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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Stephen King Short Story Project, #30: “All That You Love Will Be Carried Away”

The story: “All That You Love Will Be Carried Away,” collected in Everything’s Eventual. First published in 2001. Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: A travelling salesman checks into a hotel in rural Nebraska intending to kill himself. However, his desire to pursue an unusual hobby/obsession just might be strong enough to keep him alive. The story ends ambiguously, leaving us unsure about his ultimate fate.

My thoughts: This is an odd, somber story. It’s somber because it immerses us in the mental state of a man contemplating suicide. It’s odd because the hobby that might give this man the strength to go on living is a bizarre one: he obsessively records bathroom-wall graffiti from public restrooms all around America. This is certainly not the first time that King has tenuously balanced a serious topic with a borderline bad-taste gimmick in the same tale. But he has a way of making these things work.

The focus on suicide makes me wonder what I would have made of this story had I encountered it during my big Stephen King obsession back in late high school and early college. At the time, I was writing mopey, overly-earnest short stories that involved a lot of death, suicide, and self-sacrifice; while I certainly wouldn’t have suggested that suicide was a good thing, it had a sort of romantic ring to it. (You can blame a too-young reading of The Sorrows of Young Werther. Or maybe Shōgun.) Today, however, with many years between me and my immature teenage self, it’s just a terribly sad thing to ponder. Not knowing where King was going with the topic, and not entirely trusting him to treat it with delicacy (the bathroom-graffiti sideplot didn’t help), I read this story nervously.

I’m relieved and happy to have been wrong, though. King’s empathy for Alfie, the suicidal salesman, is palpable. Alfie’s suicidal thoughts aren’t prompted by a single failure or point of shame, but rather by the accumulated weight of a life that has lost purpose. But Alfie is a good man and we desperately want him to pull through. I imagine that most authors can be said to “love” their invented characters, but read a few King tales and I think you’ll agree with me when I say that King goes a step further—he’s often actively rooting for his characters. Even the bad ones! (Look at King’s obvious love for the incredibly varied cast of The Stand, for instance.) For this reason, even though this story ends with the possibility that Alfie will go on to kill himself, you’re left with a very strong hunch that it’s going to be OK. Why wouldn’t we feel this way when the story itself seems to want Alfie to live?

So let’s talk about that bizarre hobby of Alfie’s: he records bathroom graffiti. Obscene limericks, lowbrow witticisms, incoherent pronouncements, and cries for help—Alfie records it all in his notebook, and over time starts to feel that he’s put his finger on the pulse of a dark, hidden, fascinating undercurrent of raw humanity. Alfie dissects the grammar of insane rants; he critiques the meter of dirty poems; he mulls over particularly compelling phrases. I expected at first that Alfie’s hobby was giving him a glimpse into what would prove to be some kind of supernatural, occult underworld lurking beneath the surface of American society; but King doesn’t go in that direction. Instead Alfie seems to have found a window into America’s clever, crazy, base, and 100% human collective id.

The very weirdness of this hobby might be what saves Alfie in the end—he delays suicide several times because he doesn’t want the police to find his graffiti journal and conclude that he was just crazy.

In his nonfiction writing, King has often sighed about the kinds of questions his fans direct at him, most especially “Where do you get your ideas?” But many King story ideas can be seen to originate in “everyday stuff you bump into as you go through life”—mundane things like road construction or graffiti. Whereas you and I have trained our minds to disregard the petty, routine details of everyday life, King is always on the lookout for ways to fit a story around them.

And need I mention that this story gives King a perfect excuse to recite a lot of dirty limericks that he’s clearly proud of? Admit it—that’d be pretty fun.

Next up: “The Reaper’s Image,” in Skeleton Crew.

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Stephen King Short Story Project, #29: “Dolan’s Cadillac”

The story: “Dolan’s Cadillac,” collected in Nightmares and Dreamscapes. First published in 1985. Wikipedia entry here. Read my introduction to this blog series.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: Elizabeth Robinson was murdered by car-bomb years ago by a wealthy, untouchable mob boss named Dolan to stop her from testifying against him in court. Unbeknownst to Dolan, her husband—an unremarkable, unassuming, forgettable man—has been plotting and planning ever since, waiting patiently for just the right opportunity to strike back. One summer, Robinson rigs an elaborate trap for Dolan on a Nevada highway… and manages to permanently bury Dolan and his beloved Cadillac beneath the desert sands.

