The Countdown Continues: Stephen King’s Eight Greatest American Gothic Stories of the Past Eight Years

Recently, I re-posted a countdown that appeared on my old Macabre Republic blog back in the fall of 2010: The Top 20 Stephen King Works of American Gothic Short Fiction. The following countdown posted here today will bring matters up to date by considering the top eight American Gothic stories King has published over the past eight years (note: I have considered collaborative pieces such as “A Face in the Crowd” and “In the Tall Grass” ineligible for this countdown).

 

#8. “Herman Wouk is Still Alive” (first published in The Atlantic, May 2011)

There is nothing supernatural in this particular car-horror story (a sub-genre towards which King has repeatedly steered), just stark reality. The multiple fatalities are revealed from the start (by a newspaper clipping included as a heading to the narrative), yet the climactic crash is nonetheless horrifying. Not merely the product of drunk driving, the “accident” proves a deliberate, spectacularly suicidal act, as a pair of single moms (road-tripping in a rented van with their tribes of kids) capitulate to the despair over their impoverished existences and the dim futures for their respective families. In this bleak piece, King succeeds in haunting the reader by not reducing the story’s victims to caricatures of white trash grotesques, instead treating them as tragic underclass figures.

 

#7. “A Death” (first published in The New Yorker, March 2015)

With stripped-down prose, King exposes basic human ugliness, as a dim-witted man in the Black Hills region of the 19th-Century American West is accused of raping and murdering a ten-year-old girl. The locals proceed to form the quintessential angry mob, hurling slurs, rocks, and spittle at the arrested Jim Trusdale, whose hanging scene might put readers in mind of In Cold Blood. What is truly unforgettable here, though, is Trusdale’s ultimately-failed attempt to prevent an incriminating piece of evidence (the murdered girl’s silver dollar) from being found on his person. Eschewing potty humor, the uncharacteristically restrained King manages to end the story on a haunting note.

 

#6. “Batman and Robin Have an Altercation” (first published in Harper’s Magazine, September 2012)

In this terrifically-titled story, King establishes the mundane, then upstages it with the sudden eruption of bloody violence. On the ride back to the nursing home following his weekly Sunday lunch outing at Applebee’s with his addled dad, Doug Sanderson gets into a fender-bender–and subsequently into deeper trouble with a road-raging Texan (who will soon give new meaning to “redneck”). The beating Sanderson absorbs is shocking, but the most resounding horrors here are the quiet ones–the dehumanizing effects of Alzheimer’s, and the toll this insidious disease takes on a victim’s family members. King’s narrative is impeccably crafted, and its subtle details become doubly appreciable upon re-reading.

 

#5. “Obits” (first published in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, November 2015)

King forays into the paranormal here, as a fledgling journalist for a TMZ-style website discovers that his “joke obituaries” of living persons actually serve as death sentences for the subjects. The narrator attempts to put his verbal hatchet to good use (raping and murdering scum end up scrubbed), but also struggles with the dangerously addictive nature of his strange power. While black humor (pertaining the ironic demise of the memorialized–such as the editor who encounters the “Cough Drop of Doom”) at first reigns, the narrative tone steadily darkens. The only thing that keeps “Obits” from appearing further below on the countdown is the fact that the story (as the narrator himself admits) “end[s] a little flat,” failing to make much use of an intriguing plot twist concerning the collateral damage of the various tactical strikes via keystroke.

 

#4. “A Little Green God of Agony” (first published in A Book of Horrors, September 2011)

King goes heavy on the Gothic atmosphere here, as wind and rain batter a Vermont mansion at nighttime. The story also boasts a familiar American Gothic character type in its cast: the suspect Southern preacher. Reverend Rideout (less healer than exorcist), posits the existence of an insatiable demon god that invades the seriously injured and turns their pain into agony, but viewpoint character Katherine MacDonald (a jaded therapist who has little sympathy for her patient’s pains) believes this is all just holy hokum invoked to con her incredibly wealthy client). This being a Stephen King effort, Rideout’s supernatural claims unsurprisingly prove legit, and the titular antagonist emerges from its host to wreak havoc. In lesser hands, a slimy, spiked tennis ball would form a B-grade monster, but King crafts a terrifying entity whose attacks help render the story’s climax one of the author’s scariest.

 

#3. “Fair Extension” (first published in Full Dark, No Stars, November 2010)

A terminally-ill man makes a life-saving (but not necessarily soul-costing) deal with the devil. Amidst his cure, Dave Streeter deliberately inflicts the worst fate imaginable on his so-called best friend, Tom Goodhugh. As King hits the high notes of false friendship and secret animosity, “Fair Extension” pushes towards the top of the American Gothic charts. Streeter’s remorselessness over the series of misfortunes that befall the Goodhugh clan makes the narrative that much more wicked. How appropriate that this story is set in Derry, a town well-known to Constant Readers for its underlying malignancy.

 

#2. “Summer Thunder” (first published in Cemetery Dance #72, January 2015)

King has dealt with the subject of global apocalypse before, but never more memorably than in this powerful short story. “Summer Thunder” is closer in sensibility to The Road than The Stand; it does not graft a supernatural element onto its plot, but rather focuses on the physical and emotional struggles of those who have managed to survive the cataclysm thus far. The harrowing descriptions of radiation poisoning here are enough to make the reader pull a Chuck McGill and start unplugging everything around. And while the protagonist Robinson manages to go out in his own terms, his defiant final act doesn’t lift the gloom shrouding the narrative. King’s story (the final item in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams) ultimately underscores human helplessness, and reminds us that life as we know it, and the loved ones we share it with, can be obliterated at the touch of a red button.

 

#1. “The Music Room” (first published in In Sunlight or in Shadow, December 2016) 

Poe-like in its masterful use of unity of setting, “The Music Room” transforms a brownstone apartment into a chamber of horrors. The curious, persistent thump coming from the closet soon makes it obvious that this domestic scene (of a wife sitting at a piano, and a husband perusing a newspaper) is not as innocent as it first seems. Driven to desperate measures by the Great Depression, the Enderbys have resorted to preying on more affluent visitors to New York City. Currently, they are waiting for their latest victim, whom they have robbed, imprisoned, and starved, to expire. The couple’s nonchalance–their rationalization of their crimes, and blaming of their victim for not having the good grace to die sooner–is positively ghoulish. King’s story might be inspired by an Edward Hopper painting, but the deadly Enderbys would also be right at home in Grant Wood’s American Gothic.

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

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]

 

Countdown–The Top 20 Jack Ketchum Works of Short Fiction: #5-#1

In honor of the recent passing of Jack Ketchum, I would like to import this countdown (presented in a series of posts back in 2012) from my old Macabre Republic blog. The ranking was based on works of short fiction (short stories and novelettes) with the Jack Ketchum byline–i.e. pieces employing the Jerzy Livingston pseudonym were excluded, as were any co-authorings with Edward Lee. Here today I have gathered the posts for numbers 5-1 on the countdown.

[Note: the commentary below contains plot spoilers.]

 

5. “The Rifle”

Ketchum’s 1996 tale (the lead story in the collection Peaceable Kingdom) opens with a divorced mother finding the eponymous firearm (which her ten-year-old son Danny has stolen from his grandfather’s farm) hidden in a bedroom closet, “unexpected as a snake.” Danny has always been a troubled and troublemaking child (e.g., “stealing Milky Ways from the Pathmark Store”; “the fire he and Billy Berendt had set, yet denied they’d set, in the field behind the Catholic Church last year”). The “shrinks” and “counselors” his mom has already sent him to haven’t really been able to help. And now, with the theft of the rifle–and the loading of it with one of the shells he’d similarly purloined–Danny has gone too far.

Irate, the mother treks through the woods behind her home to confront Danny with this indisputable evidence of his bad behavior. One of the key reasons the mother purchased her property was because she wanted her son to be close to the natural world and to learn from it (“Birth, death, sex, the renewal of the land, its fragility and its power, the chaos inside the order, the changes in people that came with the change of seasons”), but mom has no idea of the perversion/despoiling of nature she is about to uncover. When she confronts Danny about the rifle, she notices “something furtive” about him; he doesn’t seem to want her to see inside the converted root cellar that serves as his clubhouse. Forcing him to unlock his private sanctuary, the mother makes a horrific discovery:

She reached down and threw open one door and then the other and the first thing that hit her was the smell even with her sinus problem, the smell was rank and old and horrible beyond belief, and the second thing was the incredible clutter of rags and jars and buckets on the floor and the third was what she saw on the walls, hanging there from masonry nails pounded into the fieldstone, hung like decorations, like trophies, like the galleries she’d seen in castles in Scotland and England on her honeymoon and which were hunter’s galleries. A boy’s awful parody of that.

