Stephen King

Start Free Trial

Michael Mewshaw (essay date 1978)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 419

SOURCE: A review of Night Shift, in The New York Times Book review, March 26, 1978, pp. 13, 23.

[Mewshaw is an American novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, and critic. In the following review, he provides a negative assessment of Night Shift.]

Still in his early 30's, Stephen King has already produced three novels—Carrie, Salem's lot and The Shining—which, by a process as eerie and unfathomable as their spooky plots, mutated into "packages." (A "package," for anyone not familiar with lit-biz argot, is a thin envelope of words, flexible enough to contain huge volumes of money and hot air. Once floated in book form, it is likely to become a best seller, then a "major motion picture" or a short television series.) Having signed a multibook contract for more than $1 million, Mr. King has now published a collection of his short stories, most of which first appeared in Cavalier magazine, and there seems little likelihood that Night Shift won't be commercially successful.

Yet for all this, Mr. King remains disarmingly modest. In a foreword he concedes that much horror fiction is formulaic and that he is "not a great artist." He is simply obsessed by the subject of fear, wants to convey this obsession as palpably as possible, and believes he can best do so by emphasizing "story value." "Characterization, theme, mood, none of these things is anything if the story is dull."

Some of his plots are indeed imaginative, even ingenious. In "Gray Matter" a beer-swilling slob metastasizes into a loathsome, oozing monster that reproduces like an amoeba. In "Battleground" a professional hit man is attacked by toy soldiers—an amusing variation on Gulliver among the Lilliputians. In "Trucks" motorized vehicles declare war on man.

But it seems not to have occurred to Mr. King that style is crucial to story, as are characterization and theme. His own characters seldom serve any purpose save as ballast for his bizarre plots, and because he has no greater ambition than to shock, his best stories have about as much thematic content as Gahan Wilson's macabre cartoons. His worst stories strain mightily to generate one last frisson, using twist endings that should have died with O. Henry, the hoariest cliches of the horror-tale subgenre ("I was shaking in my shoes") and lines that provoke smiles rather than terror ("Warwick was . . . eating a cold hamburger with great relish"). It's baffling to think that anybody might find these stories fascinating or frightening, but as Stephen King writes, "there's still strange things in the world."


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 642

King, Stephen 1947-

(Full name Stephen Edwin King; has also written under the pseudonyms richard Bachman and John Swithen) American novelist, short story and novella writer, scriptwriter, director, critic, and nonfiction writer.

King is a prolific author of best-selling horror and suspense fiction. In his novels and stories, he blends elements of the traditional gothic tale with those of the detective story, the modern psychological thriller, and science fiction. His works feature colloquial language, clinical attention to settings, and an emphasis on contemporary problems, including marital infidelity and peer group acceptance, all of which lend credibility to the bizarre, often supernatural incidents that dominate his narratives.

Biographical Information

King was born in Portland, Maine. His father, a merchant sailor, left the family when King was a year old, leaving King's mother to support him and his older brother. King began writing short stories as a child, and while a student at Lisbon Falls high school in Maine he won an essay contest sponsored by a scholastic magazine. King published short stories in various magazines and completed manuscripts for many of his...

(This entire section contains 642 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

later novels while attending the University of Maine at Orono, earning a B. A. in English in 1970. After graduating, King took a position as an English instructor at the Hampden Academy in Hampden, Maine, where he stayed for two years. From 1978 to 1979, King served as a writer-in-residence at the University of Maine, and was granted the university's Career Alumni Award in 1981.

Major Works of Short Fiction

King has published several collections of short fiction, including Night Shift and Skeleton Crew, which are comprised of detective stories, science fiction, and horror tales, and other collections, such as Different Seasons and Four Past Midnight, which focus primarily on the terrors of everyday existence. In "Gray Matter," which appeared in Night Shift, Richie Grenadine, "a big fat man with jowls like pork butts and ham-hock arms," gradually mutates into a glob of gray protoplasm after a work-related injury forces him to stay at home, where he drinks a case of beer nightly. The Body, a novella that appeared in Different Seasons, is narrated by Gordie lachance, a thirty-four-year-old writer modeled after King, and traces the narrator's coming-of-age experience when, as a ten year old, he and three friends set out to find the body of a young boy who had been hit by a train. The Body was adapted as a screenplay and was produced as the film Stand By Me in 1986. The library Policeman, which appeared in Four Past Midnight, expands on the childhood myth of policemen who are sent by the library to arrest children whose books are overdue. In "The Ten O'Clock People," collected in Nightmares and Dreamscapes, smokers who limit themselves to a few cigarettes a day are the only people who can see the hideous aliens intent upon taking over the planet because these smokers belong to a personality type that is not susceptible to the psychological disguise worn by the aliens.

Critical reception

Many critics fault King for unwieldy and lengthy narratives, one-dimensional characters, hackneyed subjects and use of cliches, excessively vulgar language, and frequent digressions, but credit King's ability to create scenarios in which eerie, supernatural events occur in everyday settings and involve ordinary characters, a combination that makes the situations more plausible and realistic, and consequently more frightening and compelling to the reader. Although some critics agree with Paul Gray, who referred to King as the "master of post-literate prose," many commentators have praised King's talent for writing stories that appeal to a broad audience and affect his readers on many levels. robert Cormier has commented: "King still writes like one possessed, with all the nervous energy of a young writer seeking his first big break. He never cheats the reader, always gives full measure. . . . He is often brilliant, and makes marvelous music, dark and sinister."

Bill Crider (essay date 1978)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 286

SOURCE: A review of Night Shift, in Best Sellers, Vol. 38, No. 1, April, 1978, pp. 6-7.

[Crider is an American novelist, educator, and critic. In thefollowing review, he praises the realism of King's stories in Night Shift.]

[The stories in Stephen King's Night Shift] all begin in our normal world, where everything is safe and warm. But in almost every instance, something slips, and we find ourselves in the nightmare world of the not-quite real, where vampires walk, where there are demons to be summoned or exorcised, where innocent people suffer and die for reasons neither they nor we can quite understand, where there are (just as we had always feared) things in the cellar.

Such stories require a willing suspension of disbelief, of course, but they also require an author who is an expert manipulator, one who can make horror seem not only plausible but almost logical. King is an expert, and many of these stories will not be easily forgotten. Every smoker who has ever wanted to stop should read "Quitters, Inc." School teachers will get a chill from "Sometimes They Come Back." Afraid of rats? read "Graveyard Shift." Hate machinery? Try "Trucks" or "The Mangier." Perhaps the latter is the best example of King's skill at what he does. The idea of a steam ironer possessed by a demon seems laughable, but no one who reads "The Mangier" is going to laugh for very long.

The narrator of "Gray Matter" says, "I am saying that there's things in the corners of the world that would drive a man insane to look 'em right in the face." Stephen King writes about the things in the corners, and he forces us to look into their faces.

Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 144

Short Fiction

Night Shift 1978

Different Seasons 1982

Skeleton Crew 1985

Four Past Midnight 1990

Nightmares and Dreamscapes 1993

Other Major Works

Carrie (novel) 1974

Salem 's lot (novel) 1975

*Rage [as richard Bachman] (novel) 1977

The Shining (novel) 1977

The Stand (novel) 1978

The Dead Zone (novel) 1979

*The long Walk [as richard Bachman] (novel) 1979

Firestarter (novel) 1980

Cujo (novel) 1981

*Roadwork [as richard Bachman] (novel) 1981

Stephen King's Danse Macabre (nonfiction) 1981

The Dark Tower; The Gunslinger (novel) 1982

*The Running Man [as richard Bachman] (novel) 1982

Christine (novel) 1983

Cycle of the Werewolf (novel) 1983; also published as Silver Bullet, 1985

Pet Sematary (novel) 1983

The Talisman [with Peter Straub] (novel) 1984

*Thinner [as richard Bachman] (novel) 1984

IT (novel) 1986

The Dark Tower: The Drawing of the Three (novel) 1987

Misery (novel) 1987

The Tommyknockers (novel) 1987

The Dark Half (novel) 1989

The Dark Tower: The Waste lands (novel) 1991

Needful Things (novel) 1991

Gerald's Game (novel) 1992

Dolores Claiborne (novel) 1993

*These five novels were collected in 1984 as The Bachman Books.