Large_NEO43557_1My thoughts: Ah, revenge—the dish best served cold. “Dolan’s Cadillac” is a straightfoward and mostly satisfying story of long-delayed revenge, with almost no hint of the supernatural. In my last King short story writeup two years ago (“The Fifth Quarter”), I asserted that King is at least as good at writing mundane suspense as he is at writing supernatural horror. “Dolan’s Cadillac” is a solid example of that.

Revenge stories involving crime bosses and murdered wives are about as cliché as you can get. To give this hoary old chestnut a new spin, King subverts the trope of the hardcore vigilante avenger by making his protagonist a thoroughly average person, a man with no special revenge-related skills. He not a former special forces soldier, an intelligence agent with a “very particular set of skills,” a grizzled off-duty cop, or a millionaire martial-artist with an armored suit. Instead he’s a grade-school teacher, and through him King asks a fun what-if question: how would you, an average everyday person with a liberal arts degree and a boring office job, go about taking down a wealthy, paranoid, heavily-guarded mob boss?

King has fun with this concept. Robinson, the protagonist, considers but quickly discards Hollywood-esque revenge plans involving guns and cinematic heroics. Instead, he enacts (over the course of several years) an elaborate (maybe over-elaborate) plan of revenge that makes use of mundane skills and tools. When he notices that Dolan periodically travels along a specific stretch of desert highway, Robinson takes a summer job as a road construction worker. When the conditions are just right, he uses his skills to dig a long trench—just the right size to trap a car and prevent its passengers from escaping. Once he manages to detour Dolan’s Cadillac right into it, he buries the car and its passenger beneath tons of earth and asphalt.

In the afterward to Nightmares and Dreamscapes, King describes the process of writing this story as an excrutiating one due to the extensive research he had to do to make the trap plausible. And in fact, King spends the vast bulk of this story detailing the creation of Robinson’s trap. King is probably trying too hard: there is a palpable sense that King really wants you to accept this as something that could realistically be accomplished by one sufficiently dedicated man. It’s an admirable goal, and it succeeds, but at the cost of bloating the story’s page count considerably. King uses all the road-construction detail to stretch the suspense as far as it can go—but he stops just shy of the point where the story shifts from “suspenseful” to “boring.” I’ll admit I was starting to skim as Robinson’s preparations dragged on.

But the payoff proves worth waiting for. For one thing, as Robinson seals Dolan in his buried car, there’s a fun reference to “The Cask of Amontillado” for obvious reasons. And there’s a wonderful and characteristically King exchange between Robinson and the trapped Dolan, who (realizing he’s about to be buried alive) tries to bargain for his life:

“Five million.” It was the last coherent thing he [Dolan] said.

“I think not,” I replied, leaning on the shovel and wiping sweat off my forehead with the heel of one grimy hand. The dirt covered the roof of the car almost from side to side now. It looked like a starburst… or a large brown hand grasping Dolan’s Cadillac. “But if you can make a sound come out of your mouth which is as loud, let us say, as eight sticks of dynamite taped to the ignition switch of a 1968 Chevrolet, then I will get you out, and you may count on it.”

So he screamed, and I shoveled dirt down on the Cadillac. For some time he did indeed scream very loudly, although I judged he never screamed louder than two sticks of dynamite taped to the ignition switch of a 1968 Chevrolet. Three, at most.

Oh, Stephen King. It’s so good to be reading your stories again.

One last observation: as I mentioned above, there is almost no trace of the supernatural in this story. His dead wife Elizabeth does, however, speak to Robinson throughout—although I think this is probably best understood as Robinson’s subconscious. If it is the ghost of his wife, it breaks ranks with the stereotype in an interesting way: it’s bloodthirsty, urging Robinson on toward revenge and relentlessly pushing him forward, even when he’s physically exhausted. This is intriguingly different from the usual stereotype, in which the dead wife is depicted as so pure and innocent that you can’t really imagine her truly wanting her husband to cut a bloody swath of vengeance in her name.