Spotting this bloody tableau of animal torture, the mother is struck with a “stunning terror” of Danny, “[o]f this little boy who didn’t even weigh ninety pounds yet.” Worse, she realizes not just what Danny is but “what he would become.” For his is the classic behavior of a nascent maniac, a serial killer in the making, and people like him “did not respond to treatment.” Seeing in Danny’s cold gaze that “there was nothing to save in his nature,” the mother abruptly raises the rifle and fires a killing shot into the boy’s left eye.

Exhibiting the toughest love, the mother makes a preemptive strike in defense of society’s innocents. But the woman (who locks up the root cellar Danny has fallen back into, and plans to report the boy as missing) has achieved anything but closure. Going forward, she’ll be forced to wonder, “How had it happened?” How had Danny turned out so wrong? Here the narrative turns to the natural calendar to form one of the finest closing sentences in the Ketchum canon: “It was a question she would ask herself, she thought, for a great many seasons after, as spring plunged into sweltering summer, as fall turned to winter again and the coldness of heart and mind set in for its long terrible duration.”

In his Introduction to Peaceable Kingdom, Ketchum notes that author “Peter Straub once paid me the compliment of saying that he thought a lot of people came to my writing for the wrong reasons but stuck with me for the right ones.” “The Rifle” perhaps forms the perfect case in point. Hearing that the story focuses on a sick kid given to animal mutilation, readers might expect to encounter depictions of grisly violence, which are in fact present (“Like the turtle the cats were nailed through all fours. [Danny] had eviscerated both of them and looped their entrails around them and nailed the entrails to the walls at intervals so that the cat’s were at the center of a kind of crude bull’s eye.”). Still, it is the realism of natural setting and human psyche, the dramatization of the emotional anguish of a struggling mother, that makes “The Rifle” such a powerful and unforgettable short story.

 

4. “Elusive”

“The first time Kovelant stood in line for Sleepdirt was just before Halloween.” So begins Jack Ketchum’s 2007 short story “Elusive” (collected in Closing Time and Other Stories), which creates an instant sense of suspense. The designation “first time” suggests further times after that, and the reader wonders why Kovelant is so compelled to see the horror film. Is it simply that damned good, or has something prevented him from watching it each time he attempted to attend a screening?

That first night in late October, Kovelant finds himself subjected to a cold rain while standing on line, and decides a free ticket to a preview screening isn’t worth the risk of catching pneumonia. The second time he tries to catch Sleepdirt, every showing is sold out at his local theater. An understandable development, especially considering the rave reviews the movie has received from critics. But matters take a turn for the weird thereafter: when Kovelant actually makes it inside a theater, he is stuck by a shooting pain (“an electric eel squirming throughout the entire right side of his body”) as inexplicable as it is abrupt, and one that forces him to abort the outing. By the time he recovers, the film is no longer in theaters, and when Kovelant subsequently tries to watch it at home on his VCR, the cassette tape is mangled by the machine. Then his TV set promptly dies before he can watch another rented tape…

Meantime, the strangeness is compounded by all the odd looks of apparent recognition that Kovelant keeps getting from random people on the street. Finally, the clerk working the check-out at Tower Video informs Kovelant that he is a dead ringer for one of the actors in Sleepdirt, a man who has a small part but makes a big impression via his “amazing death scene.” When Kovelant later discusses this alleged resemblance, and his own frustrated attempts to view the film, with his married lover Maggie, the latter brings up the idea that just as a person can’t observe his or her own death in a dream (always waking up first by necessity), Kovelant “can’t see the movie because you can’t see yourself die in it. I mean, maybe in some way it is you. Not some look-alike.” Kovelant scoffs at the theory, but welcomes Maggie’s offer to watch the film for him. In their follow-up phone conversation, Maggie testifies that the actor uncannily matches Kovelant in both physical looks and mannerisms, and that his death scene is brutal, but before she can share the specific nature of the demise, the phone line (you guessed it) goes dead.

Equally chagrined and obsessed, Kovelant takes matter into his own hands by going out and scooping up dozens of rental and purchases copies of Sleepdirt on VHS and DVD. “Gotcha now you sonovabitch,” Kovelant thinks, but as he walks across Broadway in New York City the bottom drops out of his shopping bag. The scene cuts away with Kovelant stooping to retrieve the spilled contents, but when Ketchum writes that the tapes and DVDs have “clattered to the pavement like a fallen sack of dry old bones,” the reader knows fatality looms.

The final section of the story finds Maggie fixated on Sleepdirt. When her husband Richard expresses disbelief that she is watching such a disgusting film again, Maggie’s reply unwittingly reveals the horrid end of the hapless Kovelant: “It’s a horror movie. It’s supposed to be scary and disgusting. But when’s the last time you saw somebody who looks exactly like somebody you know get his head torn off by a New York City bus? In slo-mo no less.”

Ketchum, a chip off old mentor Robert Bloch, is at his grimly-humorous best here in “Elusive” (as the author notes in his afterword to the story, the title “Sleepdirt” was borrowed from a Frank Zappa album and stands as “a euphemism for the contents of your nightly bedpan”). But what makes the piece so entertaining is not just the various ways in which Kovelant is stymied in his viewing quest but also the elusiveness of ultimate explanation for such events. Is Kovelant simply the victim of tempted fate, someone who bucked up against some intractable universal law by trying to ogle his own doomed doppelganger? Perhaps, but there could also be something sinister in the production of Sleepdirt itself. Appropriately, “Elusive” concludes with Maggie wondering “how in hell [the filmmakers] got that scene,” just as the reader (who, unlike Maggie, already knows what has happened to Kovelant) is forced to question how the movie was able to proleptically capture the non-actor’s death. “Blacker than black!” a New York Post review blurb of Sleepdirt is quoted early in the story, and the same can be said for both the humor and the horror of this superb Ketchum effort.

 

3. “Chain Letter”

This 1998 short story (collected in Peaceable Kingdom) enthralls from its very first lines. Riddled with puzzlement and unease, the reader wonders why protagonist Alfred so anxiously awaits the daily delivery of the mail. Furthermore, what’s the significance of Alfred’s dream about first bullying a cab driver and then flagellating himself with sticks spiked with rusty nails? The dark suspense only intensifies when Alfred decides to take a walk into town, and spots a series of roadside atrocities: the body of a long-dead and bird-scavenged child; “a horse with a bullet in its brain“; a group of small boys in the midst of  “nailing a woman to a barn” and beating “her with thin birch switched about the face and head.”  And perhaps most perplexing of all: why does the receipt of something so banal as a chain letter render a “decent enough guy” like the character Henley automatically untrustworthy? (“Now what have you got. Another bloody butcher. Either that or he’ll be having second thoughts or regrets or whatever and he’ll sit himself in a corner somewhere and wait for the brains to crawl on out of him.”)

The violent chaos gripping the town links back to the titular piece of mail, but Ketchum reveals this only gradually to readers, starting with a discussion at the local cafe between Alfred and his friend Jamie. During the course of their conversation, Jamie shows that he has strong thoughts on the subject of the kind of man it will take to put a stop to the sinister missive:

Some fucking lunatic. Somebody tired, disgusted. No promethean, you can bet on that. Somebody without the stomach for it, without the imagination–I figure suicide is about lack of imagination. Somebody missing the urge to make use of all that permission.

That somebody could turn out to be Alfred, who returns home to discover the dreaded envelope waiting for him. The letter inside reads: “The aforesigned pass on to you all responsibility for their actions, past, present, and future. We deem this the highest honor, the highest challenge…” To reject this responsibility, the recipient merely has to “add a new name to the space provided beneath your own. Be sure to check the list thoroughly to see that you do not repeat any name already entered above…” The conclusion of the letter suggests a twisted religious origin: “Declared by the will of God and the First Congress of Faith, Abraham White, founder. All bless.”

“It’s the old, old concept of sin-eater again, only more extreme,” Alfred thinks, the line forming an apt gloss on Ketchum’s hardcore-horror variation on Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” And with this one also recognizes why Ketchum chose to alternate sections written from Alfred’s first-person perspective with italicized sections written in the third person: structure reinforces theme, as notions of self and other (apropos of the symbolic ingestion of external guilt) are melded together.

