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]

 

Castle Rock Reaction: “Romans”

Castle Rock has been a weekly Wednesday must-see this summer, with the series featuring a stellar cast enveloped by various dark mysteries. Unfortunately, the 10th episode, “Romans” (as in Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death”) fails to provide a perfect payoff on viewer investment. The season finale is surprisingly slow moving, with both Henry and the Kid spending a good portion of the episode incarcerated. The most rousing action–the Kid-kindled conflagration of violence at the police station–occurs midway through, and the tension never really ratchets up in the closing minutes, leading to a lackluster climax.

The episode features another visually striking scene of Schisma-frenzied blackbirds turned into feathery kamikazes. I have to wonder, though: would there actually be birds flying above the snowy Maine landscape in the middle of wintertime?

Best line of the episode–Warden Porter’s doorstep declaration to Molly about the Kid: “Warden Lacy was right. He’s the fucking devil.” Perhaps the only thing better than the blunt delivery of this line is what happens to Porter seconds thereafter: her sudden running-over by a bus full of Shawshank prisoners. Oh the irony!

“You hear it now?” (referring to the eerie sound emanating from the Schisma portal in the woods) seemed to be a season-long refrain, and repeatedly succeeded in throwing me out of the world of Castle Rock, because of its unintentional echo of those old Verizon Wireless commercials.

Young Henry’s attempt to elude his deranged father by walking backwards through his own footprints in the snow served as an obvious hommage to the climactic chase in The ShiningThe connection becomes even more explicit in the show’s mid-credits cut-in, when the Overlooked-authoring Jackie announces her plan to make a trip out west for further research (which we can assume is going to center on a certain Colorado hotel). A clever tease, no doubt, but one that also suggests that the series will be ranging beyond the town of Castle Rock and into the broader Stephen King universe in subsequent seasons, turning the show’s title into something of a misnomer.

Maybe I’ve been exposed to too many Easter eggs this season, but an idea about Diane “Jackie” Torrance’s name struck me out of the blue. Could the fact that she is both “Jackie and Diane” be a subtle verbal echo of a song title by John Mellencamp (with whom King collaborated on Ghost Brothers of Darkland County)?

The climactic confrontation between Henry and the Kid bothered me on several levels. First, the air of menace surrounding the Kid (who could disturb without even moving or speaking) all season was dissipated by the writers’ resorting to cliche and having the character lamely pull a gun on Henry. The ensuing scuffle would hardly make for a main event at WrestleMania, but it did make me question continuity: time and again this season, we’ve seen the devastating effects of getting too close to–let alone touching–the Kid. Wouldn’t such rough intimacy here mean the imminent death of Henry? Finally, that brief glimpse of the Kid’s unmasked monstrosity felt like a cheesy rehash of Sleepwalkers. Is this supposed to be some ancient demon that Henry has encountered? If so, it would at least it would make for a nice twist: after all the speculation that Bill Skargard was playing Pennywise (in disguise) once again here on Castle Rock, he actually appears more akin to that deadly dealer in deceit, Leland Gaunt.

The “One Year Later” epilogue creates a fine sense of symmetry by returning the Kid to where we found him at the outset: as a prisoner secreted in the bowels of Shawshank. The time jump, though, causes a misstep by casting aside Ruth–after the incredible dramatic performance delivered by Sissy Spacek this season, it seemed a bit of a cheat to have her character die off-screen.

Castle Rock cannot be faulted for the ambition of its storytelling, but personally, I was not a big fan of the whole parallel-worlds plotline. The favoring of unsettling ambiguity over on-the-nose horror is a likewise admirable approach, but the show veered into obliquity and accordingly did not arrive at a satisfying resolution. Rather than positively chilled, the season finale ultimately left me feeling lukewarm.

Castle Rock Reaction: “Henry Deaver”

So it turns out, Castle Rock is located in the heart of The Twilight Zone

Episode 9 launches the long-anticipated Big Twist (and one that is not completely unexpected, since Odin Branch’s “talk” of multiple, abutting universes three weeks ago). When Bill Skarsgard’s Kid character mouthed “Henry Deaver” at the start of the series, he wasn’t simply asking for the African-American lawyer (Andre Holland) who seemed to be the show’s main protagonist, but was actually naming himself. The Kid is Henry Deaver–or more specifically, a version of Henry Deaver in a parallel reality.