Next up: “All That You Love Will Be Carried Away,” in Everything’s Eventual.

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The October Stephen King Short Story Project, Round 2: The Revenge

Nightmares&DreamscapesTwo years ago, I spent the month of October reading Stephen King short stories and writing up my reactions. It was a greatly rewarding experience for me, so I’m going to try it again: throughout the month of October, I’ll be reading one Stephen King short story each day (more or less), and recording my thoughts here.

As time allows, I may poke my head into some of King’s shorter novellas and side projects as well. But for the most part, I’ll be choosing stories from the following King collections:

  • Night Shift
  • Skeleton Crew
  • Nightmares and Dreamscapes
  • Everything’s Eventual
  • Just After Sunset

If you’ve got ready access to these books, I would love it if you read along with me. First up is “Dolan’s Cadillac” from Nightmares and Dreamscapes.

For the record, here’s what I covered in my first Stephen King short story project:

  1. You Know They Got a Hell of a Band
  2. Jerusalem’s Lot
  3. Fair Extension
  4. Word Processor of the Gods
  5. The Moving Finger
  6. The Raft
  7. Trucks
  8. The Road Virus Heads North
  9. The Doctor’s Case
  10. The Man in the Black Suit
  11. Strawberry Spring
  12. Sorry, Right Number
  13. The Monkey
  14. The Lawnmower Man
  15. That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is In French
  16. Beachworld
  17. The End of the Whole Mess
  18. Sometimes They Come Back
  19. Survivor Type
  20. Popsy
  21. Rainy Season
  22. In the Deathroom
  23. Children of the Corn
  24. Crouch End
  25. Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut
  26. Graveyard Shift
  27. I Am the Doorway
  28. The Fifth Quarter

I’ll be picking up where that list left off. Here’s my progress so far in round 2:

  1. Dolan’s Cadillac
  2. All That You Love Will Be Carried Away
  3. The Reaper’s Image
  4. N.
  5. Dedication
  6. The Cat From Hell
  7. Lunch at the Gotham Café
  8. The Long Walk
  9. The Night Flier
  10. Umney’s Last Case
  11. One For the Road
  12. The Langoliers
  13. Battleground
  14. Night Surf
  15. Mile 81

And beyond that, there are a few more:

  1. The Dune
  2. Gramma
  3. L.T.’s Theory of Pets
  4. Bad Little Kid

I hope to hear from you in the comments as I read! Let’s get started, Dear Reader!

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ubi sunt qui ante nos fuerunt

The PlayCo toy store in Escondido, gone many years now.

The PlayCo toy store in Escondido, lost to the sands of time.

I recently acquired a copy of Night Below, a 1995 AD&D boxed set outlining a sprawling fantasy campaign set in the Underdark setting. I remember drooling over it at a toy store—I think it was the late, lamented PlayCo in Escondido, CA, if my memory has the year right.

The copy I acquired has been lovingly used. And by that, I mean the owner really liked highlighting text:

highlighter

Every page looks like that. My reaction upon seeing it was twofold:

  1. When you reach a point when there’s more highlighted text on a page than non-highlighted text, have you defeated the purpose of highlighting?
  2. Why doesn’t every game book look this colorful?

I’ll be honest: I love this. (Here’s another example of the sort of awesome gaming artifacts you find in old boxed sets, if you’re lucky.) Back in the day, I was pretty neurotic about keeping my books and game material in pristine, mint condition. But a banged-up, highlighter-inundated, notes-scrawled-in-the-margins game book like this has been played, and that’s a lot more fun than a perfect-condition rulebook that looks like nobody’s ever so much as opened it.