Alfred truly struggles with the decision of how to respond to the letter: “Do I send the letter to somebody I love or somebody I hate? Do I spare those I love the pain of waiting or take the chance that the letter might miss them entirely, as unlikely as that seems?”
He realizes that ending the chain requires a “martyr, a brand new Christ” committed to suffering the “worst death imaginable.” Alfred psyches himself into being that figure by imagining various acts of horrific self-wounding. The extended sequence (e.g. “But first the genitals should be torn away and the teeth smashed and swallowed, one should have to throw oneself against a wall or table until the backbone cracks and the skull is fractured, long sharp knives one should shove up one’s ass, the nose must be severed, the nipples burned black”) of spectacular havoc forms what is without a doubt one of the most cringe-inducing passages Ketchum has ever penned.

One has to wonder whether Alfred is spurred by an irrepressible masochistic streak or sheer disgust with the society surrounding him. Alfred admits he has “no faith” that anyone else will move to end the cycle of violence, and expresses his disdain for the fellow townspeople who hide behind “the names, the writing, the ordinary symbols” (by using “an odd but commonplace form letter,” one probably dreamt up in some “grey office building” or “grim bar,” as a convenient excuse for indulging uncivilized impulses). By mapping out (and carrying out) “a death commensurate with the crime, the one really emphatic death amid all these careless neutral ones” that his murderous friends and neighbors have caused, Alfred hopes to send a “personal message” to his peers: “You’re full of shit, every one of you. I’m about to prove it.” These closing lines constitute yet another potent clincher to a Ketchum tale, with “full of shit” doubling both as slang for disingenuousness (Alfred puts little stock in people’s proclamations of what they would do if they received the chain letter) and a more literal account of the inner filth saturating the townspeople. By accepting the role of sin-eater and subjecting himself to a gruesome martyrdom, Alfred gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “scathing critique.”

 

2. “Closing Time”

The fact that “Closing Time” (2003) is collected in both Peaceable Kingdom and (obviously) Closing Time and Other Stories is a strong indication of the novelette’s stature.The piece is at once a heartbreaking love story (centering on the turbulent relationship of Claire and her already-married paramour David) and a heart-pounding tale of suspense (as the protagonists cross paths with a sadistic criminal). Set in New York City in October and early November of 2001, the narrative also uses the World Trade Center disaster as a literal and thematic backdrop (Ketchum peppers poignant details throughout: “the smell of burning” and “the strange sad New York silence”; the “thick brown-white dust [that] lay everywhere”; the “windows filled with appeals for information on the missing”; Claire’s observation that “Even if you’d lost nobody close to you, you’d still lost something”).

Yet Ketchum’s concern is not with al-Qaeda but a local, small-scale operative: a Caucasian native New Yorker who graduates from armed robbery (he preys on the City’s bars just before they shut down for the night) to physical and psychological torment of his victims. Though he carries a gun, the unnamed villain considers
“surprise and fear” his real weapons. He performs “shock therapy” on those he robs, ostensibly so that they will end up too frazzled to remember his features (when he holds up bartender Claire, he thinks: “Time to put the fear of God into the bitch and see if she remembered anything but fear after that”). And he goes a long way towards accomplishing this by forcing Claire into a dangerous game involving splayed fingers and the bar-top spindle normally used as a spike for checks.

As vociferous as he is merciless in his terrorizing, the man proclaims that “after me you’ll never feel safe again, Claire. Never. Not at work, not at home. Nowhere.” One has to wonder just how much of this is playacting, and how much the transferal of his own anxieties (after watching the endless news reports about the anthrax scare, he decides to use tossed talcum powder as a further means of unnerving his targets). Despite his dismissal of current events (he “strictly worked ground floor,” doing “what he always did. Plain old-fashioned armed robbery”), the man seems to have been deeply affected by the terrorist attacks. He is no garden-variety psycho, but rather a criminal with a twisted philosophical outlook (reminiscent of the Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”): “He can see she knows a truth he’s known all along, that there is no help in this world, that what will happen will happen and no amount of pleading to god or jesus or to the milk of human kindness will get you any goddamn where at all.” The events of 9/11 could have done nothing to help the existential angst this man suffers.

The narrative builds incredible suspense as it cuts back and forth between scenes of the terrorist’s manipulation of Claire and of (now-ex-boyfriend) David’s journey to seek out Claire at work. Perhaps David will arrive in time to rescue his beloved from harm, but then again, a Ketchum story isn’t likely to end without casualties. “There could be no good ending to this,” David thinks of his decision to visit Claire after she begged him to stay away, and David’s thought proves terribly prophetic. An earlier passing line about “the perversity of incident and chance” also resonates in the bloody and devastating climax.

In his afterword to “Closing Time,” Ketchum cites the novelette as “the most bleak and hopeless piece” he’s ever produced. Yet it is also a shining example of the author’s ability to create lifelike, recognizable characters (whose dire circumstances become that much more compelling because of such realism). Without a doubt, Ketchum’s self-described tale of “irreversible, irretrievable loss” is the gain of readers everywhere.

 

1. “Gone”

What happens when the writer whom Stephen King hailed as “the scariest guy in America” turns his attention to Halloween? Answer: the top spot in the countdown of Jack Ketchum works of short fiction is secured.

“Gone” (2000; collected in Peaceable Kingdom) reworks the tropes of the classic Halloween spook story, as it features a shunned house (which “seemed to have PLAGUE painted on the door”) and its lone occupant (“the lady down the block,” who parents warn their kids about). The woman–who at the start of the story wonders, “What am I? The wicked old witch from Hansel and Gretel?”–is eager to lure children to her doorstep with the promise of candy, but she’s no wicked crone, just a deeply wounded individual. Helen Teal (a shade of blue, appropriately) is still grieving, still wallowing in despair five years after “the less than three minutes that changed everything.” It should have been “a simple event, an inconsequential event” when Helen ran back into the 7-11 for the newspaper she forgot to purchase. But when comes back out, she discovers that her three-year-old daughter has been snatched from the parked car where she’d been left waiting. And with that devastating disappearance, “Helen Teal, nee Mazik, went from pre-school teacher, homemaker, wife and mother to the three p‘s–psychoanalysis, Prozac, and paralysis.”

Growing steadily drunker and more depressed, Helen is about to shut off her porch light when her doorbell rings. The sight of the trick-or-treaters she has anxiously awaited (in her yearning for contact with children) immediately lifts Helen’s spirits: “the night’s thrill–its enchantment even–was suddenly there for her.” Yet the story also takes pain to remind us that Halloween has since lost its innocence (“Nobody came in[side] anymore. The days for bobbing for apples were long over.”), and Helen is about to get more than she bargained for in the candy-begging transaction. One of the trio of masked young siblings tears open Helen’s internal wounds when he bluntly asks if she’s her: “The lady who lost her baby? The little girl?” The boy’s question, though, is not simply the product of a child’s clumsy curiosity. Ketchum has another trick up his Halloween sleeve, as revealed in one of his patented single-sentence paragraphs that leaves readers as breathless as a sucker punch to the gut:

They turned away and headed slowly down the stairs and she almost asked them to wait, to stay a moment, for what reason and to what end she didn’t know but that would be silly and awful too, no reason to put them through her pain, they were just kids, children, they were just asking a question the way children did sometimes, oblivious to its consequences and it would be wrong to say anything further, so she began to close the door and almost didn’t hear him turn to his sister and say, too bad they wouldn’t let her out tonight, hunh? too bad they never do in a low voice but loud enough to register but at first it didn’t register, not quite, as though the words held no meaning, as though the words were some strange rebus she could not immediately master, not until after she’d closed the door and then finally when they impacted her like grapeshot, she flung open the door and ran screaming down the stairs into the empty street.

Apparently Alice is alive and being held somewhere nearby, but the trio of trick-or-treaters who might lead Helen to her have already “vanished back into nowhere,” carrying off not just a load of candy bars but whatever “was left of” Helen. The narrative spotlights Ketchum’s gifts for probing everyday human evil (in this case, child abduction/abuse) and dramatizing the personal anguish suffered by a lifelike character. Short but haunting, “Gone” absolutely cannot be forgotten.