Thomas Gilford (essay date 1982)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 964

SOURCE: "Stephen's Quartet," in Book World—The Washington Post, August 22, 1982, pp. 1-2.

[Gifford is an American novelist and critic. In the following review, he lauds King's conversational writing style in Different Seasons.]

It's not often that a single individual puts you in mind of both J. B. Priestley and Yogi Berra, but when someone does you might as well pay attention. An extraordinary occurrence. But then Stephen King, who managed this paradoxical feat, is not an ordinary writer. Though, to further confuse the issue, it is precisely King's remarkable ordinariness that makes him what he is, one of the world's best-selling authors—and one who pretty well dwarfs the meager talents with whom he customarily shares the tops of the lists. Before I further complicate my observations on King and his new collection of novellas, Different Seasons, let me get back to Priestley for a moment.

Priestley, in his working prime, which spanned 40-odd years, seemed all but unable to stop the flow of words from his pen. Most of the words were particularly well chosen, and as the cataract poured forth he built remarkably detailed, realistic worlds, novel after novel, play after play, however fanciful the themes. We were chatting about this enormous output one snowy spring day in his comfortable study and he fixed me with what must always have been intended by the expression "a gimlet eye" and said: "Gifford, the important thing is to do the work, keep writing, whether you feel like it or not. Just keep it coming, let nothing get in your way."

I was reminded of this stricture recently as I regarded the apparently bottomless well of Stephen King's word supply. like clockwork they come, The Stand, The Shining, Cujo, on and on, richly observed, full of the particular ordinariness of our lives and times—and worlds are built within each work, built and then dismantled in spasms of horror which have become his trademark. A lovecraft for our times. Ozzie and Harriet and Beaver and Wally with brain tumors, and things that eat people held back by fraying ropes in damp cellars.

Now with Different Seasons, works written at different times following the completion of one novel or another, he's doing a king of Yogi Berra, showing he can hit the off-speed curve, the change-up well off the plate, and still drive a fastball to the opposite field. let me explain. Berra used to say he could hit it if he could reach it. King has done some reaching—not to be confused with stretching, as in "stretching" his talent—and drilled some liners off the green monster of his own particular muse.

Each of the novellas herein reflects a slightly different tone, thus the "seasons" of the title, but the devoted will not be disappointed: each has a decidedly macabre quality. The first, and best rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, has some really lovely things in it—the story of two men in prison for a very long time, one unjustly convicted of murder and the other who has long ago paid for the murder he committed. How they deal with their lives, their friendship, and the quirky fate life has chosen for them makes for the kind of story that sticks in your mind.

The second story, Apt Pupil, is the most overtly startling of the four: a nightmare in which a teen-aged all-American lad discovers a Nazi relic, a war criminal, living in his idyllic California village. The symbiosis which develops between them is not subtle, not psychologically sophisticated, but utterly pathological. And it does make a hell of a story. The other two stories don't require description; they are more King. Which is sort of dumb sounding, but there is a crucial point about King.

He is obsessed by the piling up of words, incident, a cliché locked in time, values which represent a year unlike the years on each side of it, the rubbing of personalities upon one another—all the values of the traditional storyteller. His art lies in his artlessness. His prose style is utterly conversational: he is literally telling you the story. The constant references to pop culture, which might irritate in another writer, don't irritate here because King is pop culture, an artifact himself. He speaks the vernacular, the patois, and it informs his thought.

What can I say to make this point clearly? Try this: he is the storyteller his readers would want to be if they were indeed storytellers. In A Man 's a Man, Bertolt Brecht says of Jeriah Jip, his Everyman hero, "He is one of us!" which explains everything, all the appeal. The important thing to acknowledge in King's immense popularity, and in the Niagara of words he produces is the simple fact that he can write. He can write without cheapening or trivializing himself or his audience. You may or may not enjoy these stories but you won't feel cheated or demeaned by them. They will entertain; they may disturb you only slightly, superficially. You will feel as if you've just stepped into a time warp and seen a new episode of TV's Alfred Hitchcock Presents or The Twilight Zone or The Outer limits, I am convinced that King is aiming roughly at that response.

Wait. let me try again. I think I've got it. Think of Stephen King and Steven Spielberg; work on that simple equation. One with words, the other with images. Elemental story values, broad strokes. You begin to grasp an explanation of both phenomena. E. T., Poltergeist, Close Encounters, Jaws, Carrie, The Shining, Firestarter, Cujo . . . raiders of the lost Ark,Different Seasons.

Such popular phenomena represent accomplishments and impulses our culture has no need to be ashamed of. And these days that is cause for rejoicing.

Kenneth Atchity (essay date 1982)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 928

SOURCE: "Stephen King: Making Burgers with the Best," in los Angeles Times Book review, August 29, 1982, p. 7.

[Atchity is an American poet, editor, educator, and critic. In the following review, he offers a positive assessment of Different Seasons.]

In the afterword to [Different Seasons], Stephen King calls his "stuff " "fairly plain, not very literary, and sometimes (although it hurts like hell to admit it) downright clumsy." He summarizes a career of horror novels as "plain fiction for plain folks, the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and a large fries from McDonald's."

To find the secret of his success, you have to compare King to Twain, Poe—with a generous dash of Philip roth and Will Rogers thrown in for added popular measure. King's stories tap the roots of myth buried in all our minds. No wonder he's popular: He understands people.

King's visionary flights in these four novellas show us the natural shape of the human soul—a shape even more horrifying, for its protean masks, than the ghouls he has conjured up in the novels. His productivity is based on his awareness that audience psychology responds to the simple elements of fiction, presented directly: "The tale, not the teller."

In Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, he hooks us blatantly with the narrator's predicted triumph. Within a page or so, he can admit the falseness of the hook—and we don't care. For King, the art is to reveal the art. We adore the special effects.

The story shows men painting out of the darkest corners: " . . .I t was as if Tommy had produced a key which fit a cage in the back of his mind, a cage like his own cell. Only instead of holding a man, that cage held a tiger, and that tiger's name was Hope. Williams had produced the key that unlocked the cage and the tiger was out, willynilly, to roam his brain."

In The Body, King shows his skill at assuming a youngster's character, at the same time expressing how Americans sound not at their best but in their everyday voices:

Different strokes for different folks, they say now, and that's cool. So if I say summer to you, you get one set of private, personal images that are all the way different from mine. That's cool. But for me, summer is always going to mean running down the road to the Florida Market with change jingling in my pockets, the temperature in the gay nineties, my feet dressed in Keds . . . the GS&WM railroad tracks running into a perspective-point in the distance, burnished so white under the sun that when you closed your eyes you could still see them there in the dark, only blue instead of white.

The narrator tells us why he joined his friends on their expedition into self-terrorizing: "I went because of the shadows that are always somewhere behind our eyes . . . the darkness on the edge of town . . . and at one time or another I think everyone wants to dare that darkness in spite of the jalopy bodies that some joker of a God gave us human beings. No . . . not in spite of our jalopy bodies but because of them."

