Category Archives: Stephen King Short Story Project

Stephen King Short Story Project, #46, “A Death”

The story: “A Death,” collected in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams. First published in 2015. Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: In a small town in the Old West, a rancher named Jim Trusdale is arrested, tried, and sentenced to death for the murder of a young girl. Despite strong circumstantial evidence pointing to his guilt, Trusdale insists he is innocent, and the town sherriff starts to think he just might be. But Trusdale’s time runs out—and after his death, incontrovertible evidence is revealed proving that he was, indeed, the murderer.

Pictured: a cowboy. From the Wild West.

My thoughts: This is an offbeat King tale, both in genre and in style. First, it’s a western. King rarely writes historical fiction; almost everything he’s written takes place in or around the present day. While his epic Dark Tower series certainly has one foot in the cowboy-western genre, the western elements are wrapped heavily enough in scifi-fantasy-horror trappings that you won’t find King’s The Gunslinger shelved next to Zane Grey or Louis L’Amour.

It’s a stylistic change of pace for King as well; in “A Death,” he eschews his usual verbose writing style and aims for the dry, terse language that we tend to associate with western stories and the dour-faced lone wolves who populate them. We’ve seen King step outside his familiar style in several short stories: think of “Umney’s Last Case” (Chandler-esque noir), “Jerusalem’s Lot” (Lovecraftian verbosity), or “The Doctor’s Case” (full-blown Conan Doyle). One of the joys of reading King’s short fiction is following along as he indulges in these little side treks away from the horror genre that defines his work.

Spoiler alert: he didn’t do it.

What’s King up to here, then? “A Death” subverts that most familiar of plot narratives: the “falsely accused of a crime” story. You know how it goes: somebody (the hero, or somebody close to them) is accused of a crime they didn’t commit. The evidence seems overwhelming, but we just know they’re innocent, and that an eleventh-hour discovery or revelation will vindicate our hunch. This ubiquitous plot structure appears in everything from mysteries to thrillers to superhero blockbusters.

“A Death” hits all these familiar beats: Trusdale maintains his innocence despite strong circumstantial evidence of his guilt, even seeming touchingly naive about his dangerous predicament. The case isn’t a slam-dunk—a key piece of evidence (a silver dollar stolen by the girl’s murderer) can’t be found; and when a blatantly unfair trial railroads Trusdale into a death sentence, we suspect along with good Sherriff Barclay that the rancher just might be innocent. Will the sherriff be able to turn up evidence at the last minute to save an innocent man from the noose?

As it turns out, no. Trusdale goes to the gallows and a jeering crowd watches his pathetic, undignified final moments. We think that a terrible injustice has been done until the last piece of damning evidence shows up post-mortem: Trusdale had swallowed the stolen silver dollar (repeatedly… ewww) and must certainly have been guilty. The sherriff’s gut hunch (and our own instinctive impulse to root for the underdog) proved wrong; the judgmental townsfolk and their unjust trial stumbled accidentally upon real justice.

If you’ve read even just a few Stephen King stories, you’ve watched him repeatedly wrestle with the cosmic question of Why: Why do bad things happen for no reason? Here, the “Why” question is directed not at a distant God or impersonal universe, but at the human heart: Why do people do bad things for no reason? Why would a seemingly ordinary, unremarkable man like Trusdale commit such an awful and motiveless crime? Why would he insist on his innocence even after his fate was sealed if he knew he was guilty?

And what about us? Is it justice if it’s accidental justice? In the absence of certain evidence, what makes one person assume innocence and another guilt?

The questions raised by “A Death” aren’t terribly novel, and it makes no real effort to answer them. But the twist on the “falsely accused” narrative makes this an interesting read, and seeing King try out some cowboy deadpan is fun.

Next up: Let’s take a look at “Ur,” also in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams.

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Stephen King Short Story Project, #45: “Bad Little Kid”

The story: “Bad Little Kid,” collected in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams. First published in 2014 (in German and French, interestingly enough). Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: Throughout his life, George Hallas is visited by an unaging schoolyard bully who appears every few years to murder somebody George holds dear. George eventually contrives to kill this apparently demonic being, but at the cost of his own life: he is convicted and executed for murdering a child. The story’s final pages make it clear that the bully is no figment of George’s imagination.

My thoughts: What would you say is the archetypal Stephen King villain? To be sure, he’s created quite a few classic bad guys, from creepy supernatural entities (Pennywise from It) to psychotic madmen (Jack Torrence from The Shining). But if you ask me, the definitive King villain type is the schoolyard bully.