 

 

Countdown: The Top 20 Jack Ketchum Works of Short Fiction: #10-#6

In honor of the recent passing of Jack Ketchum, I would like to import this countdown (presented in a series of posts back in 2012) from my old Macabre Republic blog. The ranking was based on works of short fiction (short stories and novelettes) with the Jack Ketchum byline–i.e. pieces employing the Jerzy Livingston pseudonym were excluded, as were any co-authorings with Edward Lee. Here today I have gathered the posts for numbers 10-6 on the countdown.

[Note: the commentary below contains plot spoilers.]

 

10. “The Work”

Set in a remote home in the Maine woods, this 1997 story (collected in Peaceable Kingdom) opens with a business meeting between an anonymous female protagonist and the man, Richard Carey, she has flown in on retainer. A seemingly simple situation–until the eventual revelation that Carey is a contract killer, and the woman a disgruntled writer determined to have him murder not her publisher or editor but her. Beyond such plot twists, though, what distinguishes “The Work” is the window it provides onto Ketchum himself.

The writer in the story clearly is a female stand-in for Ketchum. She speaks of enjoying a “cult following” but never experiencing break-out success. This is partly because of what she writes: “Suspense, horror. I tend to proceed from the dark side, to try to disturb you. Some of it can be pretty brutal.” Another factor is her refusal to follow publishing trends and produce “a big fat blockbuster” (“damned if I’m going to write something just for the money or so some editor can be flavor of the month with the boys on publishers’ row”). The woman also shares an interesting piece of aesthetic self-assessment:

The work‘s the thing, Richard. I work hard and carefully at what I do and I think I do it fairly well. I’m no Dostoevsky but I’m no hack either. You get themes in my books, you get people, issues–though I try hard not to hammer you over the head with them. You get some decent writing. What you don’t get I hope is simple, comfortable beach-reading. Tub-reading. Subway-reading. You don’t get Jackie Collins.

No, you get Jack Ketchum. His protagonist proceeds to speak of the notoriety she gained from her first novel, and of her betrayal by her own publisher, who got “so upset [over the scripted carnage] he damn near fired the editor. Distributors were furious. So they decided to bury it. Pretend it never happened. Pulled all the advertising, window posters, point-of-purchase displays, all that sort of thing.” Tellingly, Ketchum himself suffered the exact lack of support when his first book Off Season (concerning a tribe of modern-day cannibals) was released. If there were any doubt as to what Ketchum is referencing, it is erased when the setting of “The Work” is belatedly identified as Dead River, Maine–the same as in Off Season.

Now the protagonist (who is dying of bone cancer anyway) wants Carey to recreate a grisly murder scene from her first book. She is quick to explain that hers is not a case of madness or masochism: “Someone is going to notice if you do it this way. Any other way and I am just one more dead writer. But if you do it this way someone is going to refer it back to the book. Plenty of people will, I think. And the book is going to go back into print, big-time. In fact, if you do it right, they’ll all go back into print.” Suspense builds as the stone-cold killer Carey blanches at what is asked of him; the savage details are held back form readers until a climactic scene of assault, evisceration, and cannibalism that perfectly matches the shocking murder of Carla in Off Season.

Making a graphic sacrifice for her art, the protagonist of “The Work” ironically succeeds in ensuring her literary legacy. Thankfully, Ketchum himself never had to resort to such bloody extremes to achieve a deserved level of popularity and acclaim, but this semi-autobiographical story nevertheless furnishes strong insight into the writerly hurdles he faced early in his career.

 

9. “Luck”

Jack Ketchum established himself as a master of the macabre Western with his 2003 novella The Crossings, but he made his first foray into such territory in the 2000 short story “Luck” (collected in Peaceable Kingdom). Notice how skillfully Ketchum establishes the genre through details of character and setting in the story’s opening paragraph:

The night was moonless and quiet save for the crackling of the fire and the liquid tiltback of the Tangleleg whiskey which they passed between them and Faro Bill Brody drawing hard on his Bull Durham and the moans and heavy breathing from Chunk Herbert and the snort and paw of horses and the voices of the men. Their talk had turned to luck, good and bad. The men were of the opinion that theirs had taken a far turn for the worse this day for who could have guessed at Turner’s Crossing that the stage would be filled with lawmen and citizens with guns drawn and ready and a posse just out of sight behind them. They had robbed the same stage at the same place at the same time of day three weeks running and never known a problem.

“Luck” instantly immerses the reader in its world, but a second reading reveals also just how carefully plotted the story is. As the outlaws huddle around and trade tales about luck, Chunk Herbert (who now lies dying after being shot in the head during the botched stagecoach robbery) groans and mumbles incoherently in the background. “Sounded like ‘Lily’ or ‘Liddy’,” Faro Bill observes at one point. “Sounded like ‘I-ill,” Canary Joe Hallihan later offers when Chunk pipes up during his story about Little Dick West, “the unluckiest man who ever walked the Lord’s green earth.” Canary Joe recounts personally witnessing West’s shooting death on multiple occasions in disparate parts of the country. Even more uncanny than West’s repeated reincarnations is the dire fate that befalls his respective killers. One gunman’s farmhouse burns down about a month later with him and his whole family inside; another hapless assassin trips and breaks his neck while carrying West’s corpse down a three-stepped staircase. Most gruesome of all, a seemingly victorious duelist blows off his own genitalia while holstering his pistol.

Canary Joe’s eerie narration creates a hush amongst the band of bandits. All except Chunk, desperate to confess, and whose last words are terribly clear to his doomed cohorts: “not I-ill or Lily but Li’l Dick West, I shot Li’l Dick West in Dodge City, Kansas, and the fusillade seemed to come from everywhere at once and ended Chunk’s luck and their own along with it for good and ever.”

A campfire spook story with a wicked twist, “Luck” is a tale that every Ketchum fan will consider himself/herself fortunate to have come across.

 

8. “Megan’s Law”

“Well, what the hell would you do?” confrontational narrator Albert Walker asks in the opening line of “Megan’s Law” (1999; collected in Peaceable Kingdom). This arresting hook generates instant suspense, as the reader can’t help but wonder what Albert actually has gone and done.

Albert relates an encounter with police officer legally required to inform that a “tier-three high risk sex criminal,” Philip Knott, has moved in two doors down from his home. Hearing this, Albert is immediately concerned for the safety of his twelve-year-old daughter Michele (whom he has previously protected from her “crazy rumdrum [and now deceased] miserable excuse of a mother”). He grows even more distraught over–and obsessed with–his new neighbor after learning the horrid details (from a gossiping bartender) of the child-raping Knott’s crimes. It soon becomes apparent that the officer’s initial warning to Albert “against vigilantism” has been given in vain.

The brilliance of Ketchum’s story lies in its manipulation of readerly sympathy. Alternating Albert’s narrative with passages of Knott’s italicized thoughts, “Megan’s Law” juxtaposes an extremely devoted father and an ostensibly rehabilitated sex criminal. Knott (whose surname suggests both negation and entanglement) emerges as a vulnerable figure when he considers the dark side of the titular piece of legislation:

This Megan’s Law thing. It fucks you up! Out in California they firebombed this guy’s car, torched the poor bastard, burnt him to death. In Connecticut they got this other guy, about twenty-five of them, beat the shit out of him, somebody they thought did stuff but it was a case of mistaken identity, they fucked up, they got the wrong guy. It’d be funny if it wasn’t so fucking scary. What people are capable of.

Knott, though, is no innocent, and is still struggling with some highly illicit urges: “I want to fuck something silly. I want to fuck something till it screams,” the man admits at the end of one passage. But then (as Albert meantime plots to put a “stop” to this “running sore”) Knott begins his next section of the narrative by amending: “I want to fuck something till it screams but I won’t. Not in the immediate future anyway. That I’m pretty sure of. I think I maybe can actually do this thing. Maybe. Maybe it’s the meds or maybe it’s just being free now not in Rahway anymore and not obsessing all the time.” Knott thinks he stands a chance of assuming a normal life, not realizing that Albert is about to mete out a violent death.

Albert steals a jeep, dons a ski mask, then runs over Knott twice as the man crosses his own front lawn en route to his driveway. When Albert backs up the vehicle a second time, he remorselessly observes “that my left front tire had rolled over his neck, that the Wagoneer’s weight had pretty much disconnected his head from his body and had flattened his neck like roadkill which in fact was exactly what the little fucker was now.” The threat-eliminating father enjoys “a busy and productive day at work,” but his daughter Michele is shaken up that night after learning of Knott’s murder. “So I did what I usually do,” Albert admits:

I took her to bed.

I comforted her.

What would you do?

