Category Archives: Books

Stephen King Short Story Project, #17: “The End of the Whole Mess”

The story: “The End of the Whole Mess,” collected in Nightmares and Dreamscapes. First published in 1986. Wikipedia entry here.

drstrangeloveSpoiler-filled synopsis: In the darkest days of the Cold War, a hyper-intelligent scientist discovers a chemical that removes all violent instincts from anyone who ingests it. He manages to spread the chemical across the globe, bringing about world peace… but unwittingly also dooming humanity, because an unanticipated side effect of the drug is the Alzheimer’s-like mental degeneration of everyone exposed to it.

My thoughts: What is wrong with humanity? We’ve been asking that question for a few thousand years without settling on a satisfying answer. The pursuit of true, lasting world peace has been the subject of many stories and novels over the years, but what unites most such tales is a hunch that this is a problem that can’t be fixed. Any solution would surely come with a terrible catch… and in the end, curing humanity of its violent nature would also destroy whatever it is that makes us human.

Apparently, humanity is not only very violent, but very cynical about the possibility of ever not being violent. In our stories, attempts to fix ourselves never work.

“The End of the Whole Mess” is King’s entry into this little sub-genre of apocalyptic morality plays. (This story is probably best described as science fiction, alhough it’s a dystopian fable with relatively few sci-fi trappings.) It’s narrated by the brother of humanity’s “savior,” a naive genius named Bobby Fornoy who thinks he’s found a way to cure humanity’s violent impulses. Investigating a small town marked by a startling lack of violent behavior, he identifies a chemical that, when mixed into a water supply, will pacify anyone who drinks it. Despondent at the increasingly bleak state of the Cold War, he successfully carries out a scheme to spread the chemical across the globe. It works, but after a few years, the world’s population experiences a complete breakdown of mental faculties. It turns out that Fornoy, convinced that he had very little time before the world perished in the flames of Mutually Assured Destruction, had skipped the “extensive clinical trials” part of the process. As the story ends, the narrator (along with Bobby) succumbs to the drug; the story’s last paragraphs are weepy gibberish as the narrator’s thought processes degrade.

“The End” is written in a confessional style; it’s clear from the opening sentences that everything has ended badly, and the rest of the story is spent describing how it came about. The first half of the story describes Bobby’s childhood; the second half describes his discovery and his plan to save the world.

This story is a downer, to put it mildly. It draws heavily on the atmosphere of dread and pessimism that defined the Cold War; to feel its full effect today, you have to imagine (or remember) what it was like to live under the constant threat of nuclear war. (The violence we experience today—terrorism, civil war, etc.—is certainly horrible and depressing, but doesn’t plausibly threaten the very existence of humanity the way that the superpowers’ massive nuclear arsenals did.) “The End” feels a lot like an episode of The Twilight Zone, with its finger-wagging warning about hubris, and with its bleak but probably realistic belief that the price for changing human nature would be too high to pay.

I felt terribly sad while reading this story. Not really because of the plot, variations of which I’ve watched and read numerous times; but because King conveys well the narrator’s love for his naive, well-intentioned brother even at the end. As the narrator’s mental coherence crumbles in the story’s final pages (a process that calls to mind Flowers for Algernon), he is reduced to crude, childlike expressions of love, sadness, and forgiveness, and I guess I’m a bit of a wimp, because it made me feel like crying.

That makes this a successful story, in my mind. Worth reading if you like Rod Serling-style lectures about mankind’s hubris, or (as with yesterday’s “Beachworld”) if you want to see King try his hand at a story outside the horror genre.

Next up: “Sometimes They Come Back,” from Night Shift.

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Stephen King Short Story Project, #16: “Beachworld”

The story: “Beachworld,” collected in Skeleton Crew. First published in 1984. Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: Thousands of years in the future, a spaceship crashes on an unknown planet completely covered by sand. One of the two survivors becomes obsessed with the sand and goes insane; the other is rescued—but not before it becomes clear that the sand itself is sentient and hostile.

Arrakis, another famous all-desert planet. (Screenshot from the computer game "Dune 2000.")

Arrakis, another famous all-desert planet. (Screenshot from the computer game “Dune 2000.”)

My thoughts: Stephen King rarely writes science fiction stories. Apart from this story, I’m aware of “The Jaunt” (also in Skeleton Crew), the novel Tommyknockers (although it’s really much more horror than sci-fi), and occasional sci-fi-ish elements scattered throughout his other work. (King experts, please share in the comments below if I’m missing any examples.)

