Dark Turns: Tim Burton’s Ten Best Directorial Efforts

Today is the 62nd birthday of the Macabre Republic”s preeminent filmmaker. In honor of the occasion, here is a countdown of Tim Burton’s top ten directorial efforts (i.e. the list excludes works for which he was only a producer, most notably The Nightmare Before Christmas).

 

10. Beetlejuice (1988)

The effects are now quite dated, and I’ve always found Michael Keaton’s performance more grating than entertaining. No film, though, has ever made more inspired use of Harry Belafonte, Jr. Charmingly cartoonish, Beetlejuice brims with mordant wit, and puts Burton’s fertile imagination on full display.

 

9. Vincent (1982)

This short film from early in Burton’s career is long on greatness. The stop-motion animation ranks with any of of the director’s later feature-length efforts, and Vincent Price’s narration is pitch (black) perfect. The story–centered on the Price- and Poe-obsessed, morbidly imaginative seven-year-old Vincent Malloy–has a fullness, and resonance, that belies the narrative’s six-minute runtime.

 

8. Dark Shadows (2012)

This film tends to be underappreciated, perhaps because it’s not quite what people expected. While adapting the characters and main plot points from the popular Gothic soap opera of the late 60’s and early 70’s, it presents a much different tonality. But the quirky wit that Burton infuses is fantastic, and the Collinwood Manor setting is astounding.

 

7. Batman Returns (1992)

No colorful shenanigans from Jack Nicholson as the Joker, and no Prince-ly “Partyman” playing in the background here; this sequel is much darker (and more adult-humored) than the original Batman movieNot since The Nightmare Before Christmas has there been such a dark carnivalization (courtesy of the Red Triangle Gang’s strategic attack on Gotham) of the Christmas season. Batman might get title billing, and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman forms a fine feline femme fatale, but one senses that Burton considers Oswald “The Penguin” Cobblepot (an unforgettable grotesque embodied by Danny DeVito) the main attraction of Batman Returns.

 

6. Ed Wood (1994)

Any lover of Monster Culture can’t help but be enthralled by the portrayals here of such figures as horror hostess Vampira and Tor Johnson (played, in a brilliant bit of casting, by wrestler George “The Animal” Steele). And Martin Laundau gives a career-defining, deservedly-Oscar-winning performance as a long-in-the-tooth Bela Lugosi. Burton’s black-and-white biopic presents an endearing portrait of the oddball director Wood and the outre troupe who assisted him in creating some of the most legendary bad films in the history of cinema.

 

5. Corpse Bride (2005)

While no doubt overshadowed by The Nightmare Before Christmas, this film arguably features sharper animation, more memorable songs, and a stronger storyline than its popular predecessor. The foray into the Land of the Dead is quintessential Burton, a vibrant vision of a realm populated by a slew of offbeat characters. Underworldly nuptials have never made for a more rousing ceremony.

 

4. Edward Scissorhands (1990)

A Universal monster movie reset in a retro California, Edward Scissorhands offers both a cutting satire of suburban banality and an amazing array of sight gags. It is also the most moving of Burton’s films, with its message of overlooking difference and embracing otherness. Hands down, the best (if most understated) role of Johnny Depp’s career.

 

3. Mars Attacks! (1996)

Never before or since has Burton put together a more stellar cast (Jack Nicholson even plays dual roles). But the film–a hilarious spoof of Golden Age sci-fi/horror–trots out its cast of human characters only to do most of them in, in spectacularly violent fashion. Delivering yuks and “acks” aplenty, Mars Attacks! splashes black humor across the screen in bright comic-book colors.

 

2. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

What at first sounds like a recipe for disaster (Johnny Depp doing showtunes?) ultimately turns out to be a smash hit as both a musical and a horror film. Thanks to the source material’s rooting in revenge tragedy, Sweeney Todd constitutes the darkest and most relentlessly grim of any of Burton’s cinematic narratives. (For further discussion, see my piece published in the 2011 volume Butcher Knives & Body Counts: Essays on the Formula, Frights, and Fun of the Slasher Film [reprinted as a Free Read here on my website].)

