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.

 

A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Louisa May Alcott’s “Behind a Mask: or, A Woman’s Power”

The (belated) eighth 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:

Behind a Mask: or, A Woman’s Power by Louisa May Alcott

This 1866 novella (published under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard) warrants the same criticism as some of the previous entries in Crow’s anthology: it is a Gothic work by an American author, but (set squarely on an English country estate) is not a work of American Gothic. Crow also misleads in his editorial headnote when he cites Alcott’s character Jean Muir as a “Scottish witch.” Jean does not literally bewitch anyone in the narrative. She is less a weird sister than a scheming Lady MacBeth, more gold-digger than hex-slinger. While her horrified victims claim she possesses “the art of a devil” at tale’s end, she is not actually in league with Satan. Her titular Power is not supernaturally-endowed, but the product of her own feminine wiles.

Alcott does succeed here in transforming traditional Gothic elements, but is not by translating them into American alternatives. She reworks the paradigm of Persecuted Maiden relentlessly harassed by a sinister suitor (significantly, the duplicitous Jean draws on just such a plotline as part of her elaborate ruse). No, it’s Jean herself who is the ruinous seducer, the heroine-villainess who conceals harm within her charms as she toys with the eligible bachelors of the Coventry family. Not merely seeking to marry into money, the proud Jean is motivated by the desire for vengeance against anyone who has slighted her in any small way (especially the protagonist Gerald Coventry). It is with this central theme of masking–the disparity between superficial appearance and secret purpose, between Jean’s seeming meekness and underlying ambition–that Alcott anticipates a staple aspect of American Gothic fiction.

The cunning con-woman Jean (a former actress) insinuates herself into the Coventry family by posing as a governess. In the novella’s opening scene, Gerald expresses a dislike of governesses in general and develops an instant, if vague, mistrust of Jean in particular (if only he had trusted his instincts!). Ignorant of just how truly he speaks in Jean’s case, Gerald later denigrates governesses as “such a mischief-making race.” Alcott’s casting of a trusted domestic figure in an ambiguous light prefigures the darkened depiction of the governess in another Gothic novella we will encounter in later pages of Crow’s anthology: Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.

 

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

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

 

7. “N.”

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

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

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

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

Nothing at all.

Right?

 

6. “Trucks”

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

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

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

 

5. “The Reach”

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

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

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

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

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

 

4. “Rainy Season”

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

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

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

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

 

3. “Children of the Corn”

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

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

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

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

 

2. “Blockade Billy”

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

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

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

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

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

 

1. “It Grows on You”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Countdown–The Top 20 Stephen King Works of American Gothic Short Fiction: #14-#8

For #’s 20-15 on this re-posted countdown, click here.

 

14. “Why We’re in Vietnam”

If the Gothic, as literary critics often note, addresses the oppressive presence of the past, then Stephen King’s novella “Why We’re in Vietnam” (part of the sequence of interlocking narratives comprising Hearts In Atlantis, but a piece that can be read on its own) definitely qualifies as Gothic fiction. In the year 1999, main character John “Sully” Sullivan heads down to New York City to attend the funeral of fellow Vietnam veteran Dick Pagano, and the occasion dredges up Sully’s old wartime memories (the novella opens with the statement: “When someone dies, you think about the past”). Sully’s Vietnam experience has scarred him physically, but his psyche seems to have suffered the deepest wounds: over a quarter century after coming home, Sully still sees the apparition of an old Vietnamese woman murdered by another member of his platoon during a near My-Lai-type massacre. Though silent and generally benign, the mamasan has a haunting effect on Sully: “She was a ghost, and his head was the haunted house she lived in.”

The figure of the traumatized veteran is certainly not new to war fiction; also, other genre writers before King (e.g., Joe Haldeman, Peter Straub, Jack Cady) have produced Vietnam-inspired narratives of Gothic horror. Still, King manages to break new ground, and “Why We’re in Vietnam” proves to be much more than a ghost story. The novella takes an utterly unexpected turn as Sully drives back home to Connecticut following the funeral. While stuck in a traffic jam, he suddenly spies a barrage of consumer products dropping down from the heavens: “all things American fell out of the sky, blitzing I-95 north of Bridgeport with their falling glitter.” This is one of the most surreal (and astounding) scenes King has ever written, but the impetus for Sully’s bizarre vision is obvious; the fancied bombardment can be traced to a conversation Sully had back at the funeral with his old Lieutenant. Naturally, the two veterans discuss the war, and at one point, Sully poses: “Why were we in Vietnam to begin with?” Lt. Dieffenbaker challenges Sully’s use of the past tense, asserting that “we never got out. We never got out of the green. Our generation died there.” He then launches into a rant that expounds upon the novella’s Mailer-esque title:

“We had an opportunity to change everything. We actually did. Instead we settled for designer jeans, two tickets to Mariah Carey at Radio City Music Hall, frequent-flier miles, James Cameron’s  Titanic, and retirement portfolios. The only generation even close to us in pure, selfish self-indulgence is the so-called Lost Generation of the twenties, and at least most of them had the decency to stay drunk. We couldn’t even do that.  Man, we suck.

