The story: “The Man in the Black Suit,” collected in Everything’s Eventual. First published in 1994. Wikipedia entry here.
Spoiler-filled synopsis: An old man recounts a strange and frightening encounter he had when he was nine years old, when he met the devil himself in backwoods Maine.
My thoughts: I knew I was going to have trouble with this story by the fourth page, when the protagonist mentions his dead brother. As I’ve lamented before, becoming a father made me a huge wimp when it comes to stories, books, and movies about threatened—or worse yet, dead—children.
This has been a huge problem for my interest in the horror genre. Horror stories are about finding and exploiting readers’ greatest fears, and what is more terrifying than the idea of one’s child put in mortal danger? You can bet they hammer on that theme a lot. And beyond that, many of the best horror tales feature child characters; a child’s resourcefulness and vulnerability make them an ideal protagonist for fairy tales and horror stories alike. I knew I would run into this eventually with King’s short stories; children feature prominently in some of his best work, most notably the coming-of-age epic It, which I haven’t yet had the courage to revisit.
The death of a child—the brother of Gary, the narrator—takes place a year before the events of “The Man in the Black Suit,” but it’s a driving narrative undercurrent throughout the story. One thing King writes well is grief: he avoids maudlin drama and preachy reflection, but picks out the little ways that unresolved emotional pain manifests itself. Nine-year-old Gary and his family clearly haven’t moved on from their loss.
Gary heads out one day to go fishing in the woods. And in a manner consistent with the “I met the devil down by the crossroads” strain of American folklore, the devil appears to him there. This devil isn’t a slick businessman or shady deal-maker; he’s a monster who tries to break Gary’s spirit before killing him. The devil mocks his brother’s death, and gleefully informs Gary that his mother too has just died—a lie, although Gary believes it at the time. Gary pulls himself together long enough to escape. He returns home to find his parents alive and safe, but for the rest of his life Gary carries the weight of his seemingly random encounter.
At first read, this is an odd story; there’s no twist ending or even much narrative closure. It’s more of a “let me tell you about something creepy that happened to me once” campfire tale. King describes “The Man in the Black Suit” as an homage to Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” and it’s easy to see why. As with Goodman Brown’s dreamlike encounter in the woods, Gary’s exposure to pure, inexplicable evil sows seeds of spiritual doubt that he never quite manages to shake throughout his entire life. In King’s story, the encounter with Old Scratch serves two purposes: on the one hand, it’s a way for Gary to confront, and push past, the pain of his loss. On the other hand, his brush with evil permanently mars his belief in divine good, in the same way that not even the most pious among us is ever truly, completely at ease with the presence of death and pain in a world ostensibly overseen by a loving God.
In an afterword, King expresses disappointment with this story. Compared to Hawthorne’s sublime “Young Goodman Brown,” it does indeed fall short—what short story wouldn’t? But it’s a strange and thoughtful meditation on grief and loss that stands out strongly from King’s more typical genre stories.
I enjoyed this, but the subject matter made it a difficult read. I think I’m ready for a few good old-fashioned pulpy Stephen King horror-fests.
Next up: This weekend is looking extraordinarily busy, so I have a feeling the next entries may be delayed by a day or two. With that in mind, let’s go ahead and pick the next three stories: “Strawberry Spring” from Night Shift, “Sorry, Right Number” from Nightmares and Dreamscapes, and “The Monkey” from Skeleton Crew.by