Moments of confession sneak into this story, without detracting from its momentum. The narrator is, like King, a writer:

My wife, my kids, my friends—they all think that having an imagination like mine must be quite nice; aside from making all this dough, I can have a little mind-movie whenever things get dull. Mostly they're right. But every now and then it turns around and bites . . . you with these long teeth, teeth that have been filed to points like the teeth of a cannibal. You see things you'd just as soon not see, things that keep you awake until first light.

The most chilling story in the collection, perhaps the most horrifying King has published to date, is Apt Pupil, subtitled "Summer of Corruption."

" 'Great!' Todd said. 'I want to hear all about it.'

"Dussander's eyes squeezed closed, and then opened slowly. 'You don't understand. I do not wish to speak of it.'

" 'You will, though. If you don't, I'll tell everyone who you are. . . . Today I want to hear about the gas ovens,' Todd said. 'How you baked the Jews.' His smile beamed out, rich and radiant. . . . "

The repulsion of the all-American newsboy extorting from the dying Nazi the chilling details of his role in the war is bad enough, but what evokes the infernal depths of human nature is the transfer of evil and inhumanity from one to the other by story's end. The boy is innocent no longer, and the reader recognizes his own face in King's mirror:

"Todd smiled at him. And incredibly—certainly not because he wanted to—Dussander found himself smiling back."

King's afterword describes his conversations with editor Bill Thompson concerning his career. Thompson was afraid King might be typed as a horror writer—just as Alan Rinsler, his present editor, later expressed his fear that King might stop publishing horror. King allowed that things could be worse: "I could, for example, be an 'important' writer like Joseph Heller and publish a novel every seven years or so, or a 'brilliant' writer like John Gardner and write obscure books for bright academics who eat macrobiotic foods and drive old Saabs with faded but still legible GENE MCCARTHY FOR PRESIDENT stickers on the rear bumpers."

Whatever King and his editors decide about his image, our appetite for his McDonald's shows no signs of abating.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 438


Collings, Michael R. The Annotated Guide to Stephen King: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography of the Works of America's Premier Horror Writer. Mercer Island, Wash.: Starmont House, 1986, 176 p.

Book-length bibliography of King's works through 1986.

Collings, Michael R., and Engebretson, David A. The Shorter Works of Stephen King. Mercer Island, Wash.: Starmont House, 1985, 202 p.

Annotated bibliography of King's short fiction through 1985.


Collings, Michael R. The Many Facets of Stephen King. Mercer Island, Wash.: Starmont House, 1985, 190 p.

Organizes and studies King's works according to common themes, subjects, and styles. Includes a primary and secondary bibliography.

——. The Stephen King Phenomenon. Mercer Island, Wash.: Starmont House, Inc., 1987, 144 p.

Examines various aspects of King and his works to identify the author's status as a figure in mass culture.

Egan, James. "Apocalypticism in the Fiction of Stephen King." Extrapolation 25, No. 3 (Fall 1984): 214-27.

Analysis of King's treatment of world destruction in his horror fiction.

——. " 'A Single Powerful Spectacle': Stephen King's Gothic Melodrama." Extrapolation 27, No. 1 (Spring 1986): 62-75.

Examination of King's blend of Gothic elements and melodrama.

——. "Technohorror: The Dystopian Vision of Stephen King." Extrapolation 29, No. 2 (Summer 1988): 140-52.

Analysis of anti-technological aspects of King's fiction.

Gray, Paul. "Master of Postliterate Prose." Time 120, No. 9 (30 August 1982): 87.

Comments on King's use of popular culture in Different Seasons.

Magistrale, Tony. Landscape of Fear: Stephen King's American Gothic. Bowling Green, Oh.: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1988, 132 p.

Collection of new and previously published essays on such subjects as King's treatment of technology and social phenomena.

Schweitzer, Darrell, ed. Discovering Stephen King. Mercer Island, Wash.: Starmont House, 1985, 219 p.

Includes essays on general themes by Ben P. Indick, Michael R. Collings, and other commentators, as well as a bibliography.

Underwood, Tim, and Miller, Chuck, eds. Fear Itself: The Horror Fiction of Stephen King. New York: New American Library/Signet, 1982, 286 p.

Collection of general essays and observations by such critics and practitioners of the horror genre as Peter Straub, Fritz Leiber, Charles L. Grant, and George A. Romero.

——. Kingdom of Fear: The World of Stephen King. New York: New American Library/Signet, 1987, 270 p.

Contains seventeen essays on King's fiction by various critics, including Leslie Fiedler, Ben P. Indick, and Chuck Miller.

——. Bare Bones: Conversations on Terror with Stephen King. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1988, 211 P.

Collection of interviews previously published in such periodicals as Playboy and Heavy Metal.

Additional coverage of King's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 1; Bestsellers 1990, No. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61-64; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 1, 30; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 12, 26, 37, 61; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1980; Major 20th-century Writers; and Something about the Author, Vols. 9, 55.

Alan Cheuse (essay date 1982)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1191

SOURCE: "Horror Writer's Holiday," in The New York Times Book review, August 29, 1982, pp. 10, 17.

[Cheuse is an American novelist, short story writer, autobiographer, and critic. In the following review of Different Seasons, he articulates King's strong points and shortcomings as a fiction writer.]

"The most important things lie close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you've said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That's the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear."

Thus speaks Gordie lachance, millionaire horror-writer and narrator of The Body, one of four short novels bound together within the covers of Different Seasons, horrorwriter Stephen King's ninth work of fiction. Over the last decade Mr. King has certainly not wanted for ears; he is one of the most popular writers of our era. But unlike other vulgar—in the root sense of speaking in the voice of and to the average person—best-selling authors, Mr. King seems to have remained unsatisfied by mere popularity. As the speech of his fictional counterpart seems to suggest, the author of some of the best horror stories since those of Ambrose Bierce and H. P. lovecraft may want more than acceptance. And it's precisely this quest for understanding, the drive to make his vision not only well known but deeply felt, that appears to have led him to publish this uneven, though often surprising, volume.

The first surprise comes early: The opening prison narrative titled Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption shows us that the creator of such studies of the criminal mind as The Shining and The Dead Zone can effectively treat innocence as well as guilt. Set in a fictional state penitentiary in the author's home state of Maine, the tale is told in the first person by red, a prisoner and entrepreneur who has as one of his best customers a former banker and convicted murderer, Andy Dufresne. Dufresne stands out among the lifers in the yard long before red discovers his real story; the man is a cultivated type who, even as he's fighting off the brutal sexual advances of Shawshank's population of "sisters," apparently spends his time alone shaping and polishing pieces of quartz from the yard. This dedication to an art form of sorts impresses red, who thought he had seen it all:

First the chipping and shaping, and then the almost endless polishing and finishing with those rock-blankets. looking at them [a pair of cuff links Dufresne has given him in exchange for a favor], I felt the warmth that any man or woman feels when he or she is looking at something pretty, something that has been worked and made—that's the thing that really separates us from the animals, I think—and I felt something else, too. A sense of awe for the man's brute persistence.

It's difficult to imagine any reader feeling a sense of awe at the way Mr. King bullies his way through this toughguy novella about Dufresne's struggle to establish his innocence and free himself by any means possible, but the piece does give off a certain warmth. And if it's not "pretty," it is still an admirable departure from the genre that made the author famous.