A signature Ketchum twist, belatedly revealing the true reason Albert was so bent on keeping Knott away from Michele. Albert’s interrogative refrain takes an abruptly alienating turn in the closing line, as no sane reader is likely to agree with such a course of incestuous solace. Nevertheless, by closing with a question the story throws down a moral gauntlet, forces each one of us to consider what we are really capable of when it comes to sheltering our loved ones from the world’s various harms. The honest answer here could prove as shocking and unsettling as “Megan’s Law” itself.

 

7. “The Cow”

Co-author Lucky McKee might have had a hand in this novelette sequel to 2011’s The Woman, but “The Cow” is quintessential Ketchum. The plot follows the blueprint established by the earlier novels in the series concerning latter-day cannibals terrorizing coastal Maine. There are unflinching scenes of sudden, savage attack (“she simultaneously reached up and dug her fingers into his eyes and bit down into the crotch of his white cargo Bermudas”) and utterly gruesome meal prep (“the gutting, the removal of the arms, the removal of the backbone, the halving and quartering, the removal of the ribs. The deep cuts along the calves and thighs and rump.”). But what truly distinguishes “The Cow” is not its formula, but its formatting.

The narrative is presented as “The Journal of Donald Fischer,” the lone survivor of a beachfront assault on his rehearsing theater group by the Woman and her cannibalistic sidekicks. Fischer is penning his on-going account in “a filthy battered spiral notebook” while being held prisoner by his attackers. The framing of the story this way is significant in that furnishes an overt example of something I would argue Ketchum has been doing all-along in the series: scripting variations on the Indian captivity narrative (a literary genre dating back centuries and most classically exemplified by the memoir The Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson).

Ketchum has hinted at such a context previously (in the series’ second novel, Offspring) by giving the cannibal clan suggestively Native American names such as Rabbit, and Eartheater, and Second Stolen. Here in “The Cow,” the anachronistic primitives living close to nature in the remaining uncivilized spaces of the modern world dry strips of slaughtered meat “over some kind of teepee-style rack.” The Woman’s cannibalism is even described at one point as “a spiritual thing”: “the best food understands its own death, its sacrifice. And the deeper the understanding the more that supports the living.” Finally, while historical abductees such as Mary Rowlandson had to contend with the threat of heathen sexual aggression, Ketchum’s narrative shows that a male captive like Fischer is not exempt from rape. To his horror, Fischer has been kept alive not as a future meal but rather for the purposes of stud service. Because the Woman seeks to rebuild her carnivorous tribe, Fischer is reduced to the status of a profane cow, something “to be milked and milked again.”

Fischer’s closing journal entry is composed about four months after his climactic escape attempt: “The events I’ve written about took place in July. Now, by my reckoning, it’s October, somewhere around Halloween. But there won’t be any trick-or-treaters coming around here.” If there were any kiddies in the vicinity, they’d probably be scared off by Fischer’s appearance. The narrator’s closing revelation is of his having been subjected to a series of body piercings, the inserted slivers of bone strategically placed not just to help keep Fischer tethered in captivity but also to increase his productivity (“It’s true what they say about genital piercings,” the hapless Fischer shares. “It makes me a more efficient cow.”). Fischer nonetheless vows to “tear these bones out of me with my bare hands if given the slightest chance at rescue,” an act that sounds so excruciatingly painful, the (cringing male) reader almost can’t help but hope that Fischer remains gotten by the balls.

 

6. “Firedance”

With “Firedance” (1998; collected in Peaceable Kingdom), Jack Ketchum ventures straight into the heart of King Country. The story is set in Maine, and is populated with small-town, common-folk type characters, including protagonist Frisco Hans (an ex-merchant seaman who one morning had “jumped off a lifeboat made fast high over the leeward rail onto the deck of the Curfew, hit the deck too hard and lost his sense of taste”) and his drinking buddy Homer Devins (whose wife “had run away with the Chinese dry-cleaner last winter while Devins was out hunting rabbits”). Like Stephen King before him, Ketchum offsets the mundane and the incredible, as seen when the characters Ray Fogarty and Dot Hardcuff, amidst an adulterous tryst up on Zeigler’s Notch, make a mind-boggling discovery: of a multi-species group of animals (mice, snakes, a cardinal, a wolf, and a lynx) sitting closely and calmly circled around a campfire.

The promptly-summoned townspeople of Dead River at first feel like they are viewing something “miraculous and awe-inspiring,” but an intimation of the ominous quickly sets in: “It was as though the natural way of things had reversed itself. Humans in the shadows, wild things in the light.” The humans tear off “running like kids from the bogeyman”; when curiosity returns them to the same woodland spot the next night, the inexplicably peaceful circle has grown, and now the animals are observed moving (dancing?) around the fire. Such bizarre choreography scares the watchers, and riddles them with existential angst: “a feeling passed through the crowd that felt like a kind of collective shame or guilt or something, as though the animals had made them smaller somehow, humbled, a damned sight less significant.” So it’s no surprise when the heavily-armed humans start grousing about how just “plain unnatural” the scene is. Frisco Hans, though, suddenly isn’t quite so sure:

How do we know? he thought? Who in the hell knows what’s natural in a world up to its butt in poisoned lakes and streams, with poisoned air for chrissake, with normal-looking guys not a lot different from Homer here walking into a K-Mart and shooting up the customers with some fancy thousand-dollar automatic weapon, guys who like to kidnap and murder little children, a world where you get a doll for Christmas and it eats your hair, a world so crazy and nonsensical that you can jump off a goddamn lifeboat and lose your sense of taste forever? Who says what’s natural and what’s not?

By the third night, “the sheer size of the damn thing” has the folk of Dead River utterly spooked: it “looked like the entire forest was there,” and “there were even plenty of farm animals this time.” Only Hans seems filled with wonder, the sense that he is privy to some evolutionary leap, “the dawn of a whole new time, a whole new nature”: “They’re like us, he thought. Like what we must have been thousands and thousands of years ago. We must have crawled out of caves on nights like this and done just the same.” Yet profound worry accompanies Hans’s wonderment. As the dancers whirl “around the flames in some bright joyous rapture of celebration that was impervious to danger, oblivious to harm,” Hans stands “frozen in a fundamental horror at what his species was capable of doing here tonight.” Hearing “a shotgun pump a cartridge, triggers cocked all around,” Hans knows “a goddamn bloodbath” is about to unfold.

A massacre is averted when little Patty Schilling breaks free from her mother’s arms and runs and joins the dancing animals. Other children and women (man appears to have no place within this peaceable kingdom) soon follow the innocent’s lead. At story’s end, Hans sees “Dot Hardcuff dancing around with a big brown bear and not even her husband or Ray Fogarty was going to argue with that choice of partner.” Nor can the reader argue with the choice of this atmospheric masterpiece of magic realism as one of Jack Ketchum’s all-time-best works of short fiction.

 

Countdown–The Top 20 Jack Ketchum Works of Short Fiction: #15-#11

In honor of the recent passing of Jack Ketchum, I would like to import this countdown (presented in a series of posts back in 2012) from my old Macabre Republic blog. The ranking was based on works of short fiction (short stories and novelettes) with the Jack Ketchum byline–i.e. pieces employing the Jerzy Livingston pseudonym were excluded, as were any co-authorings with Edward Lee. Here today I have gathered the posts for numbers 15-11 on the countdown.

[Note: the commentary below contains plot spoilers.]

 

15. “Returns”

This 2002 piece (collected in Closing Time and Other Stories) reveals yet another side to the multifaceted Jack Ketchum: the animal lover. The story’s anonymous protagonist comes back from the beyond (four days after being mowed down by a New York City cab driver), “knowing there was something I had to do or try to do.” Upon returning to his apartment, though, he finds that his alcoholic wife Jill has been neglecting Zoey, his beloved cat. Thinking that perhaps the purpose of his visitation is to help snap Jill out of her drunken funk, the narrator tries to rouse her to attend to Zoey (unlike the cat, Jill can’t see her late husband’s spectral self, but hears him inside her head). And fails miserably.

That’s largely because Jill already has different plans for Zoey. The plurality of the story’s title comes into play when a stranger bearing a cat-carrier rings the doorbell. He is reluctant to carry out the deed he’s been summoned for, telling Jill that the cat could be put up for adoption for a while rather than being sent straight to death by euthanasia. Cold and malicious, Jill lies that Zoey is a biter and a fighter, and thus unfit for domestic existence.

