Kid You Not: A Review of The Prodigy

I caught a screening of The Prodigy yesterday, and in hindsight found it apropos that the previews before the start of the film included trailers for the remakes of Child’s Play and Pet Sematary. The basic premise of the former–the posthumous persistence (in pre-adolescent mold) of a killer–is forwarded here, while a central theme of the latter–parental love leading to poor choices and catastrophic consequences–resounds in director Nicholas McCarthy’s film (not coincidentally, Jeff Buhler, the writer of The Prodigy, also scripted the forthcoming Pet Sematary).

In fact, The Prodigy manifests a broad horror lineage. Its most obvious relation is to the Evil Kid film, a subgenre stretching from The Bad Seed to The Good Son (with The Omen in between). But it hearkens back, too, to The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, that ur-werewolf narrative (as identified by Stephen King in Danse Macabre) of conflicting figures in a singular body. The Prodigy is arguably also a ghost story–only in this case it’s a house of flesh that’s haunted, and the restless spirit isn’t seeking to have the story of its bloody death unearthed.

Film reviewers have failed to catch an intriguing connection that The Prodigy makes: the name of the paranormal problem child, “Miles,” is also that of the young boy watched over by the governess in The Turn of the Screw. To note this allusion, though, is also to highlight a shortcoming: whereas Henry James’s supernatural/psychological horror novella is a masterpiece of ambiguity (the question of whether Miles has fallen under the evil influence of a ghost is never resolved), The Prodigy (thanks to the precise imagery of its cross-cutting prologue) makes its uncanny aspects clear to the audience from the start. Miles’s parents seem the only ones who haven’t caught on (failing to do so until the boy is eight), and the dramatic irony drags on a bit too long.

The scenes dramatizing early instances of disturbing behavior underwhelm here because they have become overly familiar; like his cinematic brethren, Miles is the bane of babysitters and family pets. McCarthy steers the film in a more impressive direction when he touches on the taboo–the subtle gestures that “Miles” makes toward his mother that raise the specter of incest. For me, the most unnerving moment in the whole film occurred when the scheming Miles, like some juvenile (and decidedly foul-mouthed) Machiavelli, blackmails the reincarnation expert Arthur Jacobson with the threat of alleging sexual misconduct during their hypnotherapy session.

At times, the film’s plot strains disbelief: there’s not a chance in hell that Miles would have been allowed to set foot back into the classroom after his spectacularly violent outburst against a fellow student (the legal repercussions of the incident are completely glossed over as well). Trading in notions of reincarnation, The Prodigy inevitably approaches the hokey, so credible performances are a must. Taylor Schilling gives a strong one as Sarah, a mother beleaguered by her beloved boy’s bad turn. And Jackson Robert Scott is undeniably creepy as the eponymous savant. Scott, who gave his arm and his life to Pennywise as Georgie Denbrough in IT, here plays a role that recalls another Stephen King kiddie: the adorable but deadly Gage Creed in Pet Sematary.

Where The Prodigy really hits its stride is in the home stretch. When Sarah finally realizes what she is dealing with, her actions to save Miles lead to some terrific suspense. The climax ties back nicely to the film’s opening, while also presenting a question likely to linger in viewers’ minds long after the closing credits: How far would you be willing to go to protect the life of your child? I wish more screentime had been devoted to this moral dilemma, which proves much more gripping than the standard scares stocking the first two-thirds of the film.

While falling short of the extraordinary, The Prodigy is an effectively entertaining horror movie, one that just might cause prospective parents in the audience to consider contraception instead.

 

A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi (Chapter XXXI) and Sarah Orne Jewett’s “The Foreigner”

The latest installment of a recurring feature exploring just how “American Gothic” are works of literature collected in anthologies bearing that titular label. Continuing to work through the contents of editor Charles L. Crow’s American Gothic: An Anthology 1787-1916:

from Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain

The Poe overtones are manifold in this Gothic tale interpolated in the thirty-first chapter of Twain’s ostensible 1883 nonfiction book. Before embarking on a curious nocturnal errand, the narrating Twain persona recounts a dark tale told to him in Germany a year prior by the now-deceased Karl Ritter. Ritter’s story reveals a man hellbent on vengeance after a terrible affront to his family (his wife and child are murdered during a cabin-invasion and attempted robbery by two wayward [German emigre] soldiers during the American Civil War). Many years later, Ritter (having traveled back overseas and found work as a corpse-watcher in a German death-house) takes a Montresorian delight in tormenting his ill-fated nemesis when the latter (prematurely designated as dead) awakens in his shockingly charnel surroundings. Along with “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Premature Burial,” Poe’s “The Gold-Bug” is invoked via an encoded missive that serves as something of a treasure map (the stolen riches secreted by the soldier-thieves paralleling the hidden plunder of Captain Kidd in the Poe story).

