Countdown–The Top 20 Stephen King Works of American Gothic Short Fiction: #7-#1

For #’s 14-8 on this re-posted countdown, click here.

 

7. “N.”

King has gone the Lovecraftian route before, most notably in “Jerusalem’s Lot,” “The Mist,” and “Crouch End,” but never more frightfully than in this novelette collected in Just After Sunset. And while OCD forms a a central theme here, readers shouldn’t expect to find some cozy episode of Monk. Similarly, the narrative’s primary setting, Ackerman’s Field, produces a crop of beasties more harrowing than any of the Universal lot perennially celebrated in Forrest J. Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine.

“N.” proves an excellent example of American Gothic fiction on a couple of levels. First, in its update of the epistolary mode of the traditional Gothic novel (“N.” is comprised of letters, e-mails, newspaper clippings, and a psychiatrist’s case notes). More so, though, in its conception of something awfully supernatural lurking within/beyond nature. The patient N. (as he’s referred to in Dr. John Bonsaint’s notes) is an accountant by trade but a landscape photographer by hobby. One day, in pursuit of a picture of rural tranquility, he stumbles upon a distressing scene: a Stonehenge-type arrangement, which he believes forms a gateway between our own world and a world filled with giant, malevolent creatures. Worse, he thinks that his accidental glimpse has upset the taslismanic balance of the stones (whose number seems to waver between eight and seven: “I had activated the place just by looking at it.  Human eyes take away the eighth stone. A camera lens will put it back, but won’t lock it in place. I had to keep renewing the protection with symbolic acts” (acts utterly consonant with the symptoms of OCD: counting, touching, placing. Appropriately, Ackerman’s Field lies just past “Serenity Ridge Cemetery,” whose name suggests the dividing line between peace of mind and debilitating compulsion). Nature gives way to nightmare, as N. perceives a gathering “outer darkness” within the circle of stones–an ominous, vista-distorting presence that uses the very “sunset to see with,” and that seems “to mock the beauty of that silent spring morning.” In the exhausting aftermath of his unfortunate discovery, N. also discerns that the summer solstice (a highly pleasant time of year in most people’s minds) is actually the point of greatest danger of the cosmic horrors breaking into and overwhelming our earthly reality.

“N.” does not just feature cyclopean grotesques reminiscent of the monsters of the Cthulhu Mythos but emulates Lovecraft’s work in its creation of a mounting sense of dread via a speaker’s ongoing attempt at recounting–at articulating the unspeakable. The narrative’s premise that mental illness might be transmitted from patient to analyst “like cold germs on a sneeze” also forms a brilliant analogue of the nightmares a horror author like King determinedly passes on the reader (though N. remains anonymous in the narrative, his name might as well be Stephen).

And for all those readers who fear that they might have been “infected” by N.’s story just like Dr. John Bonsaint,I assure you that it was mere coincidence that this piece charted at #7 on the Top 20 Countdown. So don’t even give a second thought to that odd number; there’s nothing inauspicious about it.

Nothing at all.

Right?

 

6. “Trucks”

Don’t be fooled by the ultra-moronic film version, Maximum Overdrive; this is a masterful story, one that reads like Duel meets Night of the Living Dead (as a random group of humans holed up in a diner try to fend off the onslaught of massive vehicles come-to-life). Collected in Night Shift, “Trucks” offers terrific prose (a nervous salesman keeps “his display bag close to him, like a pet dog that had gone to sleep”; a diner door, torn off by a rampaging truck, flies “into the night like something out of a Dali painting”) amidst scenes of horrific violence (humans die gruesome deaths, “knocked out of their boots with heavy treadmarks mashed across their guts”). King opens the story with several pages of carnage before providing the kicker (one that proves “Trucks” isn’t some rip-off of a Richard Matheson piece): “There was no one in the trucks.” The automobiles are now truly autonomous.

