The grandfather of a friend of Stephen King’s truly believed that he had been visited by the devil in the Maine woods around the turn of the twentieth century. “The Man in the Black Suit” grew out of the friend’s account of his grandfather’s misadventure, and it was written in tribute to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” King’s favorite story by that author. It is first and foremost a horror story designed to inspire fear in the reader, and in this it succeeds. It would be difficult to imagine a situation more terrifying than that of an innocent child alone in the woods being visited by a hideous monster that torments him with the lie that his mother is dead and then seeks to tear him to shreds and devour him. As with Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm’s “Hansel and Gretel,” this is the very stuff of primeval terror.
“The Man in the Black Suit” is so enriched by existential themes and questions about the human condition that it is more than a mere horror story. The mystery of evil, the absolute uncertainty of the future, and the sad debilities of old age are major concerns of this story. Why bad things happen to good people is one of life’s enduring puzzles. Why was Dan struck down in his youth by the sting of a bee in the summer of 1913? What did this good, God-fearing family do to deserve losing their child? Why was the innocent Gary set on by an unspeakable evil? He was a good boy “and yet the Devil came.” Is sick old age the ultimate end for everyone who does not die young? Is Gary’s long life a blessing or a curse? Burdened by memories of his vigorous youth and trapped in a body so infirm that he cannot get to the bathroom and back to his bed without his walker, is Gary any more fortunate than his long-dead brother? Of course, these questions must go unanswered, but that they are raised at all places “The Man in the Black Suit” in a category beyond stories whose sole aim is to frighten.