Countdown–The Top 20 Stephen King Works of American Gothic Short Fiction: #20-#15

The following is a compilation/republication of a series of posts that appeared in the final months of 2010 on my old (then brand-new) Macabre Republic blog. The countdown was confined to short stories and novelettes (longer works such as “The Mist” or the novellas in Different Seasons and Four Past Midnight were not considered) that exemplified the American Gothic (i.e. a tale such as the London-set “Crouch End” didn’t qualify). 

 

20. “Morning Deliveries (Milkman #1)”

This brief Skeleton Crew story (which King culled, along with the companion piece, “Big Wheels: A Tale of the Laundry Game,” from an aborted novel) packs some potent prose into its five pages. The narrative opens with the scene of a bucolic neighborhood at daybreak–big maple trees, hopscotch-gridded sidewalks, sparrows sporting in birdbaths, a sky “already bluer than a baby’s eye, and patched with guileless little fair-weather clouds…the ones baseball players called ‘angels.'” Such placidity, though, is soon disrupted by the rumble of a milk truck whose journey began somewhere back in the dark. The vehicle proves to be a rolling nightmare, with a “bloodstained meathook” hanging from the roof of the cab, and a murky rear compartment rife with a “sunken, buggy smell.” And the driver himself is just as sinister. You see, this milkman (the aptly-named Spike) is a madman, a human monster in a uniform. Spike likes to give select customers on his route a little something extra…such as a live tarantula in the chocolate milk, acid gel in the all-purpose cream, and belladonna in the eggnog.

King’s story is perhaps more surreal than logical (one would think that Spike’s misdeeds could be traced back to him fairly easily), yet still chills. In the conclusion, Spike steps inside a vacant, “crypt-cold” home on his route to observe what the reader must presume is the end result of his handiwork: “A huge splotch of drying blood covered part of one [living room] wall. It looked like a psychiatrist’s inkblot. In the center of it a crater had been gouged deeply into the plaster. There was a matted clump of hair in this crater, and a few splinters of bone.” Spike nods in approval of the grue, then exits and resumes his psychopathic route, convinced that “a fine day” is brightening all around. Morning’s normal glory is thus eclipsed, as King succeeds in thoroughly Gothicizing an idyllic American scene.

Milkmen might be obsolete figures in our modern world, but Spike Milligan’s commitment to his craft won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

 

19. “Rest Stop”

While driving home late at night from a Florida mystery writers group meeting, John Dykstra ponders his double life as a “literary werewolf” (by day he is an urbane professor of English at FSU, but he moonlights as an author–under the pseudonym “Rick Hardin”–of a series of crime novels featuring the “urban warrior” hitman-character, the “Dog”). This duality comes into play when a pressing need to relieve himself leads Dykstra to pull off at a highway rest stop. At first he is paralyzed when he overhears a man brutally beating his pregnant girlfriend inside the women’s room, but then Dykstra finds the courage to intervene by turning to his Hardin alter ego.

The only problem is, “Hardin” proves more vigilante than knight in shining armor, using excessive force to subdue the abusive male, Lee. Hardin is surprised by his own actions after giving the prostrate figure a sharp kick in the hip, but what dismays him even more is “that he wanted to do it again, and harder. He liked that cry of pain and fear, could do with hearing it again.” And then he can’t help but wonder “how hard he could kick old Lee-Lee in the left ear without sacrificing accuracy for force.” When first approaching the rest stop, Dykstra’s writerly imagination pictures a lone missile command silo somewhere in the American heartland, “and the guy in charge is suffering from some sort of carefully-concealed (but progressive) mental illness.” The final turn of the screw in King’s story, though, is that such burgeoning craziness might be an apt description of Dykstra/Hardin himself.

King has gone the “unruly pseudonym” route before (cf. The Dark Half), but never as succinctly as he does here in “Rest Stop” (incidentally, in the notes at the end of Just After Sunset, King explains that the story was drawn from a similar experience inside a Florida rest stop, a situation that forced him to think, “I’ll have to summon my inner Richard Bachman here, because he’s tougher than me.). The story points to the savagery always lurking just beneath the surface of human civility; Dykstra realizes that “under the right circumstances, anyone could end up anywhere, doing anything.” Besides drawing on the Jekyll-and-Hyde archetype, the story utilizes the time-honored motif of the “wrong turn” (while facing the predicament of how to deal with the ruckus inside the women’s room, Dykstra deems his stopping off at that particular rest area “the evening’s great mistake”). But perhaps what truly distinguishes this work of American Gothic is King’s depiction of the rest-stop setting. Even at the best of times, these way stations have a forlorn air about them; after all, they are designed to facilitate transience (an appropriate ad banner might be “Eat. Excrete. Retreat.”). And when encountered in their desolate, late-night state, they can be downright ominous. King seems well aware of this as he transforms a rest stop on the open road between Jacksonville and Sarasota into a Gothic locale, complete with missing children posters papering the walls and alligators presumably lying in the building’s swampy perimeter.

