Stephen King Short Story Project, #8: “The Road Virus Heads North”

The story: “The Road Virus Heads North,” collected in Everything’s Eventual. First published in 1999. Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: A successful horror author stops at a yard sale on the way home from a conference and buys the world’s creepiest watercolor painting. As he continues his journey home, he notices that each time he looks at the painting, it has changed—showing a murderous car driver following the author’s route north. And getting closer.

My thoughts: Ah, but this is a good one. The best Stephen King stories leave you not exactly scared, but grinning with slightly sick glee at what you’ve just read. And I’m grinning right now.

But first things first. I mentioned in my reflection on “Word Processor of the Gods” that King often uses writers and published authors as protagonists. That’s the case in “The Road Virus Heads North,” where the protagonist (a famous horror novelist named Richard Kinnell) is a very obvious stand-in for Stephen King.

There’s a lot of “meta” going on in “The Road Virus Heads North” (which, it hardly needs to be said, is a wonderful short story title). The story gets its name from the title of a disturbing painting that King claims to actually own. In having a fictional horror author come into possession of it (and meet a grisly end as a result), King is obviously having fun at his own expense. One wonders how many other personal references and in-jokes King snuck into this story.

The story opens on an amusing note. Kinnell is at an author’s convention, rolling his eyes at both his fans (a tiresome autograph-demanding lot who always ask him inane things like “Where do you get your ideas?”) and his snooty critics (“Richard Kinnell writes like Jeffrey Dahmer cooks,” writes one). If it were a different author snarking like this, it would seem peckish; but because it’s Stephen King it instead comes across as just funny. Having been both a raving fan and armchair critic of King’s writing over the years, I feel a kinship with Kinnell’s fans and critics—but mostly, I sympathize with poor Kinnell, who like Stephen King is just doing what he loves. King’s occasional self-insertion into his stories and novels never comes across as obnoxious; King always seems to be in on the joke, even in his most serious novels, and he doesn’t get preachy with it.

“The Road Virus Heads North” (the painting) is the sort of American roadside kitsch that good horror stories turn into nightmare fuel. It depicts a grinning, pointy-toothed creep driving a vintage muscle car through the night, and more specifically, along the highway that Kinnell is traveling on. (The description of the driver reminds me of recurring King villain Randall Flagg—perhaps a Dark Tower expert can tell me if they’re supposed to be the same person.)

In classic “the eyes are following me around the room!” fashion, the painting changes as time goes by (why is that so inherently creepy?). It shows the scary, maybe-not-entirely-human driver following Kinnell’s route, stopping once to brutally murder the woman who sold Kinnell the painting. Kinnell goes through a process of doubting his sanity much like Howard Mitla’s in “The Moving Finger.” He tries to throw away, and later destroy, the painting, but each time it mysteriously re-appears, showing the driver getting ever closer until he arrives at Kinnell’s house. The painting’s final scene reveals the grisly fate in store for our famous, doomed horror author.

I like this story quite a bit. Beyond King’s self-referencing, it’s a good little horror story. Creepy roadside Americana… a murderer cruising down the long, unlit highway in pursuit of his victim… the irony of a horror author meeting a horror-story end… this is King doing what he does best, needy fans and pompous critics be damned.

Next up: “The Doctor’s Case,” from Nightmares and Dreamscapes.

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