“[…] You know the price of selling out the future, Sully-John? You can never really leave the past. You can never get over. My thesis is that you’re really not in New York at all. You’re in the Delta, leaning back against a tree, stoned and rubbing bug-dope on the back of your neck. […] Everything you think of as ‘your later life’ is a big fucking pot-bubble. And it’s better that way. Vietnam is better. That’s why we stay there.”

There are more twists and turns to the story than I’ve covered here in this brief post, but the Lieutenant’s speech cuts straight to thematic heart of the narrative: a scathing indictment of an entire generation’s missteps and misdeeds. In “Why We’re in Vietnam” we once again see that Stephen King is much more than a booga-booga type entertaining the masses with print versions of campfire tales; he is one of the most important writers of 20th (and now 21st) Century American literature.

 

13. “That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It is in French”

“What is deja vu?” is the correct response to the Final-Jeopardy-type title of this story collected in Everything’s Eventual. Viewpoint character Carol Shelton experiences a chronic case of that strange feeling as she travels with her husband Bill to a 25th-anniversary second honeymoon on Captiva Island in Florida. Along the way, Carol hears unidentifiable voices (“Floyd, what’s that over there? Oh shit.“) and makes inexplicable discoveries (the flakes of burnt paper stuck in hair like “black dandruff”)–disorienting story details that only make sense in retrospect.

In true American Gothic fashion, King’s story highlights the dark underbelly of everyday life. Carol ruminates: “Besides, it wasn’t just love that held people together. There were secrets, and the price you paid to keep them.” Some of the big secrets impinging upon Bill and Carol’s marriage are Bill’s former affair with his secretary and Carol’s private decision to get an abortion (she tells everyone she suffered a miscarriage). The story also Gothicizes an everyday American scene, as a drive down an ordinary Florida roadway keeps morphing into a fiery apocalypse.

The eventual plot twist that Carol and Bill are dead (having perished en route to Florida when their chartered Learjet crashed) is no jaw-dropping shock, but what distinguishes “That Feeling…” is King’s dramatization of Carol’s experiences following the accident. The religious images (e.g. a roadside billboard of Mary) that Carol glimpses take on a disturbing significance as she belatedly catches on to what is happening:

She opened her eyes and looked around the sun-brilliant cabin of the Lear 35, and for a moment she understood everything–in the way one understands the tremendous import of a dream upon the first moment of waking. She remembered asking [Bill] what he believed you got, you know, after, and he had said you probably got what you always thought you would get, that if Jerry Lee Lewis thought he was going to hell for playing boogie-woogie, that’s exactly where he’d go. Heaven, Hell, or Grand Rapids, it was your choice–or the choice of those who had taught you what to believe. It was the human mind’s final great parlor trick: the perception of eternity in the place where you’d always expected to spend it.

Or the choice of those who had taught you what to believe. Here King’s story takes a wicked twist, positing Catholic guilt as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Carol’s strict religious upbringing (nuns wielding rulers and spook stories about eternal damnation; a grandmother who gave Carol a medallion of Mary for her tenth birthday, telling her to  “Wear her always as you grow, because all the hard days are coming”) has now trapped her in an endlessly looping nightmare. For the indoctrinated Carol, Mary had been “the ghost of all her childhood days,” and now the Mother of God will continue to haunt Carol in her personal hereafter.

Apropos of a cyclically-structured story about deja vu, “That Feeling…” is a work that warrants multiple readings (once the plane-crash plot twist is known, one can appreciate the various clues that are threaded throughout the text). King’s narrative holds that Hell is repetition, but the author’s Constant Readers will be happy to return to this masterfully-crafted tale of the afterlife.

 

12. “Night Surf”

Imagine Stephen King’s 1150-page epic The Stand condensed into a 10-page short story–actually, you don’t have to imagine it, because such a piece can be found in the early collection Night Shift. “Night Surf” reads like an Americanized version of On the Beach and Lord of the Flies. In the aftermath of global apocalypse (here caused by the A6 superflu virus ), a small group of survivors huddle together “on the beach” in a now-desolate resort town. These twentysomethings also have developed a pagan streak: when the story opens, they have just finished burning an infected man alive–a barbaric act carried out under the rationale “that if we made a sacrifice to the dark gods, maybe the spirits would keep protecting us against A6.”