 

1. Sleepy Hollow (1999)

I have written extensively on what I believe to be the crowning achievement of Burton’s career as an auteur (check out my essay commemorating the 20th anniversary of Sleepy Hollow‘s release). So there’s not much more left to say here, other than the fact that Burton takes Washington Irving’s legendary story (the best known and most renowned spook tale in all of American Literature) and reworks it into an ultra-atmospheric film that proves just as enchanting and widely influential.

 

Countdown: The Top 10 Stephen King Novellas

In honor of today’s release of Stephen King’s latest novella collection, If It Bleeds, here is my list of the top 10 novellas King has written to date. (Note: works that strain the “novella” label with their page length and really form novels–Apt Pupil, The Langoliers, The Library Policeman, Low Men in Yellow Coats–have been excluded from consideration).

 

10.”Ur” (The Bazaar of Bad Dreams)

King has a unique knack for making the wackiest premise seem plausible, as seen in this 2015 (revised) novella involving an uncanny Kindle that can download books from alternate realities and newspaper reports from the future. A fun, Twilight Zone-like read that is made even more enjoyable by the tie-ins to the Dark Tower series.

 

9.”Hearts in Atlantis” (Hearts in Atlantis)

The titular novella from King’s 1999 linked collection is perhaps longer than it needs to be (and goes into too much detail about the rules of the card game called Hearts). But this slow-burning narrative eventually ignites in a moving climax. King perfectly captures the late 60’s (counter)cultural scene and its uneasy legacy.

 

8.”The Little Sisters of Eluria” (Everything’s Eventual)

This 1998 prequel-style novella came as a real treat for fans in the agonizing interim between Dark Tower novels. The “slow mutants” in the opening scene form daunting–and haunting–antagonists for the gunslinger Roland, but are soon trumped by a group of Gothic, unearthly nuns and a swarm of hungry bugs. “The Little Sisters of Eluria” works as a stand-alone read as well as a piece of the greater Dark Tower narrative puzzle.

 

7.”Big Driver” (Full Dark, No Stars)

King took a risk with this 2010 work by delving into the rape-revenge subgenre, but he handles the horrifying subject matter as tactfully and non-pruriently as possible. The writer-protagonists’s full awareness of genre conventions helps steer the novella clear of the cliched and formulaic. King’s skills regarding characterization and plot development are on full display in this tale of Tessa Jean’s grueling transformation into a new woman.

 

6.”Secret Window, Secret Garden” (Four Past Midnight)

This 1990 novella concerning a pair of authors caught in a deadly rivalry forms a shorter but no less rewarding riff on King’s novel The Dark Half. The sense of dread mounts relentlessly here as King builds to a killer plot twist. I just wish he’d stopped there and hadn’t added an epilogue that takes the narrative out of dark crime territory and opens the door to supernatural explanation.

 

5.”Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” (Different Seasons)

While it no doubt has been overshadowed by the stellar film adaptation, this 1982 leadoff to Different Seasons is a knockout in its own right. the entire novella (versus select moments of Morgan Freeman voiceover in the film) is presented as the narrative record of the character Red, who suspensefully relates a variation on a locked-room mystery.The perils of prison life prove even more terrifying on the printed page, but King’s message of hope is also all-the-more poignant.

 

4.”N.” (Just After Sunset)

This 2008 novella is at once a fine hommage to classic works (Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan” and H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu”) and a clever and original variation on the tale of cosmic horror. Obsessive-compulsive disorder combines here with the threatening influx of titanic entities from a world lurking just beyond our own (dark gods stunningly depicted by King’s sublime prose). “N.” is an indisputable masterpiece of sinister imminence.

 

3.”1922″ (Full Dark, No Stars)

It was a very bad year for the characters in the narrative, but an exquisite thrill for King’s legion of Constant Readers. King updates Edgar Allan Poe’s tales of murder and madness and gives them a thorough American Gothic sensibility (the action here is set on a creepy farm in Hemingford Home, Nebraska). This 2010 novella also features arguably the most horrifying scenes ever written about rats.

 

2.”The Mist” (Skeleton Crew)

Ordinary people thrust together amidst an extraordinary situation: it’s a narrative paradigm that King has employed repeatedly over the years, but this 1980 novella furnishes one of the earliest and best examples. The narrative (in which the main characters are trapped within a supermarket as a meteorological/monstrous apocalypse unfolds outside) channels the claustrophobia of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, but also has all the action and grand scale of a 1950’s style Big Bug film. King assembles a varied cast of Lovecraftian nasties destined to star in readers’ nightmares. (For fuller discussion, check out my previous post on “The Mist.”)

