Countdown–The Top 20 Stephen King Works of American Gothic Short Fiction: #14-#8

For #’s 20-15 on this re-posted countdown, click here.

 

14. “Why We’re in Vietnam”

If the Gothic, as literary critics often note, addresses the oppressive presence of the past, then Stephen King’s novella “Why We’re in Vietnam” (part of the sequence of interlocking narratives comprising Hearts In Atlantis, but a piece that can be read on its own) definitely qualifies as Gothic fiction. In the year 1999, main character John “Sully” Sullivan heads down to New York City to attend the funeral of fellow Vietnam veteran Dick Pagano, and the occasion dredges up Sully’s old wartime memories (the novella opens with the statement: “When someone dies, you think about the past”). Sully’s Vietnam experience has scarred him physically, but his psyche seems to have suffered the deepest wounds: over a quarter century after coming home, Sully still sees the apparition of an old Vietnamese woman murdered by another member of his platoon during a near My-Lai-type massacre. Though silent and generally benign, the mamasan has a haunting effect on Sully: “She was a ghost, and his head was the haunted house she lived in.”

The figure of the traumatized veteran is certainly not new to war fiction; also, other genre writers before King (e.g., Joe Haldeman, Peter Straub, Jack Cady) have produced Vietnam-inspired narratives of Gothic horror. Still, King manages to break new ground, and “Why We’re in Vietnam” proves to be much more than a ghost story. The novella takes an utterly unexpected turn as Sully drives back home to Connecticut following the funeral. While stuck in a traffic jam, he suddenly spies a barrage of consumer products dropping down from the heavens: “all things American fell out of the sky, blitzing I-95 north of Bridgeport with their falling glitter.” This is one of the most surreal (and astounding) scenes King has ever written, but the impetus for Sully’s bizarre vision is obvious; the fancied bombardment can be traced to a conversation Sully had back at the funeral with his old Lieutenant. Naturally, the two veterans discuss the war, and at one point, Sully poses: “Why were we in Vietnam to begin with?” Lt. Dieffenbaker challenges Sully’s use of the past tense, asserting that “we never got out. We never got out of the green. Our generation died there.” He then launches into a rant that expounds upon the novella’s Mailer-esque title:

“We had an opportunity to change everything. We actually did. Instead we settled for designer jeans, two tickets to Mariah Carey at Radio City Music Hall, frequent-flier miles, James Cameron’s  Titanic, and retirement portfolios. The only generation even close to us in pure, selfish self-indulgence is the so-called Lost Generation of the twenties, and at least most of them had the decency to stay drunk. We couldn’t even do that.  Man, we suck.

“[…] You know the price of selling out the future, Sully-John? You can never really leave the past. You can never get over. My thesis is that you’re really not in New York at all. You’re in the Delta, leaning back against a tree, stoned and rubbing bug-dope on the back of your neck. […] Everything you think of as ‘your later life’ is a big fucking pot-bubble. And it’s better that way. Vietnam is better. That’s why we stay there.”

There are more twists and turns to the story than I’ve covered here in this brief post, but the Lieutenant’s speech cuts straight to thematic heart of the narrative: a scathing indictment of an entire generation’s missteps and misdeeds. In “Why We’re in Vietnam” we once again see that Stephen King is much more than a booga-booga type entertaining the masses with print versions of campfire tales; he is one of the most important writers of 20th (and now 21st) Century American literature.

 

13. “That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It is in French”

“What is deja vu?” is the correct response to the Final-Jeopardy-type title of this story collected in Everything’s Eventual. Viewpoint character Carol Shelton experiences a chronic case of that strange feeling as she travels with her husband Bill to a 25th-anniversary second honeymoon on Captiva Island in Florida. Along the way, Carol hears unidentifiable voices (“Floyd, what’s that over there? Oh shit.“) and makes inexplicable discoveries (the flakes of burnt paper stuck in hair like “black dandruff”)–disorienting story details that only make sense in retrospect.

In true American Gothic fashion, King’s story highlights the dark underbelly of everyday life. Carol ruminates: “Besides, it wasn’t just love that held people together. There were secrets, and the price you paid to keep them.” Some of the big secrets impinging upon Bill and Carol’s marriage are Bill’s former affair with his secretary and Carol’s private decision to get an abortion (she tells everyone she suffered a miscarriage). The story also Gothicizes an everyday American scene, as a drive down an ordinary Florida roadway keeps morphing into a fiery apocalypse.