Apt Pupil, the second and longest narrative in the volume, also stands as the most disappointing. It is a psychological study of the tandem corruption of Todd Bowden, a Southern California high-school student, and Kurt Dussander, the Nazi war criminal he discovers in his own hometown. The story links the sunny present of America with the nightmare past of death camps and all of what Todd calls their "gooshy" atrocities. Big theme here—but in execution the piece comes off as somewhat silly, with the tone wavering between that of cartoon images from horror comic books and the worst variety of pulp fiction: "He tasted life on his tongue like a draught of wine straight from the bottle." When Dussander cremates his cat in the kitchen oven, the novella begins to reek of more than baking feline flesh. And later, when each of this unlikely pair begins a series of murders, the stench may prove overpowering.

But if Mr. King stumbles in Apt Pupil, he picks himself up again and continues at a fast clip with The Body, which is narrated by his doppelgänger, Gordie lachance. In this supposed memoir we return to the scene of a number of crimes from Mr. King's earlier fiction—Castle rock, Me., the setting of The Dead Zone and Cujo—but the style here is once again in the psychological rather than the supernatural mode. Narrator lachance takes us back to the initiation rite that may have formed him as a successful writer—the overnight trek into the Maine woods he took with three other working-class friends in search of another teenager's rotting corpse. He sees the story as one of those revelations that exact a high price emotionally but help a writer to understand his past and "get ready for some future mortality." There's some pretentiousness to lachance's tale, especially in the inclusion of two stories that he published in little magazines early in his career, some swipes at writers such as John Gardner (who, ironically, professes to be one of Mr. King's greatest fans), praise of ralph Ellison, and some Mailerlike conceit ("And although no one is ever going to call me the Thomas Wolfe of my generation, I rarely feel like a cheat. . . . "). But there's a lot to admire in this recollection of dead and dead-end kids—and a scene in which the boys attempt to cross a railroad trestle as the tracks begin to hum may induce a permanent fear of hiking.

Readers who fear that Mr. King may have hiked permanently out of the territory in which they love to see him travel will be reassured to learn that in The Breathing Method, the final novella in this collection, he returns to the horror story as a conquering hero. Tipping his hat to, among others, Jorge luis Borges and Peter Straub, he invents a New York City men's club whose members gather for an annual pre-Christmas terror-telling session. Here other voices whisper in other rooms, and a genteel physician turns something as contemporary as the lamaze Method into a vehicle for a frightening fiction about old New York. The natural narrative force that previously has helped Mr. King overcome his often clumsy prose and sophomoric philosophizing churns through these pages stronger than ever before; and yet he's never written anything that seems so polished and finished.

As a collection Different Seasons is flawed and out of balance, but that shouldn't deter anyone with a taste for interesting popular fiction. Each of the first three novellas has its hypnotic moments, and the last one is a horrifying little gem.

David Morrell, Alan Ryan, and Charles L. Grant (essay date 1982)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1982

SOURCE: "Different Writers on Different Seasons," in Shadowings: The reader's Guide to Horror Fiction: 1981-1982, edited by Douglas E. Winter, Starmont House, 1983, pp. 38-43.

[Morrell, Ryan, and Grant are all noted authors of horror and suspense fiction. In the following forum, which originally appeared in the journal Fantasy Newsletter in 1982, they each provide an analysis of one of the four novellas in the collection Different Seasons.]

[David Morrell on Rita Hayworth and Shawshank redemption:]

Writers can be loosely separated into two groups—those who put in and those who take out. So F. Scott Fitzgerald believed. By this standard, anyone familiar with the work of Stephen King knows which category he belongs in. He's a putter-inner. He develops, amplifies, elaborates. His prose is packed with evocative descriptive details; his plots are crammed with twists and turns. We find exceptions, of course: his first novel, Carrie, is fairly short and lean, as is The Mist. A few of his short stories ("Strawberry Spring," for example) move along briefly and simply. For the most part, though, he tends toward bigness and fullness. A recently completed novel, IT, runs to almost 1300 manuscript pages. The Gunslinger, one of his many publications this year, is a part of an epic, The Dark Tower, that he estimates will eventually reach 3000 manuscript pages. Putter-inner indeed.

The impressive scope and density of his work is matched by the variety of forms he has turned to: short stories, novels, screenplays, essays, a non-fiction book about horror, and a comic book adaptation of his movie Creepshow. What was left for him to do? His latest book, Different Seasons, provides the answer. Somewhere between the short story and the novel lies a literary twilight zone called the novella. roughly 30,000 words, it can't be called short, but it's not exactly long either — a half-breed, if you will. In an afterword, King explains that following Salem's lot, The Shining, The Dead Zone and Firestarter he had "just enough gas left in the tank to throw off " one of these. Now all four are collected here.

Their subject seems as new to him as their format. Only one of the pieces belongs to the horror genre with which King's readers associate him, though some horrific passages do appear in two others. Alan Ryan . . . and Charles Grant will discuss them in the . . . reviews that follow. My own responsibility is the first novella, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, which isn't horrific at all. Not to worry, though. I bring good news—it's wonderful, moving, entertaining. King is a master storyteller, no matter what kind of subject he writes about. Assuming you've read it (or plan to), I'll avoid discussing the plot, except to note that it's set in a prison and deals with the friendship between two convicts serving life terms. There's action, mystery, sentiment, an uplifting theme, a surprise conclusion. I read it at forty-thousand feet and never once remembered to grip the arms of my seat to hold the plane up. The reason I began this brief review by discussing King as a putter-inner is that I can't get over the amount of story King stuffs into this novella's 100 pages. Another writer might have taken three times the space and still not achieved the density King does. lots of vivid description, plenty of interesting background, plot complications galore, and all this texture is combined with speed. I attribute this amazing effect to King's understanding of the novella format. Too long to be short, too short to be long. The paradox results in characteristics normally associated with either the short story or the novel but not with both. In choosing this format, King gets the best of both extremes. Of course, the format alone can't account for the success of Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption (the title, by the way, is cleverly related to the plot). In an epigraph, King warns us to trust the tale, not its teller. Frankly, I'd just as soon trust the teller, and in this case, my trust paid off.

[Alan Ryan on Apt Pupil:]

Like many writers, I spend a lot of time standing around in bookstores. Very often, the remarks one overhears are at least as interesting as the latest titles just appearing on the shelves. For a writer, listening to random, unsolicited comments in front of the "Bestseller" or "New releases" shelves can be a very instructive and revealing exercise.

I heard a great deal of comment on Cujo when it was first published in hardcover. I heard more comments on it when, a year later, the paperback arrived. I heard people talking about it with friends and with clerks and cashiers. They hated it.

In the Barnes & Noble Bookstore on New York's Eighth Street, an outlet with an unusually high percentage of sophisticated, experienced readers, one asked a friend if she had read it. "Oh, I hated it," the friend replied. "I read all his other books and liked them, but this one was too much. It's just savage and cruel. The way he tortures everybody . . ."

Much could be said in response to this, of course, but I think the woman's meaning is clear. She simply does not wish to believe that the world is such a difficult, demanding, and often cruel place in which to live, that reality can be so damned harsh. If that woman presses on and continues to read Stephen King's work—and I'm satisfied that she will—she is going to be one very disturbed lady when she finishes Apt Pupil.

King's story-telling rests on a solid bedrock of reality and, to a very large extent, it is this casual realism that makes his everyday horrors so unnerving. Todd Bowden, the "apt pupil" of the second story in Different Seasons, is thirteen years old and, King tells us in the very first sentence, "the total ail-American kid." When we first see him, he is delivering newspapers, riding "his twenty-six-inch Schwinn," and wearing "Nike running shoes."