This situational switcheroo is appropriately jarring. Suddenly watching Skarsgard play an eloquent, sharp-dressed urban professional–a doctor nobly working to reverse the insidious effects of Alzheimer’s disease–creates no shortage of cognitive dissonance after having grown accustomed to his season-long embodiment of a mumbling, Gollum-looking oddball.

A less appreciable jolting, though, occurs on the level of tonality, of genre. Last week’s events were the quintessence of American Gothic horror, but here Castle Rock veers towards cosmic science fiction. As I mentioned in a previous episode review, the latter genre trappings are more at home in other classic King locales–Derry or Haven, not Castle Rock. And the resort to a thinny-ish MacGuffin aligns the show too much with Stephen King’s Dark Tower multiverse, detracting from the uniqueness of his Castle Rock setting.

Nonetheless, the trippy scene inside the Schisma portal was well executed; the use of visual distortion and chaotic cross-cutting effectively establish the nature of this uncanny nexus. Those shots of a flock of black birds taking screeching flight recall the psychopomp circumstances of The Dark Half. On the negative side, the glimpses of a colonial-era version of young Molly reminded me of Sleepy Hollow (cf. the “John Doe” episode from Season 1), another series that somewhat lazily recurred to the woods as ground zero for anything weird or occult.

In the course of the episode, we finally come to understand why the Kid/Henry has such a toxic effect on those who get too close–it’s a side effect of sidewise movement, of crossing over and getting stranded in an alternate world. This “Typhoid Henry” revelation does make for an original explanation, but the resulting erasure of any conscious intent of malicious impact is a disappointment. “The Devil Made Them Do It” would have been too cliched, but “Stranger in a Strange Land” alone  proves an unsatisfactory substitute.

“Henry Deaver” not only goes a long way to clarifying the show’s story arc, but also serves to set up the direction that Castle Rock will likely take in subsequent seasons. Whereas American Horror Story can range across the country with each new season, Castle Rock is limited to the same small-town setting; now, however, the show can simply depict unlimited parallel-world Castle Rocks, and have an ensemble cast play different versions of their respective characters (this would also help maintain the suspension of disbelief, by preventing the weird shit from piling up too high in the same exact place). An ambitious gambit for sure, but I still have some doubts that this could be pulled off without disorienting/frustrating viewers.

With each season purporting to operate as a standalone, it will be interesting to see whether next week’s finale furnishes resolution or opts for further plot complication and a cliffhanging hiatus.

 

Catle Rock Reaction: “Past Perfect”

The blood hits the wall in episode eight, as Castle Rock serves up its grisliest fare so far this season (amidst all the carnage, one might almost overlook Odin’s fatal skewering through the eye).

The Castle Rock Historic Bed & Breakfast–a theme destination featuring “actual murders recreated in exquisite detail”–surely earns a five-star rating in the Macabre Republic Travel Guide. To no surprise, the first guests here are checked out early; the subsequent shots of the crime scene are gorgeously gory, with the naked, slashed corpses forming flesh-and-blood counterparts to the establishment’s mannequins.

The reference to Castle Rock as “the murder capital of 1991” arguably represents another subtle Easter egg dropped into the show–a hearkening back to the homicidal mayhem of Needful Things. Viewers needed to be very astute, too, to catch glimpse of the Salem’s Lot sign when Wendell gets off the bus.

Memo to Jackie Torrance: when you find something dripping a suspiciously crimson fluid, you probably shouldn’t dip your finger in the substance and then taste it! That’s crazier than anything your all-work-and-foul-play uncle ever did in the Overlook Hotel (ol’ Halloran-hacking Jack would have been proud, though, of your surprise axing of Gordon).

Most significant dialogue of the episode: the Kid’s admission to Henry that “I waited for 27 years. I rescued you from that basement and I didn’t ask for any of this.” His words are at once revealing and tantalizingly vague (whose basement?). They also offer further proof that the Kid is not the devilish nemesis the town has cast him as.

Still, let’s not make him out to be the second coming of John Coffey; Castle Rock is a long ways away from The Green Mile. That radio report about multiple patients at Juniper Hill lighting their mattresses on fire at the same time furnishes a perfect reminder that crossing paths with the Kid can be an excruciating experience.

Gordon and Lilith’s knife attack on Henry was American Gothic galore, one of the creepiest scenes we’ve seen to date. For a second there, I thought the show was about to go all Psycho and send its main character into early retirement.

