Category Archives: Books

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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Stephen King Short Story Project, #25: “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut”

The story: “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut,” collected in Skeleton Crew. First published in 1984. Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: An old man recounts the story of a woman who disappeared years ago from their rural Maine town: Ophelia Todd, who was obsessed with finding shortcuts whenever she had to drive somewhere. Her shortcuts went from impressive to slightly frightening, as she started covering distances faster than physics should allow. When she vanishes, it’s suggested that she has found her way to an otherworldly realm through which her shortcuts have been taking her.

dianaMy thoughts: “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut” isn’t a horror story—it’s a “let me tell you about something weird I once saw” campfire tale, told in the form of an old man’s reminiscences. There’s no gore or violence to be found, and it has a happy ending—it’s almost sweet. It’s wistful and maybe a little melancholy, but in a pleasant way.

Of the stories I’ve read so far this month, “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut” is probably most similar to “The Man in the Black Suit,” although the latter has a horror element whereas this story feels more like a milder episodes of The Twilight Zone. It’s narrated as a mostly one-way conversation between two elderly rural Maine geezers. Homer, one of the men, shares the story of his peculiar encounter with the titular Mrs. Todd many years earlier, shortly before she vanished without a trace.

King has an obvious fondness for (and almost certainly firsthand experience with) the mannerisms of Maine’s rural residents, and it took me a few pages to get used to the slow, rambling pace of this story—which follows Homer’s somewhat scattered train of thought. I sometimes find the heavy use of regional accents and speech mannerisms in fiction irritating, but any annoyance with all the rural slang faded quickly and I found myself settling for the story by the time Homer’s tale begins in earnest.

Let’s take a step back for a moment to consider Stephen King’s storytelling. I’ve often wondered what it is about King’s writing style that is so undeniably appealing. After all, King’s prose is often overly verbose and lacking in literary grace. What King does do, however, is make you feel like he’s sitting right there with you telling you, personally, a story—between his obvious enthusiasm for his own stories and his lack of pretension in telling them, King really earns the title “storyteller.” In a story like “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut,” he’s amping the let-me-tell-you-a-yarn vibe up to the maximum, and because he’s so darn earnest about it, and because his stories are frankly just interesting, it works really well. (It also fosters a real sense that you, the reader, know Stephen King on some vague but slightly personal level. Read a half-dozen King books, and you’ll comfortably identify yourself as one of the “Dear Readers” he often addresses in introductions or afterwords.)

“Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut” is a good story, and it’s one you could probably actually tell around a campfire, if people do that kind of thing anymore. In it, Homer describes how Mrs. Todd would confide in him about her progress in finding shortcuts through their corner of Maine. He listens with skeptical interest to her stories of shortcuts that shave off 15 minutes… 30 minutes… and even more time off of her trips. She might even be growing younger with each shortcut she takes. Homer becomes infatuated with Mrs. Todd, and comes to understand that she might be too graceful, beautiful, and wild for this world.

At the peak of his infatuation with her, he accepts an invitation to ride along with her on one of her shortcuts, and is alarmed to find that her shortcut takes them through some very uncharted areas—outside the car window, he spots a strange, primeval wilderness with weird, dangerous-looking flora and fauna. He’s too scared to accompany her on further shortcuts, but she keeps finding them. She vanishes shortly after finding her fastest shortcut yet, and it’s implied that she’s found her true home in the wild roads of some otherworldly realm. In the story’s closing scene—I got a little teared up, I’m such a wimp—an impossibly young, beautiful Ophelia Todd returns one night decades later to pick up 70-year-old Homer and drive him off into the sunset.

“Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut” has more in common with a fairy tale than with the horror or suspense genres. It’s the story of somebody who must find their way to their “true home” in the underworld/fairy-world/heavens/etc. (For a moving example of this in modern pop culture, think of Ofelia in Pan’s Labyrinth.) The closer Mrs. Todd gets to her apotheosis, the more young, vibrant, and even godlike she appears to Homer. (She’s compared to the goddess Diana at several points.) Her vanishing is a homecoming, and when she comes back for faithful old Homer, she’s taking him to the wild kingdom she now rules, across the borders of death and reality.