I imagine this is because King simply isn’t interested in writing science fiction, although he’s certainly influenced by many early writers of both horror and science fiction. I also think that King’s particular brand of personal horror and suspense depends heavily on characters and situations readers can relate to, and that would be diminished in a straight sci-fi story. But it’s a shame, really, because “Beachworld” shows that King can write competent horror-themed sci-fi when he wants to.

“Beachworld” is short and focused closely on the exploits of just a few characters, but like good science fiction should, it throws out lots of little details with which your imagination can paint a picture of the general setting. A character mentions that the Beach Boys lived eight thousand years earlier, which provides a rough timeline. The survivors are part of something called the Federation, which exists alongside or in competition with a network of spacefaring clans. There are androids, space scavengers, and interstellar trade—in other words, this is a pretty typical space-opera type setting.

But that setting is just the distant backdrop for the actual story, which follows the two survivors (Rand and Shapiro) of a spaceship crash. The planet on which they’ve crashed is covered by an endless desert; their only hope of survival is for a passing ship to notice their emergency beacon and investigate. As the days drag on, one of the survivors (Rand) becomes increasingly obsessed with the sand, which seems to move in an eerie, almost purposeful manner, and which is able to penetrate even sealed-off areas in the wrecked ship. When rescue finally arrives, the sand is revealed to be a sentient entity—it thwarts attempts to rescue the thoroughly insane Rand, and tries to pull down the rescue ship as it lifts off with Shapiro aboard.

I like the idea of a sentient desert. It calls to mind Stanislaw Lem’s classic novel Solaris, which takes place on a planet covered by a sentient ocean. Another sci-fi classic that “Beachworld” seems to reference is Dune—although it actually has more in common with Frank Herbert’s lesser-known Jesus Incident novels, which explore the idea of a planet with a nearly-sentient ecosystem.

The story itself is entertaining, although I didn’t find it quite as creepy as I did when I first read it in my younger days. Rand checks out mentally almost immediately; I think it might have been more enjoyable if his obsession with the beachworld developed over time. Shapiro doesn’t have a lot to do beyond waiting for rescue and watching the encroaching desert with increasing trepidation. King throws in lots of Beach Boys references, and the juxtaposition of the eerie not-a-beach-at-all setting and the catchy, insipid surfer-dude lyrics is effective.

I liked it. “Beachworld” isn’t a classic, but it’s worth reading just to catch Stephen King making one of his rare forays into science fiction.

Next up: “The End of the Whole Mess,” from Nightmares and Dreamscapes.

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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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Stephen King Short Story Project, #14: “The Lawnmower Man”

The story: “The Lawnmower Man,” collected in Night Shift. First published in 1975. Wikipedia entry here.

panSpoiler-filled synopsis: A suburban man hires somebody to mow his lawn. Unfortunately, this particular lawnmower man is a satyr in the service of the Greek god Pan. And Pan requires the occasional… sacrifice.

My thoughts: “The Lawnmower Man” is one of King’s strangest, funniest stories. (At least, I thought it was funny. There may be something wrong with me.) It’s not the only King tale that involves murder by lawnmower, but it’s definitely the most memorable.

“The Lawnmower Man” is short, and written with a wry wit that is much more pronounced than in most other King stories. While the story is certainly horrifying, it doesn’t feel quite right to call this “horror”—the situation recounted here is so ridiculous and random that it’s hard to know exactly what to make of it. The story closest to it in style that I’ve read so far this month is “The Moving Finger,” which similarly thrusts an everyman character into an utterly inexplicable situation; but whereas that story follows a plot that develops over time, “The Lawnmower Man” is really just a depiction of one very unpleasant divine encounter.

The story recounts the last afternoon in the life of Harold Parkette. Harold hires a lawnmower man to get his lawn under control. When the lawnmower man strips naked, cavorts in the backyard, eats all the grass clippings, and starts babbling about Greek gods, Harold nervously stalls for time while he tries to think of something to do. When the satyr-like lawnmower man catches Harold calling the police, he sends his magic, self-piloting lawnmower after our unlucky protagonist with gruesome results.