Imagine this guy showing up in your life every few years.

Imagine this guy showing up in your life every few years.

Bullies—actual steal-your-lunch-money bullies—are a recurring menace in King novels and stories. Many of King’s other villains are just grown-up versions of the bully (like the abusive husband/father, sadistic prison guard, etc.). And even his most terrifying supernatural villains (again, like the one in It) often behave exactly like bullies, right down to deploying fat jokes and crude sexual slurs intended to dishearten victims.

This might seem a little ridiculous at first, and it is a bit jarring when a nightmarish Lovecraftian entity pauses to tease its victims about their asthma. But King knows that horror is more effective when it exploits real-life fears, and who among us hasn’t had some kind of upsetting encounter with bullying behavior? Whether it was getting pushed around on the playground or being ostracized at work, most of us have experienced the humiliation and helpless rage that comes from witnessing, or being victimized by, bullying.

And so here we are with “Bad Little Kid,” a story about an actual, stereotypical schoolyard bully. Throughout all of his life, George Hallas has been terrorized by a non-aging, apparently supernatural child who appears every few years to kill somebody he loves (usually through a sequence of events that can be passed off as a tragic accident). Whether it’s luring George’s best childhood friend into the path of oncoming traffic or harassing his aging nanny with threatening phone calls until she has a heart attack, this very bad little kid has it out for George. (George narrates this story from death row—he ultimately managed to gun down the evil kid, but of course to the rest of the world it looked like he murdered an innocent child in cold blood.)

Two things stand out to me about this story. First is that it’s in many respects a retread of “Sometimes They Come Back,” an early King story also involving ageless, murderous supernatural bullies. Unfortunately, “Bad Little Kid” comes out worse in a comparison between those two stories. In “Sometimes,” the beleagured protagonist devises a truly original way of dealing with the bullies: demon summoning. By contrast, in “Bad Little Kid,” George simply buys a gun and shoots his tormentor. Gunning down your enemy might be the most American way to deal with problems, but from a narrative perspective it’s a lot less interesting than calling on infernal powers.

Second, “Bad Little Kid” allows for some interesting speculation about what’s really going on here… only to dash that ambiguity with a strangely disappointing denouement that reveals the evil bully to be an actual, real demonic being. The story hints at various alternative theories about George’s predicament. It might be that George is inventing the “bad little kid” in a desperate attempt to attach some kind of cosmic rationale to the seemingly meaningless (but natural) deaths of those he loves. Or the “bad little kid” might be a delusional manifestation of George’s own murderous impulses—most of the victims are women with some kind of perceived weakness or vulnerability (disability, mental illness, minority status, etc.) who might have triggered some kind of hidden misogynistic reaction in George. But rather than leave us pleasantly uncertain of the explanation, King settles on what I would say is the least interesting option: the bad little kid is a demon from hell.

This story also gives King a chance to once again articulate what I take to be his own understanding of the “problem of evil.” Asked to explain why the demonic bully chose to pick on him, George retorts:

You might as well ask why one baby is born with a misshapen cornea […] and the next fifty delivered in the same hospital are just fine. Or why a good man leading a decent life is struck down by a brain tumor at thirty and a monster who helped oversee the gas chambers of Dachau can live to be a hundred.

This is a competent story, but it’s overshadowed by many other King works that explore similar ideas. I recommend the cruder, but more compelling, “Sometimes They Come Back” instead.

Next up: Let’s shift gears and read something with a bit more heft: “The Mist,” a novella-length story collected in Skeleton Crew.

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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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Stephen King Short Story Project, #43: “Gramma”

The story: “Gramma,” collected in Skeleton Crew. First published in 1984. Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: Eleven-year-old George has been left alone for a few hours to care for his aging—and dying—grandmother, an unpleasant woman whom he has always feared. “Gramma” dies on his watch, but that’s not the end of it: Gramma was a powerful witch in life, and her death is part of a plan to permanently possess George. The extent to which her plan succeeds is left unclear by the story’s final pages, in which George has acquired Gramma’s infernal powers but has possibly retained at least some of his own identity.

My thoughts: What would it be like to have a witch in the family? What if that witch was not a quirky spellcasting spouse, but a domineering matriarch willing to kill her own children if they crossed her? And what if, in her old age, that witch became senile, unable to control her powers?

Like this, but with more Hastur the Unspeakable.

Like this, but with more Hastur the Unspeakable.

