Stephen King Short Story Project, #15: “That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is In French”

The story: “That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is In French,” collected in Everything’s Eventual. First published in 1998. Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: Carol Shelton and her husband Bill are traveling to Florida to celebrate their 25th anniversary, but are caught in a time loop that forces them to relive the last stage of their journey over and over. It is implied that they were killed in a plane crash, and that Carol is now trapped in a Hell created out of her religious guilt over an abortion.

My thoughts: Dark and introspective, “That Feeling” is an extreme shift in tone from yesterday’s read, “The Lawnmower Man.” “This story is about Hell,” Stephen King writes (somewhat unnecessarily) in an afterword to this story. Well, let’s take a deep breath and dive in.

The horror genre has always had strong links to religious belief, often drawing all sorts of themes and ideas from religion (and in the West, that mostly means Christianity). As a Christian myself, I can certainly attest to the special appeal that the horror genre has for many Christians; horror (when taken at face value) takes the supernatural more seriously than other genres. Many horror stories, from the preachy moral fables of The Twilight Zone to shockfests like The Exorcist, rest on a vague but recognizably Judeo-Christian understanding of sin, evil, justice, God and other supernatural entities, etc. Hell in particular, and its demonic inhabitants, often appear in horror stories in almost theologically orthodox form.

King, however, has always kept his distance from specific evocations of a Christian afterlife, as well as from angels, demons, and other trappings associated with it. While King’s characters are often quite familiar with Christianity (King’s disdain for fundamentalist religion comes across clearly in many of his novels and stories), it is never suggested that their specific beliefs are true. In King’s universe, God is good but passive, unknowable, and focused on the (very) long cosmic game; evil is by contrast active, powerful, and essentially random, and appears to have free reign in the cosmic short term. In King novels, triumph over evil is usually a human triumph, without much direct help from God.

This isn’t all especially relevant to “That Feeling,” which doesn’t map to an especially Christian afterlife. But for King to write such a direct story about sin, guilt, and Hell is a bit unusual. In “That Feeling,” middle-aged Carol has time—way too much time, as it turns out—to reflect back on her life. She was raised in a fundamentalist Christian environment that emphasized the “hellfire and brimstone” parts of religion. And while she broke free of that environment, marrying a man her family hated (because he was the wrong sort of Christian), Carol has clearly never completely left it behind. Now, her happiness with her superficially successful life is tainted by guilt over an abortion (a sin that her family assured her would earn her damnation) and by her choice of husband (who cheated on her, thus affirming her family’s judgment of him). She’s deeply bitter both toward herself and toward her husband, whom she loves but also resents:

If her strongest feelings about Bill were her only feelings about Bill, now that they were twenty-five years on, she would have left him when she found out about the secretary, a Clairol blonde too young to remember the Clairol slogan that started “If I have only one life to live.” But there were other feelings. There was love, for instance. Still love. A kind that girls in Catholic-school uniforms didn’t suspect, a weedy, unlovely species too tough to die.

Now Carol and Bill are dead, and she’s in Hell, Purgatory, or someplace equally unpleasant—doomed not to burn in hellfire, but to ponder and relive her guilt and self-loathing. And she’s there because that’s the fate she expected to find waiting for her in the afterlife. It turns out that when we die, we get not what we deserve, but what we believe we deserve.

King’s portrayal of Carol’s personal Hell hits hard. He’s hardly the first to imagine Hell as something you create for yourself, but it’s so cleverly and skillfully portrayed that it’s hard to believe this is the same author who also writes short stories about murderous trucks and oil-slick monsters. It’s a vision of the afterlife that plays off of Christian concepts but is thoroughly humanist in nature: man is his own god, capable even of condemning himself to a Hell he’s created. It’s also a brutal criticism of fear-based, grace-less religion, which in King’s story actually sends people to Hell instead of rescuing them from it.

If this entry has been a little less focused than others, I apologize; but this was an unexpectedly cutting story. King doesn’t hide his left-leaning social views in his writing; but in “That Feeling” he touches on the issue of abortion in an interesting, uncomfortable, and not entirely one-sided way. It’s one of the better-written King stories I’ve read so far this month.

Next up: “Beachworld,” from Skeleton Crew.

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