Generally speaking, Greek deities (popular as they are) are not usually associated with the horror genre. The Greek gods may often be petty, violent, cruel, and capricious, but interactions with them are more frustrating and maddening than terrifying. But Pan, the chaotic, multi-faceted god of the wild, does have a history in the horror genre, most notably in Arthur Machen’s influential 1894 novel The Great God Pan. Presumably King has this in mind here. The events of “The Lawnmower Man” are so bewildering, and happen so quickly, that we do get a sense of what it would be like to cross paths with a violent, inhuman, and unpredictable deity. King does seem drawn to Greek mythology; the psychopomp is a key element in The Dark Half, and the Moirai appear prominently in Insomnia.

As I mentioned above, “The Lawnmower Man” is quite funny. The protagonist is likeably dopey, and his death is comically lacking in dignity. It all ends with a humorous exchange between policemen called to the scene of the slaughter:

“Where’s the rest of him?” one of the white-coats asked.

“The birdbath,” Goodwin said. He looked profoundly up at the sky.

“Did you say the birdbath?” the white-coat asked.

“Indeed I did,” Lieutenant Goodwin agreed. Patrolman Cooley looked at the birdbath and suddenly lost most of his tan.

“Sex maniac,” Lieutenant Goodwin said. “Must have been.”

I don’t have much else to say about this; it’s an odd but memorable little story.

I’ll close by noting that when most people hear the name of this story, they probably think of the cyberpunk movie of the same name. Apparently, the filmmakers slapped Stephen King’s name on an entirely unrelated script for marketing purposes, and King sued to have his name removed. I haven’t seen the movie, but I’m pretty confident that the story is better. (Perhaps in a future post, I’ll talk a bit about Stephen King’s decidedly mixed film legacy.)

Next up: “That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is in French” from Everything’s Eventual.

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Stephen King Short Story Project, #13: “The Monkey”

That's our creepy little friend right there.

That’s our creepy little friend right there.

The Story: “The Monkey,” collected in Skeleton Crew. First published in 1980 (the version in Skeleton Crew is heavily revised). Shares many plot elements with Stephen King’s 1998 The X-Files episode. Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: Hal Shelburn was plagued throughout his childhood by the presence of a nightmarish cymbal-banging monkey toy; each time it clangs its cymbals, somebody close to Hal dies. Now an adult, he tries to find a way to get rid of it for good before it claims the lives of his wife and kids.

My thoughts: Oh, the cymbal-banging monkey, most terrifying of toys. It’s the perfect fit for the “evil childhood toy” horror trope, and occupies a spot of honor next to the creepy doll. I don’t know what prompted Stephen King to write a story based on one, but I’m guessing he spotted one of these things in an antique shop and just knew right then and there that it had to star in one of his stories.

“The Monkey” is a fairly long story and covers a surprising amount of narrative ground, given its premise. As a boy, Hal discovers the creepy, apparently broken monkey toy, but quickly realizes that when it clangs it cymbals (seemingly at random, once every couple years), somebody close to him dies—first a babysitter, then a childhood friend, and finally even his mother. Despite various attempts to get rid of it, the monkey always eventually re-appears. Now it’s re-appeared in his adult life, and he must scramble to banish it before it starts working its evil magic again.

A story premise like this is tricky to pull off, because it openly invites readers to imagine how they would go about destroying or getting rid of the cursed item. You’re almost certain to come up with a better plan than the story’s characters do; and even though you know that horror stories would be very boring if everybody did the smart, reasonable thing, it diminishes the story’s impact if you think the characters are behaving stupidly. That is somewhat the case here; although the story recounts numerous attempts to get rid of the monkey, it takes a very long time (years) and several deaths before those attempts become more serious than “I’ll just stick it back in its box in the closet.” I know, I know… Hal is a child; and the story states that the monkey finds a way to thwart every attempt to destroy or discard it… but I kept wanting somebody to at least try smashing it or tearing it apart rather than hiding it or throwing it down wells. Even as an adult, Hal inexplicably lets his family keep the monkey around for a day or so before doing anything about it.

So a little extra suspension of disbelief is required. Fair enough.

The real problem with “The Monkey” is that it’s just too long. It tells two stories in parallel: Hal’s troubles with the monkey in his childhood years, and Hal’s present-day, grown-up encounter with the same toy. There’s something powerful in forcing an adult protagonist to confront and relive the terrors of their imaginative youth, and King will use this theme to good effect in It and other novels. Here, however, it all just goes on too long. After about the sixth monkey-caused mysterious death, the concept has worn thin. There’s a good horror story in here, but it’s stretched across too many pages.

