men, shares the story of his peculiar encounter with the titular Mrs. Todd many years earlier, shortly before she vanished without a trace.

King has an obvious fondness for (and almost certainly firsthand experience with) the mannerisms of Maine’s rural residents, and it took me a few pages to get used to the slow, rambling pace of this story—which follows Homer’s somewhat scattered train of thought. I sometimes find the heavy use of regional accents and speech mannerisms in fiction irritating, but any annoyance with all the rural slang faded quickly and I found myself settling for the story by the time Homer’s tale begins in earnest.

Let’s take a step back for a moment to consider Stephen King’s storytelling. I’ve often wondered what it is about King’s writing style that is so undeniably appealing. After all, King’s prose is often overly verbose and lacking in literary grace. What King does do, however, is make you feel like he’s sitting right there with you telling you, personally, a story—between his obvious enthusiasm for his own stories and his lack of pretension in telling them, King really earns the title “storyteller.” In a story like “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut,” he’s amping the let-me-tell-you-a-yarn vibe up to the maximum, and because he’s so darn earnest about it, and because his stories are frankly just interesting, it works really well. (It also fosters a real sense that you, the reader, know Stephen King on some vague but slightly personal level. Read a half-dozen King books, and you’ll comfortably identify yourself as one of the “Dear Readers” he often addresses in introductions or afterwords.)

“Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut” is a good story, and it’s one you could probably actually tell around a campfire, if people do that kind of thing anymore. In it, Homer describes how Mrs. Todd would confide in him about her progress in finding shortcuts through their corner of Maine. He listens with skeptical interest to her stories of shortcuts that shave off 15 minutes… 30 minutes… and even more time off of her trips. She might even be growing younger with each shortcut she takes. Homer becomes infatuated with Mrs. Todd, and comes to understand that she might be too graceful, beautiful, and wild for this world.

At the peak of his infatuation with her, he accepts an invitation to ride along with her on one of her shortcuts, and is alarmed to find that her shortcut takes them through some very uncharted areas—outside the car window, he spots a strange, primeval wilderness with weird, dangerous-looking flora and fauna. He’s too scared to accompany her on further shortcuts, but she keeps finding them. She vanishes shortly after finding her fastest shortcut yet, and it’s implied that she’s found her true home in the wild roads of some otherworldly realm. In the story’s closing scene—I got a little teared up, I’m such a wimp—an impossibly young, beautiful Ophelia Todd returns one night decades later to pick up 70-year-old Homer and drive him off into the sunset.

“Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut” has more in common with a fairy tale than with the horror or suspense genres. It’s the story of somebody who must find their way to their “true home” in the underworld/fairy-world/heavens/etc. (For a moving example of this in modern pop culture, think of Ofelia in Pan’s Labyrinth.) The closer Mrs. Todd gets to her apotheosis, the more young, vibrant, and even godlike she appears to Homer. (She’s compared to the goddess Diana at several points.) Her vanishing is a homecoming, and when she comes back for faithful old Homer, she’s taking him to the wild kingdom she now rules, across the borders of death and reality.

Random note: there’s a brief reference to King’s novel Cujo near the beginning of “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut.” King likes to plant little references like this throughout his books and stories.

Next up: A return to straight-up horror with “Graveyard Shift,” from Night Shift.

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Stephen King Short Story Project, #24: “Crouch End”

The story: “Crouch End,” collected in Nightmares and Dreamscapes. First published in 1980; revised for inclusion in Nightmares and Dreamscapes. Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: An American couple on vacation in England gets lost—very lost—while walking through the London neighborhood of Crouch End. As they try to navigate unfamiliar streets, they have increasingly unsettling encounters and are pulled into a nightmarish Lovecraftian dimension, where the husband vanishes. His wife survives and returns to the “real world,” but her sanity has been dealt a devastating blow.

It doesn't seem quite so terrifying in the light of day.

It doesn’t seem quite so terrifying in the light of day.

My thoughts: Another explicitly Lovecraftian short story, “Crouch End” differs from “Jerusalem’s Lot” in that it’s not a direct pastiche of Lovecraft’s writing style. “Crouch End” is a modern horror story, and works better because King is free to bring his own writing style and thematic interests into the story, rather than simply mimicking Lovecraft.