Jill’s callous act is the ultimate betrayal for the narrator, who rages at the miserable widow with ghostly vitriol:

My wife continues to drink and for the next three hours or so I do nothing but scream at her, tear at her. Oh, she can hear me, all right. I’m putting her through every torment I can muster, reminding her of every evil she’s ever done to me or anybody, reminding her over and over what she’s done today and I think, so this is my purpose, this is why I’m back, the reason I’m here is to get this bitch to end herself, end her miserable fucking life and I think of my cat and how Jill never really cared for her, cared for her wine-stained furniture more than my cat and I urge her toward the scissors, I urge her toward the window and the seven-story drop, urge her toward the knives in the kitchen and she’s crying, she’s screaming, too bad the neighbors are all at work, they’d at least have her arrested. And she’s hardly able to walk or even stand and I think, heart attack maybe, maybe stroke and I stalk my wife and urge her to die, die until it’s almost one o’clock and something begins to happen.

What’s happening is that the narrator’s “power” is fading, in tandem with the waning moments of Zoey’s life. Sensing his cat’s death somewhere across the city, the narrator realizes the real purpose of his visitation. Not to rescue Jill, or even torment her, but to have been there for Zoey one last time before she was carried off: “That last touch of comfort [given to her] inside the cage. The nuzzle and purr. Reminding us both of all those nights she’d comforted me and I her. The fragile brush of souls.”

Understanding delivers closure, both to the narrator and the narrative. Announcing that the “last and best of me’s gone now,” the devoted pet owner promptly fades from consciousness. The same cannot be said for this quietly haunting tale (based, the author shares in the appended story note, on his own experience of having to put down his housecat). Short and bittersweet, “Returns” lingers long past its natural end point.

 

14. “The Best”

This short piece (first published in 2000, and subsequently collected in Peaceable Kingdom) is a premiere example of another typical Ketchum tale-type: the hot-blooded narrative of erotic horror.

Thirty-five-year-old Shelia convinces her great-in-the-sack-but-soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend Tommy (who has told her he is leaving her for another woman) to join her for one last bout of break-up sex. This proves to be no mere farewell frolic, though, but rather the first act in the diabolical scheme of a woman scorned.

Shelia shows up afterwards at the door of Tommy’s new flame Janine, feigning amiability. But the moment Janine lets her guard down, Shelia knocks her cold with a sucker punch. She then proceeds to choke Janine to death with a belt taken from the woman’s bedroom closet. She tears off the corpse’s nightgown and panties, then takes “a few minutes to give the body a good beating, concentrating on the ribs and head.” What at first appears to be gross overkill is only stage-setting for the really “nasty part” to follow.

A Ziploc bag in Shelia’s purse holds the semen-filled condom saved from Shelia’s earlier coitus with Tommy. Shelia places it over her latex-gloved index finger, pricks the Trojan’s tip with a pin, and goes to work filling Janine with incriminating DNA. The victim’s lifeless womb needs to be lubricated with blood, and it occurs to Shelia that the police are going to think that Tommy engaged in some Dahmer-esque necrophilia. “The idea made her giggle,” and this singularly chilling reaction indicates just how unhinged Shelia has become.

Her sick mission accomplished, Shelia returns home and slips into bed beside the oblivious Tommy. Feeling his familiar body heat, Shelia can’t help but think “for a moment how sad it was, really, that he’d be leaving anyway. Not where he wanted to go but somewhere.”

“The Best” haunts the reader with its realistic horror, as Shelia’s fake-rape frame job seems frightfully plausible. Ketchum’s story also casts a dark shadow over the notion of male prowess. Because as Tommy is about to discover, being the best lover someone ever had can ultimately turn into your own worst nightmare.

 

13. “Bully”

Since readers might not be familiar with this 2010 tale (published in the UK anthology Postscripts #22/23 – The Company He Keeps), I won’t go into too-specific detail regarding its plot.  But I do want to make note of some of the story’s strengths:

First and foremost, “Bully” is a fine slice of American Gothic. The horrors hidden behind closed doors, the dark side of everyday life in Anytown, U.S.A.: Ketchum captures these perfectly in this narrative concerning a drunkard father with a penchant not just for mean-spirited antics (e.g. knuckle-crushing handshakes) but also vicious physical abuse of his wife. Dishing the dirt on his despicable old man, exposing him for the monster he really was, the protagonist Jeff McFee reveals a childhood marked by incidents of terrible violence and emotional scarring (there’s a reason Jeff “can’t ride a horse to this day”). These events transpired on a family farm in rural Sussex County, New Jersey, leading to some harrowing discoveries both under the front porch and at the bottom of a well.

The story is expertly structured so as to build suspense.  An unnamed female narrator, Jeff’s “third cousin once removed,” has the visited the man (now an NYU law professor) in his New York City apartment because she’s determined to learn the full story of a family tragedy that none of her closest relatives seem to want to discuss. Her curiosity is soon coupled by the reader’s, as key elements are hinted at but their full explanation is held in abeyance until later in Jeff’s account. By looking to bring long-past events to light, the narrator also unwittingly sets the adult Jeff down a dark path.

“Bully” features a zinger of a closing line, but this tale of “belated revenge” (to borrow Ketchum’s own phrase in the author’s note attached to the story) does not present a neat, facilely moralistic wrap-up. Yes, tables are turned and comeuppance is transacted, but there’s less a sense of closure for Jeff’s character than an uneasy feeling that this is a truly haunted figure. Jeff’s psychological well-being is called into question by his admitted hearkening to a ghostly voice. Downing drink after drink in the course of the story, Jeff also appears to be transforming into the very person he has abhorred most. And perhaps worst of all, based on Jeff’s final revelation, the titular pejorative technically applies to him just as well.

 

12. “Brave Girl”

A quieter–but not necessarily gentler–Jack Ketchum story…

The premise of “Brave Girl” (2002; collected in Closing Time and Other Stories) is simple: four-year-old Suzy comes to the rescue when her mother suffers a household accident (Liza Jackson slips getting into the bathtub, cracking her head off the ceramic soap dish and knocking herself unconscious. Suzy has the wherewithal to turn off the tap, drain the tub, then dial 9-1-1 and calmly explain the situation. In short, this “brave, exceptional little girl” demonstrates a maturity well beyond her years. She isn’t even fazed (hint, hint) by the blood-spattered scene she finds in the bathroom.

Suzy’s grace under pressure makes for a great human interest piece, and the girl is quickly tabbed for a local TV news spot. But the reporter’s (and Ketchum’s) feel-good story takes a dark turn mid-interview. As Suzy bends over to retrieve her dropped doll, the camera captures a startling detail: “the long wide angry welts along the back of both thighs just below the pantyline that told [the reporter] that this was not only a smart, brave little girl but perhaps a sad and foolish one too” for saving her abusive mother’s life.

The reporter, Carole Belliver (a firm “believer” in truth and justice?) is outraged and orders her cameraman to “Dupe the tape. Phone the police and child welfare and get copies to them. I want us to do what her daughter evidently couldn’t bring herself to do. I want us to do our best to drown the bitch.” With such forceful closing words, “Brave Girl” transforms into a different type of feel-good story, one in which the reader revels in the notion of a domestic monster receiving a much-deserved punishment.

The accidental discovery of Suzy’s victim status forces Belliver to “kill the [news] story,” yet brings Ketchum’s story to life as a work of American Gothic. Forget supernatural bogeys and remote locales; the worst horrors, Ketchum reminds us, can be found hidden behind the closed doors of home.

 

11. “The Visitor”

As we’ve already seen on the Countdown, in Jack Ketchum’s writerly hands a ghost story is never just a ghost story, and a vampire story never just a vampire story. So it should be no surprise that the author offers more than the usual blood and guts when turning his focus to zombies.

“The Turning” (1998; collected in Peaceable Kingdom) details the trials of Florida retiree Will and his wife Beatrice. The elderly couple misses the evening news on “the night the dead started walking,” and so are taken by surprise the following morning when their neighbor John Blount “climbed the stairs to the front door of their mobile home unit to visit over a cup of coffee as was his custom three or four days a week and bit Beatrice on the collarbone, which was not his custom at all.” Blount’s attack is described in prosaic terms, but that doesn’t mean the story is devoid of grisly horrors, as Will witnesses “some terrible things that first day”:

He saw a man with his nose bitten off–the nosebleed to end all nosebleeds–and a woman wheeled in on a gurney whose breasts had been gnawed away. He saw a black girl not more than six who had lost an arm. Saw the dead and mutilated body of an infant child sit up and scream.