On that first page, Todd is blond, blue-eyed, and "smiling a summer vacation smile." Much later in the story, when he smiles again, it looks very different indeed. "Todd smiled: a weird upward corkscrewing of the lips. A strange sardonic light danced and fluttered in his eyes." And on the last page: "He was smiling excitedly, his eyes dancing . . . the excited smile of tow-headed boys going off to war."

Much, of course, has happened along the way. Todd has met and become inextricably tied—both circumstantially and psychologically—to Kurt Dussander, an excommandant of a Nazi concentration camp, now living out his last years under an alias in the California sunshine. Under the unwilling but detailed tutelage of Dussander, Todd is drawn more and more into a fatally entangling web constructed of Dussander's recollections and his own dark taste for horror. He especially likes, as we all do sometimes, the "gooshy" parts, something to keep in mind the next time you hear the traffic reporter on the radio warning about rubber-necking delays at the site of an auto accident.

It may just be, King leads us to suspect in Apt Pupil, that there is nothing about smiling Todd Bowden in particular, as an individual, that leads him down the same path Kurt Dussander has followed, a path of random violence and bloodshed, crimes directed not at individuals but at anyone who happens to come along the road. rather, when we view the story on an allegorical level (or simply react to it on an allegorical level, as that lady in the bookstore unconsciously does), we suspect that, as with the events in Cujo, the story could just as readily take place next door . . . or, worse still, just down the hall or around the corner or even in the mirror. If "the things that live in the catacombs" ever get out, King suggests, "most of them would look like ordinary accountants. . . . And some of them might look like Todd Bowden."

King manages in Apt Pupil to make the story both realistically particular and universally applicable, creating a kind of double-whammy of horror for the reader. He gets us involved with the actual characters and at the same time lets us know, through their very realism, the quality that makes them so much like us, that they could, with little more than a name transplant, actually be us.

I don't think the unhappy lady in the bookstore is going to like Apt Pupil any more than she liked Cujo.

[Charles L. Grant on The Breathing Method:]

Literary critics are perhaps too fond on occasion of proclaiming certain narrative frameworks outdated. Stories told in the form of letters and/or journals are supposedly passé, as are those whose narrator is sitting at a campfire or in a train compartment or in a club room. Style (the manner in which an author puts his words together) does, of course, change with the times when we are speaking of so-called popular literature.

There are styles which, by virtue of the author's power with words, transcend the contemporary. And no critic who has ever lived has yet been able to travel into the future in order to see just which style has that particular transcendence.

By the same token, it is sheer folly to deny an author a literary framework simply because it has been used before, no matter how often, no matter how popular it once was.

A true storyteller uses whatever works for the story being told; and there are few better frameworks than a narrator sitting down with an audience (both within and beyond the fiction itself) and saying: "I am going to tell you a story. You can believe it or not as you will, but it happened."

Stephen King, perhaps the time's premier storyteller, isn't afraid to resurrect "old" frameworks. One of these is the club setting. He has used it twice—in "The Man Who Could Not Shake Hands" and now in The Breathing Method. And in both instances he has also exhibited the understanding that, in the best of these types, there is always more than one story being told—the main story, which is ended by the last page, and peripheral ones dealing with the club members, which may or may not end before the narrator is finished.

What is marvelous about the club at 249B East 35th Street is its uniqueness. It is at the same time Kiplingesque and King—not an ordinary club, not an ordinary building, its staff very far from ordinary indeed. One does not go to 249B and listen to a story; one goes, listens and experiences rather odd things. The narrator of The Breathing Method, David, is at once telling the story he heard and the story he has lived over the years he has been going to the club—"if it is a club."

The Breathing Method itself (that tale told by member Emlyn McCarran) is King speaking with a different voice, less colloquial and less emotional than usual; in that respect, perhaps less powerful than it might have been. But it succeeds in spite of this because of the setting—where the emotion and the power come from those listening rather than the speaker.

In this case, the club motto—"It is the tale, not he who tells it"—is more than accurate, because the tale of a doctor and his young female patient gains depth not from its particulars, but from eliciting reactions, especially from David.

There will be calls, I would imagine, for more stories to come from 249B—and I am certainly doing the same. Yet there is one I don't want to know—how how the club was created, who "Stevens" really is and what is really upstairs—because it is not always what you say, but what you don't say, that brings the chill in spite of the fire on the grate.

Algis Budrys (essay date 1983)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 865

SOURCE: A review of Different Seasons, in Fantasy & Science Fiction, Vol. 64, No. 2, February, 1983, pp. 61-9.

[Budrys is a russian-born novelist, short story writer, editor, and critic. In the following review, he lauds King's storytelling method in Different Seasons, comparing King's style to that of Roald Dahl and John Steinbeck]

Different Seasons, a collection of four novellas by Stephen King, is an excellent piece of reading. Although one of the stories is little more than a set-piece in imitation of Roald Dahl, and another is most interesting as a gritty documentary on life in a state penitentiary, garnished by a slight and anti-climactic tale of romanticized escape, the other two stories are towering achievements.

One of these is in many ways conventional King horror-fantasy; that is, it gains its effects by concretizing a fantasy so horrible none of us will openly admit we all have it. But Todd Bowen—one of King's patented big-eyed All-American teenagers—does not shrink from the possibilities. When he uncovers the hidden Nazi concentration camp commander and makes him his prisoner, his object is to hear, to his heart's salivating content, what it felt like to have that species of absolute power.

But there are traces in that story of something even deeper, and certainly less cheap. The growing contention between the psychotic golden boy and the utterly rational Nazi reveals tensions and uncovers complexities in the human condition that you will not find in Cujo, Firestarter, or most other King blockbusters. Soon enough, the story degenerates into bang, bang, slash slash, but for a moment—a moment that might cause actual discomfort to readers who take to King as a horse takes to a nosebag—it has trembled on the brink of being painted in something besides primary colors.

[The Body] threw me and continues to throw me, and here is how and why:

In a little Maine town, four boys trembling on the verge of pubescence are living their last summer before they turn into the kinds of shits their older brothers are; before they set foot on the pathways that lead inevitably to being as drunken, shiftless and contemptible as their fathers are. Having learned the location of another boy's body—he was an outsider, wandering alone in the woods, and was killed by a train—they set out to "find" it and claim its discovery.

The actual discovery is made by one of the older boys; shiftless, dissolute, and going where he had no business to be, that boy is constrained from announcing the find. He does discuss it where his younger brother overhears him. So, when the four young boys set out on a journey of many miles overnight along the railroad track, having carefully provisioned themselves, concocted a cover story, and systematically heartened themselves, what they are affirming is not only their superior energy and ingenuity but the power of purity. They are saying that it is not inevitable to succumb to the shot-and-beer joint and the laborer's job; that the despair of their elders is not justified.

Now, I submit to you, folks, that this story, set, incidentally, in the same town as Cujo, and beset by the same love/ignorance for cars—King speaks of a "Hearst" shifter, and makes several other trivial but astonishing errors in an area where he flatly claims knowledgeability—I submit to you, folks, that this story is not only literature but major literature, at least in first draft. Furthermore, although it has its flat spots and other problems typical of first drafts, it essentially sustains its pitch throughout. Stephen King is—and obviously long has been—the peer of John Steinbeck and several other guys. I mention Nobelist Steinbeck because he is the one whose work King's The Body most resembles, and in some respects—its astonishing ability to depict real adolescents, for one—excels.

These four stories all came about in a curious manner. They are spurts of leftover energy. Each was written immediately after one of King's big novels, and, presumably, was written purely because King wanted to, and hardly cared where, when, and if it would sell. I think there is a major datum—and a cheap shot—in pointing out that the slick, essentially empty fantasy of Breathing Method is the latest, while The Body is the earliest.