But I’m getting ahead of myself; for the first part of the story, it’s not clear that Gramma (who is offscreen for much of the story) is anything other than a completely ordinary old woman in the final stage of life. It is thus actually unclear what manner of story we’re dealing with, and my initial reaction was nervousness at the theme of old age and declining health. As many families can attest, caring for a dying relative can be a painful and emotionally harrowing experience for everyone involved, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to read a story that made light of that. Of course, horror stories are most effective when they can exploit an emotional vulnerability in the reader, and King has rarely hesitated to connect his supernatural horrors to real-life ones: parents’ loss of a child (Pet Sematary), domestic violence and miscarriage (Rose Madder), to name just a few.

Eleven-year-old George is terrified of his grandmother, and it initially seems that he’s simply unable to process the stark mortality exhibited in Gramma’s decaying physical and mental state. However, things shift into more recognizeably Stephen King territory as George slowly pieces together scattered family memories and vague comments by other nervous relatives to conclude that there’s something much more fundamentally wrong with Gramma: in her youth, she forged some kind of relationship with dark (Lovecraftian, actually) powers to bear healthy children and secure family prosperity during the Great Depression. Gramma would be a sympathetic figure if it stopped there, but as the years wore on, Gramma occasionally used her power to murder people (even family members) who crossed her and to generally keep her family living in constant fear. Now, in her descent into senility, she has seemingly lost control of her powers to unpredictable and unpleasant effect:

Sometimes, when she had her “bad spells,” she would (as Mom put it) “act out the Tartar,” calling for people who weren’t there, holding conversations with total emptiness, mumbling strange words that made no sense. On one occasion when she was doing this last, Mom had turned white and gone in and told her to shut up, shut up, shut up! George remembered that occasion very well, not only because it was the only time Mom had ever actually yelled at Gramma, but because it was the next day that someone discovered that the Birches cemetery out on the Maple Sugar Road had been vandalized—gravestones knocked over, old nineteenth-century gates pulled down, and one or two graves actually dug up—or something. Desecrated was the word Mr. Burdeon, the principal, had used the next day when he convened all eight grades for Assembly and lectured the whole school on Malicious Mischief and how some things Just Weren’t Funny.

Getting warmer, but needs more nameless horror.

Getting warmer, but needs more nameless horror.

To George’s simultaneous terror and relief, Gramma dies while he’s in the house with her. And the ensuing sequence, which tracks George’s mental state as he prepares to go in to check the body and cover it, is some of Stephen King’s absolute finest suspense writing. It is a truism that scary stories are usually much more effectively frightening before the monster shows up, and King demonstrates this well here with a truly nerve-wracking dozen pages. The reader suspects with George that the wicked grandmother isn’t really out of the picture, and King stretches this tension out as long as he can. When Gramma does finally come lurching back from the dead to chase George through the house, it’s almost a relief.

Gramma’s plan puts her pretty squarely in Evil Old Hag territory; she apparently (it’s not entirely explained) aims to escape death by transferring her own mind and spirit into George’s body. (The extended period of senility may or may not have been a ruse, but it’s clear Gramma has been planning this for some time.) George tries to defend himself by calling on the Lovecraftian entity Hastur, Gramma’s evil patron, but it’s unclear if it works; King switches scenes before we find out. At the end of the story, George is still with us, but clearly has absorbed Gramma’s supernatural powers and her malevolent attitude. We’re left to guess whether Gramma has full control of poor George, or if George somehow managed to retain control over himself.

All in all, this is a very effective story—I’m not often truly creeped out by King stories, but this one gave me a few honest-to-goodness chills. Beyond the solid suspense writing, there are just so many compelling ideas packed into this story: we’ve got a cultist gone senile, a strong-willed matriarch driven to preserve her family through dark means, some unexpected Lovecraftian touches, and creepy mind/body switching (itself a Lovecraftian trope). I’d call this one of the stronger King stories I’ve read thus far.

Next up: “L.T.’s Theory of Pets,” from Everything’s Eventual.

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Stephen King Short Story Project, #42: “The Dune”

The story: “The Dune,” collected in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams. First published in 2011. Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: As a child, Harvey Beecher discovered something bizarre: a tiny island with a sand dune on which, each day, is written the name of somebody who will soon die. Now a bitter old man, Beecher returns from his latest visit to the dune and hastily summons his lawyer to finish drafting his will. Whose name do you think he saw scrawled in the sand?