The eventual plot twist that Carol and Bill are dead (having perished en route to Florida when their chartered Learjet crashed) is no jaw-dropping shock, but what distinguishes “That Feeling…” is King’s dramatization of Carol’s experiences following the accident. The religious images (e.g. a roadside billboard of Mary) that Carol glimpses take on a disturbing significance as she belatedly catches on to what is happening:

She opened her eyes and looked around the sun-brilliant cabin of the Lear 35, and for a moment she understood everything–in the way one understands the tremendous import of a dream upon the first moment of waking. She remembered asking [Bill] what he believed you got, you know, after, and he had said you probably got what you always thought you would get, that if Jerry Lee Lewis thought he was going to hell for playing boogie-woogie, that’s exactly where he’d go. Heaven, Hell, or Grand Rapids, it was your choice–or the choice of those who had taught you what to believe. It was the human mind’s final great parlor trick: the perception of eternity in the place where you’d always expected to spend it.

Or the choice of those who had taught you what to believe. Here King’s story takes a wicked twist, positing Catholic guilt as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Carol’s strict religious upbringing (nuns wielding rulers and spook stories about eternal damnation; a grandmother who gave Carol a medallion of Mary for her tenth birthday, telling her to  “Wear her always as you grow, because all the hard days are coming”) has now trapped her in an endlessly looping nightmare. For the indoctrinated Carol, Mary had been “the ghost of all her childhood days,” and now the Mother of God will continue to haunt Carol in her personal hereafter.

Apropos of a cyclically-structured story about deja vu, “That Feeling…” is a work that warrants multiple readings (once the plane-crash plot twist is known, one can appreciate the various clues that are threaded throughout the text). King’s narrative holds that Hell is repetition, but the author’s Constant Readers will be happy to return to this masterfully-crafted tale of the afterlife.

 

12. “Night Surf”

Imagine Stephen King’s 1150-page epic The Stand condensed into a 10-page short story–actually, you don’t have to imagine it, because such a piece can be found in the early collection Night Shift. “Night Surf” reads like an Americanized version of On the Beach and Lord of the Flies. In the aftermath of global apocalypse (here caused by the A6 superflu virus ), a small group of survivors huddle together “on the beach” in a now-desolate resort town. These twentysomethings also have developed a pagan streak: when the story opens, they have just finished burning an infected man alive–a barbaric act carried out under the rationale “that if we made a sacrifice to the dark gods, maybe the spirits would keep protecting us against A6.”

Obviously, these aren’t your stereotypical heroic survivors who’ve banded together for the common good. If anything, the stress of the situation (they have to wonder if they are truly immune, or just the slowest to take ill and inevitably perish) has made them hostile to one another, like a latter-day Lost Generation. Narrator Bernie spends a good portion of the story denigrating his ostensible girlfriend Susie. Spending post-apocalyptic life with her is no (ahem) day at the beach, but at least Bernie is also honest enough to admit that being around him is no picnic either:

She was standing in the doorway wearing one of my shirts. I hate that. she sweats like a pig.

“You don’t like me very much anymore, do you, Bernie?

I didn’t say anything. There were times when I could still feel sorry for everything. She didn’t deserve me any more than I deserved her.

“Night Surf” Gothicizes a traditional site of merriment, as Bernie repeatedly contrasts the current, grave state of the beach (with its deserted lifeguard tower “pointing toward the sky like a finger bone”) to the old glory days of fun in the sun for the general public. The story also hauntingly underscores the cosmic indifference to human life and death. Standing watching the waves crash against the shore, Bernie thinks: “And if we were the last people on earth, so what? This would go on as long as there was a moon to pull the water.” While The Stand  superimposes supernatural elements onto its disaster storyline, “Night Surf” pounds the reader with the fatalistic tenets of literary naturalism.

 

11. Cycle of the Werewolf

First, for those who would accuse me of fudging: I hold that Cycle of the Werewolf qualifies as “short fiction” as defined for the purposes of this countdown. The book’s page count shrinks considerably when you take away all the Bernie Wrightson illustrations, and the actual text of the narrative places it squarely within the novelette range.

In this werewolf equivalent to Salem’s Lot, a “shadow” has fallen over Tarker’s Mills, Maine, a quaint little town “where baked bean church suppers are a weekly event, where small boys and girls still bring apples to their teachers, where the Nature Outings of the Senior Citizens’ Club are religiously reported in the weekly paper. Next week there will be news of a darker variety.” That’s because starting in January and proceeding methodically each month, a predator savages a victim on the night of the full moon.