Still, Ketchum’s narrative does not dwell on the undead pandemic scourging through the streets of Florida but rather situates itself within the “relatively quiet” interior of the local hospital. Will makes daily visits to see his wounded wife, and following Beatrice’s passing (and the lethal injection of her risen form by the swift-acting yet humane hospital staff) he continues to visit the subsequent occupants of Beatrice’s room. He brings the comatose patients flowers, sits with them and regales them with personal anecdotes. Sadly, though, Will is less a good Samaritan than a man plagued by severe grief. When a woman closely resembling Beatrice is “put down” by the doctors in Will’s presence, Will’s bottled emotions bubble over. He’s still crying when he returns to the hospital the next day, and is suddenly grabbed by the now-zombified guard.

When his bicep is bitten, Will feels “a kind of snapping as though someone had snapped a twig inside him,” and the widower wonders if the sensation isn’t metaphysical: “Heartbreak?” Will calmly navigates the desolate hospital, enters his wife’s old room, and climbs right into the empty bed. Lying there infected, Will is more pensive than apprehensive: “He thought how everything was the same, really. How nothing much had changed whether the dead were walking or not. There were those who lived inside of life and those who for whatever reason did not or could not. Dead or no dead.” As the waning Will waxes philosophical at story’s end, Ketchum manages to inject a strong dose of thoughtfulness into the traditional tale of mindless, shambling hordes.

Countdown–The Top 20 Jack Ketchum Works of Short Fiction: #20-#16

In honor of the recent passing of Jack Ketchum, I would like to import this countdown (presented in a series of posts back in 2012) from my old Macabre Republic blog. The ranking was based on works of short fiction (short stories and novelettes) with the Jack Ketchum byline–i.e. pieces employing the Jerzy Livingston pseudonym were excluded, as were any co-authorings with Edward Lee. Here today I have gathered the posts for numbers 20-16 on the countdown.

[Note: the commentary below contains plot spoilers.]

 

20. “When the Penny Drops”

Jack Ketchum is doubtless best known as a creator of unflinching, hard-core horror, but he is a writer of many tones and modes. The 1998 story “When the Penny Drops” (collected in Peaceable Kingdom), for instance, is a quiet and subtly uncanny tale presented by a narrator with a penchant for waxing philosophic (“It’s from the mysterious that we make the leap to godly grace or evil.“) and existentially curious (“Promise and promiscuity. That’s the business of living and the entire mystery is why. To what end? To perpetuate exactly what?”). This (strategically) unnamed figure also offers up some profound pronouncements about love, as when discussing his frequently-long-distance relationship with his wife Laura:

There’s a sheer simple joy in cooperating with another living soul under difficult circumstances that’s highly underrated. For two people who are mostly apart and provided that there’s love to begin with, every meeting is glue. It is a soft glue which allows for great elastic pullings apart, thin fibrous stretchings over cities and continents, space and time. But each strand is of exactly the same composition. It wants to come together. Its chemical goal is to return to the unity from which it sprang in the first place. And it does.

“When the Penny Drops” unfolds very much as a love story, sketching scenes from a twenty-eight-year marriage. The narrator spends a good deal of time describing a honeymoon spent on the Greek island of Mykonos, but he’s not just awash with nostalgia. He’s leading readers to the account of a strange incident that occurred during the vacation. The narrator loses and frantically searches for his wallet, only to return to his hotel to find that someone has turned it in to the front desk with its valuable contents intact. The mystery man who carried out this good deed seeks no reward, and simply leaves a note for the narrator encouraging him to “Do the same for someone else someday.”  At the time, the narrator doesn’t make too much of this unusual stroke of good fortune, but certainly senses a brush with mystery twenty years later when someone turns in his expensive ring (which the narrator had left behind on the bathroom sink in a New York bar), along with a note reading “Do the same for someone else someday.”

At this point, the story appears to be heading towards some heartwarming finale of repaid kindness. Remember, though, this is Jack Ketchum at the helm; we are being steered toward a dire twist. Mystery in the grander sense of the term yields to unsolved crime, and the narrator’s mysterious benefactor is supplanted by an only-vaguely-identified figure who shoots and kills Laura (an accidental witness to a liquor store hold-up). The murder scene is understandably a traumatic sight for the narrator, but what really floors him is the glimpse of the penny box next to the liquor store’s cash register, a penny box with the message “Take one if you need one. And do the same for someone else someday.

Grief-stricken, and struggling to come to terms with the meaning of Laura’s death (what purpose does it serve in the Grander Scheme of Things?), the narrator takes some drastic measures. He quits his job, buys an oft-robbed liquor store on the Lower East Side. “I figure it’s only a matter of time before somebody tries again,” the narrator concludes as he stands waiting with a thirty-eight Smith & Wesson at hand. “I’m not looking for the guy who shot Laura. I know the odds on that. But somebody. Please god. Someone else someday.” Violence is all he is looking to pay forward now, a fatal payback to an ostensibly innocent third party. If the narrator’s story-opening thesis holds that it’s from the mysterious that we make the leap to either godly grace or evil, then his closing mindset indicates an unfortunate plummet toward the latter alternative.

 

19. “Damned If You Do”

This 2004 tale (collected in Closing Time and Other Stories) might not feature the hard-core horror of a similarly-set Ketchum piece, “If Memory Serves,” but it does pack a nasty surprise. Writhing on the horns of a relationship dilemma, John Brewer has been making weekly visits to a therapist’s office for the past two months. Brewer doesn’t “know what to do with” his mate Jennie; she “just doesn’t listen anymore.” Brewer can’t decide between “holding onto” Jennie or “dumping [her] once and for all” (a drastic act that part of Brewer admittedly doesn’t want to commit, leading him to bemoan
“damned if you and damned if you don’t”). Dr. Sullivan does his best to help Brewer deal with his personal issues, but the story’s climax reveals that the therapist and his patient were never really on the same page. Brewer returns home to observe Jennie lying in their bedroom: “He could almost hear her breathing–that was how peaceful she looked. How she could look so peaceful and be so bloated by now that it was impossible to see the length of baling wire around her neck was a mystery to him.”

“Damned If You Do” is a terrific example of Ketchum’s ability to author a finely crafted short story, with its twist ending set up by several strategic hints. Sullivan notes instances of Brewer’s “sham” body language and evasive responses, early clues pointing to the fact that the man is keeping something secret from the doctor.  When Sullivan suggests that Jennie herself might need professional help, Brewer laughingly but forcefully shoots down the idea: “She’ll never be in therapy, believe me.” Next the doctor attempts to engage Brewer in a bit of dream analysis, not realizing how close he is getting to the truth: “Sullivan was a firm believer in dreams as metaphors for problems left untended to, each with its own symbolic language. Anything from a reminder to pay that overdue gas bill to resolving the guilt over a loved one’s death.” Even a seemingly innocuous detail like the passing mention that Brewer is a furniture maker by trade proves key to the conclusion, when Jennie’s festering corpse is shown to be contained in a “knotty pine box” built by her slayer. In retrospect, even the story’s title is telling, as it omits the “don’t” half of the maxim (and intimates the state of perdition someone like Brewer enters into by committing a mortal sin).

The story leaves off with Brewer still caught in internal debate (“Dump her? Or leave her be?), and unsure whether he can wait until next week’s session to come to a decision, because Jennie “was really beginning to stink.” The same certainly cannot be said for “Damned If You Do,” a piece that only appreciates with each subsequent reading.

 

18. Weed Species

Don’t let the title fool you: Weed Species (a novelette published by Cemtery Dance in 2006) has nothing to do with rampant marijuana use. Rather Ketchum is employing a censorious conceit; as defined on the book jacket’s front flap, a weed species is “an organism that is intentionally or accidentally introduced to an area where it is not native, and where it successfully invades and disturbs natural ecosystems, displacing native species. See also kudzu, water hyacinth, zebra mussel, Burmese python, eco-tourism, sociopath.”

The characters Sherry Lydia Jefferson and Owen Philip Delassandro certainly fit this negative mold. In the shocking opening “chapter” of Weed Species, Sherry presents the drugged body of her thirteen-year-old sister Talia as a Christmas gift to her fiance Owen (a businessman with “Baywatch good looks,” but an utter grotesque on the inside). This holiday rape will also be captured by camcorder, but matters go awry for the awful auteurs when Talia chokes to death on her own vomit mid-shoot. Still, the incident fails to scare Sherry and Owen straight; their perversion extends so far as to a sex game (later in the narrative) in which Sherry dresses up in the late Talia’s clothing, and Owen himself develops into a serial rapist and killer.