There are things that work well here, however. As usual, King’s depiction of family relationships (in this case, a fairly dysfunctional one) is great. Hal’s relationship with his two sons takes the spotlight—he loves his younger son dearly, but struggles to relate to his older, teenage son, who is going through a rebellious phase. King uses these father-son relationships to good effect; for most of the story, I was very nervous that King would kill off one of the sons (he doesn’t), and in that case I’m not sure I would’ve been able to finish reading this.

A random note: one other thing I noticed is King’s effective use of specific name brands where other authors would use generic terms. It’s not a box, it’s a Ralston-Purina box. It’s not a magazine, it’s a copy of Rock Wave. It’s not a tin, it’s a Crisco tin. It adds a certain grounded-ness to the story.

All in all, “The Monkey” is mediocre but not without its charms. If you’re in the mood for a scary-toy story this Halloween, I recommend firing up “Living Doll” instead.

Next up: “The Lawnmower Man,” from Night Shift.

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Stephen King Short Story Project, #12: “Sorry, Right Number”

The story: “Sorry, Right Number,” collected in Nightmares and Dreamscapes. It’s the screenplay for an episode of Tales of the Darkside that aired in 1987. Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: Katie Wiederman receives an unsettling, incomprehensible phone call from somebody seemingly trying to either plead for help or warn her about something. The phone calls starts a chain of events that ends with Katie’s husband Bill’s death of a heart attack. Years later, Katie realizes that the phone call was from her future self, trying to warn about Bill’s impending death.

telephoneMy thoughts: This is a sweet, sad little story told in the form of a screenplay. Given the close association of King’s written work with film, it seems appropriate to find a King-written screenplay tucked in here amidst his more traditional short stories.

Although we don’t realize it until the screenplay’s closing pages, the key plot element in “Sorry, Right Number” is time travel—in this case, a message transmitted into the past, intended to warn Katie about Bill’s death. Depending on how you read the story, the specific time travel theory is either the predestination paradox (if you think that the mysterious phone call actually caused the heart attack it was trying to avert) or the self-healing hypothesis (the idea that the course of history cannot be changed, and will resist efforts to change it). These ideas crop up from time to time in shows like Star Trek and The Twilight Zone.

But this isn’t a science fiction story, and it’s actually not very concerned with the details of time travel. It’s mostly a rather touching story about a happy family whose life is thrown into turmoil when they get a phone call from a strangely familiar-sounding voice begging them to take some unspecified action. Believing that a relative must be in trouble, they scramble in a panic to check in on their extended family members, all of whom turn out to be safe and in good health. They dismiss the phone call as a strange fluke, but Bill dies later that night of a heart attack. Years later, the family has moved on; Katie has happily remarried but still mourns inside for her loss. In a bout of grief, she dials her old telephone number, is inexplicably connected to her younger self, and tries to warn her younger self to get Bill to a hospital. But she cannot articulate her message through her sobs, and the call is disconnected… setting the sequence of events in motion.

Compared to King’s usual chatty, verbose writing style, the screenplay format is necessarily stark and short on typical King details. Nonetheless, some of his storytelling strengths shine through. The husband/wife relationship, something he almost always gets right, comes across as warm and believable. A few amusing scenes of Bill and Katie’s children bickering over which TV show to watch were clearly written by somebody who’s frequently wrangled with arguing children.

King also pulls one of his trademark “author insertions” here: Bill is a famous horror author. As he often does, King uses this opportunity to mock both himself and his fans. Bill’s bibliography includes amusingly lurid titles like Spider Doom and Ghost’s Kiss, the latter of which is chewed up by a toddler at one point; and when Bill is trying to get an emergency telephone operator to help with the crisis, she keeps interrupting to ask him for autographs. At one point, Katie expresses concern that their youngest son is watching an ultra-violent movie based on one of his father’s novels—a conversation I am sure that King and his wife Tabitha had more than once as they raised their kids.

What really stood out for me in “Sorry, Right Number” is King’s portayal of grief (possibly because it was also a theme in “The Man in the Black Suit,” which I read a few days ago). Grief in King’s stories is not a life-ending psychological blow that dooms your happiness forever; nor it is something that you can simply push past with a Hollywood-style burst of willpower and then leave behind for good. It’s something that you survive, but that leaves you with permanent scars. Five years after Bill’s death, Katie has “moved on”—she and her family seem to be genuinely happy. But she can be content with her circumstances and still wish, deep inside, that things had worked out differently.

