Stephen King Short Story Project, #19: “Survivor Type”

The story: “Survivor Type,” collected in Skeleton Crew. First published in 1982. Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: A former surgeon (now a drug dealer) is shipwrecked while trying to smuggle heroin on a cruise ship. With no food and limited supplies, he’s forced to take extreme measures to stay alive. And by “extreme measures,” I mean he cuts off parts of his body and eats them to stave off starvation.

My thoughts: Like “The Raft,” this is a straightforward gross-out story. It takes two unsettling ideas—our fear of being stranded alone, and our extreme cultural aversion to cannibalism—and puts them together. Then rubs them in the reader’s face.

“Survivor Type” is a mental exercise in finding out if there’s a line that a truly survival-focused person would not pass in the struggle to stay alive. I’m picturing Stephen King brainstorming the sickest possible scenario and writing this story to answer the question, “What kind of person would go that far to survive?”

This story, written in the form of a diary, provides us with plenty of biographical information about such a hardcore survivor. Our protagonist, Richard Pine, had a troubled youth, where he learned that surviving in sports, school and business could be best achieved by hitting your enemies hard, and by being willing to make tough sacrifices (usually friends and relationships) to better one’s odds. King realizes also that his hypothetical survival scenario will require somebody with, in addition to an extreme survival instinct, advanced medical skills; so Pine is a surgeon. When he’s caught running an illegal drugs/medicine operation on the side, he’s booted from his profession (true to character, he avoids jailtime by ratting out his accomplices). He then takes his medical practice underground and eventually gets involved in the cutthroat world of drug smuggling. As the story begins, the cruise ship on which he was smuggling a large amount of heroin has sunk, leaving him stranded alone on an archetypal desert island. (And no, he spent no time helping anyone else in the rush to the lifeboats.)

Normally I would wince in sympathy for a protagonist caught in these circumstances, but because Pine is such a loathsome individual, I found myself simply curious about what lay in store for him (no doubt King’s intention). For the first several days, Pine’s diary recounts a fairly stereotypical stranded-on-an-island sequence of events (trying to catch small wildlife, waving at an oblivious passing aircraft, etc.) But when Pine breaks his leg while chasing a delicious-looking seagull, he is forced to amputate his foot (copious amounts of heroin make it possible to do so without passing out from the pain). And things go downhill, in a perversely logical way, from there. Having crossed this gruesome little Rubicon, Pine goes on (as time stretches on with no sign of rescue) to amputate and eat most of his legs, his ears, and (the story’s final words suggest) at least one hand.

I don’t have much else to say about “Survivor Type.” The question it asks, “How far would you go to survive?” is interesting but (let’s be honest) mostly just an excuse to imagine the most horrifying survival situation possible. And on that visceral level, it succeeds. More interesting for me is the presence and use of heroin in this story; at the time this story was written and published, King was deeply addicted to cocaine and alcohol. Although King doesn’t overly dwell on it, the scenes describing Pine’s experience and perceptions while dosed up on heroin have an authenticity—and just maybe, a mournful self-awareness—beyond what the story’s rather simple narrative needs require.

Next up: “Popsy,” from “Nightmares and Dreamscapes.

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