So next time you’re out riding the highway in the wee hours of the morning and you feel nature calling you as you come up on a rest stop, just remember: good things come to those who wait until they get home.

 

18. “Dolan’s Cadillac”

In this dark-crime novella collected in Nightmares & Dreamscapes, King modernizes and Americanizes Edgar Allan Poe’s classic revenge tale, “The Cask of Amontillado” (which is set in an unnamed European city during Carnival season). Would-be government witness Elizabeth Robinson is killed by a car bomb before she can ever testify against the titular gangster Dolan. And so for the next nine years her husband watches and waits (all the while goaded by the ghostly voice of his dead wife inside his head) for the opportunity to dish out appropriate retribution. Finally, Robinson hatches a plan to dig “the world’s longest grave” on a dark desert highway stretching between Los Angeles and Las Vegas; he will bury Dolan alive inside the very Sedan DeVille he is chauffeured around in, converting the vehicle into “an upholstered eight-cylinder fuel-injected coffin.”

King’s narrative skills are perfectly employed in this self-described “archetypal horror story, with its mad narrator and its account of a premature burial in the desert.” The author ratchets up the suspense as only he can, detailing Robinson’s rigors and fears as the still-grieving widower sets up his elaborate trap. The climactic confrontation between Robinson and the trapped Dolan is also a virtuoso act of scene-building on King’s part. Here the echoes of Poe’s Montresor and Fortunato characters grow quite strong, as Robinson answers his victim’s screams with those of his own, and mocks Dolan’s desperate cries:

“For the love of God!” he shrieked. “For the love of God, Robinson!”

“Yes,” I said, grinning. “For the love of God.”

I put the chunk of asphalt in neatly next to its neighbor, and although I listened, I heard him no more.

Still, this isn’t the end of the story, because Robinson (even as he succeeds in his murderous scheme) becomes haunted by the bogeyman image/mad laughter of Dolan. King proves to be an astute student of Poe, picking up on a key (yet often overlooked) fact of Montresor’s narration: for all its superficial bravado, Montresor’s tale–told fifty years post facto–has an undercurrent of guilt and dread running through it. As Robinson’s sanity caves inward, the reader of King’s novella is forced to consider that much like the patch of faux roadway that dooms Dolan, vengeance might not be all it’s cracked up to be.

 

17. “The Last Rung on the Ladder”

King’s short story from his first fiction collection, Night Shift, draws on the Gothic convention of the mysterious letter–a message sent to the narrator Larry by his sister Kitty, the contents of which Larry holds back from readers. “The Last Rung on the Ladder” is also a distinctly American piece, as Larry flashes back to the rural Nebraska scene where he and his sister “grew up hicks”: “In those days all the roads were dirt except Interstate 80 and Nebraska Route 96, and a trip to town was something you waited three days for.” Sometimes Larry and Kitty would entertain themselves in the family’s barn, by climbing the ladder leading up to the third loft, shimmying out along the crossbeam, and then stepping off and plunging into the haymow seventy feet below. But these invigorating frolics take an ominous turn when the rickety old ladder splinters as Kitty scales it, leaving her dangling from the last rung. Larry scurries to build an improvised hay mound beneath her just before she slips and falls, and the only physical damage Kitty suffers from the mishap is a broken ankle.

Tragedy, though, has not been averted, merely postponed. Flashing forward again to the present, Larry reveals the reason he and his father have just returned from California: they were there to attend Kitty’s funeral. Nine days earlier, Kitty committed suicide by jumping from the top of an insurance building in Los Angeles.

Larry’s narrative ultimately addresses not “the incident in the barn” but the more profound fall from innocence. He now carries in his wallet a terrible news clipping about Kitty, “the way you carry something heavy, because carrying it is your work. The headline reads: CALL GIRL SWAN DIVES TO HER DEATH.” Larry bears a huge burden of guilt, because if he hadn’t fallen out of touch with his sister, she might not have ended up jumping from the insurance building. He concludes by finally sharing the contents of the letter he received from Kitty: an obvious cry for help in which she states she would have been better off if she’d died that day in the barn. The letter is postmarked two weeks prior to her suicide, but Larry didn’t receive it in time, because he never provided Kitty with his current address as they drifted apart over the years. Larry’s realization of his own negligence, his failure to help save Kitty from her fatal descent through adult life, makes for a devastating denouement.