Ritter’s tale is full of deceptive disguise (the determined detective and would-be vigilante infiltrates the army camp by dressing up as a fortune-teller) and mistaken identity (Ritter unwittingly stabs to death the “gentler robber,” not the brute who murdered his family). Twain’s Chapter XXXI narrative (whose frame story is appropriately set in “Napoleon, Arkansas”) is also noteworthy for its transnational aspects, its cross-cutting between a German death-house and “that lonely region” of the war-torn American South. Ritter makes a deathbed request that the narrator locate the hidden money in Napoleon and then bequeath it to the heir of the gentler robber, who lives in Mannheim (“I shall sleep the sounder in my grave,” says Ritter, “for knowing that I have done what I could for the son of the man who tried to save my wife and child–albeit my hand ignorantly struck him down”). But the happy ending pointed to at the end of this excerpted chapter is ironically undercut by the anthology-editor Crow’s appended endnote: “The next chapter [of Twain’s book] reveals that the building which may have contained the treasure has been swept away by the changing channel of the Mississippi.” Apparently, human fortune has been beggared by the caprices of sublime Nature.

 

“The Foreigner” by Sarah Orne Jewett

Jewett endeavors to establish a dark, stormy atmosphere for the ghost story told in this 1900 tale (which forms a bit of a postcript to the regional-realist author’s 1896 collection of linked stories, The Country of the Pointed Firs). A tempest rages without (“some wet twigs blew against the window panes and made a noise like a distressed creature trying to get in”), just as it did on the night the title character (a French widow of Dunnet Landing’s Captain John Tolland) died. But Jewett is no Joyce Carol Oates or Anne Rice (or even Edith Wharton), and her character Almira Todd presents a tale that produces no terrifying revenant. The dark-faced woman who appears to Almira and the widow as the latter lies on her deathbed has “a pleasant enough face” that is soon identified as the countenance of the widow’s late mother (who has come to lead her daughter off into the hereafter, where she’ll never have “to feel strange an’ lonesome no more”).

Jewett’s story creates minimal frisson, yet qualifies as a work of American Gothic in its depiction of small town prejudice. The natives of Dunnet Landing ostracize the French foreigner (especially after her singing and dancing in the meeting-house vestry is deemed scandalous). They also bear a superstitious fear of her, as Almira recounts: “She was well acquainted with the virtues o’ plants. She’d act awful secret about some things, too, an’ used to work charms for herself sometimes, an’ some of the neighbors told to an’ fro after she died that they knew enough not to provoke her.” Almira, though, dismisses the town gossip as nonsense, and admits that she owes her own “unusual knowledge of cookery” to the widow. “The Foreigner” thus furnishes further insight into the character (central in The Country of the Pointed Firs) of Mrs. Todd, a herbal-medicine dispenser who represents a “kind of good witch” (as described by Crow in his editorial headnote). In this light, it is also intriguing to consider how Almira prefigures the resident of another fictional Maine community: the uncanny heroine of Stephen King’s Castle Rock narrative “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut.”

 

Lore Report: “The Collection” (Episode 106)

Today marks the debut of a new blog feature here at Dispatches from the Macabre Republic. The “Lore Report” will provide reviews of Aaron Mahnke’s hit biweekly podcast, Lore.

 

“And sometimes, the very act of hiding darkness away, only makes it stronger.”

Episode 106 of the Lore podcast isn’t concerned with cursed artwork, or the hoarding of macabre bric-a-brac. “The Collection” references the stashing away of criminals, at a prison that has become the locus of dark lore. Mahnke’s narration focuses on the state penitentiary in Moundsville, West Virginia–a place that makes the worst hellhole imaginable seem like a penthouse by comparison. Built in the Gothic Revival style, the castle-like facility was riddled with lice, rats, and roaches, and plagued by disease; the stench of sewage permeated its passageways. Inhumane guards committed heinous acts of torture there, and the inmates were not to be outdone when it came to brutality. The poorly-guarded basement rec area (dubbed “The Sugar Shack,” a misnomer if there ever was one) furnished a den of assault (sexual and otherwise) and manslaughter.

