Stephen King Short Story Project, #18: “Sometimes They Come Back”

The story: “Sometimes They Come Back,” collected in Night Shift. First published in 1974. Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: When Jim Norman was nine, his older brother Wayne was brutally murdered by a gang of teenage thugs (and Jim narrowly escaped the same fate). Now a grown man who teaches high school literature, Jim is shocked one day to find that the thugs are back, enrolled in his class, and seem not to have aged a day. They kill off several classmates, and eventually murder Jim’s wife—driving Jim to make a bargain with a demon to get rid of them for good.

Next time, maybe just try calling the cops first, y'know?

Next time, maybe just try calling the cops first, y’know?

My thoughts: It’s nice to get back to straight-up horror with “Sometimes They Come Back.” This early King story is based around a theme that crops up regularly in his later work: unresolved childhood trauma re-appearing in adult life.

In this case, the childhood terror that has plagued Jim’s dreams for years was not supernatural in nature, but its re-emergence in his adult life most certainly is. While it’s never fully explained exactly how the bullies have returned, they make it clear to Jim that they’re back from the dead to “finish the job” and kill the lucky kid who escaped from them decades ago.

Jim is a high school teacher, and King’s portrayal of the job is edged with bitterness—Jim is an earnest, dedicated educator stuck teaching literature to a “remedial learners” class of obnoxious jocks and athletes who hate the course but just need a passing grade to stay on their sports teams. (King himself taught high school early in his career, and one wonders how much of that bled into “Sometimes They Come Back.”) I’ve mentioned before that King really hates bullies, and the setup of this story—hard-working but troubled teacher vs. hateful jocks and bullies—sets a stark moral background for what is about to play out.

The back-from-the-dead thugs are pretty awful, all right. We’re treated to flashback scenes of Wayne’s murder, in which they display not a shred of remorse or hesitation as they kill a young boy; and they’re equally callous in dispatching Jim’s students so as to create “open seats” in his class, which they then fill by transferring in. The story’s middle act relates Jim’s efforts to confirm what he initially suspects might be a sign of a mental breakdown. Just as he’s confirmed that the thugs definitely are the same people who killed his brother, and that they’re definitely supposed to be dead, they up the ante by killing his wife and gloatingly assuring Jim that he’s next.

The most interesting part of this story is the manner in which Jim responds to this threat. Presumably deciding that mundane solutions won’t work, Jim digs up a book on demon summoning and cuts a deal with an infernal power. (And yes, this escalation is as abrupt in the story as it sounds.) The demon’s price is grisly but not anything quite as melodramatic as Jim’s soul; it demands a few personal items. Oh, and some animal blood. And Jim’s index fingers. (King’s description of Jim hacking off his own fingers goes on for just a few sentences, but is wonderfully icky.) When the thugs come for Jim, the demon manifests as Jim’s dead brother Wayne, and recreates the scene of Wayne’s murder years ago… but this time, it’s the thugs who die.

Demon-summoning and sacrifices are surprisingly old-school for Stephen King. Demons of the sulfur-and-brimstone variety don’t show up in many King tales, and King rarely makes use of candles-and-pentagrams black magic as a source of villainy or horror. (As far as I remember, this and “Jerusalem’s Lot” are the only stories in Night Shift that invokes these trappings, although the cover of my paperback copy has a pentagram on it.) When King does invoke these elements here, the infernal powers are actually being used as a weapon against the villains you really hate: the glorified schoolyard bullies, who are much more traditional King villains.

The story ends with a not-entirely-convincing suggestion that Jim has bitten off more than he can chew with his demonic solution. Although Jim has seemingly already paid the price for the demon’s help, it ominously promises him that it will return. This all calls to mind Lovecraft’s memorable advice in “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”:

…doe not call up Any that you can not put downe…

Indeed. At any rate, “Sometimes They Come Back” feels a little unwieldy at points. Even in a story about undead bullies, the jump to demon-summoning is a jarring change in tone. But this is overall a solid little piece of horror.

Next up: “Survivor Type,” from Skeleton Crew.

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