It’s tempting to read this story as an OPEC-era allegory, where having to pump gas is a harrowing experience for the average man (as the narrator, forced to fuel up a seemingly endless line of trucks, learns firsthand: “My blisters broke, trickling pus down to my wrists. My head was pounding like a rotted tooth and my stomach rolled helplessly with the stench of hydrocarbons”). Still, this is more a story of Frankenstein-ian turnabout: humanity is enslaved by the very technology created to help it master the natural world. On the last page, the narrator realizes there’s no place to hide from the trucks, because “So much of the world is paved now. Even the playgrounds are paved.”

What helps place “Trucks” so high on the countdown, though, is the fact that this is a distinctly American story. It’s telling that no cars (typically the product of overseas engineering) take on a life of their own here. Anyone who has ever watched a Ford commercial during a football game knows that the truck is an American icon. At one point during the extended siege of the diner, the narrator lies down to sleep, and counts trucks instead of sheep: “How many in the state,” he wonders, “how many in America? Trailer trucks, pickup trucks, flatbeds, day-haulers, three-quarter-tons, army convoy trucks by the tens of the thousands, and buses.” King, moreover, does not attribute the trucks’ sentience to freak “electrical storms” or the fallout from “nuclear testing” but rather suggests that the changeover is a byproduct of the national sensibility. In the final paragraphs, the narrator notes that whatever “mass consciousness” the trucks now possess, “we’ve given [to] them.” Ultimately, “Trucks” stands as a cautionary tale, a warning that our country’s preoccupation with its machinery might someday unleash apocalyptic madness.

 

5. “The Reach”

In her 95 years, Stella Flanders has never once set foot off Goat Island, but now her long-dead husband keeps appearing to her, coaxing her to venture across the frozen-over Reach. The aged Stella hasn’t merely imagined the revenant, though–a fact confirmed by key details at story’s end. Bill is a psychopomp (as symbolized by the dead sparrow that prefigures his visitations) calling Stella not to Raccoon Head on the mainland but to a more metaphysical destination.

This concluding selection in Skeleton Crew is not just a ghost story–it’s a finely crafted work of American Gothic fiction (a paragraph concerning family lineage even appears to be modeled on a passage in William Faulkner’s novella The Bear). The narrative does more than chronicle the death of an old woman; it creates a portrait of small-town life beyond the mainland. King captures the insular nature of such a community, whose members are wont to gossip about their neighbors but quick to lend a hand in times of need. The residents of Goat Island “watched out for their own in other ways as well,” like the time a mob of local menfolk murdered an outsider accused of child molestation. For better or for worse, the islanders band together (a theme King returns to in Storm of the Century), and according to Stella, this close-knittedness is a product of geographic and climatic circumstances:

“We had to [look out for one another], for the Reach was wider in those days and when the wind roared and the surf pounded and the darkness came early, why, we felt very small–no more than dust motes in the mind of God. So it was natural for us to join hands, one with the other.

“We joined hands, children, and if there were times when we wondered what it was all for, or if there was ary such a thing as love at all, it was only because we had heard the wind and the waters on long winter nights, and we were afraid.”

For all the howling of harsh winter storms, “The Reach” is a muted story–haunting yet not harrowing. The idea that the wind carries the voices of the deceased is not a cause for terror but rather a spur to existential inquiry about the reach between the here and the hereafter: “Do the dead sing? And do they love the living?” Stella’s encounter with Bill and his spiritual circle furnishes affirmative answers to both questions. Even in death, the inhabitants of Goat Island watch out for their own.

 

4. “Rainy Season”

A downpour of carnivorous toads in a sleepy rural town–sounds like a biblical plague meets a grade-B movie on Sci-Fi. But in Stephen King’s hands, such premise makes for a rousing horror story, and a premier work of American Gothic fiction.