 

1.”The Body” (Different Seasons)

This quasi-autobiographical 1982 novella features many of the key themes of King’s work: the formation of childhood bonds (as good friends face off against bad bullies), coming of age, and coming to terms with the mystery of death. More than any other work in the groundbreaking collection Different Seasons, “The Body” provides evidence of the enormity of King’s talent and the diversity of his imagination. The narrative proves that King does not need to rely on bloody horror or supernatural mayhem to engage and entertain his readers. This Castle-Rock-set piece should land on the short list of King’s greatest works, of any length.

 

Growing Rank: A Creepshow Film Segment Countdown

Creepshow debuts as a streaming series on Shudder today, but before reviewing the premiere episode (which, appropriately, features a segment based on a Stephen King story), I’d like to take a look back at the film series. Here’s a countdown of the eight segments included in Creepshow and Creepshow 2 (I will willfully neglect the nominal, non-King-related sequel, Creepshow 3), from the downright rotten to the positively putrid.

 

8. “Old Chief Wood’nhead” (Creepshow 2)

Tooth-achingly sentimental (uggh, that theme music) and painfully melodramatic, this slow-developing segment is by far the worst offering of the series. The uncanny effects of a cigar store Indian coming to life to take vengeance on the storeowners’ murderers is undercut by the resort to blatant cultural stereotypes (the bloodthirsty chief’s warpath leads to arrow-shooting, tomahawking, and scalping). Perhaps most dismaying of all, though, is the use of a glaringly white actor to portray Native American villain Sam Whitemoon.

 

7. “The Crate” (Creepshow)

Adrienne Barbeau gives an over-the-top performance as a boozy shrew of a wife, and the ostensible suspense is overdone (the initial opening of the mysterious box seems to take forever). The carnivorous creature released (dubbed “Fluffy” on the film set) looks like a cheap Halloween costume someone might rent. Filling up nearly one-third of Creepshow‘s runtime, “The Crate” proves terribly overlong.

 

6. “They’re Creeping Up on You” (Creepshow)

No doubt the most notorious and nauseating segment in the series (I’m sure that a significant portion of my present-day bug phobia can be traced back to its swarming scenes). Ultimately, though, there’s just not much to this piece, whose somewhat-nonsensical story strikes a singular note: a jerk of a germaphobe is overrun by myriad cockroaches.

 

5. “The Hitch-Hiker” (Creepshow 2)

The premise here is a strong one (a woman is haunted by the revenant of her hit-and-run victim as she speeds home from an adulterous tryst), and the increasingly grotesque deterioration of the hitch-hiker is well done as a practical effect. But the stricture of the situation (a single actress alone in a car for much of the segment) forces a jarring directorial decision–Lois Chiles’s continuous thinking out loud soon grows obtrusive, reducing the sense of verisimilitude.

 

4. “The Raft” (Creepshow 2)

The scene of Randy perving on Laverne naturally dominated my attention as a teenager, but now I am able to appreciate other aspects of this segment. When the sentient slick sucks Deke down through the slats in the raft, the jock’s violent sacking causes his leg to be bent gruesomely (a sight every bit as horrifying as that of the initial victim in the opening of It Follows). Based on the nature of the monster, this King story adaptation could have made for a tough sell visually, but the filmmakers succeed in creating a convincing float fatale.

 

3. “Father’s Day” (Creepshow)

The ranting, cane-rapping old man in this holiday-themed segment is terrifying even before he rises from the grave as a moldering ghoul. “Father’s Day” features some of the best kills in the series, including Ed Harris’s devastation by a toppled headstone. The closing image of a frosted, candle-crowned head on a platter makes for a garish graphic that might have been ripped right from the pages of a horror comic.

 

2. “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” (Creepshow)

I love King’s comedic riff (starring the author himself as the titular yokel) on H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmic-horror classic, “The Colour Out of Space.” Jordy’s steady, weedy decline is played jokingly, yet the story also jabs a primal nerve: the dread of contagion and terminal disease, and the anxiety of discovering signs of bodily breakdown breaking out. The verdant Verrill’s Hemingwayesque final solution to his human-Chia-Pet status certainly is no laughing matter, and makes for a sobering conclusion.

