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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Stephen King Short Story Project, #37: “Umney’s Last Case”

The story: “Umney’s Last Case,” collected in Nightmares and Dreamscapes. First published in 1993. Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: A hard-bitten Chandler-esque gumshoe is plagued by the sense that something is “off” as he goes through a typical day on the job. In time, he learns that he is a character in a series of hard-boiled detective novels—and that the author plans to destroy his protagonist and take his place in this fantasy version of 1930s southern California.

thegreathumphreybogart1My thoughts: As I’ve noted before, Stephen King has an unabashed love of hard-boiled detective fiction. “Umney’s Last Case” is both a pastiche of Raymond Chandler and a playful bit of meta-commentary on the art of writing.

Let’s look at the pastiche element first. My knowledge of the hardboiled genre is limited, but I know enough to recognize that King here incorporates every cliché (of both setting and language) that the genre has to offer. Clyde Umney is a smart-mouthed, sharp-eyed P.I. who conceals beneath his gruff exterior a good heart. His is a comfortable world, both for him and for the reader: it’s full of familiar stereotyped characters (femme fatales, helpful street urchins, leggy secretaries, sinister mob bosses) who act and talk the way we expect, all in a slightly fuzzy, nostalgic version of Los Angeles.

But the story begins a shift into Stephen King territory when Umney’s life begins to fall apart: people he relies on leave (often expressing a strange contempt for Umney as they do so), his favorite diner closes, and his landlord is re-painting his dingy office building with bright, cheerful colors. It is not long before a “client” arrives to break the news: Umney is a fictional character, the protagonist of a popular detective series written in the 1990s. The “client” is the author, who (driven by personal grief) is seeking to escape into his own fantasies. Through some unexplained mechanism or act of willpower, he switches places with Umney, settling into Umney’s place and booting Umney into the real world. As the story closes, Umney is starting to get a grip on life in the modern world, which he hates. And he’s learning to write detective fiction, with payback on his mind.

As King is wont to do, he mixes lighthearted and serious elements, to mostly good effect. While clearly enjoying the detective genre, he has fun poking its conventions—for example, pointing out the blurry timeline (the genre is set in an eternal late-1930s). But when the story gets weird, it also takes a turn for the serious and even unsettling; we learn about horrible tragedy in the author’s life (death of his wife and child, debilitating illness) that has driven him to take refuge in his own fantasy world. There are numerous references to AIDS (the author’s child died after an infected blood transfusion) that highlight the contrast between the allegedly gritty but actually… cozy world of detective fiction, and the ugly, unfair, disease-ridden world of the present.

Beneath the genre emulation, King is asking some interesting questions about the art of writing. What is the relationship between an author and the characters he creates? Is there a sense that they take on a life of their own independent of the author’s plans? These questions have a certain over-earnest “Creative Writing 101” feel to them (and form the basis of his 1989 novel The Dark Half, which also features a writer of pulp fiction whose creations acquire a life of their own), but at the same time it’s fun to see them given literal expression in a story. King writes about writers a lot (eye-rollingly often, really), but between the fun pastiche, the Twilight Zone twist, and the musings about the nature of fiction writing, he makes this story work.

Next up: “One for the Road,” in Night Shift (yes, my wife located my lost copy of Night Shift).

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Stephen King Short Story Project, #36: “The Night Flier”

The story: “The Night Flier,” collected in Nightmares and Dreamscapes. First published in 1988. Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: A cynical tabloid reporter stumbles upon what looks like an actual legitimate story: a serial killer who flies a private plane from one rural airport to another, leaving exsanguinated victims behind. The reporter finally tracks down and confronts the killer—who turns out to be a vampire.

draculaMy thoughts: Stephen King writes good vampire stories. I sometimes think it’s a shame he doesn’t write more of them.

That said, he’s written more about vampires than he has about most other specific types of supernatural menace (enough that there’s a Wikipedia page about vampires in King’s work). To my knowledge, the following King tales feature vampires:

  • ‘Salem’s Lot (novel)
  • “One for the Road” (short story)
  • “Popsy” (short story)
  • “The Night Flier” (short story)
  • numerous vampires appear throughout the Dark Tower novels and stories

Despite that impressive (and generally well-reviewed) listing, I don’t think anybody considers Stephen King a “vampire writer” in the way that, say, Anne Rice is. King writes so many books that touch on so many different horror tropes that he’s never been especially associated with any one specific subgenre of horror.