With its violent inmates, sadistic guards, and scenes of state-sanctioned execution, Moundsville formed a site of concentrated suffering, and to no surprise, various ghost stories have been attached to the prison. There are reports of a “Shadow Man” glimpsed lurking in the offing; no less haunting is the three-word message (I won’t spoil the frisson by revealing it here) a visitor allegedly captured on an audio recording. Such ostensible supernatural occurrences require a certain suspension of listener disbelief, but Moundsville also sports an indisputably sinister history. Mahnke recounts hangings gone horribly awry, and the stabbing, dismemberment, and disposal of one inmate (who’d been pegged a stool pigeon) that sounds like a Poe tale come to terrible life. Perhaps most poignant of all is Mahnke’s pre-commercial-break anecdote about a notorious murderer (attracted by the prison’s dubious reputation) who actually petitioned to be transferred to Moundsville.

As a storehouse of evil misdeed, Moundsville suggests the prison equivalent of Stephen King’s Overlook Hotel. From its first construction to the present day (the prison closed down in 1995), Moundsville supplied a quintessential American Gothic setting. It also has continued to evoke the central theme of the impingement on the present by an ignominious past. Darkness inevitably comes to light, as the ever-illuminating Mahnke reveals in this shining example of his podcast’s Gothic sensibilities.

 

A Series of Wrong Turns: Fox’s The Passage

I hate to sound like the neighborhood crank, offering up yet another not-as-good-as-the-source-novel rant, but my shaking fist has been forced. Fox’s new series The Passage utterly disappoints with its egregious deviations from Justin Cronin’s trilogy-opening literary chiller.

The “Pilot” episode proves jarring from its opening moment: the use of young Amy Bellafonte’s voiceover (like the lazy, info-dumping dialogue the writers subsequently give to the characters) not only leads to some clunky conveyance of exposition, but also seems nonsensical (if Amy–whose extraordinary lifetime spans generations–is speaking in retrospect, why is she doing so in prepubescent voice?). Worse, such loquaciousness is completely out of character with the quiet, withdrawn figure we are introduced to in Cronin’s novel. The TV series transforms Amy into a sassy 10-year-old, and even more strikingly, changes her race from white to black. My immediate reaction to this latter switch is to question why it was made. Is it just change for change’s sake, an attempt (similar to the tricks played by The Walking Dead) to render the adaptation distinct from the original narrative? Is it a compensation for the deletion of Sister Lacey (a significant character in the book) from the series? What bothers me most here is that the change results in racial stereotyping: Amy’s story is set in motion when her “stupid crackhead” (Amy’s term of besmirchment) mother dies on the street of a drug overdose.

Not just Amy, but almost all of Cronin’s characters appear to have been dramatically altered. The novel’s vampiric villain, Giles Babcock, becomes fetching blonde “Shauna” Babcock. Cold-blooded government agent Clark Richards is given a romantic side (anyone who’s read the book was likely shocked to watch him fall into bed with [the now-female] Sykes), and is presented as a longtime friend of protagonist Brad Wolgast. Wolgast’s novelistic backstory, meanwhile, is flipped: here he’s revealed as the one who left home following the tragic death of his daughter Eva; his ex-wife Lila (played by Emmanuelle Chriqui, an actress whose painful attempts to emote consistently strike me as the expression of a constipation-sufferer) openly seeks to resume relations.

I also feel compelled to grouse about the the not-so-special makeup effects. The test subjects in Cronin’s novel undergo a radical transformation into monstrosity that fails to manifest (at least not yet) in the series. For all the experimenting doctors’ don’t-call-them-vampires rhetoric, the show appears content to employ standard bloodsucker imagery. Pointy fangs, gleaming eyes: these nemeses look like castoffs from 1979’s Salem’s Lot adaptation.

Ironically, Cronin’s Passage does trace straight back to the work of Stephen King (The Stand in particular). But such intertextual connection (though perhaps to no surprise at this point) is stupefyingly simplified by the TV series. Exhibit A (as in Aargh!): the superpowers of Carrie-like telekinesis that Amy now apparently possesses.

Judging from the pilot and previews of upcoming episodes, The Passage reduces the marvelous (and elaborate) storytelling of Cronin’s post-apocalyptic epic to televisual shorthand. The unabashed bastardization on display thus far portends a series ultimately more absurd than absorbing.

 

Prime Evil: Thirtieth Anniversary Review

1988 was a banner year for horror anthologies, delivering not only Silver Scream (which did include several reprints in its table of contents), but also Prime Evil: New Stories of Modern Horror. I recently reread the latter, Douglas-E.-Winter-edited anthology, curious to see how it holds up three decades later. The short answer is “amazingly well”; allow me to elaborate, though, on the individual selections.

“The Night Flier” by Stephen King. “Count Dracula with a private pilot’s license” (as the story’s Kolchakian investigator quips) doesn’t do justice to this atmospheric and allusive tale that forms a clever riff on The Night Stalker. Perfectly paced, the piece builds to a terrifying climax (the urinal scene furnished an image that has stayed with me for thirty years). One of King’s more underrated works of short fiction.

