Stephen King Short Fiction Analysis
Stephen King credits writers Richard Matheson and Robert Bloch, in addition to Lovecraft and Poe, with showing him that the horror story could be brought out “of the foggy moors and the castles and into those 7-Eleven stores and suburbia.” He said, “The [horror] genre exists on three basic levels, separate but independent, and each one a little bit cruder than the one before. There’s terror on top, the finest emotion any writer can induce; then horror; and, on the very lowest level of all, the gag instinct of revulsion.” King’s stories easily fit the various levels of horror that he describes. Not particularly worried about style, he aims for the impact of plot. Not all King’s stories can be labeled solely horror; many have elements of science fiction, and many of his best stories contain a strong sense of psychological tension. Most of the stories, however, even those that cannot neatly be pegged as belonging to a particular genre, attempt to create a sense of uneasiness. King explains their popularity by how they serve as emotional releases for his readers: “When you’ve got a lot of free-floating anxieties, the horror story or movie helps to conceptualize them, shrink them down to size, make them concrete so they’re manipulable. [T]here’s probably some minor catharsis involved.”
The kind of horror with which King is most often associated, that of things that go bump in the night, is well represented in his short-story collections. Two of the stories, “Jerusalem’s Lot” and “One for the Road,” are connected by setting and plot elements to King’s novel ’Salem’s Lot (1975). In “Jerusalem’s Lot,” set in 1850 and told in a series of letters and journal entries, Charles Boone, hoping to regain his strength after a serious illness, moves into his ancestral home along with his friend Calvin McCann. They hear noises in the walls and attribute them to rats, but they soon learn that the townspeople of Preacher’s Corners believe otherwise. Between the stories they glean from a townswoman and a journal that McCann finds in the house, Boone and McCann discover that Boone’s mad great-uncle, Philip Boone, had joined with a malign preacher to unleash the evils found in a satanic bible called The Mysteries of the Worm. Boone tries to eradicate the evil by burning the book, but while he starts to set the pages on fire, his friend McCann is killed by an enormous worm. Boone commits suicide, and the story ends with a note written in 1971 by a distant Boone relative who disbelieves the evidence of the letters of Charles Boone but mentions hearing rats behind the walls of the ancestral home.
“Jerusalem’s Lot” has all the trappings of horror in the gothic tradition: a house shunned by the townspeople, inexplicable noises behind the walls, an abandoned town, religion that has been twisted to serve evil, and a monster in the cellar. The tale, written originally for a college class in gothic fiction, is perhaps the only King story that takes place not in modern suburbia but in the past, in a setting somewhat akin to the lonely moors and castles of the gothic writers.
“One for the Road”
“One for the Road,” though also set in Jerusalem’s Lot, is a modern vampire story. The car Gerard Lumley and his family are in has gone off the road near Jerusalem’s Lot in a bad snowstorm. Lumley leaves his wife and child to find help. When he returns, both his wife and daughter have become vampires. King commented that “I’ve always believed that if you think the very worst, then, no matter how bad things get they’ll never get as bad as that. If you write a novel where the bogeyman gets somebody else’s children, maybe they’ll never get your own children.” Fear for loved ones is a common theme in King’s stories. Because Lumley is afraid for his wife and daughter, he risks his own life to get help for them. While he is gone, the worst happens to his wife and daughter: They have become something alien, something that no longer loves him.
In “The Monkey,” King creates a high level of tension from the protagonist’s fear for his family, especially for his youngest son. When Hal was young, he discovered a toy monkey with a worn-out mechanism for clanging the cymbals strapped to the monkey’s paws. When someone near Hal is about to die, the monkey clashes the cymbals. Hal attempts several times to get rid of the monkey, finally throwing it down his aunt’s well. Years later, when Hal and his family are clearing the attic of his aunt’s house after her death, Hal’s eldest son finds the monkey. In a desperate attempt to be rid of the maniacal toy, Hal rows out to the middle of the lake and drops the monkey into the water, nearly drowning as his boat breaks up, while his younger son watches. “The Monkey” is an effective story that evokes terror, the highest on King’s list of horror-story levels. Like all King’s stories, it is intensely visual. His settings and characters are familiar and easy to empathize with, and King forcefully uses the monkey as a symbol of evil that survives despite all efforts to keep away from it.