“Crouch End” is more explicitly a “Cthulhu mythos” story than “Jerusalem’s Lot,” too. “Jerusalem’s Lot” quite clearly takes place in Lovecraft’s meta-setting of forbidden knowledge and unspeakable god-monsters, but it steers clear of actual mentions of specific Lovecraft characters or entities. “Crouch End” actually comes forward and name-drops several beings from the Cthulhu mythos… almost. I qualify that statement because King doesn’t quite name them: some of the mythos entities mentioned here have very slightly misspelled names: “Yogsoggoth” instead of “Yog-Sothoth,” “Nyarlahotep” instead of “Nyarlathotep,” “R’Yeleh” instead of “”R’lyeh,” etc. I’m not sure if King did this to avoid a lawsuit (the Lovecraft copyright legacy is notoriously messy), to recapture the unpronounceable nature of names that are now familiar to most horror and sci-fi nerds, or to simply irritate Lovecraft purists.

(I should note here that “Crouch End” is largely responsible for introducing me to, and getting me obsessed with, the writings of H.P. Lovecraft in college. While I was mildly aware of Lovecraft’s name and influence when I first read this story, this was the first place I encountered those bizarre, unpronounceable names, and it hooked me. In the early 1990s, Lovecraft and the Cthulhu mythos were not nearly as ubiquitous in pop culture as they are these days.)

“Crouch End” departs from both King and Lovecraft in that it’s set not in New England (the usual stomping grounds of both authors’ pet horrors) but in actual England. This has the effect of evoking the Lost American Tourist Abroad trope. You might not think of London as being an especially alien place to Americans, given our general obsession with the British (my wife is watching a low-budget interwar British mystery in the background as I type this)1; but I would say there’s some potential creepiness to be mined from contradictory (and probably quite inaccurate) American stereotypes of British hospitality and snobbiness, not to mention all that History they’ve got going on over there. King also manages to use more British colloquialisms in the first two pages of “Crouch End” than appear in the entirety of Jeeves and Wooster.

So what of the story itself? It’s good, particularly in the way that King slowly escalates the tension. It starts with one or two unpleasant encounters with unsavory Crouch End residents, but becomes increasingly unsettling until Lonnie (the husband) is attacked by some kind of inhuman horror. King nicely does not describe the encounter; an unhinged Lonnie refuses to provide details for his wife Doris, or for us. As Lonnie and Doris become more and more lost, their surroundings begin to warp and the stars in the night sky become unfamiliar. It is suggested that “Crouch End” is a place where the veil between our world and some hideous otherworld is weak, allowing horrors to occasionally cross over from there to here (and allowing lost tourists to occasionally wander in the other direction).

It’s all nicely random and unexplained, in a typical Stephen King “why do bad things happen to good people?” sort of way. True to Lovecraftian form, the couple’s encounter with alien horror takes a toll on their sanity. Doris never quite recovers:

Sometimes when she cannot sleep—this occurs most frequently on nights when the sun goes down in a ball of red and orange—she creeps into her closet, knee-walks under the hanging dresses all the way to the back, and there she writes Beware the Goat with a Thousand Young over and over with a soft pencil. It seems to ease her somehow to do this.

Oh, Steve. You had way too much fun writing those sentences, didn’t you?

Next up: “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut,” in Skeleton Crew.

1 Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries is set in Australia? I thought it was London. Although now the extended scenes on the beach make more sense.

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Stephen King Short Story Project, #23: “Children of the Corn”

I’ve been wrestling with this post for two days now—I suspect that I’m starting to overdose on Stephen King. But I’m in the final stretch now! This post will be less polished than usual, but I’m publishing it so I can press on past my mild case of writer’s block.

The story: “Children of the Corn,” collected in Night Shift. First published in 1977. Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: A bickering couple driving through rural Nebraska comes across a seemingly abandoned town. They soon learn that it’s home to a blasphemous cult of children who have murdered the town’s adults and worship a demonic corn deity called He Who Walks Behind the Rows. If you can’t guess how it ends, you haven’t been keeping up with my short story write-ups.

My thoughts: This is it—the quintessential Stephen King short story. Once you’ve read this story, quite a few of his other stories will suddenly seem like pale retreads of “Children of the Corn.”