But I sometimes wonder if, when his excellent early novel ‘Salem’s Lot hit it big, King thought about going all-in on vampires. His only previous novel, Carrie, did not lend itself especially well to becoming a franchise. But vampires… vampire stories seem to lend themselves to sequels. It’s not too hard to imagine the murky ending of ‘Salem’s Lot being spun into follow-up novels, the way that Anne Rice turned her 1976 Interview with a Vampire into a decades-long series.

In fact King talked for many years about writing a sequel to ‘Salem’s Lot… but for whatever reason, he never did. From what I hear, he claims to have wrapped up the loose ends from that novel in the course of his Dark Tower books. I think that, with a few exceptions, he’s just not a “sequel” guy.

While it’s fun to imagine an alternate history in which King fleshed out a vampire mythos across dozens of vampire novels, I’m glad King has never tied himself to a specific type of horror. To be sure, many of his stories bear strong thematic similarities to each other, but when you pick up a Stephen King novel you can be reasonably certain that you’ll be reading something new. King is sometimes dismissed as a pulp novelist who cranks out overly verbose potboilers, but I don’t think he gets enough credit for keeping things different.

Ahem. Back to “The Night Flier.” In short: it’s very strong. Richard Dees, a deeply cynical tabloid reporter (and a minor character in King’s novel The Dead Zone, strangely enough), manages to correlate the arrival of a specific small Cessna airplane with a sequence of bizarre murders around obscure rural airports. Guessing that law enforcement and/or the mainstream press will make this connection any minute now, he boards a plane himself to confront the killer at his next port of call (not because he cares about the murders, but because he knows it’ll make a great story). The confrontation goes poorly, although the vampire spares Dees’ life (after exposing his camera film, of course).

The vampire elements are interesting enough; as he often does, King puts an ageless and immortal enemy into mundane modern contexts (the vampire is a genteel, caped, Bram Stoker-esque lord of the night who takes to the sky in a Cessna Skymaster rather than bat wings). But the heart of this story is the character of Richard Dees, the jaded reporter. The 30 pages of this story are mostly a character study of a man with almost no soul: Dees is a master of manipulating other people’s emotions (through lurid tabloid reporting and photography), but himself is unable to experience those emotions. As we read, we are initially repulsed by Dees’ callous and contemptuous attitude toward his readers (and most of humanity), but as the story proceeds, that revulsion fades into sympathy. Dees is lost; if he had a soul once, it’s been buried deep throughout the long years of his tabloid career. His encounter with the vampire (and the sight of its slaughtered victims) threatens his sanity, but might also present a sliver of hope: might this experience be so disruptively shocking that he’ll feel something again?

We don’t know, and I’m probably reading a bit much into the story. But Dees is a good character. I don’t know if Dees’ demeanor is meant to suggest a specific type of psychological disorder (at points, his lack of empathy makes him seem sociopathic). Regardless, Dees is one of the better characters I’ve encountered in my short story project thus far.

Next up: “Umney’s Last Case,” in Nightmares and Dreamscapes.

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Stephen King Short Story Project Interlude: Richard Bachman’s “The Long Walk”

Well, I seem to have misplaced my copy of Night Shift. If you’ve ever been to our house, you know that any book lost amidst the sea of tomes therein is quite possibly lost forever. Hopefully I’ll locate my copy and get to “One for the Road,” but if not, I’ll switch the next story in the lineup to “The Night Flier,” from Nightmares and Dreamscapes.

In the meantime, here’s something a little different but still King-related. In 1979, King published—under the pseudonym “Richard Bachman”—a short novel called The Long Walk. (After “Bachman’s” true identity was exposed by an alert reader, The Long Walk was most commonly found collected with several other novellas in the 1985 King omnibus The Bachman Books). The half-dozen or so Richard Bachman novels that King wrote are generally thought to have a harder, less supernatural, but more cutthroat edge to them than King’s regular work. King has written about his reasons for writing under this false identity—a mixture of publisher concern about market saturation of the “Stephen King” brand and King’s personal desire to find out whether or not he could replicate his success. The Bachman novels represent a fascinating phase of King’s career that I’d love to explore further as time allows. Without further ado, here are my thoughts, adapted from a review I posted on Goodreads this summer.

The book: The Long Walk, originally published in 1979. Wikipedia entry here.

Bachman,_Long_WalkMy thoughts: Like Stephen King’s other early “Bachman” novels, The Long Walk is not a supernatural or traditional horror story.It is instead a precursor of the “teen dystopia” genre dominated today by the Hunger Games books. Set in an alternate-history modern America, The Long Walk follows the teenaged participants in a gruesome national pastime: a walking marathon that ends when only one walker is left standing.