The owner of this copy of Night Below didn’t just read through it and highlight interesting items; he/she and their game group played the heck out of it. You can tell they played through it in its entirety, because all the way to the end, the encounter descriptions are marked up with notes that must have originated from actual play. Here, for example, is a description of one of the final “boss battles;” you can see that the DM has jotted down ever-decreasing hit points in the margins, and has crossed out spells that have been cast:

highlighter2

There’s a thrill in holding—and, I hope, one day playing!—a game that was important to real, actual gamers before me. A campaign like this might have taken months or years to play through. The DM must have spent hours and hours pouring through this campaign planning each new game session, marking up important parts of the text with a color-coding system that made sense to them but not to me (the same color is used in some places to mark spells, in others to mark hit points—it’s madness, but a madness that meant something to somebody). Perhaps the players still recount stories and anecdotes from it to this day.

TSR1125_Night_Below_An_Underdark_CampaignAnd having provided hundreds of hours of collective entertainment, how did this boxed set wind up being sold on the internet for a few measly bucks? Surely there’s a story there too, of a hobby abandoned, a game group graduating and getting married and heading to different corners of the country, a family clearing out a garage storage bin after a death, or whatever else you might imagine.

There’s also a bit of a rebuke in a heavily-used game like this: why aren’t more of my games lovingly defaced like this? As I look through my collection and ponder trimming it down, I see too many books in great condition, and not enough books with cracked spines and falling-out pages caused by years of regular use at the gaming table.

So here’s to the anonymous Dungeon Master and their players, who adventurered their way through this campaign all the way to the end. And left behind lots of mile markers for me to follow.

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失望

What I thought my six-year-old daughter would learn in tae-kwon-do class What she actually learned
The Way of the Exploding Fist Report bullying behavior to a trusted adult
Death Before Dishonor Never practice martial arts manuvers on a sibling or pet
Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique Share with the class something kind you did this week, like you picked up your Legos without being asked or something
Foe-shaming Mantra of the Ineffable Bodhisvatta It’s easier if you tie the right side of your uniform first
If You Meet the Buddha, Kill Him We don’t use real weapons at this martial arts studio except for this one bo staff that is just for show and actually you’re not allowed near it
Drunken Master Style Annual membership in the American Taekwondo Association costs how much?!?
killbill zorrogirl
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Stephen King Short Story Project, #28: “The Fifth Quarter”

The story: “The Fifth Quarter,” collected in Nightmares and Dreamscapes. First published in 1979. Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: A crook named Jerry Tarkanian sets out to avenge the death of a friend (and crook) who was double-crossed after a lucrative heist. And while he’s exacting his revenge, if he happens to come into possession of the four pieces of a map to the villains’ buried treasure, well…

maltestfalconMy thoughts: It’s occurred to me more than once this month, as I’ve made my way through King’s short stories, that King’s writing strength is in suspense as much as horror. There are certainly exceptions, and obviously the two genres have a lot in common—a good horror story usually involves a lot of suspense. But I’d venture to say that King is at least as good at writing non-supernatural suspense as he is at writing scenes of supernatural terror. In non-supernatural stories like “In the Deathroom,” “Survivor Type,” and this one, he ratchets up the tension quite effectively without calling in the ghosts and goblins.

That’s one reason I’m glad my short story project is ending on this, a straight-up crime story. King seems to loves pulpy crime stories (in fact, he just published one, and his earlier novel The Dark Half sees him exploring this interest), and that’s what “The Fifth Quarter” is.

My own knowledge of the noir and crime genres is almost non-existent, so I can’t compare this to other examples of the form. The plot includes the expected elements of mistrust, backstabbing, and overly-complex criminal plans, all of which are neatly resolved in a few scenes of deadly violence. The backstory feels like a cross between The Usual Suspects and Treasure Island: four crooks carry out a heist, but to avoid drawing the attention of the law, they agree to hide away the ill-gotten gains for a number of years. They arrange for a map of the cache’s location to be drawn up—and then split into four “quarters” that must be combined in order to learn the precise location of the loot. Each of the four crooks takes a piece of the map and they go their separate ways, promising to meet up again after the heat of police attention has passed.

As you might expect, some of the conspirators decide they don’t want to share the wealth, and one of them (possibly with the help of others) kills off a member of the group and takes his part of the map. Unfortunately, the betrayed man was friends with the protagonist Tarkanian, a scoundrel with a certain sense of honor. (It’s funny how much slack we’re willing to cut fictional criminals who follow a code of honor.) Tarkanian is a fun protagonist—we don’t have a lot of sympathy for him, but he’s smart and sneaky… and we do want him to get the bastards who killed his pal. Tarkanian tracks down the three surviving conspirators to find out which of them killed his friend, and do the eye-for-an-eye thing.