My thoughts: Premonitions of death—especially of your own death—are a beloved staple of spooky storytelling, from the Bible to modern teen-scream movie franchises. That’s the rich vein that King taps in this short tale about a grumpy retired judge who’s found a way to get advance notice of upcoming deaths.

Pictured: a sand dune (non-deadly-premonition variety).

Pictured: a sand dune (non-deadly-premonition variety).

Since childhood, Judge Beecher has been visiting on an almost daily basis an isolated island where he can read, scrawled in the sand on a dune, the names of people who will soon die. When, after his most recent visit to the island, he hastily summons his lawyer to complete work on his last will and testament, we assume that Beecher has finally seen his own name written on the creepy dune. King feints in this direction for most of the story before producing a twist ending: Beecher hasn’t seen his own name in the sand, but that of his lawyer… hence the frantic rush to get the lawyer to complete work on Beecher’s will (before the lawyer dies and Beecher has to go through the hassle of finding new legal assistance).

Effective twist endings are tricky to pull off, particularly these days when we’ve seen so many of them in stories, books, and film. Yet we readers still hope for and expect them, and I don’t envy writers who have to try and mislead a readership that is actively hunting for the trick. Here, King knows you’re scrutinizing the story for the inevitable twist, so he does his best to make you think you’ve guessed what that twist will be, before surprising you in the story’s final sentences with a different twist. And it works, but imperfectly; to keep readers thinking down the wrong trail, King has to try a little too hard, mainly by emphasizing a few too many times that Beecher is very old and frail. When the punchline arrives, it’s fun, but because you hardly know and aren’t emotionally invested in the lawyer character, it has little lasting impact.

There are a few other noteworthy bits in this short tale. First is the mysterious dune itself. As usual, King resists the urge to try to explain what the deal is with the dune. Beecher does, however, propose one interesting possibility: that the dune is a location where for some reason the skin of the cosmos has worn thin, exposing a tiny glimpse at the inner workings of fate to anyone (un)fortunate enough to stumble across it. Depictions of supernatural encounters as largely random, impersonal, and undeserved are common throughout King’s writing.

Secondly, there’s the fact that Beecher doesn’t take any action to change or subvert these prophesied futures. Stories in which people receive frightening premonitions of the future typically focus on their (usually futile) efforts to change that future. (King has written tales of this sort as well—most notably his novel 11/22/63, about a time-traveler’s attempt to prevent the JFK assassination.) You might imagine that Beecher would act on his terrible knowledge by warning doomed people, destroying the dune, or something else. But despite his daily visits to the dune, the only time Beecher seems to have ever taken action is, as in this case, when he stands to be personally inconvenienced by the foretold death.

All in all, this is a short, solid, but largely unremarkable tale with a fun little twist ending. There’s not a lot to “The Dune” beyond that surprise; this is a simple story that exists entirely to deliver you unsuspecting to the final sentence’s revelation.

Next up: “Gramma,” in Skeleton Crew.

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Stephen King Short Story Project, #41: “Mile 81”

The story: “Mile 81,” collected in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams. First published in 2011. (Incomplete) Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: A bizarre, mostly-immobile alien creature, crudely camouflaged as a run-down vehicle, appears at an abandoned highway rest stop, where it waits for Good Samaritans to approach and then eats them. After a sequence of hapless people are killed, a trio of kids drives the creature off by burning it with a magnifying glass.

Photo © Bangor Daily News.

Photo © Bangor Daily News.

My thoughts: I’m tempted to say that “Mile 81” is a quintessential Stephen King story. It’s not one of King’s best stories, but it pulls in so many of his favorite themes that it reads pleasantly like a grab-bag of Stephen King tropes. In an introduction to the story, King describes it as one of his favorites, and I think I can see why.

So let’s walk through the major Stephen King themes that make appearances in “Mile 81.” First up is boyhood nostalgia. The closest person to a main protagonist in this story is a 10-year-old boy named Pete, who has one foot in the innocence of childhood and the other in the scary, exciting world of Growing Up. The entire first third of the story simply follows Pete as he makes his way to and then explores the abandoned Mile 81 rest stop. It is Pete who will ultimately use his Kid Ingenuity to figure out how to drive off the monster lurking at the rest stop.