I was surprised at the level of tension King can wring out of a very straightforward story, one that follows a single character’s perspective and which never turns its eye away from the contest. The writing is classic early King–sometimes awkward, sometimes brilliant, but almost always compelling. I can’t think of many King novels that star teenage protagonists to the extent this one does, and was impressed with his articulation of the teenage male perspective. The dialogue (and the main character’s internal monologue) can get pretty hamfisted as the doomed boys discuss God, Love, Sex, Death, The Meaning of It All, and all those other Big Topics–but heck, I remember having the same big dumb conversations with my friends as a teenager back in the day. (Granted, those conversations took place in less dire personal circumstances.)

This earnest teenage perspective gives the story a certain nostalgic feel. It also dwells heavily on the relationships that form between the walkers–since the walkers can’t directly harm each other, there’s no Lord of the Flies-style ganging up and only one (hateful, but largely harmless) “villain” character. Instead we explore the weird almost-friendships that evolve over the course of the contest. (That these friendships are all doomed is, of course, part of the effectiveness.)

Overall, this is a simple but surprisingly effective story. Recommended if you’re a Hunger Games fan who wants to take a look at an earlier example of the genre, or if you want to read something slightly offbeat by King that isn’t supernatural horror.

Next up: The next story in the lineup will likely be “The Night Flier,” as mentioned above. However, if I can fit in another King novella, it will likely be “The Langoliers” from Four Past Midnight. No guarantees about the novella, though—I’ve also got a book group novel to read this month. Oh, the pressures of being a full-time reader!

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Stephen King Short Story Project, #35, “Lunch at the Gotham Café”

The story: “Lunch at the Gotham Café,” collected in Everything’s Eventual. First published in 1995. Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: Steve Davis is reeling from his wife’s unexpected demand for a divorce. He agrees to meet her and her lawyer at a fancy restaurant to discuss divorce logistics, but the meeting goes south when an insane maître d’ attacks them with a butcher knife. After a lengthy running battle through the restaurant, Steve and his wife escape, but alas, Steve’s heroics are not enough to save their marriage.

My thoughts: I’ll say it upfront: this story didn’t really work for me. I’ll try to unpack what exactly went amiss.

First things first: I was in a bad mood when I read this story. I had just bungled a parenting situation with my four-year-old son, and it was probably a little unfair to demand that Mr. King cheer me up with a blood-drenched story about a murderous waiter.

But really, I’m not quite sure what King is aiming for with this one. It may simply be that “Lunch at the Gotham Café” tries to address a few too many ideas in the space of 45 pages; in the course of this story, King earnestly muses on the nature of insanity, the cruel fickleness of women, the difficulty of recovering from an addiction (cigarettes), the jerkiness of lawyers, the quirks of married relationships… all wrapped around a 15-page knife fight scene.

The most effective of those things is the knife fight, so let’s talk about that. When it comes to action scenes, King is a believer in extreme detail; he describes every movement, every feint, every swing, every wound, every thought that runs through the protagonist’s mind. This isn’t pointless detail; King knows what he’s doing. The detail serves most obviously to provide a rich mental picture of the scene, but more importantly it stretches out the suspense by making us wait and wait for resolution. The danger is always that the detail will become monotonous, but King is generally aware of the line he shouldn’t cross. This scene isn’t a classic of literary tension, but it works. We wince each time the hero falters, and we cheer each time he gets in a good blow.

The other element of this story that works is the rumination on chemical addiction. Steve is a nicotine addict; he decides abruptly to quit smoking after receiving the divorce notice. King writes convincingly, and even movingly, about the psychological ordeal that going cold-turkey presents. King’s struggles with drug and alcohol addiction are well known and certainly contribute to the authenticity of these passages. This theme feels oddly shoehorned into this story, but what’s there works.

The rest of “Lunch at the Gotham Café” is unsatisfying. King writes often and well about married couples—particularly loving-but-bickering married couples—but he seems to stumble in his depiction of this failed marriage. Diane, the wife, is portrayed as an unrealistically awful person throughout, and when she coldly rudely rebuffs Steve after he saves her life, we’re expected to sneer along with Steve at her petty meanness. (Her lawyer is mean in that lawyer-joke stereotype sort of way—so of course he dies a gruesome death.) I think that King is trying to give us a provocative portrait of two humans who failed at having a relationship—the wife’s faults are obvious, and we can infer from the narrator’s lack of empathy for his wife and his presumed self-serving exaggeration of her unpleasantness that he probably wasn’t Husband of the Year material—but because we have to experience this through his eyes alone, it feels faintly distasteful.