Obviously, these aren’t your stereotypical heroic survivors who’ve banded together for the common good. If anything, the stress of the situation (they have to wonder if they are truly immune, or just the slowest to take ill and inevitably perish) has made them hostile to one another, like a latter-day Lost Generation. Narrator Bernie spends a good portion of the story denigrating his ostensible girlfriend Susie. Spending post-apocalyptic life with her is no (ahem) day at the beach, but at least Bernie is also honest enough to admit that being around him is no picnic either:

She was standing in the doorway wearing one of my shirts. I hate that. she sweats like a pig.

“You don’t like me very much anymore, do you, Bernie?

I didn’t say anything. There were times when I could still feel sorry for everything. She didn’t deserve me any more than I deserved her.

“Night Surf” Gothicizes a traditional site of merriment, as Bernie repeatedly contrasts the current, grave state of the beach (with its deserted lifeguard tower “pointing toward the sky like a finger bone”) to the old glory days of fun in the sun for the general public. The story also hauntingly underscores the cosmic indifference to human life and death. Standing watching the waves crash against the shore, Bernie thinks: “And if we were the last people on earth, so what? This would go on as long as there was a moon to pull the water.” While The Stand  superimposes supernatural elements onto its disaster storyline, “Night Surf” pounds the reader with the fatalistic tenets of literary naturalism.

 

11. Cycle of the Werewolf

First, for those who would accuse me of fudging: I hold that Cycle of the Werewolf qualifies as “short fiction” as defined for the purposes of this countdown. The book’s page count shrinks considerably when you take away all the Bernie Wrightson illustrations, and the actual text of the narrative places it squarely within the novelette range.

In this werewolf equivalent to Salem’s Lot, a “shadow” has fallen over Tarker’s Mills, Maine, a quaint little town “where baked bean church suppers are a weekly event, where small boys and girls still bring apples to their teachers, where the Nature Outings of the Senior Citizens’ Club are religiously reported in the weekly paper. Next week there will be news of a darker variety.” That’s because starting in January and proceeding methodically each month, a predator savages a victim on the night of the full moon.

King crafts an engrossing mystery regarding the human identity of the werewolf, while sounding notes of duplicity and distrust. In a fevered dream, the Reverend Lester Lowe preaches a Homecoming Sermon whose subject is THE BEAST WALKS AMONG US: “he may smile and say he is your neighbor, but oh my brethren, his teeth are sharp.” Likewise, Constable Neary opines while sitting in the town barbershop that the Full Moon Killer “could be anybody–a teller at the bank, a gas-jockey at one of those stations out on the Town Road, maybe even someone right here now.” Neary’s theory is that Tarker’s Mills is dealing with an ordinary lunatic, a “werewolf” only “in the sense of being an animal inside and looking perfectly normal outside.” The irony, of course, is that besides the the actual supernatural creature plaguing it, Tarker’s Mills has plenty of residents who fit Neary’s description–such as the hardly-mild-mannered librarian Milt Sturmfuller, who “puts his wife in the hospital over a bit of egg that the dishwasher didn’t take off one of the plates” (don’t worry, this brute receives his lycanthropic comeuppance in November).

Appropriately, the least likely suspect proves to be the werewolf (“it was simply impossible to think of that person, of all persons, being the killer.  Neary would have believed his mother the killer before he would have believed that“). In a terrific scene, the monster (in human form under a waning moon) is finally unmasked on Halloween night by a trick-or-treating child.

As seen most recently in Under the Dome, King is a master of the small-town-besieged storyline. Never though, has he written more succinctly and entertainingly on the subject than in the dozen episodes of this calendrical narrative. The months fly by like minutes in Cycle of the Werewolf, a gripping (and at times grisly) work of American Gothic short fiction.

 

10. “The Reaper’s Image”

This very early story (first published in 1969, and later collected in Skeleton Crew) showcases King’s precocious talent, his mastery of atmosphere and setting. The action takes place inside the Samuel Claggert Memorial Private Museum, a quintessentially Gothic locale with its “suit of armor guarding the shadows of the second-floor corridor,” its “grotesque scrolled candelabra,” its “maze of statuary,” and its “ghastly glaring portrait[s].”

As potential buyer Johnson Spangler and tour guide Mr. Carlin wind their way toward the upper levels of the Claggert mansion, the atmosphere grows ever more oppressive, conveying “a smell of long-dead flies in shadowy corners, of wet rot and creeping wood lice behind the plaster. The smell of age. It was a smell common only to museums and mausoleums.” The two men climb up into the attic through a trapdoor in the ceiling, and enter a cobweb-strewn gable storeroom that houses the item of Spengler’s interest: the DeIver looking glass. The mirror, crafted by John DeIver in Elizabethan-era England, is a magnificent object in and of itself, but also bears a spotted history. Select gazers have reported glimpsing an ominous hooded figure looming behind their reflection in the mirror; their strange claims prove even more memorable when these unfortunate viewers each vanish without a trace soon thereafter. Spangler, naturally, scoffs at such superstitious tales, until he has a first-hand encounter with the mirror’s dark mysteries.