Many horror and fantasy stories are coming-of-age tales, and a good number of the genre’s great writers specifically use preteen boyhood as the framework for their horror: several that spring immediately to mind include Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, Dan Simmons’ Summer of Night, Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Peter Straub’s Shadowland, and King’s own It. I won’t delve into the (fascinating!) intricacies of this sub-genre now, but a common feature in such stories is that the “magical worldview” of childhood lets kids triumph over supernatural evil, while grown-ups (who set aside their belief in the magical and supernatural upon Coming of Age) are often helpless against it. That’s certainly the case in “Mile 81;” Pete (and two other small children who join him for the story’s conclusion) accept at face value that they’re dealing with an evil man-eating alien monster and act decisively; every single adult who appears in the story falls victim to it because they simply don’t/can’t recognize or believe what they’re dealing with.

The next recognizable Stephen King staple here is the random and unexplained manifestation of evil, in a form that is uncomfortably both terrifying (a shapeshifting horror!) and ridiculous (…that looks like an old car and eats people!). Many of King’s best stories exhibit a worldview in which Bad Stuff happens to Good People for no discernable reason or grand purpose. King also likes exploit the awkwardness we feel when confronted by an Evil Thing that is both legitimately scary and slightly goofy at the same time. Shape-changing alien blobs and killer cars fall squarely into that tortured category.

Lastly, King loves his characters. Read a few King stories and you’ll quickly see how much he enjoys sketching out the backstories of everyone who crosses into his tales—even minor throwaway characters who exist in the story only to be killed off horribly. Several such characters appear here (all of the doomed adults), and King lavishes several pages of non-essential but highly entertaining background for each of them, giving us a feel for the life choices and quirks of personality that make them the kind of people who will pull into an abandoned rest stop to investigate a creepy-looking car. There’s a Bible-thumping lay preacher (King James Version only, of course!) who wants more than anything to emulate the Good Samaritan; there’s the lesbian horse trainer who can’t not stop to help somebody in need; there’s the vacationing family of four that any parent will quickly relate to. (The parents are killed, but the plucky children survive, although they’ll probably be in therapy for the rest of their lives.)

These are all great themes—story elements that King obviously loves and that he rarely fails to put to good use. “Mile 81” falters in just a few areas, notably its odd pacing: Pete is the main character for the first third, then disappears entirely to be replaced by a series of short sketches of doomed grown-ups, after which he abruptly reappears in the final pages to defeat the monster. The depiction of young children in action is mostly good. Pete is a believable ten-year-old, although the slang terminology he uses feels rooted in King’s own childhood rather than the modern era in which this story takes place. There’s a very likeable six-year-old who is a little too worldly-wise for her years (I say this as the father of a precocious daughter), and her little brother who goes through fairly plausible four-year-old mood swings between mourning his eaten-by-a-monster parents and wanting to retrieve his Transformers toys from the car. The tone of the story’s finale, however, is strangely upbeat and light-hearted given that two of the three survivors just watched their parents get devoured by an alien.

But all in all, this works well. It’s a good choice with which to open a short story collection, both for its general quality and because it’s a very recognizably Stephen King story. Recommended.

Next up: Let’s stick with The Bazaar of Bad Dreams for a bit here, and tackle the next story in the collection: “Premium Harmony.”

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Stephen King Short Story Project, #40: “Night Surf”

The story: “Night Surf,” collected in Night Shift. First published in 1969 (but revised heavily for its inclusion in Night Shift a decade later). Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: A small band of teenagers has survived an apocalyptic plague that has wiped out most of the rest of the world’s population. But they’ve succumbed to a hopeless nihilism, and are starting a descent into barbarism. As the story ends, one of them falls ill, and the others realize that they may not be immune to the plague after all.

Not quite like this. But I can't miss a chance to post the greatest video game cover art ever.

Not quite like this. But I can’t miss a chance to post the greatest video game cover art ever.

My thoughts: “Night Surf” is a quiet, sad post-apocalyptic story told from the perspective of the Bad Guys.

In most grand post-apocalyptic stories, the plucky heroes of the tale eventually encounter a band of barbaric marauders roaming the wastes looking for victims. These marauders are usually more than a little crazy, often bloodthirsty or even cannibalistic, and are led by the most clever or brutal of their number. Or they’ve formed a sick, murderous religious cult that they believe protects them from extinction. They’re a dark mirror of the heroes: heroes cling to their humanity in the face of apocalypse, but these lost souls have surrendered their humanity and live cruel, almost beastlike lives.

“Night Surf” paints us a picture of the sort of people who, having somehow survived the apocalypse, are on the verge of embracing madness and nihilism. Despite their survival, they’ve lost all hope for their future, and lack the moral strength to rebuild… or do much of anything besides wait around for death. As the story begins, they have just crossed a line into barbarism: they’ve murdered a dying plague victim as a sort-of-joking sacrifice to any dark gods out there that might spare them from the plague. They don’t really believe it, but what can it hurt, right?