The story closes unnecessarily with Steve musing on the waiter’s insanity and tries to draw a parallel between Steve and the waiter—are crazy people just like us? Who among us might not snap at any minute? Not especially insightful.

I feel a bit bad knocking this story, what with my aforementioned bad mood and all. Mr. King, if the stress of dealing with my son’s potty-training difficulties has caused me to unfairly criticize your work, I apologize. But this story is an unconvincing mishmash of Stephen King themes; he’s done this all better elsewhere. Let’s move on.

Next up: “One for the Road,” in Night Shift.

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Stephen King Short Story Project, #34: “The Cat from Hell”

The story: “The Cat from Hell,” collected in Just After Sunset. First published in part in 1977. Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: An aging man hires a hitman to murder his cat, which he believes to be an avenging demonic entity. The cat, he believes, has murdered his family and will soon kill him in revenge for fatal experiments that his pharmaceuticals company conducted on felines years ago. He’s not wrong.

My thoughts: So far, this year’s Stephen King story project has felt a little on the heavy side. We’ve read an intense story of revenge, a strange meditation on suicide, a slow descent into madness, and a gross-out story about a longsuffering parent. “The Cat From Hell” brings a bit of needed levity (albeit gruesome levity) to the mix.

This story falls into the “Nature Strikes Back” subgenre of horror. In this case, nature is striking back against a certain Mr. Drogan, who as the head of a massive pharmaceuticals company oversaw drug development processes that cost the lives of thousands of feline test subjects. Feline revenge has a respectable history in horror: H.P. Lovecraft’s well-regarded story “The Cats of Ulthar” and Poe’s “The Black Cat” both depict bad people getting what they deserve at the hands of cats they’ve mistreated.

The titular cat in this King story is a strangely-colored but otherwise ordinary feline that appeared at Mr. Drogan’s door one day, and was adopted into the family (by Drogan’s elderly sister—Drogan himself hates cats). Before long, all three of Drogan’s housemates are dead: his sister takes a suspicious fall down the stairs, another housemate dies in her sleep, and Drogan’s butler dies in a car accident on the way to have the cat euthanized. The cat returned (unscathed by the car accident, although the dead driver was covered with scratches), and Drogan—convinced that the cat is an avenging beast—has now hired a hitman to get rid of it for good.

There’s not really a lot to the story beyond this basic setup. After hearing this backstory, we follow the bemused and skeptical hitman as he drives the cat out into the country to be done in. Not surprisingly, the cat escapes its container in the car, causes a car crash, and kills the trapped hitman in a horrifically gruesome way. King stretches the “trapped in the crashed car with a murderous cat” scene over many hilariously suspenseful pages, as the mostly immobilized hitman tries to get to his gun while the cat stalks around the car seats and periodically lunges for his face, ears, eyes, crotch, etc. It ends really badly for the hitman.

The story wraps up as the gore-drenched cat races away from the scene of the crime, presumably to pay a final visit to Mr. Drogan.

That’s pretty much it. This is a highly enjoyable, tightly written story that delivers exactly what it promises, no more and no less; which admittedly leaves me without a lot to write about here. I thought about delving into depictions of the cat in horror literature—it’s alternately a creature of both soothing comfort and inhuman terror—but taking this too seriously would spoil the fun.

Next up: “Lunch at the Gotham Café,” in Everything’s Eventual.

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Stephen King Short Story Project, #33: “Dedication”

The story: “Dedication”, collected in Nightmares and Dreamscapes. First published in 1988.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: A hotel maid recounts her interactions with a brilliant, but also deeply unpleasant, author who was a regular guest at her hotel in the 1960s. Despite the author’s racism and general misanthropy, she considers him the spiritual father of her son, who grew up to become a published writer as well. But there’s a really unpleasant central element to this story that will make it hard for you to keep track of the actual plot.

My thoughts: Ewwwww. Gross.

This is gross-out story, plain and simple. If the summary I provided above makes it sound inspiring or even feel-good… well, you’re not wrong. But there’s a gross-out element involving bodily fluids that, I promise, will obliterate your ability to appreciate the story’s otherwise rather noble intentions.

For better or worse, there’s a fair amount going on here besides said gross-out detail, so let’s try and focus on those things.

