Stephen King Short Story Project, #44: “L.T.’s Theory of Pets”

The story: “L.T.’s Theory of Pets,” collected in Everything’s Eventual. First published in 1997. Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: A blue collar man named L.T. recounts a humorously embellished account of his failed marriage to his wife, Lulu, and the role that their pet dog and cat played in breaking up the marriage. What L.T. studiously avoids mentioning in this bittersweet reminiscing is that Lulu was murdered by a serial killer shortly after their breakup.

My thoughts: This is an odd one. It’s not odd that King occasionally takes a break from the horror and suspense genres—most of his short story collections contain one or more tales that deviate from the gruesome norm. This story is odd because it’s unusually paced, and because after a lighthearted, comical, and touching tale of a marriage that didn’t quite work, it ends on a surprisingly dark note.

King writes in a foreword to this story that “L.T.’s Theory of Pets” is in part an experiment in lowering the reader’s guard and then striking while they’re emotionally vulnerable. And he’s reasonably successful in doing so: despite a few vague hints early on that there’s a darker context to the story, King lulled me into complacency with L.T.’s flavorful recounting (to the story’s narrator, a friend and coworker) of his marriage’s final year. L.T. and his wife Lulu may have been in love, but they just don’t seem to have been destined for a successful marriage. Childless, they buy each other pets (a dog for L.T. and a cat for Lulu) as gifts; comically, L.T. and Lulu wind up hating “their” pet but becoming attached to their spouse’s. Their building irritation with their spouse’s pet serves as a proxy for and reflection of their frustrations with their own marriage, until Lulu finally picks up and leaves.

L.T.s account, which takes up the bulk of this short story, is reasonably fun. King tries to emulate the speech mannerisms of a modestly-educated meat-packing plant worker, and the result is a mildly humorous story in the vein of Dave Barry: the usual gags about men leaving the toilet seat up and the like. L.T. comes across as an unappreciative husband and Lulu as a flighty wife; we’re a bit sad but not especially surprised when Lulu leaves.

In the story’s final pages, however, things take a turn for the bleak: Lulu left L.T. to move back in with her mother, but never made it. While her body was never found, it seems certain that she fell victim to the “Axe Man,” a serial killer preying on women in the area. The narrator of “L.T.’s Theory of Pets” muses that L.T.—who still loves and misses his wife, however annoying she was—is unable to accept this reality, and uses his oft-repeated story of a marriage ruined by pets as a mechanism of denial. Wracked with sorrow and guilt (Lulu wouldn’t have died if he hadn’t driven her out, after all) L.T. clings to the hope that Lulu is out there somewhere alive and well.

As I said, an odd story. I was waiting for L.T., or the story’s narrator, to be revealed as the Axe Man, but King doesn’t take that route. In that sense, it’s nice to be surprised. And I always enjoy King’s depictions of married relationships; he relates with insightful clarity the ways that spouses love and exasperate each other. Whether this all hangs together as a good story once you add the discordant tone of serial murder to the mix, I’m not sure. I respect the effort to emotionally disarm and then ambush the reader, and to branch out from King’s usual fare. But the slightly goofy account that takes up most of this story isn’t strong enough to bear much narrative weight, and the combination of I Love Lucy-style yuks and murder doesn’t work all that much better than L.T.’s marriage.

Next up: Let’s jump back into some straight-up horror with “Bad Little Kid,” from The Bazaar of Bad Dreams.

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