This Nightmares & Dreamscapes tale reads like an episode of The Twilight Zone scripted by Shirley Jackson (one of the main characters here references “The Lottery” by title, but Jackson’s “The Summer People” is another obvious source text). Once every seven years on the night of June 17th, the bucolic community of Willow, Maine must endure an unnatural disaster. The reptilian deluge ravages the town, but such damage is “small price to pay for another seven years of quiet prosperity in this mostly forgotten Maine backwater.” Another “part of the ritual” is the arrival of a pair of outsiders on that ominous day, who must be told about the toads and encouraged to spend the night outside the town limits (or to at least close the shutters of their residence tight if they refuse to leave Willow). Vacationing couple John and Elise Graham ignore the warning, of course, and suffer the bizarre consequences.

The climactic attack (by toads with needle teeth, lumpy bodies, and black-and-gold eyes that bulge “like freakish eggs”) is at once terrifying and revolting, but “Rainy Season” is more than a Kingly version of a conte cruel. Actually, the main characters here aren’t the Grahams but the pair of locals they meet at the General Mercantile. Henry Eden and Laura Stanton are charged with playing the welcoming committee for outsiders on the 17th, and this duty of attempting to inform the endangered couple (who never heed the advice to stay away) has grown wearisome for the elderly Willowers. At one point John Graham refers to them as “Farmer Jekyll and Missus Hyde,” but the pair might just as easily be likened to the standoffish duo in Grant Wood’s iconic painting American Gothic. And while we can only guess what’s going on inside the heads of Wood’s dour-looking subjects, we are given a clear understanding of why King’s characters are so dyspeptic–why Henry Eden (he of the ironic surname) hopes he’ll be dead and buried when free-falling toads carpet his hometown’s streets seven years hence.

“Rainy Season” brings one helluva storm to Willow, and a memorable story to readers. But as we’ll see next time on the countdown, this isn’t the first time that King has made masterful use of the married-couple-stumbles-into-strange-town plotline.

 

3. “Children of the Corn”

King has gone down the married-couple-stumbles-upon-queer-little-town road repeatedly in his short fiction, but his first foray remains his best. Burt and Vicky Robeson drive cross-country toward California in a “last ditch attempt to patch up their own marriage,” but their road trip hits the skids when they make an ill-fated detour through the dark heartland of America. Gatlin bills itself as “THE NICEST LITTLE TOWN IN NEBRASKA–OR ANYWHERE ELSE!”, but such welcome turns out to be an egregious piece of false advertising. “Somewhere up ahead,” Burt speculates when approaching the town, “there would be a drugstore with a soda fountain, a movie house named the Bijou, a school named after JFK,” and while Gatlin does feature many of these Rockwellian elements, the scene there proves decidedly sinister.

This Night Shift story is a masterpiece of suspense, presenting a string of ominous details: the boy who runs out of the corn field with his throat fatally slit; his corn-husk crucifix; the strange evangelism airing on the local radio station; the utter ghost town that is Gatlin, with its wall calendars twelve years out-of-date; the converted Baptist church, with its portrait of a vulpine Jesus behind the pulpit (“a pagan Christ that might slaughter his sheep for sacrifice instead of leading them”), and its record book of Biblically-rechristened children (none of whom have lived past the age of nineteen). Making these discoveries, Burt slowly pieces together the puzzle of what has gone wrong in Gatlin, figuring that the titular children “got religion and the[n] killed off their parents. All of them.  Isn’t that a scream? Shot them in their beds [an allusion to Capote’s In Cold Blood?], knifed them in their bathtubs, poisoned their suppers, hung them, or disemboweled them, for all I know.” And why? “The corn. Maybe it was dying. Maybe they got the idea somehow that it was dying because there was too much sinning. Not enough sacrifice.” Paging Shirley Jackson…

All of this build-up leads to a terrifying payoff, as the gang of grim-and-proper young pagans at last appears and attacks the Robesons. When Burt attempts to hide out in the labyrinth of the corn field, though, he discovers that he is dealing with not just a case of religious mania run amok but something truly supernatural: “something huge, bulking up to the sky…something green with terrible red eyes the size of footballs.” He Who Walks Behind the Rows actually exists, and this dreadful, Lovecraftian figure makes a fitting deity for Gothic America: “Out there, in the night, something walked, and it saw everything…even the secrets kept in human hearts.”