“Children of the Corn” follows the “strangers stumble across a creepy town with a dark secret” script closely, to good effect. It’s also packed with favorite Stephen King tropes: a bickering married couple, twisted fundamentalist Christianity, evil children, and creepy rural America. Burt and Vicky are somewhat less sympathetic than other married couples in King’s stories; they’re on the edge of divorce and are continually at each other’s throats. I’ve mentioned several times already that King loves depicting married relationships, and here as in other stories he spends time establishing personal dynamics even when the story doesn’t absolutely require it. Their bickering (over directions, over what to do when it’s clear they should be booking out of incredibly eerie Gatlin, Nebraska) actually seals their fate: Burt drags his feet in leaving town just to spite Vicky, and an argument about this causes them to separate (and move too far from their escape vehicle) at the worst possible time.

So what is the deal with eerie, abandoned Gatlin? Burt pieces the facts together while exploring a defaced Christian church. The backstory is delivered in a burst of exposition and is too complex for Burt to have plausibly figured it out with the limited clues at his disposal, but who cares? Years ago, the children of Gatlin, influenced by an evil supernatural entity that acts like a cross between a wrathful Old Testament tyrant and a bloodthirsty pagan fertility god, murdered everyone over the age of 19. They live in accordance with the corn god’s hellfire-and-brimstone edicts, sacrificing anyone who “ages out” of the cult.

Vicky and Burt are trapped by the cultist-kids; Vicky is killed, but Burt escapes into the endless rows of corn outside the village. For a while, it looks like he might make it, but the cornfields are the domain of He Who Walks Behind the Rows, and when Burt stumbles onto its “holy ground,” it all ends as you would expect.

The story ends with a scene in which the cult’s seven-year-old “prophet” communicates their god’s anger at their failure to kill Burt without its direct intervention; the punishment is the lowering of the “sacrifice age” from 19 to 18. In the final sentences, it’s suggested that some of the child cultists may be starting to question their situation.

There’s a lot to unpack in this story, and I hate to leave you with just this synopsis—but I need to post this so I can press forward. This is one of the strongest stories from Night Shift that I’ve read so far, and although it touches on a lot of uncomfortable themes, it’s required reading for anyone who wants to get a feel for King’s early storytelling style. (You can safely skip the terrible, yet strangely well-known, movie based on this story.)

Next up: “Crouch End,” from Nightmares and Dreamscapes.

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Stephen King Short Story Project, #22: “In the Deathroom”

The story: “In the Deathroom,” collected in Everything’s Eventual. First published as an audiobook in 1999. Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: In a murky interrogation room in some fascist Central American hellhole, an American reporter-turned-insurgent must make it through torture without giving up what he knows. After a tense matching of wits against his interrogators, he manages to turn the tables on them and escape.

My thoughts: “In the Deathroom” is a definite break from Stephen King tradition. There’s no supernatural element in it whatsoever; and even more surprisingly, it’s not set in rural Maine, or for that matter in America. It takes place almost entirely in one room: a stereotypical interrogation chamber deep in some stereotypical corrupt Central American nation. Fletcher is an American reporter who has fallen in league with a rebel movement, but he’s been captured and now faces torture at the hands of a stereotypically sadistic team of interrogators.

Stephen King notes in an afterword to “In the Deathroom” that he wrote this story to supply a rare happy ending to the familiar “interrogation room drama” scenario, and he’s stocked the scene with all the necessary characters: a determined and righteous protagonist set against a charismatic but soulless interrogator, a calculating junta official, and a sadistic torturer. The mechanism of torture is some sort of electrocution device that has already been used to kill one of Fletcher’s friends and collaborators.

All of the tension in this story is in that matching of wits; once Fletcher hatches his violent escape, things actually get less interesting. But King’s depiction of the mind game between interrogator and interrogated is excellent. Fletcher knows that tricking his captors into believing his lies will require a delicate balance of defiance and resignation on his part, and a careful mixing of truth and falsehood in what he confesses. His interrogators are not entirely unaware of this dynamic, either; and with a mixture of promises, threats, and pain try to disrupt Fletcher’s resistance. The interrogators win the opening round, catching Fletcher out in a lie. Fletcher is more clever in round #2. Round #3 consists of Fletcher feigning a seizure after being shocked by the torture machine, then violently maiming and/or killing his captors in the ensuing chaos. The story ends with Fletcher’s return to America; he is scarred but alive.