“Trucks” and “The Mangler”
Numerous King stories deal with the destruction wrought by mechanical devices. “The Monkey” is perhaps the most effective, as the monkey is never seen to do anything other than strike its cymbals when it should not be able to do so. The connection between the clash of cymbals and death is made in the mind of Hal, and though it seems to be supported by the evidence, the connection could be pure coincidence. In “The Mangler” and “Trucks,” however, the machines are clear agents of wholesale destruction. “The Mangler” is set in an industrial laundry: A mangler is a machine that irons and folds material fed into it. This mangler develops a taste for blood and sucks several workers into its internal mechanism: “A devil had taken over the inanimate steel and cogs and gears of the mangler and had turned it into something with its own life.” After two men unsuccessfully attempt to exorcise the machine, the mangler tears itself loose from its moorings and moves toward the town.
“Trucks” concerns vehicles that turn against their owners, running them down when they try to escape. The trucks encircle a diner, crashing into it after their human hostages refuse to acknowledge a Morse code signal beeped out on a horn to refuel the vehicles. Both “Trucks” and “The Mangler” envisage machines that were built to serve human beings, turning to demand sacrifice and service themselves. King has commented that he finds machines frightening because he does not understand how they work. Both stories, too, while they play on one’s fear of death and mutilation, are also rather amusing in a dark sort of way.
“The Woman in the Room”
In many of his stories, however, King treats death in a far more realistic manner, and in some ways these stories are more disturbing than stories such as “The Mangler.” While “The Mangler” graphically describes violent death—fitting into King’s third level in the horror genre, the “gag instinct of revulsion”—the plot is clearly unrealistic. It is one of those stories that takes the fear of death and makes it manipulable and even laughable. Industrial accidents do happen but not because machines turn malevolent. A story such as “The Woman in the Room,” however, is more introspective and is based on King’s own feelings when his mother was dying of cancer. It is highly realistic in both plot and emotion. In it, a son visits his mother in the hospital, where she has just had a “cortotomy,” an operation to destroy the pain center in her brain so that she will not be in agony from the cancer in her stomach. The operation has also destroyed 60 percent of her motor control. Seeing her weak, unable to move freely, and with no hopes of recovery, the protagonist, Johnny, considers giving her some Darvon pills that he found in her medicine cabinet at home to end her suffering and her life. During his visit, his mother says, “I wish I was out of this. I’d do anything to be out of this.” Finally, he brings the pills to the hospital, shows his mother the box, and shakes six pills into his hand. She looks at them and tacitly agrees to end her life by swallowing all six. Her last request is for Johnny to see if her legs are together: She wants to die with some dignity. She also tells Johnny that he has always been a good son.
“The Woman in the Room” reflects on a very personal, touching level the incredible difficulty of watching a loved one experience a painful death. King’s style is as plain and as colloquial as ever; he does not try to elevate it to suit the subject. The story is told in the present tense, and the very artlessness and transparency of King’s style give the story an air of honesty. It is by no means a horror story, yet it evokes what King calls “the finest emotion any writer can induce”—terror: fear that one’s own parents will get cancer; fear that one will be faced with the same painful dilemma as Johnny; or ultimately, fear that oneself will end up lying in agony in a hospital bed, as Johnny’s mother did.
Another psychologically honest story is “The Body,” which became the 1986 film Stand by Me. In it, four twelve-year-old boys walk along a railway track in search of the corpse of a boy who has been hit by a train. The intense friendship between the boys, their silly jokes and twelve-year-old bravado, strikes the reader as real and true to life. Because they are young, the idea of finding the body excites them, making this trip an adventure. It is not until they actually see the boy’s body that they finally confront the reality of death:The kid was dead. The kid wasn’t sick, the kid wasn’t sleeping. The kid wasn’t going to get up in the morning anymore or catch poison ivy or wear out the eraser on the end of his Ticonderoga No 2 during a hard math test. The kid was dead.