Bernie, the main protagonist, remembers just enough of his conscience to understand that what they’ve done isn’t funny or appropriate; it’s horrible. But he went along with it anyway. He’s a bitter, unlikable person, cruel to his girlfriend (a fellow survivor) and constantly pulled into memories of the times before the plague, when everything was OK and they weren’t bad people.

Little actually happens, plot-wise, in “Night Surf;” it’s mostly a simple portrait of despair. As the story ends, it’s looking like everyone is going to get what’s coming to them: one of the group of survivors comes down with plague symptoms, and the rest of them begin to process the fact that their perceived immunity might be just one more cruel cosmic joke.

It’s a sad and understated story, which feels strange to say given that it features a killer plague and a band of murderous survivors. King effectively balances the hopelessness of the survivors’ lives with memories of more innocent times, with the result that you feel pity for these lost characters, rather than anger or hate.

“Night Surf” has an obvious connection to King’s post-apocalyptic novel The Stand, and is presumably set in the same universe as (or in an early version of) that novel. In The Stand, a superplague wipes out most of the world population, and a ragtag band of survivors bands together to rebuild society. The lost souls of “Night Surf,” if they survive the plague, would almost certainly wind up in the camp of The Stand‘s villain, who gathers weak-willed and evil-inclined survivors into his cruel community.

This is a good story that cuts deeper than I expected. And it’s got me eyeing my copy of The Stand, which is surely due for another re-read one of these years….

Next up: By happy coincidence, King has just released a new short story collection, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams. I don’t think I can resist, so let’s go ahead and look next at the first story in that collection, “Mile 81.” I’ll be tackling this at a slower pace than before… which gives you some time to run out and buy a copy!

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Stephen King Short Story Project, #39: “Battleground”

The story: “Battleground,” collected in Night Shift. First published in 1972. Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: After murdering his latest target—a toy company executive—a hitman receives a package in the mail… from the victim’s mother. It’s full of little G.I. Joe toy soldiers, who come to life and wage an extended battle against the hitman in his high-rise apartment.

26629-sp-e1364423887880My thoughts: Short, simple, and fun, “Battleground” isn’t the sort of story that invites deep reflection or discussion. There’s just something wonderfully appealing about the thought of a troop of little green plastic soldiers running around performing cute little military maneuvers. But let me point out a few things.

First, by an odd coincidence this is the second story featuring a hitman protagonist that I’ve read this month. I don’t think King does this especially often (King superfans, please correct me); but a hitman does have a few benefits as a protagonist in a horror story. For one, they’re usually armed and dangerous, so you can drop them into tight situations and expect that they’ll put up a good fight. For another, they’re by definition bad people—so while we might cheer them on as they face off against supernatural threats, we don’t mind when they inevitably die in the end. They deserve it.

Secondly, this story, short as it is, accomplishes something that many horror films and stories do not: it skips the usual extended sequence where the protagonist, confronted with evidence of the supernatural, spends a long time questioning his sanity and trying to explain away the situation rationally. When the reader/audience knows for certain that the supernatural element of the story is real, it’s tedious to wait for the protagonist(s) to finally catch up. In “Battlefront,” we get to jump right into the action because Renshaw, the hitman, always puts the practicalities of survival first: it might make no logical sense that he’s being attacked by toy soldiers, but he’ll ask the troubling questions after he’s taken care of the threat.

Unfortunately for Renshaw, he’s not going to survive this engagement. He puts up a good fight, taking down toy helicopters and dodging rocket attacks as he makes a fighting retreat into his apartment’s bathroom. After a humorous nod to World War 2 general Anthony McAuliffe’s famous “NUTS” letter, Renshaw comes up with a desperate plan to sneak around the outside of the high-rise and surprise-attack the toy soldiers with a homemade Molotov cocktail. Unfortunate for Renshaw, he underestimates the firepower at his enemy’s disposal; he is blasted to pieces when the soldiers detonate a toy nuke.

Although “living dolls” and other animated toys have a history of being utterly terrifying when deployed in horror stories and film, the animated soldiers here are not scary; I was cheering them on throughout and hoping they’d manage to take down Renshaw. It’s a funny story, and like “The Reaper’s Image” early this month, makes for a nice bit of filler to read in between more intense King short stories.

Next up: “Night Surf,” in Night Shift.