Random note: there’s a brief reference to King’s novel Cujo near the beginning of “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut.” King likes to plant little references like this throughout his books and stories.

Next up: A return to straight-up horror with “Graveyard Shift,” from Night Shift.

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Stephen King Short Story Project, #24: “Crouch End”

The story: “Crouch End,” collected in Nightmares and Dreamscapes. First published in 1980; revised for inclusion in Nightmares and Dreamscapes. Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: An American couple on vacation in England gets lost—very lost—while walking through the London neighborhood of Crouch End. As they try to navigate unfamiliar streets, they have increasingly unsettling encounters and are pulled into a nightmarish Lovecraftian dimension, where the husband vanishes. His wife survives and returns to the “real world,” but her sanity has been dealt a devastating blow.

It doesn't seem quite so terrifying in the light of day.

It doesn’t seem quite so terrifying in the light of day.

My thoughts: Another explicitly Lovecraftian short story, “Crouch End” differs from “Jerusalem’s Lot” in that it’s not a direct pastiche of Lovecraft’s writing style. “Crouch End” is a modern horror story, and works better because King is free to bring his own writing style and thematic interests into the story, rather than simply mimicking Lovecraft.

“Crouch End” is more explicitly a “Cthulhu mythos” story than “Jerusalem’s Lot,” too. “Jerusalem’s Lot” quite clearly takes place in Lovecraft’s meta-setting of forbidden knowledge and unspeakable god-monsters, but it steers clear of actual mentions of specific Lovecraft characters or entities. “Crouch End” actually comes forward and name-drops several beings from the Cthulhu mythos… almost. I qualify that statement because King doesn’t quite name them: some of the mythos entities mentioned here have very slightly misspelled names: “Yogsoggoth” instead of “Yog-Sothoth,” “Nyarlahotep” instead of “Nyarlathotep,” “R’Yeleh” instead of “”R’lyeh,” etc. I’m not sure if King did this to avoid a lawsuit (the Lovecraft copyright legacy is notoriously messy), to recapture the unpronounceable nature of names that are now familiar to most horror and sci-fi nerds, or to simply irritate Lovecraft purists.

(I should note here that “Crouch End” is largely responsible for introducing me to, and getting me obsessed with, the writings of H.P. Lovecraft in college. While I was mildly aware of Lovecraft’s name and influence when I first read this story, this was the first place I encountered those bizarre, unpronounceable names, and it hooked me. In the early 1990s, Lovecraft and the Cthulhu mythos were not nearly as ubiquitous in pop culture as they are these days.)

“Crouch End” departs from both King and Lovecraft in that it’s set not in New England (the usual stomping grounds of both authors’ pet horrors) but in actual England. This has the effect of evoking the Lost American Tourist Abroad trope. You might not think of London as being an especially alien place to Americans, given our general obsession with the British (my wife is watching a low-budget interwar British mystery in the background as I type this)1; but I would say there’s some potential creepiness to be mined from contradictory (and probably quite inaccurate) American stereotypes of British hospitality and snobbiness, not to mention all that History they’ve got going on over there. King also manages to use more British colloquialisms in the first two pages of “Crouch End” than appear in the entirety of Jeeves and Wooster.

So what of the story itself? It’s good, particularly in the way that King slowly escalates the tension. It starts with one or two unpleasant encounters with unsavory Crouch End residents, but becomes increasingly unsettling until Lonnie (the husband) is attacked by some kind of inhuman horror. King nicely does not describe the encounter; an unhinged Lonnie refuses to provide details for his wife Doris, or for us. As Lonnie and Doris become more and more lost, their surroundings begin to warp and the stars in the night sky become unfamiliar. It is suggested that “Crouch End” is a place where the veil between our world and some hideous otherworld is weak, allowing horrors to occasionally cross over from there to here (and allowing lost tourists to occasionally wander in the other direction).

It’s all nicely random and unexplained, in a typical Stephen King “why do bad things happen to good people?” sort of way. True to Lovecraftian form, the couple’s encounter with alien horror takes a toll on their sanity. Doris never quite recovers:

Sometimes when she cannot sleep—this occurs most frequently on nights when the sun goes down in a ball of red and orange—she creeps into her closet, knee-walks under the hanging dresses all the way to the back, and there she writes Beware the Goat with a Thousand Young over and over with a soft pencil. It seems to ease her somehow to do this.