It’s interesting to imagine how this story might have differed had it been written a few years later than it was. By the mid-2000s (and to America’s great shame), we’d all thought a lot more about the mechanics and efficacy of torture than our 1999 selves would have ever guessed. “In the Deathroom” is not a naive story exactly; King is savvy to the basic dynamics of torture, but he ultimately paints a very Hollywood picture of torture: a savage but strangely dignified chess game between torturer and tortured played out in a handful of encounters, rather than an extended sequence of dehumanizing brutalization. King is explicitly writing a genre story here, and this is appropriate in that light.

“In the Deathroom” has a happy ending by genre standards; the thoroughly evil bad guys meet well-deserved ends (the sadistic torturer is hooked up to his own machine, which Fletcher then cranks up to “11”) and Fletcher makes it out alive, despite the acknowledged improbability of that outcome. The growing possibility that Fletcher might actually survive, along with the lack of a supernatural element, kept me off my guard through the entire story; I kept waiting for either a plot twist to land Fletcher back in prison, or for the entire escape sequence to be revealed as just another fraud designed to break his spirits. It’s not how these stories usually end, but far be it from me to criticize a story for not sticking to cliché.

This is a strong story that fumbles a bit at the end, but which kept me frantically turning pages to find out how it would play out. It’s nice to see King branching out a bit, both in genre and in setting. If you find “interrogation room drama” interesting, I recommend this story alongside a viewing of Babylon 5‘s episode “Intersections in Real Time” and Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s “Chain of Command, Part 2,” both of which memorably explore the dynamic between principled captive and clever interrogator within a genre context.

Next up: “Children of the Corn,” from Night Shift.

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Stephen King Short Story Project, #21: “Rainy Season”

The story: “Rainy Season,” collected in Nightmares and Dreamscapes. First published in 1989. Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: A married couple gets ready for a relaxing vacation in a rustic town in rural Maine. A pair of friendly locals warns them to stay away for the night, because it happens to be the night that (every seven years) it rains toads. Actual toads, from the sky. Ignoring the warning proves to be a mistake, because these aren’t your ordinary toads.

My thoughts: Stephen King isn’t shy about acknowledging his influences. When John, protagonist and husband of Elise, “suddenly found himself thinking of Shirley Jackson’s short story ‘The Lottery’” in this story’s opening pages, King is knowingly giving the game away. To nobody’s surprise but theirs, John and Elise won’t be enjoying their very short stay in charming Willow, Maine.

The “innocent strangers pull into a rural town with weird locals and are terrorized” trope has made countless appearances in books and film over the years. “Rainy Season” twists the concept in the direction of The Wicker Man. (Whereas in “The Lottery” it’s a community member who is sacrificed, in “Rainy Season” it is unwitting outsiders.) John and Elise’s deaths are already well-planned by the time they arrive in town asking for directions to their vacation home. Every seven years, it rains toads—pointy-toothed, man-eating toads—in Willow, and every seven years, a hapless tourist couple happens to arrive just in time to be sacrificially killed by said amphibians. The locals believe the periodic sacrifice is what ensures that the toads disappear after each “rainy season” rather than sticking around; and the whole procedure—including the offering of a warning that they know will be ignored—has become a well-worn ritual that the locals feel slightly bad about, but perform anyway.

One difference between a story like “The Lottery” and a story like “Rainy Season” is that Shirley Jackson’s story fades to black when the stones start flying; for Stephen King, by contrast, that’s where the fun’s just starting. King has a great deal of fun amping up the gross-out factor as John and Elise fight a doomed battle to escape the malevolent toads that are pouring down and into their rickety vacation home. Afterwards, we’re treated to an overly long denouement as the two locals who tried to warn them off discuss the seven-year cycle and the regretful necessity of the whole routine.

This little sub-genre of horror is so familiar and heavily used that any traces of meaningful social commentary have long since been worn off. It’s a fun and workmanlike showing from King, not something you’ll feel the need to re-read, but certainly not without its moments. The battle against the toads is a fun scene that could have gone on longer than it did (and speaking of high school lit classics, it called to my mind “Leiningen Versus the Ants”). I wish I had something more insightful to say, but there’s only so much you can do with a story about giant demonic sky-toads.

Next up: “In the Deathroom,” from Everything’s Eventual.

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