The brilliance of this 8-page gem is that the looking glass’s transatlantic trajectory (it plagued a British duchess, then later a Pennsylvania rug merchant and a New York judge once the object was shipped to America) reflects the story’s own literary turn. King might be working here with traditional Gothic props, but he situates them within a distinctly American context. Instead of simply offering readers a (European) castle anomalously transposed onto U.S. soil, he presents the antique-cluttered manse of a late-19th Century captain of American industry. In this light, it’s surely no coincidence that one of the mirror’s latter-day victims is given the surname “Bates,” the same as the main character in Robert Bloch’s prototypical novel of American Gothic, Psycho.

“The Reaper’s Image” is often overshadowed by King’s subsequent, more expansive horror stories, but this finely-crafted early work has the capacity to make a haunting impression on anyone who stops to lay eyes on it.

 

9. “The Revelations of ‘Becka Paulson”

Note: While best known as a chapter within the King novel The Tommyknockers, this piece was also published as an ostensible short story in a July 1984 issue of Rolling Stone, in an October 1985 special hardcover edition of Skeleton Crew, and in the 1991 anthology I Shudder at Your Touch.

King revels in the low-brow and grotesque in this satiric shocker. Overweight housewife ‘Becka Paulson (a woman who believes that “half a coffee cake and a beer stein filled with cherry Za-Rex” constitutes a “little snack”) begins to receive telepathic communications from the framed picture of Jesus set upon her television. The picture (a wedding present from ‘Becka’s sister) shows the member of the Holy Trinity “in lifelike 3-D,” with His hair combed “a little bit like Elvis after Elvis got out of the Army.” Undoubtedly self-aware of the absurdity of his story premise, King squeezes some (borderline blasphemous) comedy out of it:

Below Him, on the screen, a couple of animated salad bowls were dancing in appreciation of the Hidden Valley ranch dressing they were about to receive. “And I’d like you to please turn that crap off, if you don’t mind. We can’t talk with that thing running. Also, it makes My feet tingle.”

The actual content of Jesus and ‘Becka’s talks, though,  pushes this story squarely into American Gothic territory. As Jesus reveals the secrets of Haven’s various residents, the dark side of everyday life in Anytown U.S.A. is brought into sharp focus. For instance, Moss Harlingen–a poker buddy of ‘Becka’s husband Joe–killed his own father on a hunting trip, a murder made to look like an accident. Moss believed he was committing this crime in order to inherit his father’s wealth, but his real, underlying motive was vengeance for the sexual abuse his father heaped upon him as a child (“incidents of buggery” that Moss has since repressed). There are other sordid examples in the story to choose from, but perhaps the most interesting aspect here is ‘Becka’s reactions to Jesus’s revelations. She’s sickened by, yet ravenous for, the dirt dished out to her, finding such gossip terribly compelling: “She couldn’t live with such an awful outpouring. She couldn’t live without it, either.”

In the course of her conversations with Christ, ‘Becka learns that her husband has been having an affair with a co-worker down at the post office. Rather than encouraging her to turn the other cheek, Jesus helps ‘Becka get revenge by instructing her how to booby-trap her television so that it electrocutes Joe when he turns it on. Here the hints of apocalypse in the story’s title take on new meaning. ‘Becka is too slow to realize that she hasn’t been communicating with her Lord and Savior–she’s been manipulated by the alien Tommyknockers. At the last instant she tries to rescue Joe, but only ends up electrocuting herself as well. Joe’s eyes “burst like grapes in the microwave”; ‘Becka is driven by the voltage “up onto her toes like the world’s heftiest ballerina en pointe.” As the couple drop dead while their home goes up in flames, King’s darkly humorous story draws to a horrific conclusion.

Lesser hands might have reduced this story to the literary equivalent of an episode of 1000 Ways to Die, but King, with his knack for colorful characterization and the dramatization of small-town intrigue, has produced a memorable piece of American Gothic fiction.

 

8. “All That You Love Will Be Carried Away”

The setting for this short story (originally published in the New Yorker, and collected in Everything’s Eventual) is quintessential American Gothic: the outskirts of Lincoln, Nebraska, where the wind has “that quality of empty amplification one encounters only in the country’s flat midsection,” and where “if you switched over to AM you could still hear angry old men calling down hellfire.” Traveling salesman Alfie Zimmer has just arrived at a Motel 6 on I-80, but plans (having been worn down by his lonely life on the open road, away from his family) to check out early via a .38 revolver.

