Stephen King Short Story Project, #20: “Popsy”

The story: “Popsy,” collected in Nightmares and Dreamscapes. Published in 1993. Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: To pay off his gambling debts, a man named Sheridan has resorted to abducting children at the behest of an unsavory crime lord. He has no way of knowing that his latest abductee is the son of a vampire, and that the vampire will want his son back. Ultimately, everybody gets what they deserve.

Like this, but imagine that the castle is actually a Nordstrom's.

Like this, but imagine that the castle is actually a Nordstrom’s.

My thoughts: Oh boy. Child adbuction: that’s the subject of this story, and it was nearly enough to make me put the book down after the first page. I stuck with it only because I suspected (and vaguely remembered, from my first reading of this story 20 years ago) that the abductor gets what’s coming to him in the end. If I’m going to subject myself to a story about every parent’s worst nightmare, I at least expect it to let me indulge in a little parental revenge fantasy. And Stephen King came through for me.

I’ve often wondered how authors who are parents manage to write stories in which children are endangered or killed. (King was the father of three children when this story was published.) Are such authors simply unaffected by the paralyzing dread that strikes me when I imagine hurt done to any child, much less my own? Do they force themselves to do it for the sake of their craft, because they know how powerfully such themes resonate? I don’t know where King finds the courage or the gall to write of such things, but I’ll readily admit it’s made for some of his strongest, most affecting work (It and Pet Sematary, among others).

And then there’s this story, written from the point of view of a child abductor. One thing about King is that he writes losers remarkably well—drunks, has-beens, and washed-up failures turn up often in his stories, sometimes as heroes and sometimes as villains. Here, the story’s loser protagonist (a gambling addict who got in over his head) would be sympathetic if it weren’t for the particular crime he turned to in order to save his skin. Sheridan is a sad and pathetic figure; and impossibly, we almost feel sorry for him here. As I suppose most such criminals do, he has walled up his guilt behind a lot of denial (“Hell, he wasn’t a monster or a maniac, for Christ’s sake,” King writes at one point).

But he kidnaps kids, and that’s enough to earn him his grisly fate. His latest victim is a young boy (albeit one with surprising strength, and weirdly sharp teeth) who keeps yammering on about his “Popsy” rescuing him. As he adds details (Popsy’s going to be mad… Popsy’s really strong… Popsy can fly…) we start suspecting that Popsy might not be your typical suburban dad. Before Sheridan can ferry the boy to his unspeakable criminal rendezvous, Popsy appears (bats, cape, the whole Dracula thing), rips Sheridan out of his creeper van, and feeds him to his vampire son.

While the child abduction is the most obviously shocking thing about this story, what’s actually most interesting is King’s portrait of the vampire as a 20th-century American. Popsy appears to be a magisterial Bram Stoker vampire, but Sheridan crosses paths with him not in a gothic castle or haunted moor but in a shopping mall. The vampire had brought his son to the mall (he tells Sheridan before tearing his throat out) to buy him a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figure. King loves to “postmodernize” the supernatural by tying it to the trivial mundanities of American life. He often does this by putting crude American slang in the mouths of even his most horrific supernatural villains; here it’s by imagining the lords of the night as just another bunch of American consumers looking to save big bucks at JC Penney and Toys ‘R’ Us.

It’s a little hard to recommend this story, but I won’t deny that there’s a sick appeal in reading about a child abductor Getting What’s Coming To Him. Would that justice in real-life kidnapping cases were as swift and terrible. There, see, now I’m feeling depressed again.

Next up: “Rainy Season” from Nightmares and Dreamscapes, which had better not involve imperiled children.

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2 Comments

  1. Topher says:

    What happens to the crime lord? The previous kids he kidnapped?

  2. Andy says:

    It’s implied that it’s too late for the previous abductees. Definitely not pleasant to read.

    And nothing happens to the crimelord either. If the vampire had waited just a few more minutes before coming after Sheridan, he would have found him with the crimelord and maybe taken them both out. That’s what I was hoping for and was disappointed when it didn’t happen that way.

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