Oh, Steve. You had way too much fun writing those sentences, didn’t you?

Next up: “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut,” in Skeleton Crew.

1 Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries is set in Australia? I thought it was London. Although now the extended scenes on the beach make more sense.

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Stephen King Short Story Project, #23: “Children of the Corn”

I’ve been wrestling with this post for two days now—I suspect that I’m starting to overdose on Stephen King. But I’m in the final stretch now! This post will be less polished than usual, but I’m publishing it so I can press on past my mild case of writer’s block.

The story: “Children of the Corn,” collected in Night Shift. First published in 1977. Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: A bickering couple driving through rural Nebraska comes across a seemingly abandoned town. They soon learn that it’s home to a blasphemous cult of children who have murdered the town’s adults and worship a demonic corn deity called He Who Walks Behind the Rows. If you can’t guess how it ends, you haven’t been keeping up with my short story write-ups.

My thoughts: This is it—the quintessential Stephen King short story. Once you’ve read this story, quite a few of his other stories will suddenly seem like pale retreads of “Children of the Corn.”

“Children of the Corn” follows the “strangers stumble across a creepy town with a dark secret” script closely, to good effect. It’s also packed with favorite Stephen King tropes: a bickering married couple, twisted fundamentalist Christianity, evil children, and creepy rural America. Burt and Vicky are somewhat less sympathetic than other married couples in King’s stories; they’re on the edge of divorce and are continually at each other’s throats. I’ve mentioned several times already that King loves depicting married relationships, and here as in other stories he spends time establishing personal dynamics even when the story doesn’t absolutely require it. Their bickering (over directions, over what to do when it’s clear they should be booking out of incredibly eerie Gatlin, Nebraska) actually seals their fate: Burt drags his feet in leaving town just to spite Vicky, and an argument about this causes them to separate (and move too far from their escape vehicle) at the worst possible time.

So what is the deal with eerie, abandoned Gatlin? Burt pieces the facts together while exploring a defaced Christian church. The backstory is delivered in a burst of exposition and is too complex for Burt to have plausibly figured it out with the limited clues at his disposal, but who cares? Years ago, the children of Gatlin, influenced by an evil supernatural entity that acts like a cross between a wrathful Old Testament tyrant and a bloodthirsty pagan fertility god, murdered everyone over the age of 19. They live in accordance with the corn god’s hellfire-and-brimstone edicts, sacrificing anyone who “ages out” of the cult.

Vicky and Burt are trapped by the cultist-kids; Vicky is killed, but Burt escapes into the endless rows of corn outside the village. For a while, it looks like he might make it, but the cornfields are the domain of He Who Walks Behind the Rows, and when Burt stumbles onto its “holy ground,” it all ends as you would expect.

The story ends with a scene in which the cult’s seven-year-old “prophet” communicates their god’s anger at their failure to kill Burt without its direct intervention; the punishment is the lowering of the “sacrifice age” from 19 to 18. In the final sentences, it’s suggested that some of the child cultists may be starting to question their situation.

There’s a lot to unpack in this story, and I hate to leave you with just this synopsis—but I need to post this so I can press forward. This is one of the strongest stories from Night Shift that I’ve read so far, and although it touches on a lot of uncomfortable themes, it’s required reading for anyone who wants to get a feel for King’s early storytelling style. (You can safely skip the terrible, yet strangely well-known, movie based on this story.)

Next up: “Crouch End,” from Nightmares and Dreamscapes.

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Stephen King Short Story Project, #22: “In the Deathroom”

The story: “In the Deathroom,” collected in Everything’s Eventual. First published as an audiobook in 1999. Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: In a murky interrogation room in some fascist Central American hellhole, an American reporter-turned-insurgent must make it through torture without giving up what he knows. After a tense matching of wits against his interrogators, he manages to turn the tables on them and escape.