The episode’s interiors–the former Lacy home turned murder-capitalzing inn, the Deaver domicile, Molly’s residence with its shadowed staircase–really work to reinforce a theme sounded earlier in the series: the notion that Castle Rock is a town full of haunted houses.

With “Past Perfect,” the narrative pace has definitely picked up; now it’s time for some payoff. Hopefully next week’s penultimate episode will begin to resolve the season’s different mysteries.

 

Mob Scene: The Outsider

Note: the following contains plot spoilers. If you have yet to read King’s most recent novel, you are advised to go rectify that mistake before proceeding.

 

The Outsider unfolds with the public arrest of Terry Maitland, a typical Stephen King everyman who finds himself charged with an unspeakable crime: the savage rape and murder of an eleven-year-old boy. Eyewitness testimony and forensic evidence alike link Maitland to the horrid deed, but the fact that the accused also has a rock-solid alibi sends this seemingly open-and-shut criminal case veering towards the uncanny.

As the section of the novel titled “The Arraignment” opens, Maitland is about to be transported from the county jail to the county courthouse. Upon leaving, he is subjected to the lewd catcalls of fellow prisoners, the shouted questions of reporters that sound “more like invective than interrogation,” and the ill-will of outraged spectators sporting signs blazoned with “EXECUTE THE CHILD KILLER” and “MAITLAND YOU WILL BURN IN HELL.” An ominous mood is instantly set, but this treatment will seem like a welcome wagon compared to what awaits Maitland at the courthouse.

There a jostling, surging crowd of reporters, cameramen, and angered onlookers have congregated. Spectators hurl vile accusations at Maitland’s wife, and literally spit in his face. Maitland is serenaded with cries of “NEEDLE! NEEDLE! NEEDLE!“, an eager prescription of lethal injection by a crowd “chanting like fans at a football game.” What’s worse, Detective Ralph Anderson observes, is that these aren’t just anonymous protesters, but Maitland’s neighbors: “People whose kids he taught, people whose kids he coached, people he had to his house for end-of-season barbecues. All of them rooting for him to die.” A wary Anderson realizes that the local citizens “looked ready to string Terry Maitland up from the nearest lamppost.”  A few paragraphs later, a book is thrown at Marcy Maitland; King identifies the volume as “Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee.” With its call for vigilance, the title alone is significant, and the astute reader will note that this is the (posthumously-published) sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee’s American Gothic masterpiece featuring the awful lynching of an innocent man. So those cries of “Die, Maitland, die!” might be about to prove eerily prophetic.

Unruly to begin with, “the crowd teetered on the edge of mob-ism” as Maitland is ushered towards the entrance of the courthouse. What follows, though, is not a mass lynching, but the act of a single vigilante who takes justice in his own gun-wielding hand. Horrified, Anderson watches the spectators acting “like hyenas. Everyone stood out in bright relief, and everyone was a grotesque.” Anderson’s catalog of these grotesques includes a figure toting a newspaper sack, who, it turns out, is interested in delivering more than the local rag. Ollie Peterson, the teenage brother of murder victim Frank Peterson, pulls out his weapon and unceremoniously assassinates Maitland. The killing (less than halfway through the novel) is one of the most shocking in King’s works, since readers had to assume that this likable character caught in the grip of a terrible predicament would play a central role throughout.

There’s plenty of blame to go around for Maitland’s arraignment turning into a bloody circus, starting with an inept sheriff who makes an oxymoron of crowd control. Anderson blames himself for not insisting that Maitland not be brought in through the back entrance; the detective also wonders if the district attorney foresaw and secretly hoped for such a public spectacle, “because of the wide news coverage it would surely garner.” King’s strongest censure, however, is of mob mentality, of the hastily judgmental masses prone to guilty-and-won’t-be-proven-innocent irrationality. These bloodthirsty folk are also marked by a morbid fascination: the scene closes not just with the sound of approaching sirens but the “excited babble of people who were returning now that the shooting was over. Wanting to see the body. Wanting to photograph it and put it on their Facebook pages.” And as if all this didn’t make for enough natural horror, another turn of the screw is given later in the novel, as readers learn that events have been manipulated all along by a grief-feasting monster that relishes such violent chaos.

The King canon is filled with fiery mob scenes, but none more devastatingly effective than the author’s latest foray into this grim territory.

 

Castle Rock Reaction: “The Queen”

Castle Rock’s seventh episode clocks in at a whopping 60 minutes, and bigger ultimately proves better.