King crafts an engrossing mystery regarding the human identity of the werewolf, while sounding notes of duplicity and distrust. In a fevered dream, the Reverend Lester Lowe preaches a Homecoming Sermon whose subject is THE BEAST WALKS AMONG US: “he may smile and say he is your neighbor, but oh my brethren, his teeth are sharp.” Likewise, Constable Neary opines while sitting in the town barbershop that the Full Moon Killer “could be anybody–a teller at the bank, a gas-jockey at one of those stations out on the Town Road, maybe even someone right here now.” Neary’s theory is that Tarker’s Mills is dealing with an ordinary lunatic, a “werewolf” only “in the sense of being an animal inside and looking perfectly normal outside.” The irony, of course, is that besides the the actual supernatural creature plaguing it, Tarker’s Mills has plenty of residents who fit Neary’s description–such as the hardly-mild-mannered librarian Milt Sturmfuller, who “puts his wife in the hospital over a bit of egg that the dishwasher didn’t take off one of the plates” (don’t worry, this brute receives his lycanthropic comeuppance in November).

Appropriately, the least likely suspect proves to be the werewolf (“it was simply impossible to think of that person, of all persons, being the killer.  Neary would have believed his mother the killer before he would have believed that“). In a terrific scene, the monster (in human form under a waning moon) is finally unmasked on Halloween night by a trick-or-treating child.

As seen most recently in Under the Dome, King is a master of the small-town-besieged storyline. Never though, has he written more succinctly and entertainingly on the subject than in the dozen episodes of this calendrical narrative. The months fly by like minutes in Cycle of the Werewolf, a gripping (and at times grisly) work of American Gothic short fiction.

 

10. “The Reaper’s Image”

This very early story (first published in 1969, and later collected in Skeleton Crew) showcases King’s precocious talent, his mastery of atmosphere and setting. The action takes place inside the Samuel Claggert Memorial Private Museum, a quintessentially Gothic locale with its “suit of armor guarding the shadows of the second-floor corridor,” its “grotesque scrolled candelabra,” its “maze of statuary,” and its “ghastly glaring portrait[s].”

As potential buyer Johnson Spangler and tour guide Mr. Carlin wind their way toward the upper levels of the Claggert mansion, the atmosphere grows ever more oppressive, conveying “a smell of long-dead flies in shadowy corners, of wet rot and creeping wood lice behind the plaster. The smell of age. It was a smell common only to museums and mausoleums.” The two men climb up into the attic through a trapdoor in the ceiling, and enter a cobweb-strewn gable storeroom that houses the item of Spengler’s interest: the DeIver looking glass. The mirror, crafted by John DeIver in Elizabethan-era England, is a magnificent object in and of itself, but also bears a spotted history. Select gazers have reported glimpsing an ominous hooded figure looming behind their reflection in the mirror; their strange claims prove even more memorable when these unfortunate viewers each vanish without a trace soon thereafter. Spangler, naturally, scoffs at such superstitious tales, until he has a first-hand encounter with the mirror’s dark mysteries.

The brilliance of this 8-page gem is that the looking glass’s transatlantic trajectory (it plagued a British duchess, then later a Pennsylvania rug merchant and a New York judge once the object was shipped to America) reflects the story’s own literary turn. King might be working here with traditional Gothic props, but he situates them within a distinctly American context. Instead of simply offering readers a (European) castle anomalously transposed onto U.S. soil, he presents the antique-cluttered manse of a late-19th Century captain of American industry. In this light, it’s surely no coincidence that one of the mirror’s latter-day victims is given the surname “Bates,” the same as the main character in Robert Bloch’s prototypical novel of American Gothic, Psycho.

“The Reaper’s Image” is often overshadowed by King’s subsequent, more expansive horror stories, but this finely-crafted early work has the capacity to make a haunting impression on anyone who stops to lay eyes on it.

 

9. “The Revelations of ‘Becka Paulson”

Note: While best known as a chapter within the King novel The Tommyknockers, this piece was also published as an ostensible short story in a July 1984 issue of Rolling Stone, in an October 1985 special hardcover edition of Skeleton Crew, and in the 1991 anthology I Shudder at Your Touch.

King revels in the low-brow and grotesque in this satiric shocker. Overweight housewife ‘Becka Paulson (a woman who believes that “half a coffee cake and a beer stein filled with cherry Za-Rex” constitutes a “little snack”) begins to receive telepathic communications from the framed picture of Jesus set upon her television. The picture (a wedding present from ‘Becka’s sister) shows the member of the Holy Trinity “in lifelike 3-D,” with His hair combed “a little bit like Elvis after Elvis got out of the Army.” Undoubtedly self-aware of the absurdity of his story premise, King squeezes some (borderline blasphemous) comedy out of it:

Below Him, on the screen, a couple of animated salad bowls were dancing in appreciation of the Hidden Valley ranch dressing they were about to receive. “And I’d like you to please turn that crap off, if you don’t mind. We can’t talk with that thing running. Also, it makes My feet tingle.”