My thoughts: “In the Deathroom” is a definite break from Stephen King tradition. There’s no supernatural element in it whatsoever; and even more surprisingly, it’s not set in rural Maine, or for that matter in America. It takes place almost entirely in one room: a stereotypical interrogation chamber deep in some stereotypical corrupt Central American nation. Fletcher is an American reporter who has fallen in league with a rebel movement, but he’s been captured and now faces torture at the hands of a stereotypically sadistic team of interrogators.

Stephen King notes in an afterword to “In the Deathroom” that he wrote this story to supply a rare happy ending to the familiar “interrogation room drama” scenario, and he’s stocked the scene with all the necessary characters: a determined and righteous protagonist set against a charismatic but soulless interrogator, a calculating junta official, and a sadistic torturer. The mechanism of torture is some sort of electrocution device that has already been used to kill one of Fletcher’s friends and collaborators.

All of the tension in this story is in that matching of wits; once Fletcher hatches his violent escape, things actually get less interesting. But King’s depiction of the mind game between interrogator and interrogated is excellent. Fletcher knows that tricking his captors into believing his lies will require a delicate balance of defiance and resignation on his part, and a careful mixing of truth and falsehood in what he confesses. His interrogators are not entirely unaware of this dynamic, either; and with a mixture of promises, threats, and pain try to disrupt Fletcher’s resistance. The interrogators win the opening round, catching Fletcher out in a lie. Fletcher is more clever in round #2. Round #3 consists of Fletcher feigning a seizure after being shocked by the torture machine, then violently maiming and/or killing his captors in the ensuing chaos. The story ends with Fletcher’s return to America; he is scarred but alive.

It’s interesting to imagine how this story might have differed had it been written a few years later than it was. By the mid-2000s (and to America’s great shame), we’d all thought a lot more about the mechanics and efficacy of torture than our 1999 selves would have ever guessed. “In the Deathroom” is not a naive story exactly; King is savvy to the basic dynamics of torture, but he ultimately paints a very Hollywood picture of torture: a savage but strangely dignified chess game between torturer and tortured played out in a handful of encounters, rather than an extended sequence of dehumanizing brutalization. King is explicitly writing a genre story here, and this is appropriate in that light.

“In the Deathroom” has a happy ending by genre standards; the thoroughly evil bad guys meet well-deserved ends (the sadistic torturer is hooked up to his own machine, which Fletcher then cranks up to “11”) and Fletcher makes it out alive, despite the acknowledged improbability of that outcome. The growing possibility that Fletcher might actually survive, along with the lack of a supernatural element, kept me off my guard through the entire story; I kept waiting for either a plot twist to land Fletcher back in prison, or for the entire escape sequence to be revealed as just another fraud designed to break his spirits. It’s not how these stories usually end, but far be it from me to criticize a story for not sticking to cliché.

This is a strong story that fumbles a bit at the end, but which kept me frantically turning pages to find out how it would play out. It’s nice to see King branching out a bit, both in genre and in setting. If you find “interrogation room drama” interesting, I recommend this story alongside a viewing of Babylon 5‘s episode “Intersections in Real Time” and Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s “Chain of Command, Part 2,” both of which memorably explore the dynamic between principled captive and clever interrogator within a genre context.

Next up: “Children of the Corn,” from Night Shift.

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Stephen King Short Story Project, #21: “Rainy Season”

The story: “Rainy Season,” collected in Nightmares and Dreamscapes. First published in 1989. Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: A married couple gets ready for a relaxing vacation in a rustic town in rural Maine. A pair of friendly locals warns them to stay away for the night, because it happens to be the night that (every seven years) it rains toads. Actual toads, from the sky. Ignoring the warning proves to be a mistake, because these aren’t your ordinary toads.

My thoughts: Stephen King isn’t shy about acknowledging his influences. When John, protagonist and husband of Elise, “suddenly found himself thinking of Shirley Jackson’s short story ‘The Lottery’” in this story’s opening pages, King is knowingly giving the game away. To nobody’s surprise but theirs, John and Elise won’t be enjoying their very short stay in charming Willow, Maine.