Ketchum doesn’t reserve his scorn for this odious duo, though. Weed Species takes a grim view of humanity as a whole, interpolating references to a series of despicable acts, from sailors who “butcher and bludgeon” dodo birds “just for fun,” to a mother who almost kills her daughter through a mind-boggling act of neglect, to a family in Wisconsin who keeps “their seventeen-year-old daughter locked up in the basement for three years without anyone knowing.” Not even in the narrative’s climax does Ketchum allow any sense of real redemption. Sherry, after serving a brief prison sentence (she strikes a deal with the D.A. following the arrest of Owen, who is eventually executed for his crimes), returns to society and soon coaxes her new beau Arliss into raping a girl for/with her. An armed religious zealot who lives down the block (and has recognized the infamous Sherry) breaks in on the perpetrators in flagrante delicto, but there’s ultimately no blaze of glory haloing the gun-firing vigilante:

His third, fourth, and fifth shots were for Sherry Lydia Jefferson whose head was between the young girl’s legs. He could barely hear these shots because the first two were so loud. But the woman twisted forward and slid off the couch bleeding form the breast and stomach so that he knew that his job was done here and felt such joy and excitement, such intense exultation that it did not even occur to him to wonder why his own manhood almost ancient to him by now should suddenly be aroused.

Weed Species is vintage Ketchum, offering unflinching depiction of disturbing acts of sexual violence. Yet once again the author proves that he is much more than the horror genre’s equivalent of a shock jock. Perhaps the most haunting aspect of the work is the account late in the narrative of the subsequent life of one of Owen’s early rape victims (from the time when Owen was only threatening to kill his female abductees). Janine Turner is now married with children, but she has been psychologically scarred by her past trauma, and accordingly turns into a drunken (physical) abuser of her own family members. In the end, Ketchum suggests, hearkening back to the book jacket copy, the most nefarious aspect of a weed is its blemishing spread–its facile mutation of hitherto-ordinary human nature.

 

17. “Papa”

Writing a story for an absinthe-themed anthology seems like an exercise in constriction, but with “Papa” (2006; collected in Closing Time and Other Stories), Jack Ketchum manages to produce an admirably original piece.

The story boasts an interesting premise: painter Neal McPheeters (a real-life figure, and good friend of Ketchum) is mistaken as Ernest Hemingway by a stranger in an Upper East Side bar. Since Papa is “forty years dead,” McPheeters suspects Mike Kelly (an editor of Del Rey science fiction books–“Maybe that explained a few things and maybe it didn’t”) is “either way drunk, putting him on, crazy, or quite a character. Or all of the above.” This unusual case of mistaken identity, though, helps McPheeters (who has gone to the bar that afternoon in defiance of a looming deadline) pass the time in an entertaining manner, and leads to some amusing conversation (such as when Kelly bluntly inquires, “Hey, you ever fuck Gertrude Stein?”). So in the spirit of fun McPheeters plays along, even accepting an invitation to go back to Kelly’s apartment, drink from a bottle of absinthe and “Shoot the shit about the old days.”

The illegal alcohol has a quasi-hallucinogenic effect on McPheeters, but turns Kelly’s mood suddenly surly. In the comic climax of the narrative, Kelly berates “Hemingway” for his famous hyper-masculinity (“All that bullfighting, hunting, fishing bullshit.”), his history of adultery, even his granddaughters Margeaux and Marielle’s choice of movie roles (“You let ’em both get naked for godsakes!”). When Kelly starts ranting that his guest “OUGHT TO BLOW HIS FUCKING HEAD OFF!”, McPheeters realizes it’s time to head on out of that den of insanity. In another type of Ketchum story, the protagonist might have been trapped and subjected to grisly punishment, but in this light-hearted piece, McPheeters makes a safe exit, wanders through Central Park soaking up the greenery until the absinthe wears off, then returns home and promptly begins painting.

“Papa” is a standout example of the “New York bar scene” genre of story that Ketchum has repeatedly written (I count at least a half-dozen instances of such tale-types in the author’s short fiction oeuvre). The piece is enjoyable in and of itself, but to me is also noteworthy for all the knowledge of Hemingway’s life and work that it flashes. I’ve long had the sneaking suspicion that Ketchum’s pseudonym isn’t merely a nod to the 19th Century outlaw Black Jack Ketchum but also a subtler homage to Hemingway (who lived–and died–in Ketchum, Idaho). Ketchum’s unadorned yet resonant prose certainly suggests a stylistic influence; anyone who doubts a connection between the two writers is advised to take a look at the opening chapter of Ketchum’s novel Red. Neal McPheeters might bear a physical resemblance to Hemingway, but Jack Ketchum can be counted amongst Papa’s literary offspring.

 

16. “The Turning”

Cataclysm is in the air in this 1995 short piece (collected in Peaceable Kingdom). An unnamed narrator walks the streets of the Upper West Side of Manhattan, reading signs of something wicked coming the City’s way. He passes a gang of teenage boys assaulting a homeless man, shoving “a piece of jagged macadam” into the victim’s bloodied and broken-toothed mouth. He spots grim shop-owners standing sentry in their doorways, and elderly travelers whose frightened faces suggest an innate understanding of the changing underway. He stops to give twenty dollars to a pretty young homeless woman, hoping to save her from a fate worse than destitution.

The climax of the story pulls these cryptic hints together to bring an intriguing premise to light:

He had seen it happen before. A long, long time ago. When the collective will and consciousness of an entire people had grown intense enough, black enough, angry enough, fearful enough and focused enough to rend deep into the nature of human life as it had existed up until then, all that dark cruel energy focused like a laser on an entire class, transforming them in reality how they were perceived and imagined to be almost metaphorically.

In the past it had been the rich–the ruling class who were perceived as vampires.  Feeding off the poor and destitute.

Now it was the poor themselves.

The reason the protagonist understands all this, the narrative reveals, is that “it had happened to him.” He was among the handful of Old World nobles transformed into nosferatu by lower class antipathy. Given the poverty and discrimination now plaguing New York City, though, the number of vampires will be “legion.”

Ketchum’s twisty little tale offers one last turn of the screw in its final lines, as the main character heads off to “dine with a beautiful recently-divorced real-estate heiress.” Apparently the man plans on enjoying a sanguineous night cap afterward as well, as “The Turning” finishes with a line that at once works as a scathing social critique and a pitch-perfect mimicking of the macabre wit of Robert Bloch: “Unlike most of the world, he preferred to feed upon his own.”

Countdown: Ray Bradbury’s Top 10 Dark Carnival/October Country Stories

In 2011, as part of the celebration of Ray Bradbury Month on my old blog Macabre Republic, I counted down his ten best works of carnivalesque and autumnal short fiction (not every story gathered in the collections Dark Carnival and The October Country qualified, and some selections came from other Bradbury volumes). As another October unfolds here in 2017, I thought it would be fitting to import that countdown to this new site.

#10.”The Dead Man” (collected in Bradbury Stories: 100 of his Most Celebrated Tales)

Without a doubt, this is Bradbury’s most subtle piece of Halloween fiction. It unfolds as an offbeat bit of American Gothic, concerning a vagabond who walks around–when he’s not stretching himself out supine in the gutter–claiming that he died by drowning during the flood that destroyed his farm. The townspeople treat “Odd Martin” as a local kook more than a metaphysical marvel (one resident, though, suggests that the reason everyone jokes about Odd is because deep down they are scared to take him seriously). It’s not until about two-thirds of the way through the story that the time of year becomes clear, when a group of teens try to recruit Odd as an animated prop for their Halloween party. The scene is brief yet pivotal, because the teens’ callous, condescending attitudes leave Odd in a “strange and bitter” mood; soon thereafter he decides to get himself cleaned up and to propose marriage to Miss Weldon, the lonely manicurist who has always been kind to him.  This decision in turn facilitates the story’s twist ending: the revelation of where the newlyweds have made their home (hint: Odd didn’t deal with the town’s sole real estate broker when purchasing the place).

With its seamless blend of the sentimental and the macabre, “The Dead Man” is vintage Bradbury. And if Halloween represents a time when the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead blurs, then the October-ending holiday is perfectly suited to themes of this pleasantly haunting tale.

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