“Having a Woman at Lunch” by Paul Hazel. Hazel’s was (and ostensibly remains) the least recognizable name in the book, and his entry the least satisfying. The punchline of this brief, pedestrian bit of black comedy is captured by the story title, removing any real need to read further.

“The Blood Kiss” by Dennis Etchinson. Etchinson’s intricately structured story cuts back and forth between the script of a zombie-themed TV episode and the narrative of an accidental encounter with a psycho on Valentine’s Day. This one must have seemed very meta- and postmodern when it was first published, and doesn’t pale when looked back upon from a post-Scream vantage point.

“Coming to Grief” by Clive Barker. The immensity–not to mention the diversity–of the author’s talent is on full display in this understated meditation on mortality and mourning. Barker proves that his horror extends beyond graphic splashes across the page, while depicting a quarry-haunting Bogey that represents one of his most frightening creations.

“Food” by Thomas Tessier. The veteran horror reader can anticipate where this story (of awful apotheosis) is headed, but that doesn’t spoil the enjoyment of the journey. Tessier strikes a fine balance here between urbanity and grotesquerie.

“The Great God Pan” by M. John Harrison. Disclosure: as a teenager back in 1988, I didn’t know Arthur Machen from Arthur Treacher’s (and actually thought going in that the last word of Harrison’s title signified a frying pan!). Thirty years on, I’ve grown much more genre-aware, enough to know that Harrison’s tale, while rich in uncanny imagery, fails to stack up against its totemic namesake.

“Orange is for Anguish, Blue for Insanity” by David Morrell. What if David Morrell turned to writing a more Lovecraftian type of cosmic horror? One need not wonder anymore after reading this unforgettable tale of weirdly-caused artistic madness. One of Morrell’s most fantastic efforts, in every sense of the word.

“The Juniper Tree” by Peter Straub. Straub focuses here on the mundane horrors of parental neglect and sexual abuse (by a predator in a movie theater). I can remember being underwhelmed by this long, downbeat story when it was first published, and, unfortunately, it still falls flat for me in 2018.

“Spinning Tales with the Dead” by Charles L. Grant. This tale of a ghost-haunted fishing trip reads like a more horrific version of Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River.” For me, Grant’s trademark brand of quiet horror often straddles a fine line between obliquity and obscurity, but there’s no misunderstanding the shadows darkening this particular narrative.

“Alice’s Last Adventure” by Thomas Ligotti. The master of the eerie short story is in top form in this unnerving first-person account of an author haunted by the macabre and mischievous protagonist of her series of children’s books. Ligotti’s 1989 story “Conversations in a Dead Language” might be better known today, but his entry in Prime Evil is another terrific foray into Halloween horror.

“Next Time You’ll Know Me” by Ramsey Campbell. Campbell’s penchant for penning darkly witty and dreadfully realistic scenarios is evident in this monologue by a dangerous, deluded plagiarist. In retrospect, this succinct story also anticipates Campbell’s similarly deranged-author-themed novel, Secret Story.

“The Pool” by Whitley Strieber. A backyard swimming pool is transformed into a site of abysmal creepiness, and the horror of losing one’s child is given an otherworldly twist. Powerful in and of itself, Strieber’s story also intrigues because it is the first fiction the author produced following his controversial claims of alien abduction in Communion: A True Story.

“By Reason of Darkness” by Jack Cady. Cady draws readers into a Conradian heart of darkness inhabited by the literal–and decidedly unfriendly–ghosts of war. Exquisitely envisioned, and building toward a harrowing climax, Cady’s masterpiece of a novella should have long since been developed into a feature film.

With classic works by Morrell and Cady, and strong offerings by King, Barker, and Ligotti, Prime Evil bears out its titular hint at supremacy. The most important piece in the entire volume, though, might be Winter’s introduction. Tracing the nature (Winter famously defines horror as an emotion rather than a genre) and modern history of horror, the essay shines with insight. This nonfiction document alone made the anthology a must-read when first published, and makes it a must-find now for any fan or aspiring writer who wasn’t around back in the Eighties.

 

Lofty Status: A Review of Stephen King’s Elevation

“Really weird shit” is happening once again in Castle Rock, Maine, but Elevation isn’t the typical Stephen King return to that oft-horrified town.