“The Last Rung on the Ladder” is a human story, a heartbreaking story. It serves as an early indication that Stephen King has more to offer than just monsters and carnage; he is also a master of quiet horror.

 

16. “Premium Harmony”

Note: While this story appears in King’s most recent collection, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, it was first published in The New Yorker in November 2009.

A decade together has drained the magic from Ray and Mary Burkett’s marriage. Argument is now their primary form of communication, as seen on their drive through the economically-depressed town of Castle Rock. They are headed over to the Wal-Mart to buy some grass seed (King stocks the story with calculatedly banal detail) when Mary insists they stop off at the Quik-Pik so she can purchase a purple kickball for her niece. Tempers flare when Mary balks at buying Ray a pack of cigarettes; he proceeds to taunt her about her weight and her fondness for snack cakes. As the first scene closes, King brilliantly illustrates the petty animosity that results from a long life with a so-called loved one: Ray has “parked too close to the concrete cube of a building and she has to sidle until she’s past the trunk of the car, and he knows she knows he’s looking at her, seeing how she’s now so big she has to sidle. He knows she thinks he parked close to the building on purpose, to make her sidle, and maybe he did.”

Ray waits in the car with the family dog Biznezz, but is summoned inside by a worker minutes later after the thirty-five-year-old Mary drops dead of a heart attack. The scene inside the Quik-Pik is painted with blackly comic strokes, as Mary lies sprawled next to a kickball-filled wire rack whose sign proclaims “Hot Fun In the Summertime,” and as the store manager Mr. Ghosh offers to drape a souvenir T-shirt (“My Parents Were Treated Like Royalty in Castle Rock and All I Got Was This Lousy Tee-Shirt”) over Mary’s face. Ray hardly comes across as a nobleman here; his thoughts are in turn lascivious (he speculates that if he returned to the store next week, the counter girl would “toss him a mercy fuck”), racist (he isn’t thrilled by the idea of the dark-skinned Mr. Ghosh performing artificial respiration on Mary), and insensitive (he believes a woman standing there holding a bag of Bugles should be the one lying on the floor, since she’s even fatter than Mary).

Basking in his “celebrity” status as a sudden widower, Ray lingers in the store after the ambulance leaves with his wife’s body. He drinks soda, eats some Bugles, and converses with the other customers and the store employees before finally disembarking. Returning to his car nearly two hours after first pulling up at the Quick-Pik, Ray is greeted by another corpse: the forgotten Biznezz is now lying belly-up in the backseat, killed by the sweltering heat. “Great sadness and amusement sweep over [Ray] as he looks at the baked Jack Russell”; he starts to cry and bemoans his double loss, but he might just be going through the motions (he thinks that “[i]t’s a relief to sound just right for the situation”). Ray’s mixed reaction here in the conclusion underscores the ambivalence that lies at the heart of King’s understated story. The reader is left to ponder: is Ray simply contemptible, or just a common man, humanly flawed? That unsettling second possibility is what transforms “Premium Harmony” into an intriguing work of American Gothic fiction.

 

15. “Chattery Teeth”

King doubles the frisson in this Nightmares & Dreamscapes piece, melding the “psychotic hitchhiker” story with the tale of carnivalesque horror. Traveling salesman Bill Hogan picks up two dangerous items when he stops off at the low-rent emporium known as Scooter’s Grocery and Roadside Zoo. The first is a cagey young drifter who dubs himself Bryan Adams (after glimpsing the singer’s CD in Bill’s van); the second is the eponymous novelty. Bill and company set off on a ride through the Nevada desert during a mounting dust storm that turns the open road into a Gothic locale: “skirls of sand running across the desert floor” are likened to “fleeing ghost-children,” and passing cars and trucks “loom out of the blowing sand like a prehistoric phantom with round blazing eyes.” The excursion takes an even darker turn when Bryan Adams proceeds to pull a knife on Bill; chafing at the attempted robbery (he’s been victimized before by a hitchhiker), Bill wrecks rather than surrenders his van.

Angry as a rattler, Bryan Adams strikes out at Bill, who has been trapped in his seat belt by the accident. But then our seemingly hapless hero receives some unexpected (by him, not the reader) aid: the presumed-broken, jumbo-sized Chattery Teeth come to life and attack Bryan Adams. King’s talent for transforming innocuous objects (e.g., cymbal-clashing monkeys, speed-ironing laundry machines) into terrible instruments is on full display in this Creepshow-esque climax of graphic comeuppance. The Chattery Teeth hardly seem jokey when they clamp down on Bryan Adams’s nose and then drop down to take a meaty bite out of another, below-the-belt protuberance (when “Chattery Teeth” was adapted for the TV-movie Quicksilver Highway, the castration scene was unsurprisingly cut out). The last thing Bill sees is his ravaged assailant being hauled off the side of the road: “The Chattery Teeth were dragging Mr. Bryan Adams away to Nowhere, U.S.A.”