There is another datum, and another shot, in pointing out that the narrator of The Body—one of the exploring boys—is a storyteller, proto-writer, and, in later years, the author of a couple of collegiate literary short stories. These are reproduced within the text of The Body. The narrator—who turns out to be a rather older man, remembering the events of his boyhood—professes to see them as essentially trivial. Personally, I found the one rather promising and the other funnier than hell, but they're his stories and I suppose he's entitled to judge them. The thing is, you see, this older narrator looking back both on boyhood and on his naive collegiate literary aspirations, has now grown up to be Gordon LaChance, world-famous author of blockbuster horror novels for the mass market, a condition in which he says he is content.

Douglas E. Winter (essay date 1984)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5862

SOURCE: "The Mist" and "Different Seasons," in Stephen King: The Art of Darkness, New American library, 1984, pp. 86-94, 104-11.

[Winter is an American fiction writer and critic. In the following essays, he examines The Mist and Different Seasons.]

In The Mist, Stephen King conjures the quintessential faceless horror: a white opaque mist that enshrouds the northeastern United States (if not the world) as the apparent result of an accident at a secret government facility. This short novel is a paradigm of the complicated metaphors of Faustian experimentation and technological horror consistently woven into the fiction of Stephen King. Those who read The Mist will not likely forget the haunting inability of its characters to comprehend, let alone explain, what is happening to them. It has been claimed that the central fantasy of horror fiction is "that the unknowable can be known and related to in some meaningful fashion" [John Cawelti, Adventure, Mystery and romance, 1976]. The Mist completely belies that view, presenting a chilling dislocation in which horror and mystery are no less adequate than science, religion, or materialism to explain the human condition. As in Kafka's The Metamorphosis (1937), the whys and wherefores are secondary, even tertiary, as King unveils a reality that cannot be solved and, indeed, that cannot even be understood. In so doing, he demolishes the artifices through which we perceive reality, noting how much science, religion, and materialism shape our thinking and our lives, and questioning whether these shapes are desirable.

The technological horror theme is an obvious exploitation of the subversive tendencies of horror fiction. The common interpretation of the massive interest in supernatural fiction in the late 1800s, when many classic ghost stories were published, is that these stories represented the "swan song" of an earlier, pre-technological way of life. That view is put forward often to explain the current upsurge of interest in macabre fiction and film. Charles l. Grant has noted that horror fiction serves as "the dark side of romanticism," not simply a medium of escape but a rejection of the real horror and skepticism generated by our technological civilization in favor of a sentimental vision that confirms the possibility of the unknown. It thus seems quite logical that the contemporary horror story often utilizes an exaggeration or extrapolation of modern technology as its surrogate for the unknown, operating as a cautionary tale that simultaneously rejects technology while reassuring the reader that things could nevertheless be worse.

The halcyon years of "technohorror" were the 1950s, when fear of the ultimate possibilities of mankind's technology, omened by the nuclear devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was exposed at the visceral and readily dismissed level of the grade B science fiction movie. As the 1960s and 1970s progressed, celluloid unrealities called Them (1954) and The Beginning of the End (1957) were hauntingly evoked in grim realities with equally colorful names like Agent Orange, Three Mile Island, and love Canal. Our belated awareness of the negative implications of technology, coupled with growing doubts about the ability of technology to solve the complex problems of modern society, has rendered "technohorror" a theme of undeniable currency, requiring the horror writer to take but a simple step beyond front-page news.

As a child of the fifties whose anxieties were fed by B movies and whose "fall from the cradle" occurred with the sublime intersection of Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and the launching of the Soviet Sputnik satellite, it seems only natural that Stephen King has written about "technohorror" since his earliest efforts at fiction. His high school story "I Was a Teenage Grave robber" concerned the monstrous results of secret experiments with corpses, while his first serious attempt at a novel, The Aftermath—also written during high school—depicted a post-holocaust world molded by the directives of a computer that scientists could no longer control. Although Carrie included a suggestion of genetic mutation, The Stand was King's first published novel to probe in depth the fears generated by technological civilization. Both The Stand and Firestarter linked science and authority in an amoral tryst, yet concluded with an optimistic hope for new beginnings. In The Mist, King posits only the end.

David Drayton, the narrator of The Mist, is a commercial artist—a person whose career is devoted to creating artificial representations of human life. With his wife, Stephanie, and five-year-old son, Billy, Drayton leads an almost idyllic existence at a lakefront home near Bridgton, Maine—a replica of the home where King and his family lived from the summer of 1975 to the summer of 1977. Their life is shattered by a freakish summer storm that sends the Draytons to their cellar, where David has a remarkable precognitive dream—the very same dream, in fact, that caused Stephen King, after weathering such a storm, to write the story:

I had a dream that I saw God walking across Harrison on the far side of the lake, a God so gigantic that above the waist He was lost in a clear blue sky. In the dream I could hear the rending crack and splinter of breaking trees as God stamped the woods into the shape of His footsteps. He was circling the lake, coming toward the Bridgton side, toward us, and behind Him everything that had been green turned a bad gray and all the houses and cottages and summer places were bursting into purple-white flame like lightning, and soon the smoke covered everything. The smoke covered everything like a mist.

In the morning, a peculiar mist brews over the lake. It is moving across the water toward Bridgton—moving against the wind. When Drayton's wife asks what it is, Drayton thinks: " . . . the word that nearly jumped first from my mouth was God."

Drayton drives his son and a neighbor into town to report downed electrical lines and to obtain grocery supplies. They find the Federal Foods Supermarket jammed with people. Speculation is rampant that something has gone wrong at the government's secret "Arrowhead Project" across the lake. As Drayton waits in the checkout line, he is distracted by an intangible concern. Billy interrupts his reverie, and Drayton observes: " . . . suddenly, briefly, the mist of disquiet that had settled over me rifted, and something terrible peered through from the other side—the bright and metallic face of pure terror."

The mist settles over the supermarket, and although many people rush out to view the peculiar phenomenon, none returns. Gradually, with fever-dream intensity, the "pure terror" infecting Drayton is animated as the monstrous inhabitants of the mist are divulged. Tentacles writhe out of the mist to snatch away a bag-boy; bug-things stretching four feet in length flop along the store windows, only to be gobbled up by pterodactyl-like monstrosities that plummet out of the mist. Huge spidery creepy-crawlers spin corrosive webs, and segmented parodies of lobsters crawl across the parking lot. The spawn of the mist seem endless in horrifying variety; but the mist, and what it signifies, is more important than its monsters: "It wasn't so much the monstrous creatures that lurked in the mist. . . . It was the mist itself that sapped the strength and robbed the will." The mist takes on a symbolic significance—it is the unknown, not only in a physical sense but as the realm of experimentation.

Conspicuous by its absence from The Mist is a stock character of the "technohorror" nightmare—the scientist. We are offered only straw men: two young soldiers trapped within the supermarket who commit gruesome suicide in confirmation of the feared source of the disaster. The culprits of the Arrowhead Project remain as faceless and opaque as the mist itself. And this only increases our unease; there is no patent lunatic or misguided zealot on which to foist our responsibility.

The Mist takes the form of a nightmarish, surreal disaster film. The besieged occupants of the supermarket are a representative sample of humanity, put to the test of the external threat of the mist and the internal claustrophobia—and madness—of the supermarket. They undergo hysteria and fragmentation, and acts of courage and of stupidity result only in bloodshed while the inevitable leadership struggles take place.