“The Queen” is aptly titled, as Sissy Spacek gives a regal performance in this Ruth-centered episode. Viewers get to share the sense of existential dislocation experienced by the dementia-suffering Ruth, who glides between the present and past memories as easily as crossing a threshold inside her haunted (not necessarily supernaturally) house. Along the way we learn the import of details from previous episodes, such as the dog that was buried out in the yard but doesn’t appear quite dead to Ruth. All the narrative looping can be a bit confusing (“The Queen” no doubt warrants repeat viewing), and the first half of the episode does drag on somewhat, but there is a terrific payoff at the end, both emotionally and thematically.

Ruth’s jaunts down memory’s winding lanes affords us our clearest glimpse to date of her reverend husband Mathew–and it’s not a flattering look. Overbearing and unbalanced (abusive without ever having to raise his hand or voice), Mathew forms the creepiest clergyman this side of Cycle of the Werewolf.

Arguably the most significant line of the episode occurs when Molly comes knocking and a desperate, disoriented Ruth answers the door by asking, “When are we?” My favorite exchange, though, was Ruth’s joking inquiry to Alan as to why so many magic tricks have pornographic-sounding names, and his response that probably because virgins invented them.

“The Queen” gives a quick nod to Stephen King’s Under the Dome: in an attempt to get Wendell out of the house and away from the Kid, Ruth sends him off to the mall in Chester’s Mill. It serves as a reminder of just how close these two towns lie on King’s fictional map of Maine.

Tension certainly ratchets up when we arrive at last to the scene between Ruth and the Kid. Once again Bill Skarsgard is masterful, understated yet creating an undeniable sense of menace. His quoting of the dead reverend’s lines to Ruth is chilling, and even an act as mundane as cooking up some eggs manages to have an uncanny effect.

The episode, though, is less an example of outright horror than of romantic tragedy–Shakespeare with a senior cast (and I’m not talking about high school upperclassmen). There’s a vicious swerve: after following the imperiled Ruth for nearly a hour and fearing that this will be the end for her character, we instead witness the sudden killing off of Alan Pangborn (accidentally shot by Ruth, who thought she was targeting the Kid). Just like that, Castle Rock’s long-time, knightly defender is removed from the chess board. The twist is gut-wrenching, so much so that at first the viewer might not stop to wonder if this dire event has been diabolically orchestrated by a revenge-minded Kid.

“The Queen” is not an easy episode, but it is an appreciable one. Viewers have to stay on the alert throughout, yet the work is rewarding. Never settling for superficial scares and facile reactions, Castle Rock makes it audience think hard and feel deeply, and this might make the show the most sophisticated genre series currently streaming.

Castle Rock Reaction: “Filter”

Castle Rock‘s sixth episode, “Filter,” opens with the re-burial ceremony for Matthew Deaver. I know that within the story, relatively little time has passed, but watching this plotline gradually spool out week-by-week has made the settling of Matthew’s remains seem like quite the protracted affair (no wonder he haunts Molly as a restless revenant!).

The mysterious duo who show up at the sparsely-attended ceremony appear even more conspicuous as they station themselves outside a giant camper. That vehicle could be a nod to the RV-riding psychic vampires in Stephen King’s novel Doctor Sleep, and thus creates a sense of wariness about the strange black man and his young white sidekick.

Best Line of the Episode goes to Ruth Deaver, her blunt utterance, “Coulda sworn we buried your father in that suit.” Terrific ambiguity here: is this just more absent-mindedness from the addled Ruth, or is there something sinister afoot (especially considering that the cadaverous, suit-clad Kid looks like he just lurched out of Night of the Living Dead)?

As Henry attempts to understand his vaguely-recalled childhood forays with his father, the episode leads us deep into the woods. “Filter” felt like it was approaching Pet Sematary territory here, and at first I wondered if that haunting sound Henry kept hearing was somehow Wendigo-related. Turned out to be something much more bizarre, though…

Ironically, “Filter” ends up saturated with exposition–that long scene in which Odin Branch goes on (via emphatic sign language and verbal translation by his protege Willy) about the Voice of God and the Schisma. All this mystic mumbo jumbo comes off like an infodump; more disconcertingly, it steers the story in a far-out direction that is at odds with King’s down-home Castle Rock narratives (in King’s writing, places like Derry and Haven are the more familiar sites of cosmic horror).