In one sense, King is up to some (not so) old tricks: just as his previous revisiting of Castle Rock, 2017’s Gwendy’s Button Box, hearkens back to Richard Matheson’s “Button, Button,” Elevation (which cites Matheson on its dedication page) invokes The Shrinking Man. Like the homonymous protagonist of Matheson’s novel, Scott Carey is subjected to a strange case of reducing. King’s Carey is steadily losing weight but somehow his size and muscle mass remain unaltered. His scale gives the same readout whether he is naked or clothed, barehanded or holding a pair of dumbbells.

The narrative is deliberately vague as to the origin of Carey’s condition: is it medical, metaphysical, or even extra-terrestrial in nature? And while Carey presumes his situation is terminal (as he anticipates the approach of “Zero Day”) his story does not unfold as a desperate quest to discover the cause or effects-reducing cure for his weightlessness. This isn’t a redux of Thinner–Carey hasn’t been cursed by a vengeful gypsy, but instead considers himself singled out by “antic providence.” Yes, he is dropping pounds, yet gravity’s inexplicably lessening hold on him is also raising his spirits. His predicament becomes oddly exhilarating, something even better than what a long-distance runner experiences: “Not a wind, not even a high, exactly, but an elevation. A sense that you had gone beyond yourself and could go farther still.”

King is less interested in the outre here: Carey’s curious condition is used as a means to getting at the true heart of the narrative, the developing (initially unfriendly) relationship between the divorced, isolated Carey and his neighbors, Deirdre McComb and Missy Donaldson. These partners in a same-sex marriage have recently moved into town, but haven’t been welcomed with open arms by most of the populace. Whereas the Castle Rock setting of Gwendy’s Button Box felt extraneous (less charitably: like a cheap marketing ploy), here it makes for an appropriate choice of story place. Conservatively Republican in its politics, King’s fictional small town is given to provincial thought and prejudicial verbiage, and Deirdre and Missy struggle to keep their new restaurant afloat financially amidst such cold-shouldering by the locals. It’s up to Carey, then, to help the couple carry on in this town, and to help Castle Rock rise above its discriminatory attitudes.

A quick word on Elevation‘s packaging: Scribner has published a fine 5×7 hardcover, complete with cosmic cover art (whose significance becomes clear by novel’s end) and interior illustrations. The physical book feels good to hold; still, the $19.95 price tag could be a hold-up for some. Buyers will have to decide if the Kindle edition is the more sensible option.

While its page count doesn’t weigh in anywhere near that of the hefty tomes King usually produces, Elevation proves anything but slight. This thematically-resonant narrative is heavy on human decency, exploring the various ways we extend a (literal and figurative) helping hand to each other. A pick-me-up is also what King offers his Constant Readers here, as Elevation represents the most uplifting, downright transcendent effort in the author’s illustrious career.

 

Zombie Omissions: Thoughts on Episode 1 of Eli Roth’s History of Horror

Roll out the talking heads and the walking dead. “Zombies”–the inaugural installment of Eli Roth’s History of Horror–ironically begins in the modern moment, with “the monster of the 21st Century” (as the undead flesh-eater is dubbed here by John Landis). I have to admit, I was a bit thrown by the outset of the series. First, because the decision to proceed via theme episodes portends an abridged history, and the exclusion of various facets of horror that don’t fall within clear categories. Second, the skeptic in me found this primary focus on zombies suspiciously self-serving, considering that AMC is the network that also airs The Walking Dead (which had its season premiere just last week). I’d call last night’s episode of the documentary series a crypto-commercial for the sagging drama, except for the fact that there’s little subtlety involved: Greg Nicotero literally has a seat at the table right next to Eli Roth!

Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty to be entertained by here. The myriad of film clips are aptly chosen, and the show presents a slew of genre luminaries as commentators. A lot of the discussion likely will fail to be groundbreaking (this just in: Romero’s zombie films feature socio-political subtext) for the veteran fan. Nevertheless, intriguing points are made throughout: Edgar Wright’s account of the impact of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video on the zombie subgenre; Stephen King’s thoughts on the mob mentality on display in such films; Max Brooks’s philosophizing about what makes the slow zombie so much more frightening than its faster counterpart.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given Roth’s resumé as a horror director, the show adopts a Fangorial approach, emphasizing more recent, and more graphic, titles (films such as White Zombie, I Walked With a Zombie, and Frankenstein are treated cursorily). While I understand that only so much can be covered within 42 minutes of run time, I wish more attention had been given to films/TV shows that provide fresh perspectives on zombies and the post-apocalypse. My biggest disappointment, though, is that this History of Horror appears to posit a strictly visual, aliterate audience: zero exploration is made of the zombie in horror fiction. For the love of all that is unholy at the Micmac burial ground, couldn’t Roth have asked King about the author’s foray into zombie territory in Pet Sematary?

Watching horror is great, but sometimes (having) read is better.

 

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.