But there are some unexpected complications to Alfie’s sad, simple plan. For the past seven years, he’s been carrying around a pocket notebook, filled with the transcriptions of graffiti phrases spied on the walls of rest stops across the Midwest. Sayings like “Here I sit, cheeks aflexin’, giving birth to another Texan,” “Don’t chew the Trojan Gum it tastes just like rubber,” “Elvis killed Big Pussy,” “1380 West Avenue kill my mother TAKE HER JEWELS,” “Nobody here even if there is,” and the titular “All that you love will be carried away.” For Alfie, these phrases aren’t just shithouse wit; he senses an underlying profundity to the poetic “messages from the interstate”: “something was going on here, and it wasn’t frothy.” He’s never considered the scrawls the “ravings of lunatics,” but now worries that the contents of his notebook will be mistaken as some bizarre suicide note (and that his wife and daughter will be subsequently stigmatized as the surviving family of a crazy man). So Alfie decides to dispense with the notebook, even though he hates “the idea of just flushing it away”–a line that also evokes Alfie’s ultimate ambivalence about killing himself.

Finally, Alfie ventures outside, prepares to toss the notebook into the snowy field of the solitary, Capote-esque farmhouse in the distance. At the last instant, though, Alfie strikes a bargain with himself. If the farm’s spark lights reappear within the next minute, he won’t blow his own brains out but rather will try to write the book (working title: “I Killed Ted Bundy”: The Secret Transit Code of America’s Highways) he’s often contemplated composing:

To write a book like that, he thought, you’d have to begin by talking about how it was to measure distance in green mile markers, and the very width of the land, and how the wind sounded when you got out of your car at one of those rest areas in Oklahoma or North Dakota. How it sounded almost like words. You’d have to explicate the silence, and how the bathrooms always smelled of piss and the great hollow farts of departed travelers, and how in that silence the voices on the walls began to speak. The voices of those who had written and then moved  on. The telling would hurt, but if the wind dropped and the spark lights of the farm came back, he’d do it anyway.

“All That You Love Will Be Carried Away”: understated, open-ended, and absolutely unforgettable. At one point King writes that “to Alfie, the voice giving [the weather report over rest-area loud speakers] sounded haunted, the voice of a ghost running through the vocal cords of a corpse”; the reader might easily say the same of King’s own narration in this non-supernatural masterpiece.

 

Countdown–The Top 20 Stephen King Works of American Gothic Short Fiction: #20-#15

The following is a compilation/republication of a series of posts that appeared in the final months of 2010 on my old (then brand-new) Macabre Republic blog. The countdown was confined to short stories and novelettes (longer works such as “The Mist” or the novellas in Different Seasons and Four Past Midnight were not considered) that exemplified the American Gothic (i.e. a tale such as the London-set “Crouch End” didn’t qualify). 

 

20. “Morning Deliveries (Milkman #1)”

This brief Skeleton Crew story (which King culled, along with the companion piece, “Big Wheels: A Tale of the Laundry Game,” from an aborted novel) packs some potent prose into its five pages. The narrative opens with the scene of a bucolic neighborhood at daybreak–big maple trees, hopscotch-gridded sidewalks, sparrows sporting in birdbaths, a sky “already bluer than a baby’s eye, and patched with guileless little fair-weather clouds…the ones baseball players called ‘angels.'” Such placidity, though, is soon disrupted by the rumble of a milk truck whose journey began somewhere back in the dark. The vehicle proves to be a rolling nightmare, with a “bloodstained meathook” hanging from the roof of the cab, and a murky rear compartment rife with a “sunken, buggy smell.” And the driver himself is just as sinister. You see, this milkman (the aptly-named Spike) is a madman, a human monster in a uniform. Spike likes to give select customers on his route a little something extra…such as a live tarantula in the chocolate milk, acid gel in the all-purpose cream, and belladonna in the eggnog.

King’s story is perhaps more surreal than logical (one would think that Spike’s misdeeds could be traced back to him fairly easily), yet still chills. In the conclusion, Spike steps inside a vacant, “crypt-cold” home on his route to observe what the reader must presume is the end result of his handiwork: “A huge splotch of drying blood covered part of one [living room] wall. It looked like a psychiatrist’s inkblot. In the center of it a crater had been gouged deeply into the plaster. There was a matted clump of hair in this crater, and a few splinters of bone.” Spike nods in approval of the grue, then exits and resumes his psychopathic route, convinced that “a fine day” is brightening all around. Morning’s normal glory is thus eclipsed, as King succeeds in thoroughly Gothicizing an idyllic American scene.