 

1. “Something to Tide You Over” (Creepshow)

This tale of marital infidelity, criminal revenge by a cuckold, and ultimate supernatural comeuppance plays like a quintessential E.C. Comics story. Leslie Nielson gives a strikingly chilling turn as the villain here (who knew Lt. Drebin could be so dreadful?!). His sadistic set-up (beachfront premature burial) creates a form of torment as relentless as the ocean’s breaking waves. The scenario is so harrowing, it almost renders the inevitable resurfacing of the waterlogged zombies anti-climactic.

The Best of The Best of the Best Horror of the Year

In the recently-released The Best of the Best Horror of the Year, editor Ellen Datlow collects her choices of the top stories from the past decade of the anthology series. But what’s the best of The Best of the Best? Naturally, the competition for such title is stiffer than Mr. Olympia in rigor mortis, and lot of extraordinary stories have to get left off the list, but here’s my New Year’s Eve countdown of the top ten pieces in this wonderful volume:

 

10.”Chapter Six” by Stephen Graham Jones

The zombie apocalypse has never featured two more unlikely survivors: an anthropology-department grad student and his dissertation director (Rick Grimes and Daryl Dixon, they ain’t). Jones’s tale offers a wicked-smart contrast of the heady and the visceral.

 

9.”The Callers” by Ramsey Campbell

A hapless grandson has a disturbing encounter with a group of bingo-hall hags. Campbell is the undisputed champion of subtle, unnerving detail–nowhere more evident than in this witty and slyly sinister masterpiece.

 

8.”Wild Acre” by Nathan Ballingrud

The typically exceptional Ballingrud scripts another winner: a werewolf story that deals with a survivor’s guilt following the massacre of his colleagues. Strong characterization here helps show that economic hardship is no less horrifying than a lycanthrope’s rampage.

 

7.”Wingless Beasts” by Lucy Taylor

Dark times in the sun-punished Death Valley, domain of some unbelievably creepy vultures. Taylor’s terrific descriptive powers brings a beauty to the grotesquerie and brutality of the desert.

 

6.”In a Cavern, In a Canyon” by Laird Barron

Barron’s fictional hallmarks are on display: hard-boiled narration (by a female lead, in this case), an atmosphere of steadily-mounting dread. This one reads like an episode of The X-Files set in the remotes of Alaska, but that show’s Monsters of the Week seem like Sesame Street castoffs compared to the horrid carnivore preying on good Samaritans here.

 

5.”The Moraine” by Simon Bestwick

A Lake District twist on Stephen King’s “The Raft.” Bestwick’s haunting narrative furnishes a classic example of how the monsters we don’t actually see (but can hear all too well) can prove the most terrifying.

 

4.”At the Riding School” by Cody Goodfellow

A modern Gothic shocker concerning a very private school in the California hills that teaches young girls more than etiquette and equestrian skill. Goodfellow, one of the most accomplished contemporary writers of the weird tale, delves deftly (and unforgettably) here into “a Greek myth that Bulfinch left out.”

 

3.”Tender as Teeth” by Stephanie Crawford and Duane Swierczynski

Anyone who grouses that the zombie subgenre has lost its bite never feasted eyes on this stunningly original take (concerning the ostracizing of a since-cured flesheater who remains infamous thanks to a photo that captured her mindless chomping on a baby). Gripping throughout, the story builds to a surprising–yet highly satisfying–climax.

 

2.”Black and White Sky” by Tanith Lee

Lee’s imagery here is jaw-dropping, as is the unsettling premise she extrapolates from: Britain eclipsed by a gigantic cloud formed of mysteriously uplifted magpies. This epic apocalypse tale would make for one of the weirdest and wildest disaster films ever to hit the big screen.

 

1.”This Stagnant Breath of Change” by Brian Hodge

Imagine if H.P. Lovecraft had lived long enough to write an episode of The Twilight Zone. In a quaint town whose normalcy is rooted in the paranormal, everyone is curiously hellbent on keeping a dying city father alive. The cosmic horrors of the conclusion are undeniably chilling, yet almost overshadowed by the preceding scene of angry-mob violence. Incredible on multiple levels, Hodge’s clever riff on the Cthulhu Mythos also forms one of the most harrowing works of American Gothic short fiction that I have ever read.