King deftly creates the tension between illogic, religion, and materialism that is his forte. Drayton's neighbor, a vacationing New York City attorney, proves not to be a pillar of objectivity or calm; rather, he heads a group of people—wryly described by Drayton as the "Flat Earth Society"—which simply refuses to believe in the disaster despite quite tangible evidence. They walk into the mist, to their deaths. Another group, which grows in number as time passes, believes perhaps too strongly in the disaster, interpreting it as God's punishment. They are headed by Mrs. Carmody, an otherwise innocuous old lady given to folk tales and remedies, who seemingly thrives on the disaster. This group soon demands a human sacrifice in appeasement of the mist. A third group, including Drayton, attempts a rational, pragmatic solution to the horror. They construct defenses, fight off the intrusions of monsters, and ultimately undertake an ill-fated expedition to a neighboring pharmacy. Their failure gives credence to the increasing zealotry of Mrs. Carmody and leads Drayton to organize an escape effort.

Readily apparent in The Mist is the influence of George A. romero, virtuoso director of the classic low-budget horror film Night of the living Dead (1968) and its powerful sequel, Dawn of the Dead (1979). On one level, romero's films plunder our dire unease with death and decay, hypothesizing that the dead will return to life with a singular hunger for human flesh. On another level, however, these films consider, in an intelligent and ironic sense, the horrific siege of reality. romero terms his masterwork "an allegory meant to draw a parallel between what people are becoming and the idea that people are operating on many levels of insanity that are only clear to themselves." [Filmmakers Newsletter, quoted in Danny Peary, Cult Movies, 1981.]

In Night of the living Dead, romero's zombies trap a group of strangers within a deserted farmhouse. romero inverts the commercially successful disaster film, supplanting melodrama with nihilistic abandon: the young, attractive lovers are killed in an escape attempt; the older businessman becomes a raving coward rather than a calculating, take-charge leader; the little girl turns on her mother, butchering her with a garden tool and then devouring her; the "token" black becomes the leader—and only survivor—of the defense, only to emerge the next morning so shattered by the experience that he is mistakenly shot as a zombie. The theme is replayed to an almost absurdist premise in Dawn of the Dead (which was produced after The Mist had been written, but before it was published), in which a similar band of survivors barricades itself within a suburban shopping mall.

The thematic parallels between The Mist and romero's "living Dead" films are numerous; perhaps more striking is the manner in which the imagery of The Mist evokes the intensely visual and visceral quality of film. "You're supposed to visualize the story in grainy black and white," notes King. Unlike any of King's earlier fiction of length, it is written entirely in first-person singular and structured on a scene-by-scene basis. And its narrator consistently repeats, as if in self-assurance, that the creatures of the mist are the stuff of grade B horror movies. Not only does King thereby reinforce the several levels of perspective; he presents an irony equal to that of the "just the flu" epitaph of his short story "Night Surf"—that the end of the world, when it comes, should indeed resemble a grade B horror movie.

The defense of the Federal Foods Supermarket takes on surreal aspects that intermingle shock and sardonic humor, paralleling the shopping mall confrontations of Dawn of the Dead. One of the pterodactyl-like creatures breaches the defenses, savaging a bystander before being set aflame. King recounts the incident with delightful imagery and an obvious send-up of the gravely serious narrator of traditional Gothic fiction:

I think that nothing in the entire business stands in my memory so strongly as that bird-thing from hell blazing a zigzagging course above the aisles of the Federal Supermarket, dropping charred and smoking bits of itself here and there. It finally crashed into the spaghetti sauces, splattering ragu and Prince and Prima Salsa everywhere like gouts of blood.

A bug-thing immediately clambers through the broken window, but before the male defenders can act, a sixty-year-old school teacher, Mrs. Reppler, charges with a can of raid in each hand and sprays it to death.

Although clearly self-conscious, The Mist is not parody. like George romero, King attempts—and succeeds—in balancing a pandemonium seesaw whose ends are occupied by pure horror and outrageous black humor. We are disturbed by The Mist because, like its narrator, we do not know exactly what to do when confronted by its horrors: "I was making some sound. laughing. Crying. Screaming. I don't know."

The typical disaster film produces a fascist answer—strong leadership will persevere, while the weak are dispensable. In The Mist, Stephen King, again like George romero, holds differently: horror produces not the best but the worst in people, and when it does produce a semblance of good, that good is usually unrecognizable to the world outside. Drayton is less than a heroic figure; uncertain of the fate of his wife, he nevertheless feels compelled to have sex with another of the survivors, and he is drawn into the doomed expedition to the drugstore. Finally, under the compulsion of the growing religious mania of Mrs. Carmody and her followers—and of the simple urge to see the sun again—Drayton leads a tiny group to his land rover, again suffering the loss of two companions. By the novel's close, Drayton and his comrades are barricaded within a Howard Johnson's; only then does he ponder the difficulty of refueling—and only then does he face the possibility that the mist may go on forever.

The flight from the supermarket is Stephen King's most literal and most lovecraftian night journey. Drayton's narrative has no ending in the traditional sense. His group is heading south, hoping for refuge from the dark and seemingly endless tunnel of the mist, but they find only a surreal landscape of desolation and monstrosity. Yet the ultimate horror is nearly unseen, and it is all the more horrible given Drayton's dream on the night before the coming of the mist:

Something came; again, that is all I can say for sure. It may have been the fact that the mist only allowed us to glimpse things briefly, but I think it just as likely that there are certain things that your brain simply disallows. There are things of such darkness and horror—just, I suppose, as there are things of such great beauty—that they will not fit through the puny doors of human perception. . . .

I don't know how big it actually was, but it passed directly over us. . . . Mrs. Reppler said later she could not see the underside of its body, although she craned her neck up to look. She saw only two Cyclopean legs going up and up into the mist like living towers until they were lost to sight.

This numinous vision, a nonrational confrontation with the apparently divine, omens the impossibility of escape. The growing sense of a mysterious profanity, latent in the religious hysteria of Mrs. Carmody, is manifest in this dark mirror-image of the God of Drayton's dream. like The Stand,The Mist explicitly evokes Biblical stories of plagues embodying the wrath of God—and, of course, the archetypal story of the great flood. Although The Stand confirms the power of faith, The Mist refuses to offer a rainbow signaling man's triumph over adversity and the promise of a new day. As if animating Novalis's aphorism—"Where there are no gods, demons will hold sway"—King offers a universe without salvation, imbued with the feeling of one's own submergence—of being ant-like, trivial, before the footsteps of an unseeable God-thing.

For many readers, horror fiction is meaningful because its acceptance of the existence of evil implies the existence of good. Indeed, Russell Kirk contends [in The Surly Suller Bell, 1962] that supernatural fiction confirms "hierarchical" Christian values. The Mist is particularly terrifying because it proposes a transcendence of notions of good and evil, right and wrong; King moves his characters and readers through an ever-darkening universe of chaos and hostility. The line separating civilization from chaos—and indeed, life from extinction—has parted like the mist, and only "pure terror" remains.

The fiction of Stephen King offers no theological polemic, although—the aesthetics of The Mist notwithstanding—it does not embrace entirely the "cosmic pessimism" of H. P. lovecraft. King's stories typically celebrate the existence of good, while graphically demonstrating its cost. In Carrie, The Stand, and The Dead Zone, King offers the intervention of God as a potential—and indeed, persuasive—explanation of events. His version of God harkens less to modern Christian values and their source, the New Testament, than to those of the Old Testament, and particularly the Book of Job. On the other hand, King's most optimistic and pessimistic novels, Firestarter and Cujo, ironically lack any explicit religious elements.