This was a good but melancholy read. I had forgotten most of its details; with its focus on a mysterious phone call, I initially suspected it would turn out to be a horror story of the He’s calling from INSIDE THE HOUSE! variety. I’m glad to be proven wrong.

Next up: “The Monkey,” from Skeleton Crew.

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Stephen King Short Story Project, #11: “Strawberry Spring”

The story: “Strawberry Spring,” collected in Night Shift. Originally published in 1968. Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: A man recounts the strange events of a “strawberry spring” (like an Indian summer, but in the spring) years ago, when a serial killer murdered several women on a college campus but was never caught. The narrator’s reminiscing ends with his realization that he was, and still is, the killer.

My thoughts: As you’ve no doubt noticed by now, Stephen King has written novels and stories that draw on nearly every horror-story trope in existence. In a number of cases, he may have single-handedly popularized them. But curiously, one trope he hasn’t focused on heavily (to my knowledge) is the Serial Killer. (Another neglected trope is Zombies—you might be surprised to learn that they’re the centerpiece of his novel Cell, but not much else.)

King’s massive body of work doesn’t contain many serial killers. (Granted, his non-serial killer villains do nevertheless tend to kill lots and lots of people.) There’s Annie Wilkes from Misery, Bob Anderson in “A Good Marriage,” the narrator of “Strawberry Spring,” and no doubt a few others I’m forgetting. (King experts, please share in the comments below.) But given the popularity and glamorization of the Silence of the Lambs-style serial killer in thrillers and film these days, it’s a little unusual that very few of King’s villains fit the profile of the charming, witty, and intelligent psychopath compelled by dark urges to kill in disturbing fetishistic ways. King’s villains are often crazy, murderous, and charismatic, but not in the way we associate with serial killers as pop culture depicts them.

“Strawberry Spring” presents the recollections of a man who may not fully realize until the story’s end that he is, in fact, the killer known as “Springheel Jack.” During a short period of strange foggy weather that gave evenings a surreal and dreamlike quality, Springheel Jack terrorized a college campus by savagely killing several women.

King spends less time describing the murders than he does depicting the panicked, and increasingly irrational, public response to them—and this is what makes “Strawberry Spring” better than your typical serial killer story. King fancies himself a student of human nature and social behavior (in The Stand, characters spend a great deal of time hashing out social theory) and he gets it right here. He traces the college community’s reaction to the murders from its early stages (gossipy fascination with the murders and victims); to the more serious and coordinated attempts to solve the crimes (increased security, arrests, and a general atmosphere of tension); to the crazy phase (conspiracy theories spread like wildfire), to the inevitable end (public boredom, as the killings end and new distractions appear in newspaper headlines). It’s a response-to-tragedy pattern that is unfortunately very familiar to those of us in the United States at the moment.

“Strawberry Spring” closes with a surprise revelation, an element common in horror stories but very hit-and-miss in execution. It works well here because King has carefully pointed us toward the revelation (so it doesn’t seem random) without making it too obvious. There are enough clues spread through the story to make you feel smart for noticing them, like in a good mystery novel. Of course, you know you’re reading a story by Stephen King, so you’re somewhat on the alert for this sort of thing. But there’s also the vaguely confessional nature of the first-person narration; the fact that the narrator begs off of social functions to be alone on the nights of the murders; and the overly romantic way that the narrator describes the fog and other features of the strawberry spring nights.

I ended up enjoying this story much more than I thought I would. (I’m really not a fan of the serial killer genre.) And impressively for one of King’s early, obscure little stories, it features one of his very best closing lines:

I can hear my wife as I write this, in the next room, crying. She thinks I was with another woman last night.

And oh dear God, I think so too.

Next up: “Sorry, Right Number,” from Nightmares and Dreamscapes.

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Stephen King Short Story Project, #10: “The Man in the Black Suit”

The story: “The Man in the Black Suit,” collected in Everything’s Eventual. First published in 1994. Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: An old man recounts a strange and frightening encounter he had when he was nine years old, when he met the devil himself in backwoods Maine.

My thoughts: I knew I was going to have trouble with this story by the fourth page, when the protagonist mentions his dead brother. As I’ve lamented before, becoming a father made me a huge wimp when it comes to stories, books, and movies about threatened—or worse yet, dead—children.