But Bill hasn’t had his last encounter with the Chattery Teeth. When he returns to Scooter’s nine months after the bloody incident, he finds that the proprietor Myra has been holding onto the teeth for him (she found them sitting on the porch the day after the storm, and figured that they had fallen through the bottom of the paper bag Bill had been carrying when leaving). The dime-store item has turned up like a bad penny, yet rather than becoming unnerved by this uncanny development, traveling Bill is comforted by the idea of taking possession once more:

[…S]uddenly he found himself thinking of the kid. Mr. Bryan Adams, from Nowhere U.S.A. A lot of kids like him now. A lot of grownups, too, blowing along the highways like tumbleweeds, always ready to take your wallet, say Fuck, you, sugar, and run. You could stop picking up hitchhikers (he had), and you could put a burglar-alarm system in your home (he’d done that, too), but it was still a hard world where planes sometimes fell out of the sky and the crazies were apt to turn up anyplace and there was always room for a little more insurance.

Bill pockets his newfound insurance policy and drives off contentedly. He’s no longer defenseless against the predators haunting the open road. In fact, you could say that he’s armed to the teeth. [cue Cryptkeeper cackle]

 

Art for Horror’s Sake

Recently, I was browsing on Amazon and stumbled across this 1988 anthology featuring a parody of American Gothic on its cover. I love the macabre makeover Grant Wood’s painting receives–in particular, the uncanny cameo the woman now wears and the witchy weather vane in lieu of a lightning rod. In choosing/adapting the iconic image for the cover of A Treasury of American Horror Stories, the bookmakers clearly recognize the dark undertones of Wood’s masterwork. Judging by the book cover art, Iowa is a field of nightmares and there is something unholy about the Bible Belt.

No less arresting than the grim image is the cover’s presentation of the anthology’s subtitle: 51 Spine-Chilling Tales from Every State in the Union plus Washington, D.C. (check out the table of contents here). The promise of comprehensive terror, a national archive of frightful narratives (which genre editor extraordinaire Martin H. Greenberg helped assemble), makes this belated discovery an instant addition to my must-read list.

 

Castle Rock Reaction: “Romans”

Castle Rock has been a weekly Wednesday must-see this summer, with the series featuring a stellar cast enveloped by various dark mysteries. Unfortunately, the 10th episode, “Romans” (as in Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death”) fails to provide a perfect payoff on viewer investment. The season finale is surprisingly slow moving, with both Henry and the Kid spending a good portion of the episode incarcerated. The most rousing action–the Kid-kindled conflagration of violence at the police station–occurs midway through, and the tension never really ratchets up in the closing minutes, leading to a lackluster climax.

The episode features another visually striking scene of Schisma-frenzied blackbirds turned into feathery kamikazes. I have to wonder, though: would there actually be birds flying above the snowy Maine landscape in the middle of wintertime?

Best line of the episode–Warden Porter’s doorstep declaration to Molly about the Kid: “Warden Lacy was right. He’s the fucking devil.” Perhaps the only thing better than the blunt delivery of this line is what happens to Porter seconds thereafter: her sudden running-over by a bus full of Shawshank prisoners. Oh the irony!

“You hear it now?” (referring to the eerie sound emanating from the Schisma portal in the woods) seemed to be a season-long refrain, and repeatedly succeeded in throwing me out of the world of Castle Rock, because of its unintentional echo of those old Verizon Wireless commercials.

Young Henry’s attempt to elude his deranged father by walking backwards through his own footprints in the snow served as an obvious hommage to the climactic chase in The ShiningThe connection becomes even more explicit in the show’s mid-credits cut-in, when the Overlooked-authoring Jackie announces her plan to make a trip out west for further research (which we can assume is going to center on a certain Colorado hotel). A clever tease, no doubt, but one that also suggests that the series will be ranging beyond the town of Castle Rock and into the broader Stephen King universe in subsequent seasons, turning the show’s title into something of a misnomer.

Maybe I’ve been exposed to too many Easter eggs this season, but an idea about Diane “Jackie” Torrance’s name struck me out of the blue. Could the fact that she is both “Jackie and Diane” be a subtle verbal echo of a song title by John Mellencamp (with whom King collaborated on Ghost Brothers of Darkland County)?