What’s in a name? The unusualness of “Odin Branch” causes viewers to ponder the moniker’s signifance. Anyone who’s read American Gods knows this character’s surname references the tricksy Norse god. So is Odin Branch an offshoot of that towering mythological figure? Does the name point to Odin’s self-sacrifice, his hanging on the worlds-spanning tree Yggdrasil?

A blind man could see that Henry was being lured inside the titular Filter–a customized anechoic chamber within the camper–so the springing of that trap wasn’t very shocking (Odin Branch’s sudden voicing of “Not deaf, perfect” did register high on the creepiness meter, though). More intriguing is the question of what Henry will be like once he inevitably escapes from such mind-bending confinement.

A large part of the suspense mustered thus far Castle Rock has centered on the uncertainty of the Kid’s nature. Is he a misunderstood victim or a malicious villain? The pendulum appears to swing towards the latter at episode’s end (was Alan sent off on a wild goose chase so the Kid could wreak havoc on Ruth’s home?), but something tells me there’s a further swerve coming and this character won’t prove to be the embodiment of ultimate evil.

The least satisfying episode of the series to date, “Filter” plays like a placeholder, a forestalling of more significant developments next week. Perhaps the episode will be better appreciated in retrospect, after viewers find out what happened to Henry and Ruth, respectively, and learn more about Matthew Deaver’s machinations and the Kid’s apparent quest for comeuppance.

 

Castle Rock Reaction: “Harvest”

Cataclysm is in the air, right from the start of this fifth episode. As wildfires rage across Black Mountain, a cloud of orange smoke encroaches on Castle Rock (a visual I found eerily reminiscent of the 2017 arrival of The Mist). This impending inferno hints at the diabolic, and creates the sense that all hell is about to break loose–perhaps not coincidentally, just as the Kid is released from Shawshank.

The lingering shot of the Kid’s New Balance sneakers as he is about to step past Shawshank’s gates and into freedom seemed at once allusive and symbolic. The capital “N” on the footwear echoes the title of Stephen King’s apocalypse-concerned novella, and a new balance–an upsetting of moral order–might be in store for Castle Rock now that the Kid is venturing into town.

The ostensible “N.” Easter egg is subtly inserted, but the same cannot be said for Jackie (birth name: Diane) Torrance’s reveal that she is the niece of Jack Torrance and adopted the name of the notorious Overlook caretaker to spite her parents. This invocation of The Shining felt forced and distractingly on-the-nose; the show arguably ranges too far afield here from King’s Castle-Rock-centered material (before we know it, we could find ourselves in the author’s Dark Tower multiverse).

Last week’s episode showed how an exhumed coffin gets shrink-wrapped prior to transportation. In “Harvest,” that same coffin (Matthew Deaver’s) is the subject of a phenomenon called “exploding casket syndrome.” No end to the morbid tidbits on Castle Rock!

The moments of intimacy between the elderly Alan and Ruth were very touching. Viewers got to watch a pair of veteran actors–Scott Glenn and Sissy Spacek–at the top of their game, creating maximum emotional impact with minimal effort.

Alan had the lion’s share of great lines in this week’s episodes. My favorite was his sardonic, hardly-thrilled reaction to Henry’s installment of home security cameras to monitor Ruth: “Why don’t you just put a chip in her like a golden retriever?”

The horror of Castle Rock again succeeds via obliquity. The scene in which a cake-cutting at a child’s birthday party turns into a deadly stabbing spree proves all the more unnerving for occurring off-screen (merely overheard as the camera focuses on the intruding Kid).

With “Harvest,” the inaugural season has reached its halfway point, and the various plot threads have started to weave together. What pattern is actually taking shape still remains a mystery, though. The Kid’s closing question–“You have no idea what is happening here, do you?”–is posed to Alan but can be extended to the audience as well. We still don’t know where exactly the show is headed, but there appears to be little reason to doubt that the Weird Shit is about to hit Castle Rock’s fan.

 

Castle Rock Reaction: “The Box”

Some random thoughts on this week’s episode of Castle Rock:

As Andy Dusfrene no doubt would attest, Shawshank was never a model correctional facility. But, man, based on the glimpses of the prison provided thus far by Castle Rock, an inmate might be better off serving his time in the jail in Midnight Express.

The disgruntled Dennis Zalewski offers some strong insight into the character of Castle Rock when he grouses to Henry about the town: “Bad shit happens here because bad people know they’re safe here. How many times can one fucking town look the other way?”