Milkmen might be obsolete figures in our modern world, but Spike Milligan’s commitment to his craft won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

 

19. “Rest Stop”

While driving home late at night from a Florida mystery writers group meeting, John Dykstra ponders his double life as a “literary werewolf” (by day he is an urbane professor of English at FSU, but he moonlights as an author–under the pseudonym “Rick Hardin”–of a series of crime novels featuring the “urban warrior” hitman-character, the “Dog”). This duality comes into play when a pressing need to relieve himself leads Dykstra to pull off at a highway rest stop. At first he is paralyzed when he overhears a man brutally beating his pregnant girlfriend inside the women’s room, but then Dykstra finds the courage to intervene by turning to his Hardin alter ego.

The only problem is, “Hardin” proves more vigilante than knight in shining armor, using excessive force to subdue the abusive male, Lee. Hardin is surprised by his own actions after giving the prostrate figure a sharp kick in the hip, but what dismays him even more is “that he wanted to do it again, and harder. He liked that cry of pain and fear, could do with hearing it again.” And then he can’t help but wonder “how hard he could kick old Lee-Lee in the left ear without sacrificing accuracy for force.” When first approaching the rest stop, Dykstra’s writerly imagination pictures a lone missile command silo somewhere in the American heartland, “and the guy in charge is suffering from some sort of carefully-concealed (but progressive) mental illness.” The final turn of the screw in King’s story, though, is that such burgeoning craziness might be an apt description of Dykstra/Hardin himself.

King has gone the “unruly pseudonym” route before (cf. The Dark Half), but never as succinctly as he does here in “Rest Stop” (incidentally, in the notes at the end of Just After Sunset, King explains that the story was drawn from a similar experience inside a Florida rest stop, a situation that forced him to think, “I’ll have to summon my inner Richard Bachman here, because he’s tougher than me.). The story points to the savagery always lurking just beneath the surface of human civility; Dykstra realizes that “under the right circumstances, anyone could end up anywhere, doing anything.” Besides drawing on the Jekyll-and-Hyde archetype, the story utilizes the time-honored motif of the “wrong turn” (while facing the predicament of how to deal with the ruckus inside the women’s room, Dykstra deems his stopping off at that particular rest area “the evening’s great mistake”). But perhaps what truly distinguishes this work of American Gothic is King’s depiction of the rest-stop setting. Even at the best of times, these way stations have a forlorn air about them; after all, they are designed to facilitate transience (an appropriate ad banner might be “Eat. Excrete. Retreat.”). And when encountered in their desolate, late-night state, they can be downright ominous. King seems well aware of this as he transforms a rest stop on the open road between Jacksonville and Sarasota into a Gothic locale, complete with missing children posters papering the walls and alligators presumably lying in the building’s swampy perimeter.

So next time you’re out riding the highway in the wee hours of the morning and you feel nature calling you as you come up on a rest stop, just remember: good things come to those who wait until they get home.

 

18. “Dolan’s Cadillac”

In this dark-crime novella collected in Nightmares & Dreamscapes, King modernizes and Americanizes Edgar Allan Poe’s classic revenge tale, “The Cask of Amontillado” (which is set in an unnamed European city during Carnival season). Would-be government witness Elizabeth Robinson is killed by a car bomb before she can ever testify against the titular gangster Dolan. And so for the next nine years her husband watches and waits (all the while goaded by the ghostly voice of his dead wife inside his head) for the opportunity to dish out appropriate retribution. Finally, Robinson hatches a plan to dig “the world’s longest grave” on a dark desert highway stretching between Los Angeles and Las Vegas; he will bury Dolan alive inside the very Sedan DeVille he is chauffeured around in, converting the vehicle into “an upholstered eight-cylinder fuel-injected coffin.”

King’s narrative skills are perfectly employed in this self-described “archetypal horror story, with its mad narrator and its account of a premature burial in the desert.” The author ratchets up the suspense as only he can, detailing Robinson’s rigors and fears as the still-grieving widower sets up his elaborate trap. The climactic confrontation between Robinson and the trapped Dolan is also a virtuoso act of scene-building on King’s part. Here the echoes of Poe’s Montresor and Fortunato characters grow quite strong, as Robinson answers his victim’s screams with those of his own, and mocks Dolan’s desperate cries:

“For the love of God!” he shrieked. “For the love of God, Robinson!”

“Yes,” I said, grinning. “For the love of God.”

I put the chunk of asphalt in neatly next to its neighbor, and although I listened, I heard him no more.