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Stephen King Short Story Project Interlude #2: “The Langoliers”

The story: The Langoliers, collected in Four Past Midnight. First published in 1990. Wikipedia entry here.

twilight-zone-odyssey-of-flight-33Spoiler-filled synopsis: A handful of passengers on a red-eye flight across America wake up to find that the rest of the passengers—and the plane’s crew—have vanished into thin air. They manage to land the plane (one of the group is a pilot), only to find that the world is gray and dead—they have gone back in time, but it turns out the past is an empty shadow of the present. And strange creatures called the langoliers, who “tidy up” history by literally devouring the past, are headed their way.

My thoughts: The Langoliers was the story that launched my decades-long Stephen King obsession.

I was in late high school (so 1992 or thereabouts) when my mom came home from the library with a copy of Four Past Midnight. I had never read anything by Stephen King before, and in fact viewed him with faint suspicion and distaste. To this day I’m not sure what led my mom to pick up that book for me from the library, but I’m glad she did.

I read two of the four novellas in Four Past Midnight before the book had to be returned to the library: The Langoliers and The Sun Dog. I don’t recall which one I read first, but I know that while The Sun Dog left little impression on me, The Langoliers absolutely blew my mind. I’d never read anything quite like it in all my years of voracious reading. I went on to read The Stand, followed by It, and by then my addiction was real.

All this to say that I’ve both looked forward to, and dreaded, returning at last to The Langoliers, which I never revisited after my initial reading. Like most of the King stories I read in the early days of my King addiction, it sits atop a very high pedestal; and I’ve often wondered if it really was that good, or if that’s just the nostalgia talking. (Some of the King novels I’ve re-read, such as The Stand, have lived up to their reputation and my own memories. Others, like It, proved disappointing on a re-read.)

So how is The Langoliers? It’s not as mind-bogglingly good as I remember, but it’s not bad, either. The setup is excellent: a motley crew of airline passengers trapped on a plane, all dropped into the deep end of a seemingly impossible mystery. They’re up against two threats: an external threat in the form of the “langoliers,” reality-devouring monsters who “clean up” the past; and an internal threat in the form of one of their own number, who is deeply, homicidally crazy.

When this novella was first published in 1990, I suspect that the piece of pop culture it called most immediately to mind was one of two Twilight Zone episodes: “The Odyssey of Flight 33,” in which a commercial airliner travels into the past, or possibly “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”—two classic uses of air travel as a horror-suspense setting. But a modern reading of The Langoliers evokes instead evangelical Rapture fiction, notably the execreble Left Behind series… which also features a handful of passengers discovering that everybody else on the plane has vanished, leaving behind a scattering of clothes, false teeth, purses, and other uncomfortably intimate items. But The Langoliers predates Left Behind, if not the dispensationalist obsession with the Second Coming; and as the passengers discuss the meaning of what’s happened, nobody ever mentions the Rapture as a possibility.

What follows is 200 pages of competent suspense (not horror, really) storytelling. The surviving crew contains the usual assortment of stock characters ranging from the mundane (The Coming of Age Kid, The Writer) to the somewhat ridiculous (the British Secret Agent), and each of the characters gets their chance to shine at some point in the narrative. Most of the action takes places on the ground, once the group manages to land their plane; alone in a completely empty and lifeless airport, they use clues in the environment to deduce (with implausible accuracy) the nature of their predicament, and figure out a way to get the plane airborne again and back through the time-warp that brought them here. It’s at this point that the crazy guy (a well-written example of the Insane Psycho, a staple Stephen King character) strikes, and also that the heroes get their first glimpse of the rapidly-approaching, all-consuming langoliers. A redshirt character dies, a few Noble Sacrifices take place, the bad guy gets what’s coming to him, and the heroes finally escape back into the present time.

The Langoliers is competent, but strangely for its relatively short length, actually comes close to dragging at points. I have no way of knowing if this is true, but I get the feeling when reading King novels from the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s that somewhere during this period, King’s editors stopped doing much to reign in King’s verbose tendencies. In The Langoliers, as in It and other novels from this era, King belabors routine sequences, lets slips some cringeworthy dialogue (“Now I find myself involved in a mystery a good deal more extravagant than any I would ever have dared to write,” says the writer character at one point) and gets a bit too maudlin when handling emotional scenes. It’s not unenjoyable, but it’s Stephen King at his “safest.” The only glimmers of good ol’ Stephen King viciousness are found in the excellent sequences told from the viewpoint of the doomed, unsettlingly sympathetic psycho character.

