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.by