The heart of the story is in Tarkanian’s confrontation with the first two conspirators. Holding them at gunpoint, he must match wits and glean information from a pair of thugs who will kill him if he makes even the slightest misstep. His “investigation” then takes him to the home of another conspirator; things go bad quickly and Tarkanian finds himself in a tense shootout. He survives and winds up with three parts of the map—enough, he thinks, to point him in the right direction.

I enjoyed this story. For one thing, after several weeks of different horror subgenres, it was nice to get lost briefly in a world of fast-talking scoundrels and gangsters with codes of honor. The scenes in which Tarkanian is bantering with his enemies are almost nerve-wracking at points. That all said, I didn’t love “The Fifth Quarter”—once Tarkanian’s quest is complete, there isn’t a lot to like (or even know) about him, and at the end of the day this is just a story about criminals backstabbing each other. It’s a nice diversion, and King can write a great suspense scene. But there’s nothing here I’ll remember fondly a year from now.

That’s it! And with this, we wrap up our month of Stephen King short stories. I hope you’ve enjoyed it, and even more, I hope you’ve taken the time to check out at least a couple of these tales. It’s been a huge amount of fun for me. Thanks for reading along!

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Stephen King Short Story Project, #27: “I Am the Doorway”

The story: “I Am the Doorway,” collected in Night Shift. First published in 1971. Wikipedia entry here.

venusSpoiler-filled synopsis: Years after he took part in a space mission to Venus, a crippled astronaut discovers that a hostile alien presence is using him as a “doorway” through which to observe Earth. This is manifested in the appearance of alien eyes on his hands. As the aliens’ influence over the astronaut’s body grows, he is forced to use extreme measures—self-mutiliation and ultimately suicide—to close the “doorway.”

My thoughts: What’s waiting for us out there in the void of outer space? Science fiction has given us many different forms of alien menace to fear. In “I Am the Doorway,” King declines to show us a clear picture of the aliens, but their influence and awareness is spread by something like a virus or mutating agent contracted by an astronaut passing through the orbit of Venus. This is another science fiction story—although typically for King, the science fiction is mostly background for more down-to-earth horror. “I Am the Doorway” plays out much like a “demon possession” story, with the protagonist Richard waging a losing battle to preserve his free will in defiance of an entity that wants to use him to carry out horrible acts.

The horrible acts in this case are two murders: one of a stranger, and the second of a friend in whom Richard tries to confide about his bizarre situation. Many years after a mission to Venus, the wheelchair-bound Richard discovers that eyes are growing in his hands, and that he can dimly perceive the presence and mindset of the beings behind them: they’re alien, and from their perspective, humanity is terrifying and revolting. Seen through the strange lens that is Richard’s body, humans look like monsters to the alien presence—and as its control over Richard grows, the presence begins channeling supernatural-seeming powers through Richard to kill other humans. This seems an unsubtle jab at humanity’s own propensity for reacting violently to things that look different or make us uncomfortable. Whether the aliens have a coherent plan for Richard, or if they’re just using him to randomly strike out in fear and loathing at Richard’s fellow “monsters,” is never explained.

Richard temporarily drives away the presence by dousing his hands with kerosene and setting them on fire before the presence can stop him. But when a new set of eyes appears on his chest years later, he surmises that suicide is the only way to shut the door. But even that may be overly optimistic, as the presence has demonstrated that it can restore Richard’s crippled body long enough to carry out its tasks. Will the presence stop Richard from killing himself, and if not, might it not go on controlling his dead body? That’s a little creepy, and that’s where the story ends.

“I Am the Doorway” is filled with questions—what is the alien presence? what does it want? how did it infect Richard? where does it live? etc.—but answers very few of them. I think that’s probably for the best; too much exposition would dilute the effect of the short, focused narrative. So if you’re here just for the sci-fi and aliens, this story won’t likely satisfy you. There isn’t much depth here, and there doesn’t need to be. “I Am the Doorway” is a sharp little tale that doesn’t rank up there with King’s best, but which you’ll be thinking about for some time after you read it.