“Children of the Corn” has perhaps been overshadowed by its popular film version (featuring a young Linda Hamilton and Courtney Gains as the malicious Malachi), but the original story forms a brilliant example of King’s work in the short-fiction mode.

 

2. “Blockade Billy”

Don’t let the packaging as a stand-alone book fool you: this is a short story on steroids.  And a damned fine one at that.

King offers a ghastly take on the national pastime, courtesy of raconteur George Grantham, a former third-base coach for the (fictional) New Jersey Titans. The old-timer tells “Mr. King” about the team’s “nightmare season” way back in 1957; more specifically, he relates the notorious story of “Blockade” Billy Blakely, an emergency call-up from Davenport, Iowa who took the major leagues by storm for one month before his prior foul play caught up with him.

Grantham goes heavy on the ominous remarks, couching his tale as an “awful story” and making repeated comments about how Blockade Billy’s exploits had to be stricken from baseball’s record books. The young catcher (whose nickname derives from his prowess at blocking home plate) is also depicted as someone not quite right in the head: he references himself in the third person, whispers to himself constantly while catching, and has “a habit of echoing back what you [just] said to him.” These various hints propel the reader through the narrative, in eager search of the source of Blockade Billy’s infamy. What could this generally likable “Iowa plowboy” have done that was so terrible?

The answer is provided by a grisly climax (that gives new meaning to the crowd chant “Kill the ump!”) and an explanatory denouement reminiscent of Robert Bloch’s Psycho. Blockade Billy is exposed as an impostor: an orphan named Eugene Katsanis, who worked on the Blakely farm in Clarence, Iowa, has been impersonating the minor leaguer. Worse, the real Billy Blakely and his parents have been brutally murdered. Katsanis “slashed their throats” and stashed their corpses “in the barn.” He also “killed all the cows so the neighbors wouldn’t hear them howling to be milked at night.” All appalling acts to be sure, yet Grantham also seems to have some sympathy for Katsanis. The former coach suggests that Katsanis’s proverbial screws could have been knocked loose by the years of physical abuse suffered at a “Christian orphan home that was probably hell on earth.” Grantham also speculates that the Blakelys had their own dark side, that the envious family “pulled a few strings to keep Katsanis from playing locally” and overshadowing the less-talented Billy. Whatever did actually transpire back in Iowa, it wasn’t the stuff Field of Dreams is made of.

Grantham’s tale makes for a fast but mesmerizing read. His oration brings old-time baseball to life–the salty humor, the superstition, the camaraderie. On the last page, he insists that baseball “is a good thing.  Always was, always will be.” Still, the preceding narrative calls such assurance into serious question, as the all-American sport is shown to have a bloody, malicious element. Because is there really much difference between baserunners deliberately sliding into fielders with their “spikes high” and Katsanis deftly nicking Achilles heels at home plate with his hidden sliver of razor blade? Perhaps not, but one thing is certain: in “Blockade Billy” King is at the top of his storytelling game, and man, does he throw a wicked curve.

 

1. “It Grows on You”

Where else could the countdown end but in Castle Rock? The story is set after the events of Needful Things, and the town has seriously decayed: the Rock is now “like a dark tooth which is finally ready to fall out.” It “seems the whole goddamn town is dying,” and the perfect emblem for this condition is furnished by the “deathly” look of the abandoned, rotting mansion known as the Newall house. King has steeped himself in American Gothic tradition here; the spooky house–“empty for eleven years now, no one has ever lived there for long”–recalls the titular domicile of Shirley Jackson’s classic novel The Haunting of Hill House. Moreover, the “leaning, crepitating bulk” of the Newall house stands atop a ridge overlooking the section of Castle Rock called the “Bend”–an obvious reference to “Frenchmen’s Bend” in William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha novels.