 

Darkness in the Heart of Town: Bruce Springsteen’s Most Haunting Songs

For over four decades now, Bruce Springsteen has fronted one of the country’s most rollicking rock bands. Starkly contrasting with the stadium-shaking anthems, though, are the more somber-toned and macabre-themed tunes Springsteen has penned and crooned over the course of his career. So as the year draws to a close (just like the run of Springsteen on Broadway earlier this month), here’s a top-ten-style list of my favorite musician’s darkest offerings…

  • “My Hometown”: Waxing nostalgic and melancholic at once, the song hearkens back to a birthplace that has since been marred by racial strife and economic plight. But to me, it’s the cyclic structure (as the speaker ends up repeating to his son the same lines his father had given him years earlier) that’s so subtly unnerving, suggesting that “getting out” is now a snuffed aspiration.
  • “American Skin (41 Shots)”The eerie refrain is fired off nearly as many times as the eponymous barrage (Springsteen’s pointed reference to the excessive force used by officers of the NYPD in gunning down an innocent Amadou Diallo). This protest song, though, transcends its racially-charged subject matter by reminding listeners that we all risk violent death as we move through our everyday lives.
  • “The Wrestler”A grappler’s account of his sacrifice to the bloody spectacle of professional wrestling–the physical and spiritual toll the sport has taken on him. The images employed (“one-legged dog,” “one-armed man,” “a scarecrow filled with nothing but dust and wheat”) reflect not only the speaker’s sense of having been broken down and hollowed out, but also a terrible self-awareness of his carnival-freakish status. Springsteen has laid elegiac tracks to other hit movies (PhiladelphiaDead Man Walking), but none match the tenor of their cinematic counterpart as pitch-perfectly as this Grammy nominee.
  • “Factory”Springsteen adopts a Gothic idiom (“mansions of fear,” “mansions of pain”) in this dirge about being turned into the walking dead by “the working life.” No less disconcerting than such reduction to soulless automatons, though, is the fact that these men have grown dangerously embittered by their blue-collar employment (and no doubt “somebody’s gonna get hurt tonight”).
  • “Atlantic City”: A song that highlights the darkness–the corruption and desperation–lying behind boardwalk glitz. “Everything dies, baby that’s a fact / But maybe everything that dies someday comes back,” the down-and-out speaker speculates on the return of luck; nevertheless, a hellish existence appears in store once he starts getting involved with the local underworld.
  • “We Are Alive”: Springsteen channels Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology as he presents a chorus of voices from beyond the grave. Ultimately uplifting in both its beat and theme (the undying spirit of those who fight for social and economic justice), the song features some truly horrific imagery along the way–especially when the speaker awakens within the cold blackness of a worm-filled grave.
  • Devils and Dust”: In this bleak Springsteen masterpiece, a soldier in a desert country (a landscape just as evocative of the American West) is gripped by fear and shaken by a crisis of faith. The alliterative title pairing signals a damning spiritual desiccation–an inner wasteland to match the battlefield without.
  • “Nebraska”This unemotional, remorseless chronicle (based on the real-life crimes of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate) of a couple’s interstate thrill-killing spree proves just as harrowing for the now-incarcerated speaker’s description of execution via electrocution. With his conclusion that “there’s just a meanness in this world,” the killer echoes the grimly philosophizing Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s Southern Gothic classic, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”
  • “My Father’s House”A dream of return to the childhood sanctuary of family connection takes a nightmarish turn, as the speaker makes a frightful flight through a dark forest with ghosts not-far afield and the devil right on his heels. Matters grow even more haunting when he awakens and embarks on a trip back home, only to discover that he is too late (his father is gone, and the family domicile is now occupied by strangers). The slow, muted music here is well-suited to the song’s story of quiet tragedy.
  • “The River”This bittersweet ballad (inspired by the marriage of Springsteen’s sister Ginny and brother-in-law Mickey) expertly evokes the loss of youthful innocence–the crushing of hopes by the harsh realities of life. The lines “Now these memories come back to haunt me / They haunt me like a curse / Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true / Or is it something worse?” rank among the most poignant ever sung by Springsteen. Undeniably powerful, “The River” floods the listener with mournful emotion.

 

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.