991At its heart, this is a story about the sacrifices a mother makes for the sake of her child. Martha, the protagonist, is a poor black woman married to an abusive thug during the Civil Rights era. Pregnant, confused and desperate, she seeks out the counsel of a bruja—a witch—who provides Martha with cryptic predictions and a presumably magic-infused mushroom. Perhaps without fully realizing what she’s doing, Martha uses the mushroom to improve her unborn son’s future: first by mystically transferring “fathership” of her child from her abusive husband to a brilliant, if unpleasant, author; and second by indirectly killing her abusive husband before he can kill the baby. Martha’s is a stoic and unsentimental, but irrestistably strong, maternal love, and one suspects that King is paying tribute here to his own mother, who raised young Stephen and his siblings as a single mother.

The other element—interesting, but not especially insightful—is the paradox of the beloved celebrity who is actually a horrible person. King claims to have written this story to explore this contradiction after meeting a greatly respected author who turned out, when encountered in person, to be an awful human being.

But really, this story is about the gross-out. In an era when torture porn is an actual thing that people watch, and where the main topic of discussion after every Game of Thrones episode is “Did this week’s rape scene go too far?”, “Dedication” is maybe a little quaint (and thankfully non-violent) in its grossness. But it’s still, well, gross. A side character in “Dedication” who learns of this detail rushes out of the room to vomit.

In a defensive afterward to this story, King acknowledges this story’s ickiness and pre-emptively pushes back against criticism:

The stories in Nightmares and Dreamscapes are, for the most part, the sort that critics categorize (and then all too often dismiss, alas) as horror stories, and the horror story is supposed to be a kind of evil-tempered junkyard dog that will bite you if you get too close. This one bites, I think. Am I going to apologize for that? Do you think I should? Isn’t that—the risk of getting bitten—one of the reasons you picked this book up in this first place? And if you get thinking of me as your kindly old Uncle Stevie, a sort of end-of-the-century Rod Sterling, I will try even harder to bite you.

I really, truly respect that. But do you want to know a secret? Here it is: Stephen King’s bark is usually much worse than his bite. For all his reputation as a spinner of blood-curdling, horrifying tales, King’s writing becomes extremely comfortable—would it offend him if I said safe?—after extended exposure. In fact, one of the reasons I’m enjoying these Stephen King story projects so much is the cozy feeling of familiarity I feel when reading King’s prose! For that reason, I respect and sympathize with King’s occasional efforts to lash out and jar the reader. I can honestly count the number of genuinely upsetting King-written scenes I’ve read over the decades on one hand (OK, maybe two hands—and for what it’s worth, “Dedication” is not among them). That’s still a pretty safe ratio, I think; but it’s good to know that there’s a chance, even a small one, when you pick up a Stephen King book, that King’s going to slip a genuine shocker past your guard.

Stephen King doesn’t want to be safe. But for better or worse, he probably is the kindly Uncle Stevie he so fears becoming. I salute his occasional efforts to shove you out of your comfort zone. In some ways, the rarity with which this happens makes it more effective.

But you know what? Give “Dedication” a skip. If you want to be horrified by King, there are better options.

Next up: “The Cat From Hell,” in Just After Sunset.

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Stephen King Short Story Project, #32: “N.”

The story: “N.”, collected in Just After Sunset. First published in 2008. Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: A psychiatrist counsels a new patient who exhibits extreme symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder. The patient, referred to in the doctor’s notes as “N.”, claims that his compulsive, ritual behavior is necessary to prevent the incursion into this world of extra-dimensional Lovecraftian horrors. When N. commits suicide, the psychiatrist investigates… and soon comes to share the late N.’s obsessions.

My thoughts: King once again returns to the themes and mythology of H.P. Lovecraft in this novella-length story. Although King notes in the closing notes of Just After Sunset that “N.” is an homage to Arthur Machen’s influential 1890 horror story The Great God Pan, it’s got “Lovecraft” written all over it.

And you know: it’s hard to make a Lovecraftian tale hit home these days. For one, Lovecraft’s tentacled monsters can seem more goofy than terrifying (my wife sips her morning coffee while wearing adorable plush Cthulhu bathroom slippers). The nihilist vision that lay behind Lovecraft’s stories—the fear that Christianity might be horribly wrong about mankind’s place in the cosmos—lacks the punch it had a century ago. And have I mentioned the racism?