King echoes Faulkner not just in details of setting but also in terms of characterization. Joe Newall, a mysterious outsider distrusted, if not despised, by the locals, is modeled after Thomas Sutpen in Absalom, Absalom! (like Sutpen, he distances himself from the community, and “never crosse[s] the threshold” of the town church). Newall’s wife Cora, meanwhile, is drawn from the same grotesque cloth as Emily Grierson in the classic Faulkner story “A Rose for Emily,” as can be gleaned from a juxtaposition of verbal portraits:

[Emily’s] skeleton was small and spare; perhaps that was why what would have been merely plumpness in another was obesity in her. She looked bloated, like a body long submerged in motionless water, and of that pallid hue. Her eyes, lost in the fatty ridges of her face, looked like two small pieces of coal pressed into a lump of dough as they moved from one face to another while the visitors stated their errand. (“A Rose for Emily”)

[Cora Newall] was a grainbag of a woman, incredibly wide across the hips, incredibly full in the butt, yet almost as flatchested as a boy and possessed of an absurd little pipestem neck upon which her oversized head nodded like a strange pale sunflower. Her cheeks hung like dough, her lips like strips of liver; her face was as silent as a full moon on a winter night. She sweated huge dark patches around the armholes of her dresses even in February, and she carried a dank smell of perspiration with her always.

Like its Faulknerian predecessor, King’s story foregrounds the biased attitudes of the townspeople, who trade in vicious gossip about the Newalls. Fact accordingly blurs with fancy: “In January of 1921, Cora gave birth to a monster with no arms and, it was said, a tiny clutch of perfect fingers sticking out of one eyesocket. It died less than six hours after mindless contractions had pushed its red and senseless face into the light.” When Cora suffers a fatal fall down a staircase in her home, “a rumor went through town (it probably originated at a Ladies Aid Bake Sale) that she had been stark naked at the time.” Not to be outdone, Benny Ellis claims that Newall “had gouged out his daughter’s one eye and kept it in a jar of what Benny called ‘fubbledehyde’ on the kitchen table, along with the amputated fingers which had been poking out of the other socket when the baby was born.” The Newalls may in fact be an evil clan, but the exact nature of that evil is hard to discern because of all these wild tales told by the locals.

Indeed, the story’s plot is as unruly as the architecture of the sprawling Newall house, but this skewed structuring only makes the hints of lunacy that much more disconcerting. The climax comes in the midst of a sex dream: old-timer Gary Paulson–one of the the group of “cronies” who hang out at Brownie’s Store and fixate upon the Newall house–suffers a cerebral hemorrhage while dreaming of the time when the adult Cora lewdly exposed herself to him back when he was a child. Paulson dies gasping the enigmatic words “The moon!” and then the story concludes with the following brief paragraph: “The day after he is laid to rest in Homeland, a new cupola starts to go up on the new wing on the Newall house.” It appears that the home feeds vampirically on the townspeople, thriving on their misfortune. This Northern Gothic mansion was always being built up when the Newalls resided there, and continues to metastasize even when it lacks living occupants (in terms of King’s haunted houses, the Newall place hearkens back to the Marsten House in Salem’s Lot but also looks forward to the eponymous Rose Red). The story’s title thus proves to be a sinister pun. Forever pondering the prominent home, which was “an affront to the sensibilities and an offense to the eye,” the crew at Brownie’s would often quip, “But it grows on you.” That it does, but not in a good way for the remaining populace of Castle Rock.

Beautifully written and rife with haunting imagery and incident, the story itself grows on you (like a worm battening on your gray matter). It’s the type of narrative that invites repeated readings, each as effective as the last in establishing a sense of weirdness. This “story about secrets and sickness,” as the author aptly labels it in his endnotes to Nightmares & Dreamscapes, turns the reader into an analogue of the men in Brownie’s Store, obsessed with a looming house of gloom and the dark history of its former(?) owners. For all these reasons, “It Grows on You” ranks as the greatest work of American Gothic short fiction that King has written to date.

 

 

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