Still, this isn’t the end of the story, because Robinson (even as he succeeds in his murderous scheme) becomes haunted by the bogeyman image/mad laughter of Dolan. King proves to be an astute student of Poe, picking up on a key (yet often overlooked) fact of Montresor’s narration: for all its superficial bravado, Montresor’s tale–told fifty years post facto–has an undercurrent of guilt and dread running through it. As Robinson’s sanity caves inward, the reader of King’s novella is forced to consider that much like the patch of faux roadway that dooms Dolan, vengeance might not be all it’s cracked up to be.

 

17. “The Last Rung on the Ladder”

King’s short story from his first fiction collection, Night Shift, draws on the Gothic convention of the mysterious letter–a message sent to the narrator Larry by his sister Kitty, the contents of which Larry holds back from readers. “The Last Rung on the Ladder” is also a distinctly American piece, as Larry flashes back to the rural Nebraska scene where he and his sister “grew up hicks”: “In those days all the roads were dirt except Interstate 80 and Nebraska Route 96, and a trip to town was something you waited three days for.” Sometimes Larry and Kitty would entertain themselves in the family’s barn, by climbing the ladder leading up to the third loft, shimmying out along the crossbeam, and then stepping off and plunging into the haymow seventy feet below. But these invigorating frolics take an ominous turn when the rickety old ladder splinters as Kitty scales it, leaving her dangling from the last rung. Larry scurries to build an improvised hay mound beneath her just before she slips and falls, and the only physical damage Kitty suffers from the mishap is a broken ankle.

Tragedy, though, has not been averted, merely postponed. Flashing forward again to the present, Larry reveals the reason he and his father have just returned from California: they were there to attend Kitty’s funeral. Nine days earlier, Kitty committed suicide by jumping from the top of an insurance building in Los Angeles.

Larry’s narrative ultimately addresses not “the incident in the barn” but the more profound fall from innocence. He now carries in his wallet a terrible news clipping about Kitty, “the way you carry something heavy, because carrying it is your work. The headline reads: CALL GIRL SWAN DIVES TO HER DEATH.” Larry bears a huge burden of guilt, because if he hadn’t fallen out of touch with his sister, she might not have ended up jumping from the insurance building. He concludes by finally sharing the contents of the letter he received from Kitty: an obvious cry for help in which she states she would have been better off if she’d died that day in the barn. The letter is postmarked two weeks prior to her suicide, but Larry didn’t receive it in time, because he never provided Kitty with his current address as they drifted apart over the years. Larry’s realization of his own negligence, his failure to help save Kitty from her fatal descent through adult life, makes for a devastating denouement.

“The Last Rung on the Ladder” is a human story, a heartbreaking story. It serves as an early indication that Stephen King has more to offer than just monsters and carnage; he is also a master of quiet horror.

 

16. “Premium Harmony”

Note: While this story appears in King’s most recent collection, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, it was first published in The New Yorker in November 2009.

A decade together has drained the magic from Ray and Mary Burkett’s marriage. Argument is now their primary form of communication, as seen on their drive through the economically-depressed town of Castle Rock. They are headed over to the Wal-Mart to buy some grass seed (King stocks the story with calculatedly banal detail) when Mary insists they stop off at the Quik-Pik so she can purchase a purple kickball for her niece. Tempers flare when Mary balks at buying Ray a pack of cigarettes; he proceeds to taunt her about her weight and her fondness for snack cakes. As the first scene closes, King brilliantly illustrates the petty animosity that results from a long life with a so-called loved one: Ray has “parked too close to the concrete cube of a building and she has to sidle until she’s past the trunk of the car, and he knows she knows he’s looking at her, seeing how she’s now so big she has to sidle. He knows she thinks he parked close to the building on purpose, to make her sidle, and maybe he did.”

Ray waits in the car with the family dog Biznezz, but is summoned inside by a worker minutes later after the thirty-five-year-old Mary drops dead of a heart attack. The scene inside the Quik-Pik is painted with blackly comic strokes, as Mary lies sprawled next to a kickball-filled wire rack whose sign proclaims “Hot Fun In the Summertime,” and as the store manager Mr. Ghosh offers to drape a souvenir T-shirt (“My Parents Were Treated Like Royalty in Castle Rock and All I Got Was This Lousy Tee-Shirt”) over Mary’s face. Ray hardly comes across as a nobleman here; his thoughts are in turn lascivious (he speculates that if he returned to the store next week, the counter girl would “toss him a mercy fuck”), racist (he isn’t thrilled by the idea of the dark-skinned Mr. Ghosh performing artificial respiration on Mary), and insensitive (he believes a woman standing there holding a bag of Bugles should be the one lying on the floor, since she’s even fatter than Mary).