The actual content of Jesus and ‘Becka’s talks, though,  pushes this story squarely into American Gothic territory. As Jesus reveals the secrets of Haven’s various residents, the dark side of everyday life in Anytown U.S.A. is brought into sharp focus. For instance, Moss Harlingen–a poker buddy of ‘Becka’s husband Joe–killed his own father on a hunting trip, a murder made to look like an accident. Moss believed he was committing this crime in order to inherit his father’s wealth, but his real, underlying motive was vengeance for the sexual abuse his father heaped upon him as a child (“incidents of buggery” that Moss has since repressed). There are other sordid examples in the story to choose from, but perhaps the most interesting aspect here is ‘Becka’s reactions to Jesus’s revelations. She’s sickened by, yet ravenous for, the dirt dished out to her, finding such gossip terribly compelling: “She couldn’t live with such an awful outpouring. She couldn’t live without it, either.”

In the course of her conversations with Christ, ‘Becka learns that her husband has been having an affair with a co-worker down at the post office. Rather than encouraging her to turn the other cheek, Jesus helps ‘Becka get revenge by instructing her how to booby-trap her television so that it electrocutes Joe when he turns it on. Here the hints of apocalypse in the story’s title take on new meaning. ‘Becka is too slow to realize that she hasn’t been communicating with her Lord and Savior–she’s been manipulated by the alien Tommyknockers. At the last instant she tries to rescue Joe, but only ends up electrocuting herself as well. Joe’s eyes “burst like grapes in the microwave”; ‘Becka is driven by the voltage “up onto her toes like the world’s heftiest ballerina en pointe.” As the couple drop dead while their home goes up in flames, King’s darkly humorous story draws to a horrific conclusion.

Lesser hands might have reduced this story to the literary equivalent of an episode of 1000 Ways to Die, but King, with his knack for colorful characterization and the dramatization of small-town intrigue, has produced a memorable piece of American Gothic fiction.

 

8. “All That You Love Will Be Carried Away”

The setting for this short story (originally published in the New Yorker, and collected in Everything’s Eventual) is quintessential American Gothic: the outskirts of Lincoln, Nebraska, where the wind has “that quality of empty amplification one encounters only in the country’s flat midsection,” and where “if you switched over to AM you could still hear angry old men calling down hellfire.” Traveling salesman Alfie Zimmer has just arrived at a Motel 6 on I-80, but plans (having been worn down by his lonely life on the open road, away from his family) to check out early via a .38 revolver.

But there are some unexpected complications to Alfie’s sad, simple plan. For the past seven years, he’s been carrying around a pocket notebook, filled with the transcriptions of graffiti phrases spied on the walls of rest stops across the Midwest. Sayings like “Here I sit, cheeks aflexin’, giving birth to another Texan,” “Don’t chew the Trojan Gum it tastes just like rubber,” “Elvis killed Big Pussy,” “1380 West Avenue kill my mother TAKE HER JEWELS,” “Nobody here even if there is,” and the titular “All that you love will be carried away.” For Alfie, these phrases aren’t just shithouse wit; he senses an underlying profundity to the poetic “messages from the interstate”: “something was going on here, and it wasn’t frothy.” He’s never considered the scrawls the “ravings of lunatics,” but now worries that the contents of his notebook will be mistaken as some bizarre suicide note (and that his wife and daughter will be subsequently stigmatized as the surviving family of a crazy man). So Alfie decides to dispense with the notebook, even though he hates “the idea of just flushing it away”–a line that also evokes Alfie’s ultimate ambivalence about killing himself.

Finally, Alfie ventures outside, prepares to toss the notebook into the snowy field of the solitary, Capote-esque farmhouse in the distance. At the last instant, though, Alfie strikes a bargain with himself. If the farm’s spark lights reappear within the next minute, he won’t blow his own brains out but rather will try to write the book (working title: “I Killed Ted Bundy”: The Secret Transit Code of America’s Highways) he’s often contemplated composing:

To write a book like that, he thought, you’d have to begin by talking about how it was to measure distance in green mile markers, and the very width of the land, and how the wind sounded when you got out of your car at one of those rest areas in Oklahoma or North Dakota. How it sounded almost like words. You’d have to explicate the silence, and how the bathrooms always smelled of piss and the great hollow farts of departed travelers, and how in that silence the voices on the walls began to speak. The voices of those who had written and then moved  on. The telling would hurt, but if the wind dropped and the spark lights of the farm came back, he’d do it anyway.

“All That You Love Will Be Carried Away”: understated, open-ended, and absolutely unforgettable. At one point King writes that “to Alfie, the voice giving [the weather report over rest-area loud speakers] sounded haunted, the voice of a ghost running through the vocal cords of a corpse”; the reader might easily say the same of King’s own narration in this non-supernatural masterpiece.

 

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