All of this makes it interesting to see King returning to explicitly Lovecraftian territory late in his career. King has riffed on Lovecraft in earlier short stories, notably “Jerusalem’s Lot” and “Crouch End,” both of which paint rather neatly within the lines of the Lovecraftian sub-genre. With “N.”, however, King has found a twist with which to make the mythos his own: OCD. The man called N. stumbled (he says) across a Stonehenge-esque circle of stones while exploring rural Maine. A glimpse of something horrific in the circle convinced him that only through continuous, repetitive, time-consuming ritual acts (centered around numbers and geometry) can the unraveling fabric of reality be strengthened against the efforts of the nightmare entities trying to break through it. Without these activities, combined with regular, harrowing trips to the circle to spiritually reinforce it, the circle will fail and release whatever it’s holding back.

After confessing all this to his psychiatrist, N. commits suicide, overwhelmed by the singular burden of having to keep the world safe. The psychiatrist (who narrates most of the story through his counseling session reports) proceeds to investigate, encounters the same circle and Lovecraftian menace (a being called “Cthun”), descends into the same madness that claimed N., and kills himself as well. The story’s final pages suggest that several other people (the psychiatrist’s sister, and then a family friend) follow the two men into obsession and suicide; we imagine these four doomed souls as very short-lived links in a chain that has stretched through centuries or millenia.

The theatrical Lovecraftian bits of “N.” (the gothic circle of stones, the tentacled Cthun) are familiar and unremarkable. But what King absolutely nails about the Lovecraft mythos here is the insidious, merciless power of knowledge. What dooms these characters is what they know—once the veil of ignorance about the true, precarious state of humanity is torn away, they can never un-learn what they now know. In Lovecraft’s world, truth is a toxic meme, spreading from person to person with fatal results. Like a virus, it spreads to a new host just as the old host begins to break down. And even if it isn’t truth—if these characters are killed by a shared delusion—then we’re still dealing with something considerably more terrifying (in a 21st-century context) than Lovecraft’s slimy fish-gods: a deadly, highly contagious piece of information.

This is a very strong story. It’s light-years beyond straight-up Lovecraft pastiches like “Jerusalem’s Lot.” It makes use of Lovecraft staples like an epistolary narrative and descents into madness, but in the service of a very Stephen King tale. Highly recommended.

Next up: “Dedication,” in Nightmares and Dreamscapes.

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Stephen King Short Story Project, #31: “The Reaper’s Image”

The story: “The Reaper’s Image,” collected in Skeleton Crew. First published in 1969. Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: An arrogant art collector visits a private museum to inspect, and possibly purchase, a famous antique mirror. The mirror, however, is reputed to be cursed. Think something bad might happen when the scoffing collector gazes into it?

mirrorsh2My thoughts: There are a lot of ways you can doom yourself in a horror story. You might decide to descend alone into the lightless basement to check the circuit breaker. You might lean forward to examine the “dead” monster at extremely close range, because it’s dead and there’s no way it poses any danger to you. And here’s another way you can telegraph your impending death: scoff derisively at people who insist that an object is cursed and that you should stop messing with it.

Short, simple, and predictable, “The Reaper’s Image” follows this convention precisely. It features only two characters: a sneering art collector who hopes to buy a famous antique mirror, and the mirror’s old caretaker, who has witnessed its curse in action firsthand. As legend goes, every great now and then, a person looking into the mirror spots something reflected in it that nobody else can see—something that looks like a shadowy figure standing behind them. Once you’ve seen it, you’re destined to vanish without a trace shortly afterwards.

As cursed antiques go, the mirror is mildly interesting. It dates back several centuries, and intriguingly it seems to “claim” people infrequently and randomly. There is mention of a small handful of other sister mirrors—some long destroyed, others in private collections—that might or might not also be cursed. And the curse itself is anti-climactic, but in a good way: instead of the cursed person dying in a freak accident or dropping of a heart attack on the spot, they are seized with a desire to leave the room (to get a drink of water, to grab something they forgot in another room, etc.). And once they step outside the door, they simply never return.

“The Reaper’s Image” is fun, but very lightweight compared to many of the other stories collected in Skeleton Crew. I note that its late-1960s publication date must make it one of King’s earliest published stories, which probably explains why it feels like a practice exercise rather than a fully-developed work. King is always happy to build off of familiar genre tropes, but usually he gives them one or two good twists to make his stories rise above the clichés. Here he doesn’t, and so “The Reaper’s Image” feels like a piece of pleasant filler. That said, it takes a grand total of about ten minutes of your life to read—that’s how much time I spend every night trying to convince my four-year-old son to use the potty before bed, and reading a mediocre Stephen King story is way more enjoyable than that.

Next up: “N.,” in Just After Sunset.

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