Basking in his “celebrity” status as a sudden widower, Ray lingers in the store after the ambulance leaves with his wife’s body. He drinks soda, eats some Bugles, and converses with the other customers and the store employees before finally disembarking. Returning to his car nearly two hours after first pulling up at the Quick-Pik, Ray is greeted by another corpse: the forgotten Biznezz is now lying belly-up in the backseat, killed by the sweltering heat. “Great sadness and amusement sweep over [Ray] as he looks at the baked Jack Russell”; he starts to cry and bemoans his double loss, but he might just be going through the motions (he thinks that “[i]t’s a relief to sound just right for the situation”). Ray’s mixed reaction here in the conclusion underscores the ambivalence that lies at the heart of King’s understated story. The reader is left to ponder: is Ray simply contemptible, or just a common man, humanly flawed? That unsettling second possibility is what transforms “Premium Harmony” into an intriguing work of American Gothic fiction.

 

15. “Chattery Teeth”

King doubles the frisson in this Nightmares & Dreamscapes piece, melding the “psychotic hitchhiker” story with the tale of carnivalesque horror. Traveling salesman Bill Hogan picks up two dangerous items when he stops off at the low-rent emporium known as Scooter’s Grocery and Roadside Zoo. The first is a cagey young drifter who dubs himself Bryan Adams (after glimpsing the singer’s CD in Bill’s van); the second is the eponymous novelty. Bill and company set off on a ride through the Nevada desert during a mounting dust storm that turns the open road into a Gothic locale: “skirls of sand running across the desert floor” are likened to “fleeing ghost-children,” and passing cars and trucks “loom out of the blowing sand like a prehistoric phantom with round blazing eyes.” The excursion takes an even darker turn when Bryan Adams proceeds to pull a knife on Bill; chafing at the attempted robbery (he’s been victimized before by a hitchhiker), Bill wrecks rather than surrenders his van.

Angry as a rattler, Bryan Adams strikes out at Bill, who has been trapped in his seat belt by the accident. But then our seemingly hapless hero receives some unexpected (by him, not the reader) aid: the presumed-broken, jumbo-sized Chattery Teeth come to life and attack Bryan Adams. King’s talent for transforming innocuous objects (e.g., cymbal-clashing monkeys, speed-ironing laundry machines) into terrible instruments is on full display in this Creepshow-esque climax of graphic comeuppance. The Chattery Teeth hardly seem jokey when they clamp down on Bryan Adams’s nose and then drop down to take a meaty bite out of another, below-the-belt protuberance (when “Chattery Teeth” was adapted for the TV-movie Quicksilver Highway, the castration scene was unsurprisingly cut out). The last thing Bill sees is his ravaged assailant being hauled off the side of the road: “The Chattery Teeth were dragging Mr. Bryan Adams away to Nowhere, U.S.A.”

But Bill hasn’t had his last encounter with the Chattery Teeth. When he returns to Scooter’s nine months after the bloody incident, he finds that the proprietor Myra has been holding onto the teeth for him (she found them sitting on the porch the day after the storm, and figured that they had fallen through the bottom of the paper bag Bill had been carrying when leaving). The dime-store item has turned up like a bad penny, yet rather than becoming unnerved by this uncanny development, traveling Bill is comforted by the idea of taking possession once more:

[…S]uddenly he found himself thinking of the kid. Mr. Bryan Adams, from Nowhere U.S.A. A lot of kids like him now. A lot of grownups, too, blowing along the highways like tumbleweeds, always ready to take your wallet, say Fuck, you, sugar, and run. You could stop picking up hitchhikers (he had), and you could put a burglar-alarm system in your home (he’d done that, too), but it was still a hard world where planes sometimes fell out of the sky and the crazies were apt to turn up anyplace and there was always room for a little more insurance.

Bill pockets his newfound insurance policy and drives off contentedly. He’s no longer defenseless against the predators haunting the open road. In fact, you could say that he’s armed to the teeth. [cue Cryptkeeper cackle]

 

Art for Horror’s Sake

Recently, I was browsing on Amazon and stumbled across this 1988 anthology featuring a parody of American Gothic on its cover. I love the macabre makeover Grant Wood’s painting receives–in particular, the uncanny cameo the woman now wears and the witchy weather vane in lieu of a lightning rod. In choosing/adapting the iconic image for the cover of A Treasury of American Horror Stories, the bookmakers clearly recognize the dark undertones of Wood’s masterwork. Judging by the book cover art, Iowa is a field of nightmares and there is something unholy about the Bible Belt.

No less arresting than the grim image is the cover’s presentation of the anthology’s subtitle: 51 Spine-Chilling Tales from Every State in the Union plus Washington, D.C. (check out the table of contents here). The promise of comprehensive terror, a national archive of frightful narratives (which genre editor extraordinaire Martin H. Greenberg helped assemble), makes this belated discovery an instant addition to my must-read list.

 

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.