This has been a huge problem for my interest in the horror genre. Horror stories are about finding and exploiting readers’ greatest fears, and what is more terrifying than the idea of one’s child put in mortal danger? You can bet they hammer on that theme a lot. And beyond that, many of the best horror tales feature child characters; a child’s resourcefulness and vulnerability make them an ideal protagonist for fairy tales and horror stories alike. I knew I would run into this eventually with King’s short stories; children feature prominently in some of his best work, most notably the coming-of-age epic It, which I haven’t yet had the courage to revisit.

The death of a child—the brother of Gary, the narrator—takes place a year before the events of “The Man in the Black Suit,” but it’s a driving narrative undercurrent throughout the story. One thing King writes well is grief: he avoids maudlin drama and preachy reflection, but picks out the little ways that unresolved emotional pain manifests itself. Nine-year-old Gary and his family clearly haven’t moved on from their loss.

Gary heads out one day to go fishing in the woods. And in a manner consistent with the “I met the devil down by the crossroads” strain of American folklore, the devil appears to him there. This devil isn’t a slick businessman or shady deal-maker; he’s a monster who tries to break Gary’s spirit before killing him. The devil mocks his brother’s death, and gleefully informs Gary that his mother too has just died—a lie, although Gary believes it at the time. Gary pulls himself together long enough to escape. He returns home to find his parents alive and safe, but for the rest of his life Gary carries the weight of his seemingly random encounter.

At first read, this is an odd story; there’s no twist ending or even much narrative closure. It’s more of a “let me tell you about something creepy that happened to me once” campfire tale. King describes “The Man in the Black Suit” as an homage to Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” and it’s easy to see why. As with Goodman Brown’s dreamlike encounter in the woods, Gary’s exposure to pure, inexplicable evil sows seeds of spiritual doubt that he never quite manages to shake throughout his entire life. In King’s story, the encounter with Old Scratch serves two purposes: on the one hand, it’s a way for Gary to confront, and push past, the pain of his loss. On the other hand, his brush with evil permanently mars his belief in divine good, in the same way that not even the most pious among us is ever truly, completely at ease with the presence of death and pain in a world ostensibly overseen by a loving God.

In an afterword, King expresses disappointment with this story. Compared to Hawthorne’s sublime “Young Goodman Brown,” it does indeed fall short—what short story wouldn’t? But it’s a strange and thoughtful meditation on grief and loss that stands out strongly from King’s more typical genre stories.

I enjoyed this, but the subject matter made it a difficult read. I think I’m ready for a few good old-fashioned pulpy Stephen King horror-fests.

Next up: This weekend is looking extraordinarily busy, so I have a feeling the next entries may be delayed by a day or two. With that in mind, let’s go ahead and pick the next three stories: “Strawberry Spring” from Night Shift, “Sorry, Right Number” from Nightmares and Dreamscapes, and “The Monkey” from Skeleton Crew.

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Stephen King Short Story Project, #9: “The Doctor’s Case”

Note: this story is an unusual one for King. After reading it, I asked my lovely and talented wife—who is much more familiar with this genre than I am—to read it and provide her thoughts. The reflections below are all hers. (You rock, Michele!)

The story: “The Doctor’s Case,” collected in Nightmares and Dreamscapes. First published in 1987. Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: In this pastiche of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s mystery stories, Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson are confronted with a challenging “locked room” murder mystery. Surprisingly, it is Watson who cracks the case.

Paget_holmesMy thoughts: When Andy asked me to read Stephen King’s short story “The Doctor’s Case,” I was sure it would be too violent for me. I haven’t read anything by King since high school, but my vague recollections suggested to me that he wouldn’t be able to resist getting some gory details in some way or another. I was surprised to find that the extent of the gore consisted of the phrase “There was a dagger in his back.” I’m happy to say I rallied quickly from this assault upon my sensibilities.

The story is true to the Sherlock Holmes tradition. It is a locked-room mystery with four, and only four, suspects. (I’m partial to this kind of mystery myself: neat and tidy.) The thoroughly nasty Lord Hull, nearing the end of his life, announces to his wife and three sons that he’s just disinherited them in his new will; then locks himself (alone) into his study and dies from a knife in the back.

Most of the time people who try to write in 19th century style give themselves away with anachronisms. King avoids this, for the most part, particularly in correctly using the wordiness and archaic phraseology tossed around in the original stories. I would say the few times it was apparent from the writing that I was not reading something by Conan Doyle were that the explanation of how it was done went on longer than expected, with somewhat too much emoting by Holmes.