Their quest and their discovery of the body are a rite of passage to which each of the boys reacts slightly differently; soon after they return to town, to their usual lives and to school, they drift apart, growing up in different directions, affected in different ways by what they experienced on that brief trip. King’s plain, unornamented style again renders a believable and realistic story.
“The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet”
“The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet” is quite different from most of King’s other short stories. It is not horror, but neither is it completely realistic. The story concerns a paranoid writer who believes that a “Fornit” inhabits his typewriter to help him write. His editor, humoring him, goes along with the idea and says that he has a Fornit too. Soon, the editor, who has begun to drink heavily, begins finding messages on his typewriter from his Fornit when he wakes up from his periodic blackouts. The last message warns him that the writer’s Fornit is about to be killed. When the writer hears this warning, he buys a gun to protect his Fornit but ends up killing himself after he watches his Fornit die. The flexible bullet of the title is madness; it kills just as surely as a lead bullet does, but in an unpredictable way. The story walks a neat tightrope between dismissing the Fornits as products of a deranged mind and admitting their existence: The writer’s wife wonders if madness is catching when she thinks she hears the dying screams of the Fornit from inside the typewriter.
“The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet” ends in violent death. The writer attempted to kill his wife and the housekeeper and her son before shooting himself. No matter what type of story King is writing, he usually seems to return to terror, horror, or the gag reflex. King has commented that “the horror story makes us children. That’s the primary function of the horror story—to knock away all this stuff to take us over taboo lines, to places we aren’t supposed to be.” King does not limit this function of his stories to those of the horror genre; whether his characters are confronting death by mutilation from a mad mangler or death by cancer, King takes his readers over taboo lines, making them confront by proxy such subjects as madness, fear, and death.
“The Man in the Black Suit”
With the publication of “The Man in the Black Suit” in the October 31, 1993, issue of The New Yorker, Stephen King created what might be considered one of his most “literary” stories. This story received both popular and critical acclaim, both camps voicing appreciation for King’s storytelling ability and his perceptiveness in delving into the deep recesses of humanity. More important, “The Man in the Black Suit” creates a psychological depth that many of King’s other stories lack.
“The Man in the Black Suit” is the story of a nine-year-old boy coming face to face with the devil. The story is recounted as the boy, now eighty, faces quickly approaching death in his nursing-home bed. The further one moves into the narrative, the more apparent the complexity of the situation becomes, and how it fits into the Stephen King canon is appreciated.
In the classical American tradition, King allows his protagonist, Gary, to make a decision that will have lasting consequences for his sanity and spirituality. When Gary goes off on an afternoon fishing expedition, he must promise his parents that he will go no further than where “Castle Stream forks.” However, like poet Robert Frost’s traveler, Gary decides to go further, and his decision governs the remainder of his life. As he moves deeper into the wilderness, Gary becomes more apprehensive, indicating to the reader that something evil lives here in the wild. After catching two fish, Gary decides to take a nap. Awakening from his nap by a bee on his nose, Gary comes into contact with “the man in the black suit,” very out of place in the wilderness. Gary knows immediately that the man is the devil and is afraid of him. The demon threatens Gary, but the young boy is able to escape, eventually meeting his father who had come to join him fishing. The father intimates that Gary may have merely dreamed his encounter with the devil, but the boy knows the truth.
Although he does write a psychologically complex work, King retains many devices that tie this story to earlier ones. The boy remembers this particular event many years after it occurred, a plot device used in It (1986), The Green Mile (1996), and “The Body.” His protagonist is a teacher and writer of sorts, the type of character prominent in numerous other works. King allows wickedness to emerge from a setting that houses stored-up evil, as happened in It, ‘Salem’s Lot, and Pet Sematary. However, the most prevalent King element is the old man’s realization that “what you write down sometimes leaves you forever,” echoing King’s own argument that by writing about the things that terrify us the most, we are able to elude them.