The “innocent strangers pull into a rural town with weird locals and are terrorized” trope has made countless appearances in books and film over the years. “Rainy Season” twists the concept in the direction of The Wicker Man. (Whereas in “The Lottery” it’s a community member who is sacrificed, in “Rainy Season” it is unwitting outsiders.) John and Elise’s deaths are already well-planned by the time they arrive in town asking for directions to their vacation home. Every seven years, it rains toads—pointy-toothed, man-eating toads—in Willow, and every seven years, a hapless tourist couple happens to arrive just in time to be sacrificially killed by said amphibians. The locals believe the periodic sacrifice is what ensures that the toads disappear after each “rainy season” rather than sticking around; and the whole procedure—including the offering of a warning that they know will be ignored—has become a well-worn ritual that the locals feel slightly bad about, but perform anyway.

One difference between a story like “The Lottery” and a story like “Rainy Season” is that Shirley Jackson’s story fades to black when the stones start flying; for Stephen King, by contrast, that’s where the fun’s just starting. King has a great deal of fun amping up the gross-out factor as John and Elise fight a doomed battle to escape the malevolent toads that are pouring down and into their rickety vacation home. Afterwards, we’re treated to an overly long denouement as the two locals who tried to warn them off discuss the seven-year cycle and the regretful necessity of the whole routine.

This little sub-genre of horror is so familiar and heavily used that any traces of meaningful social commentary have long since been worn off. It’s a fun and workmanlike showing from King, not something you’ll feel the need to re-read, but certainly not without its moments. The battle against the toads is a fun scene that could have gone on longer than it did (and speaking of high school lit classics, it called to my mind “Leiningen Versus the Ants”). I wish I had something more insightful to say, but there’s only so much you can do with a story about giant demonic sky-toads.

Next up: “In the Deathroom,” from Everything’s Eventual.

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Stephen King Short Story Project, #20: “Popsy”

The story: “Popsy,” collected in Nightmares and Dreamscapes. Published in 1993. Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: To pay off his gambling debts, a man named Sheridan has resorted to abducting children at the behest of an unsavory crime lord. He has no way of knowing that his latest abductee is the son of a vampire, and that the vampire will want his son back. Ultimately, everybody gets what they deserve.

Like this, but imagine that the castle is actually a Nordstrom's.

Like this, but imagine that the castle is actually a Nordstrom’s.

My thoughts: Oh boy. Child adbuction: that’s the subject of this story, and it was nearly enough to make me put the book down after the first page. I stuck with it only because I suspected (and vaguely remembered, from my first reading of this story 20 years ago) that the abductor gets what’s coming to him in the end. If I’m going to subject myself to a story about every parent’s worst nightmare, I at least expect it to let me indulge in a little parental revenge fantasy. And Stephen King came through for me.

I’ve often wondered how authors who are parents manage to write stories in which children are endangered or killed. (King was the father of three children when this story was published.) Are such authors simply unaffected by the paralyzing dread that strikes me when I imagine hurt done to any child, much less my own? Do they force themselves to do it for the sake of their craft, because they know how powerfully such themes resonate? I don’t know where King finds the courage or the gall to write of such things, but I’ll readily admit it’s made for some of his strongest, most affecting work (It and Pet Sematary, among others).

And then there’s this story, written from the point of view of a child abductor. One thing about King is that he writes losers remarkably well—drunks, has-beens, and washed-up failures turn up often in his stories, sometimes as heroes and sometimes as villains. Here, the story’s loser protagonist (a gambling addict who got in over his head) would be sympathetic if it weren’t for the particular crime he turned to in order to save his skin. Sheridan is a sad and pathetic figure; and impossibly, we almost feel sorry for him here. As I suppose most such criminals do, he has walled up his guilt behind a lot of denial (“Hell, he wasn’t a monster or a maniac, for Christ’s sake,” King writes at one point).

But he kidnaps kids, and that’s enough to earn him his grisly fate. His latest victim is a young boy (albeit one with surprising strength, and weirdly sharp teeth) who keeps yammering on about his “Popsy” rescuing him. As he adds details (Popsy’s going to be mad… Popsy’s really strong… Popsy can fly…) we start suspecting that Popsy might not be your typical suburban dad. Before Sheridan can ferry the boy to his unspeakable criminal rendezvous, Popsy appears (bats, cape, the whole Dracula thing), rips Sheridan out of his creeper van, and feeds him to his vampire son.