Best quote of the episode, though, belongs to Molly Strand. While trying to sell Warden Lacy’s house, she assures the potential buyers that Lacy didn’t commit suicide on the premises, and then enthusiastically offers: “A serial strangler died in my house, and I like sleep like a baby.” It’s nice to see that actress Melanie Lynskey hasn’t lost her comedic touch since her stint on Two and a Half Men.

The venerable Scott Glenn makes for one crusty and salty Alan Pangborn. Surely this isn’t the sheriff that Constant Readers remember. Then again, this current depiction of the character might be a natural extrapolation: makes sense that he would end up so grizzled and gruff after all the bad shit he had to deal with in this town over the years.

Once again, the series exhibits a deft handling of Stephen King Easter Eggs. Viewers who recall that Vince Desjardins was one of the bullying hooligans who ran with Ace Merrill in “The Body” will have a deeper appreciation of the adult character referenced in this week’s episode. Anyone missing the call back to that minor figure from King’s novella, however, won’t be left befuddled by the storyline.

One of the strongest aspects of Castle Rock thus far has been its casting, and “The Box” demonstrates that even a weekly guest star can give an incredible performance. David Selby is awesomely unsettling as creepy barber/hoarder Josef Desjardins. Selby also proves an inspired choice in this sense that he once starred in a show featuring the most American Gothic town (prior to King putting Castle Rock on the map) in the Maine region of our Macabre Republic: Collinsport in Dark Shadows.

Once Dennis Zalewski decided to turn whistleblower on Shawshank shadiness, he seemed doomed for an early exit from the series. Nevertheless, his demise came in a shockingly unexpected form. The climactic massacre scene was quite haunting (and expertly filmed, with Dennis’s rampage playing out on a bank of monitors). Looks like that well-intentioned fist-bump with the Kid (the last guy to touch the mysterious inmate ended up with fantastically-metastatic cancer) ultimately bumped off poor Dennis.

Through most of four episodes, Castle Rock has been a slow burn, which made the sudden violent fireworks in the conclusion of “The Box” that much more arresting. I am eager to see next week’s episode, to find out the fallout from the terrible shootout.

 

Castle Mania

To be perfectly honest, I approached the new Hulu series Castle Rock (set in the afflicted fictional town that Stephen King put on the American Gothic map) with no shortage of trepidation. I had to wonder if the show would prove another loosely-based deviation deep into left field (such as CBS’s Under the Dome), moving from the canonical to the ridiculous. Also, there was the natural concern that Easter eggs could be dropped like hand grenades (cf. the intrusive, illogical insertions in the The Dark Tower film), jolting the audience out of the story. Having just watched the first three episodes of the season’s ten-part arc, I can now happily write that my fears have been allayed.

Rather than merely (or wildly) riffing on familiar King hits, Castle Rock incorporates them as the backbeat for an original track. Thus far the show plays less as outright horror (the screen is not splashed with the same graphic grotesquerie as in American Horror Story) than as a weird mystery. Intriguing questions abound: why does Warden Dale Lacy kill himself via a fiendish garroting in the opening scene? And why has he kept a young man secretly caged in a subbasement of Shawshank State Prison? Does this strange figure’s victim status mask an ultimate supernatural menace? Why does the prisoner ask for former town resident Henry Deaver, the hardly-favorite son of Castle Rock who was implicated as an 11-year-old adopted child in the death of his (white) pastor father?

Castle Rock assembles a stellar cast: Andre Holland, Melanie Lynskey, Jane Levy, Frances Conroy, Scott Glenn, Sissy Spacek, and Bill Skarsgard (uncannily understated here, coming off his antics as Pennywise the Dancing Clown in last year’s It). The title town itself arguably forms the drama’s main character, and it is brought here to impressive (half-)life–economically depressed, with countless burnt-out and boarded-up buildings, and neighborhood streets lined with decrepit, looming Gothic homes.

The show does a fine job of unspooling its plotlines, as it flashes back and forth between 1991 and 2018 (a 27-year period whose numerological significance won’t be lost on Constant Readers of King). Looking ahead, I hope the series’ mysteries don’t end with the trite explanation that the town (much like Derry, Maine) is historically bedeviled by a resident evil. Three episodes in, though, I am thoroughly hooked, and can’t wait to revisit Castle Rock next Wednesday.