Next up: OK, we’ve got time for one more King story before October ends. Let’s go with… “The Fifth Quarter,” from Nightmares and Dreamscapes.

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Stephen King Short Story Project, #26: “Graveyard Shift”

The story: “Graveyard Shift,” collected in Night Shift. First published in 1970. Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: Workers at an old, run-down textile mill are tasked with cleaning out the mill’s long-unused basement level. To their disgust, it’s crawling with huge rats. In the course of their job, they discover an entrance to a sealed sub-basement. They descend to investigate, and stumble across a hideous ecosystem of giant, mutated rats and other vermin. It doesn’t end well.

My thoughts: An empire of rats living undiscovered beneath our feet. What’s more repulsive than that? “Graveyard Shift” is primarily an exercise in exploiting our general disgust with rats, bats, and other vermin, and to a lesser extent our mingled fascination and discomfort with the idea of “lost ecosystems.”

The classic “lost kingdom” inhabited by holdovers from a past age (often dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasts) is fun but not especially horrifying. Creepier is the idea that deep (or worse, not so deep) beneath the Earth’s surface are inhuman beings darkly mirroring human society above (morlocks). But perhaps even worse than the latter idea is the special twist provided by Charles Darwin’s insights into evolution: the thought that the dark and harsh conditions underground might be breeding survivors—creatures much better at surviving than comparatively pampered surface-dwellers. And what type of creature would we least like to see enhanced in this way? Yeah. Stephen King thinks so too. That’s the fear that King taps into with “Graveyard Shift,” where we’re asked to imagine an ecosystem of vermin that have for years (centuries?) been evolving and mutating into monstrosities that aren’t quite so intimidated by humans.

The protagonist here is a drifter named Hall, who for the first half of the story is a reasonably relate-able character, but who slips into a strange obsession in the story’s final pages. The central tension of the story is not actually related to the rat empire; it’s the conflict between Hall and Warwick, a cruel mill foreman who’s ordered his cleanup crew into the clearly unsafe basement level. Warwick shows little sympathy for (and often mocks) men who are bitten by rats or who show signs of breaking down. When, after several days of this abuse, Hall discovers an entrance to a long-forgotten sub-basement, he and Warwick descend to investigate, neither of them willing to “chicken out” in front of the other.

It’s here that Hall’s madness begins to manifest; he has an inkling of what lies in store, but pushes on anyway so as not to lose face in front of Warwick… and when they stumble across a cow-sized rat queen attended by countless thousands of giant rats, Hall (possibly driven insane by what they’ve discovered) actually shoves Warwick into the “royal chamber” and to his death. By that point, though, it’s obvious they’re both doomed; Hall is swarmed (laughing hysterically) before he can make it back to the stairs and safety. The story ends as the rest of the cleanup crew descend into the sub-basement to find out what happened to Hall and Warwick; we’re left to imagine what will happen next.

We don’t learn much about the rat-world beyond this, although King seeds “Graveyard Shift” with some tantalizing hints at the backstory. The door into the sub-basement is actually sealed from below, and Hall and Warwick come across a human skeleton in the sub-basement—what would have led somebody to seal themselves down there with the rats? They also come across objects in the sub-basement dating into the early 1800s, and before they die they realize that the underground chambers extend far beyond the mill property.

Little details like this, and the time King spends developing the animosity between Hall and Warwick, make this story more effective than it would otherwise have been. But really, this story is mostly about the gross-out. Disgust with rats seems to be a nearly universal human characteristic, so it’s unlikely many readers won’t be at least a little creeped out by this story. That said, I’ll confess that I don’t find rats to be inherently upsetting (spiders, on the other hand…), so this story didn’t hit a nerve in me the way it might for others. It comes down to this: do rats freak you out? Then, Dear Reader, this story was written for you with love. If not… well, let’s be honest. It’s still pretty gross.

Next up: “I Am the Doorway,” also from Night Shift.

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