This is good stuff. But it also feels like Stephen King on cruise control; The Langoliers is caught awkwardly between the cutthroat intensity of King’s early novels and the more mature reflection of his later work.

A closing note: The Langoliers is generally referred to as a novella, although at 230 pages I’m not sure why we don’t just consider it a regular-length novel. My guess is that by the late 1980s, King’s legendary writing pace had produced a backlog of novels awaiting release, so his publisher packed the four shortest manuscripts into an anthology and called it Four Past Midnight.

Next up: “Battleground,” in Night Shift.

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Stephen King Short Story Project, #38: “One for the Road”

The story: “One for the Road,” collected in Night Shift. First published in 1977. Wikipedia entry here. Note that this post contains spoilers not only for “One for the Road,” but for the novel ‘Salem’s Lot.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: An aging resident of small-town Maine relates a haunting story from his past involving the dead and cursed town of ‘Salem’s Lot. Years ago, a traveller passing through the area with his family runs off the road in a blizzard near ‘Salem’s Lot (the same town featured King’s early short story “Jerusalem’s Lot”); he seeks help at a tavern a few miles away. The narrator and another local accompany the desperate man to recover his wife and daughter from the stranded car—but when they arrive, both have become vampires. The husband is killed (er, vampirized), and the two locals flee for their lives.

dracula1700My thoughts: Another vampire story! “One for the Road” is best read as an epilogue to the (excellent) vampire novel ‘Salem’s Lot; without that context, it loses much of its impact. Whether or not you read it in connection with that novel, however, this is a short, simple story that belongs to the “Want to hear about something spooky that happened to me?” around-the-campfire genre. It all builds to the vampire encounter in the final pages—a conclusion that is telegraphed from the story’s opening pages but is nonetheless creepy and tense when it unfolds.

Cantankerous yet good-hearted rural residents of Maine (my wife, who went to college in Maine, tells me these are called “Mainiacs,” but I refuse to believe that) are a regular feature in Stephen King stories, and it’s obvious he has both a personal familiarity with and a fondness for these characters. When a traveler arrives at a small-town tavern looking for help recovering his wife and daughter from their stranded car, the protagonist and his fellow locals seem reluctant to get involved, which initially strikes us as callous. But as the story unfolds, we learn that there’s a good reason for their attitude: ‘Salem’s Lot, the town where the traveler’s car went off the road, is a “bad place.” Nobody actually likes to say words like “vampire” out loud, but everybody knows that you steer clear of the Lot if you know what’s best for you. In the end, the locals risk their lives to help the traveler, but to no avail: unable to convince him that the vampire stories are true, they can only watch as he falls victim to his now-vampire wife and daughter.

If you’ve read ‘Salem’s Lot (and you should—it’s a clever, multilayered novel, and one of King’s best), this story is a nice epilogue, although it doesn’t actually give you much new information. In the novel, the town of ‘Salem’s Lot acquires a new resident: a Stoker-esque European vampire who proceeds over the course of the novel to turn the entire town into vampire slaves. Although the heroes of ‘Salem’s Lot finally manage to destroy the master vampire, they are forced to flee in the face of an entire town of feral, masterless vampires. The novel ends with the only two survivors returning to ‘Salem’s Lot to burn it down. “One for the Road” mentions a massive fire that occurred in the recent past, but clearly indicates that its effect was only temporary, as the ruined town is still haunted by the undead.

King’s vampires are intriguingly traditional, especially when you consider that at the time that ‘Salem’s Lot and “One for the Road” were published, Anne Rice was radically redefining the vampire genre by casting the undead as tragically hip aesthetes. King’s vampire mythology, by contrast, is straight out of Bram Stoker: a cultured, highly intelligent, and demonically evil master vampire (served by a still-living “Renfield”) whose victims become monstrous undead who are weaker and subservient, but also possessed of an animal cunning. I’ve nothing against Anne Rice’s take, but after several decades of sympathetic vampires, it’s nice to face off against a flock of inhuman, bloodthirsty, and horrifyingly clever fiends.

One last observation: this story’s closing shocker is that the traveler’s seven-year-old daughter is a now a vampire too; we’re meant to mourn this repulsive corruption of innocence. This is a powerful theme (even Anne Rice, with her sympathetic take on the genre, wrings a lot of unease out of the idea of a child vampire). Unfortunately, a decade or two of horror and J-horror films involving creepy children has muted some of the shock value here.

Next up: “The Langoliers,” in Four Past Midnight. “The Langoliers” is technically a novella, not a short story, but I’ve been reading it over the last few days.

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