While the child abduction is the most obviously shocking thing about this story, what’s actually most interesting is King’s portrait of the vampire as a 20th-century American. Popsy appears to be a magisterial Bram Stoker vampire, but Sheridan crosses paths with him not in a gothic castle or haunted moor but in a shopping mall. The vampire had brought his son to the mall (he tells Sheridan before tearing his throat out) to buy him a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figure. King loves to “postmodernize” the supernatural by tying it to the trivial mundanities of American life. He often does this by putting crude American slang in the mouths of even his most horrific supernatural villains; here it’s by imagining the lords of the night as just another bunch of American consumers looking to save big bucks at JC Penney and Toys ‘R’ Us.

It’s a little hard to recommend this story, but I won’t deny that there’s a sick appeal in reading about a child abductor Getting What’s Coming To Him. Would that justice in real-life kidnapping cases were as swift and terrible. There, see, now I’m feeling depressed again.

Next up: “Rainy Season” from Nightmares and Dreamscapes, which had better not involve imperiled children.

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Stephen King Short Story Project, #19: “Survivor Type”

The story: “Survivor Type,” collected in Skeleton Crew. First published in 1982. Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: A former surgeon (now a drug dealer) is shipwrecked while trying to smuggle heroin on a cruise ship. With no food and limited supplies, he’s forced to take extreme measures to stay alive. And by “extreme measures,” I mean he cuts off parts of his body and eats them to stave off starvation.

My thoughts: Like “The Raft,” this is a straightforward gross-out story. It takes two unsettling ideas—our fear of being stranded alone, and our extreme cultural aversion to cannibalism—and puts them together. Then rubs them in the reader’s face.

“Survivor Type” is a mental exercise in finding out if there’s a line that a truly survival-focused person would not pass in the struggle to stay alive. I’m picturing Stephen King brainstorming the sickest possible scenario and writing this story to answer the question, “What kind of person would go that far to survive?”

This story, written in the form of a diary, provides us with plenty of biographical information about such a hardcore survivor. Our protagonist, Richard Pine, had a troubled youth, where he learned that surviving in sports, school and business could be best achieved by hitting your enemies hard, and by being willing to make tough sacrifices (usually friends and relationships) to better one’s odds. King realizes also that his hypothetical survival scenario will require somebody with, in addition to an extreme survival instinct, advanced medical skills; so Pine is a surgeon. When he’s caught running an illegal drugs/medicine operation on the side, he’s booted from his profession (true to character, he avoids jailtime by ratting out his accomplices). He then takes his medical practice underground and eventually gets involved in the cutthroat world of drug smuggling. As the story begins, the cruise ship on which he was smuggling a large amount of heroin has sunk, leaving him stranded alone on an archetypal desert island. (And no, he spent no time helping anyone else in the rush to the lifeboats.)

Normally I would wince in sympathy for a protagonist caught in these circumstances, but because Pine is such a loathsome individual, I found myself simply curious about what lay in store for him (no doubt King’s intention). For the first several days, Pine’s diary recounts a fairly stereotypical stranded-on-an-island sequence of events (trying to catch small wildlife, waving at an oblivious passing aircraft, etc.) But when Pine breaks his leg while chasing a delicious-looking seagull, he is forced to amputate his foot (copious amounts of heroin make it possible to do so without passing out from the pain). And things go downhill, in a perversely logical way, from there. Having crossed this gruesome little Rubicon, Pine goes on (as time stretches on with no sign of rescue) to amputate and eat most of his legs, his ears, and (the story’s final words suggest) at least one hand.

I don’t have much else to say about “Survivor Type.” The question it asks, “How far would you go to survive?” is interesting but (let’s be honest) mostly just an excuse to imagine the most horrifying survival situation possible. And on that visceral level, it succeeds. More interesting for me is the presence and use of heroin in this story; at the time this story was written and published, King was deeply addicted to cocaine and alcohol. Although King doesn’t overly dwell on it, the scenes describing Pine’s experience and perceptions while dosed up on heroin have an authenticity—and just maybe, a mournful self-awareness—beyond what the story’s rather simple narrative needs require.

Next up: “Popsy,” from “Nightmares and Dreamscapes.

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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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