I had expected that the fact that Watson and not Holmes solved the case would be due to something unique about his character. This was not the case, and I suspect the fact that Watson got the win on this one might be due to King feeling sorry for the nice old guy.

One amusing moment came at the beginning of the story, when Watson tells us he is now a nonagenarian and he no longer remembered the case very well. He then begins his narrative by noting that “it was a wet, dreary afternoon” just after half past one, and Holmes was staring out the window, holding but not playing his violin, followed by other extremely precise descriptions of conditions and events which had occurred many decades before. This total recall is, of course, an amusing conceit of mystery stories, as well as many other genres.

At one point Holmes references “The Speckled Band” in the course of this story. The solution here is reminiscent of that story, in that it is ridiculously complicated and would almost certainly not work in real life. Fortunately, I like complicated solutions to mysteries, and as a result I enjoyed this story quite a bit.

Thanks, Michele! Next up: “The Man in the Black Suit,” from Everything’s Eventual.

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Stephen King Short Story Project, #8: “The Road Virus Heads North”

The story: “The Road Virus Heads North,” collected in Everything’s Eventual. First published in 1999. Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: A successful horror author stops at a yard sale on the way home from a conference and buys the world’s creepiest watercolor painting. As he continues his journey home, he notices that each time he looks at the painting, it has changed—showing a murderous car driver following the author’s route north. And getting closer.

My thoughts: Ah, but this is a good one. The best Stephen King stories leave you not exactly scared, but grinning with slightly sick glee at what you’ve just read. And I’m grinning right now.

But first things first. I mentioned in my reflection on “Word Processor of the Gods” that King often uses writers and published authors as protagonists. That’s the case in “The Road Virus Heads North,” where the protagonist (a famous horror novelist named Richard Kinnell) is a very obvious stand-in for Stephen King.

There’s a lot of “meta” going on in “The Road Virus Heads North” (which, it hardly needs to be said, is a wonderful short story title). The story gets its name from the title of a disturbing painting that King claims to actually own. In having a fictional horror author come into possession of it (and meet a grisly end as a result), King is obviously having fun at his own expense. One wonders how many other personal references and in-jokes King snuck into this story.

The story opens on an amusing note. Kinnell is at an author’s convention, rolling his eyes at both his fans (a tiresome autograph-demanding lot who always ask him inane things like “Where do you get your ideas?”) and his snooty critics (“Richard Kinnell writes like Jeffrey Dahmer cooks,” writes one). If it were a different author snarking like this, it would seem peckish; but because it’s Stephen King it instead comes across as just funny. Having been both a raving fan and armchair critic of King’s writing over the years, I feel a kinship with Kinnell’s fans and critics—but mostly, I sympathize with poor Kinnell, who like Stephen King is just doing what he loves. King’s occasional self-insertion into his stories and novels never comes across as obnoxious; King always seems to be in on the joke, even in his most serious novels, and he doesn’t get preachy with it.

“The Road Virus Heads North” (the painting) is the sort of American roadside kitsch that good horror stories turn into nightmare fuel. It depicts a grinning, pointy-toothed creep driving a vintage muscle car through the night, and more specifically, along the highway that Kinnell is traveling on. (The description of the driver reminds me of recurring King villain Randall Flagg—perhaps a Dark Tower expert can tell me if they’re supposed to be the same person.)

In classic “the eyes are following me around the room!” fashion, the painting changes as time goes by (why is that so inherently creepy?). It shows the scary, maybe-not-entirely-human driver following Kinnell’s route, stopping once to brutally murder the woman who sold Kinnell the painting. Kinnell goes through a process of doubting his sanity much like Howard Mitla’s in “The Moving Finger.” He tries to throw away, and later destroy, the painting, but each time it mysteriously re-appears, showing the driver getting ever closer until he arrives at Kinnell’s house. The painting’s final scene reveals the grisly fate in store for our famous, doomed horror author.

I like this story quite a bit. Beyond King’s self-referencing, it’s a good little horror story. Creepy roadside Americana… a murderer cruising down the long, unlit highway in pursuit of his victim… the irony of a horror author meeting a horror-story end… this is King doing what he does best, needy fans and pompous critics be damned.

Next up: “The Doctor’s Case,” from Nightmares and Dreamscapes.

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