The climactic confrontation between Henry and the Kid bothered me on several levels. First, the air of menace surrounding the Kid (who could disturb without even moving or speaking) all season was dissipated by the writers’ resorting to cliche and having the character lamely pull a gun on Henry. The ensuing scuffle would hardly make for a main event at WrestleMania, but it did make me question continuity: time and again this season, we’ve seen the devastating effects of getting too close to–let alone touching–the Kid. Wouldn’t such rough intimacy here mean the imminent death of Henry? Finally, that brief glimpse of the Kid’s unmasked monstrosity felt like a cheesy rehash of Sleepwalkers. Is this supposed to be some ancient demon that Henry has encountered? If so, it would at least it would make for a nice twist: after all the speculation that Bill Skargard was playing Pennywise (in disguise) once again here on Castle Rock, he actually appears more akin to that deadly dealer in deceit, Leland Gaunt.

The “One Year Later” epilogue creates a fine sense of symmetry by returning the Kid to where we found him at the outset: as a prisoner secreted in the bowels of Shawshank. The time jump, though, causes a misstep by casting aside Ruth–after the incredible dramatic performance delivered by Sissy Spacek this season, it seemed a bit of a cheat to have her character die off-screen.

Castle Rock cannot be faulted for the ambition of its storytelling, but personally, I was not a big fan of the whole parallel-worlds plotline. The favoring of unsettling ambiguity over on-the-nose horror is a likewise admirable approach, but the show veered into obliquity and accordingly did not arrive at a satisfying resolution. Rather than positively chilled, the season finale ultimately left me feeling lukewarm.

Castle Rock Reaction: “Henry Deaver”

So it turns out, Castle Rock is located in the heart of The Twilight Zone

Episode 9 launches the long-anticipated Big Twist (and one that is not completely unexpected, since Odin Branch’s “talk” of multiple, abutting universes three weeks ago). When Bill Skarsgard’s Kid character mouthed “Henry Deaver” at the start of the series, he wasn’t simply asking for the African-American lawyer (Andre Holland) who seemed to be the show’s main protagonist, but was actually naming himself. The Kid is Henry Deaver–or more specifically, a version of Henry Deaver in a parallel reality.

This situational switcheroo is appropriately jarring. Suddenly watching Skarsgard play an eloquent, sharp-dressed urban professional–a doctor nobly working to reverse the insidious effects of Alzheimer’s disease–creates no shortage of cognitive dissonance after having grown accustomed to his season-long embodiment of a mumbling, Gollum-looking oddball.

A less appreciable jolting, though, occurs on the level of tonality, of genre. Last week’s events were the quintessence of American Gothic horror, but here Castle Rock veers towards cosmic science fiction. As I mentioned in a previous episode review, the latter genre trappings are more at home in other classic King locales–Derry or Haven, not Castle Rock. And the resort to a thinny-ish MacGuffin aligns the show too much with Stephen King’s Dark Tower multiverse, detracting from the uniqueness of his Castle Rock setting.

Nonetheless, the trippy scene inside the Schisma portal was well executed; the use of visual distortion and chaotic cross-cutting effectively establish the nature of this uncanny nexus. Those shots of a flock of black birds taking screeching flight recall the psychopomp circumstances of The Dark Half. On the negative side, the glimpses of a colonial-era version of young Molly reminded me of Sleepy Hollow (cf. the “John Doe” episode from Season 1), another series that somewhat lazily recurred to the woods as ground zero for anything weird or occult.

In the course of the episode, we finally come to understand why the Kid/Henry has such a toxic effect on those who get too close–it’s a side effect of sidewise movement, of crossing over and getting stranded in an alternate world. This “Typhoid Henry” revelation does make for an original explanation, but the resulting erasure of any conscious intent of malicious impact is a disappointment. “The Devil Made Them Do It” would have been too cliched, but “Stranger in a Strange Land” alone  proves an unsatisfactory substitute.

“Henry Deaver” not only goes a long way to clarifying the show’s story arc, but also serves to set up the direction that Castle Rock will likely take in subsequent seasons. Whereas American Horror Story can range across the country with each new season, Castle Rock is limited to the same small-town setting; now, however, the show can simply depict unlimited parallel-world Castle Rocks, and have an ensemble cast play different versions of their respective characters (this would also help maintain the suspension of disbelief, by preventing the weird shit from piling up too high in the same exact place). An ambitious gambit for sure, but I still have some doubts that this could be pulled off without disorienting/frustrating viewers.

With each season purporting to operate as a standalone, it will be interesting to see whether next week’s finale furnishes resolution or opts for further plot complication and a cliffhanging hiatus.