In The Mist, King uses religion as well as materialism not as a dramatic foil to horror, but as its counterpoint. Just as he pushes the aesthetics of horror to the limit, so too are the aesthetics of religion and materialism tested in the extreme. In The Mist, as in several of his novels—Carrie, The Dead Zone, and The Talisman—religious fanaticism is an artifice of control, the means by which its proponents impose the illusion of order upon a situation virulent with chaos. Similarly, the seeming obsession of David Drayton in The Mist with brand names and products—from an opening comparison of power saws to the final resting place at Howard Johnson's—reflects materialism as an artifice of control. The numinous vision climaxing The Mist profoundly disintegrates any remaining illusions of order—and indeed, suggests horribly that order may lie at the heart of chaos. King's lesson seems clear: that order—or at least release from chaos—cannot be imposed; if it exists, and to the degree that it exists, it will be discovered.

Writing about the horror story [in his "Introduction" to The Arbor House Treasury of Horror and the Supernatural 1981], King has noted:

The best tales in the genre make one point over and over again—that the rational world both within us and without us is small, that our understanding is smaller yet, and that much of the universe in which we exist is, so far as we are able to tell, chaotic. So the horror story makes us appreciate our own well-lighted corner of that chaotic universe, and perhaps allows a moment of warm and grateful wonder that we should be allowed to exist in that fragile space of light at all.

Although the dark, apocalyptic quality of The Mist suggests that our "fragile space of light" may be dwindling, David Drayton's night journey through the mist has not yet reached its end. The novel's final word is "hope," even if this hope is clouded by ambiguity and despair. And unlike Drayton, the reader has the protection of perspective. The setting of The Mist, so reminiscent of the grade B horror film, is one of total security; we can leave at any moment, the lights will flicker on, and we can step safely into a more familiar world.

At 249B East Thirty-fifth Street in New York, we are told, there stands a nondescript brownstone house to which only certain people are invited. Inside meets a curious, informal club whose common thread is a penchant for the telling of tales. Toward the close of an evening the club members will gather their chairs in a semicircle before the massive fireplace in the library. A story will be told; then a toast will be raised, echoing the words engraved upon the keystone of the fireplace mantel: "It is the tale, not he who tells it."

You will not find that brownstone in New York City, but it stands at the heart of Stephen King's collection of four short novels, Different Seasons. The members of the club at 249B East Thirty-fifth Street have a special fondness for the tale of the uncanny, but "[m]any tales have been spun out in the main room . . . tales of every sort, from the comic to the tragic to the ironic to the sentimental." In Different Seasons, King moves beyond the horror fiction on which his fame is securely based to present those "tales of every sort," told through an array of fictional storytellers, all of whom ask the reader to judge the tale, not he who tells it.

The four novellas of Different Seasons were written between 1974 and 1980, each immediately after King completed a book-length novel, but they were offered for publication for the first time in this collection. Their different tones and textures reflect the "different seasons" of the title, yet beneath each lurks a decidedly macabre quality. "Sooner or later," King notes, "my mind always seems to turn back in that direction. . . ."

The opening novella, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, finds King working the theme of innocence as effectively as he considered the theme of guilt in The Shining. Set in the fictional Shawshank state penitentiary in southwestern Maine, it is the first-person narrative of an inmate identified only by the nickname red. Serving triple life sentences for murders, re d has become the prison's entrepreneur—"I'm the guy who can get it for you"—but his story is less about himself than another lifer whom he meets and befriends in the prison yard. Andy Dufresne is a former banker, convicted of the murder of his wife, and he makes curious purchases from red's black market enterprise: a rock hammer and a poster of Rita Hayworth. Dufresne insists upon his innocence, and red's story tells of how the irresistible force of that innocence succeeds against the seemingly immovable object of Shawshank. In challenging the constricting, dehumanizing environment of the prison—from the sexual brutality of the "sisters" to the corrupt prison overseers to the ever-present walls of stone—Dufresne displays a quality that is symbolized for re d in his seeming dedication to a form of art, the shaping and polishing of stones taken from the yard:

First the chipping and shaping, and then the almost endless polishing and finishing with those rock-blankets. looking at them, I felt the warmth that any man or woman feels when he or she is looking at something pretty, something that has been worked and made—that's the thing that really separates us from the animals, I think—and I felt something else, too. A sense of awe for the man's brute persistence.

"Hope Springs Eternal" is the subtitle of the novella, and in it, King extols the power of hope: "[H]ope is good thing . . . , maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies." But hope, we learn, is nothing without persistence—and in the end, Dufresne's persistence is the only vindication of his innocence, as his years of chipping a hole through the wall of his cell, hidden by the poster of Rita Hayworth and her pin-up queen successors, provide the only avenue to freedom.

Apt Pupil, the second and longest installment of the volume, is subtitled "Summer of Corruption," and it is a tale of demons by daylight: the corruption of "the total ail-American kid," Todd Bowden, through his fascination with an aging Nazi war criminal Kurt Dussander. On the novella's first page, we meet thirteen-year-old Todd—blond, blue-eyed, and "smiling a summer vacation smile." Ever the perfect student, Todd discovers Dussander living out his final, impoverished days hidden in Todd's idyllic California hometown. He is not shocked by Dussander's role as death-camp commandant, but intrigued; he blackmails Dussander, promising not to reveal Dussander's identity if the former S.S. officer will tell him stories of the camps: "I want to hear about it. . . . Everything. All the gooshy stuff."

The telling of tales of the past horrors produces a nightmare symbiosis, in which Todd becomes the "apt pupil" to Dussander's reluctant tutelage. The placid, plastic modernity of sunny California—captured wryly through snapshot glimpses of suburban life—crumbles before dark memories of the Holocaust. The partnership inexorably takes on a pathological bent as Dussander, haunted by the specters of his past, embraces again his murderous ways, while Todd sets out upon the painfully familiar path of American violence. His smile has changed; on the story's last page, it has become "the excited smile of tow-headed boys going off to war."

King's message is simple and chilling; in the words of his Nazi-hunter, Weiskopf (who himself is identified as a storyteller):

"[M]aybe there is something about what the germans did that exercises a deadly fascination over us—something that opens the catacombs of the imagination. Maybe part of our dread and horror comes from a secret knowledge that under the right—or wrong—set of circumstances, we ourselves would be willing to build such places and staff them. Black serendipity. Maybe we know that under the right set of circumstances the things that live in the catacombs would be glad to crawl out. And what do you think they would look like: like mad Fuehrers with forelocks and shoe-polish moustaches, heil-ing all over the place? like red devils, or demons, or the dragon that floats on its stinking reptile wings?" "I don't know," Richler said.

"I think most of them would look like ordinary accountants. . . .And some of them might look like Todd Bowden."

The centerpiece of Different Seasons is its third novella, The Body. It is patently autobiographical, told by a narrator, Gordon lachance, who is a doppelgänger for Stephen King—a bestselling writer of horror fiction "who is more apt to have his paperback contracts reviewed than his books." Subtitled "Fall from Innocence," it is the story of lachance's first, childhood view of a dead human being.

Stephen King's first confrontation with death occurred at age four, according to his mother, when one of his playmates was killed by a passing train. In The Body, Lachance tells of an adventure that he had at age twelve, to which he attributes his evolution as a writer: an overnight quest with three friends through the woods outside Castle rock, Maine, in search of the body of a boy purportedly killed by a train. The story unfolds through stories—indeed, two of lachance's early short stories are reprinted in the text ("Stud City" and "The revenge of lard Ass Hogan," both which, in fact, are early King short stories originally published in college magazines.

"The only reason anyone writes stories," King tells us here, "is so they can understand the past and get ready for some future mortality." A recurrent theme of King's fiction is the completion of the wheel whose turn begins in childhood. "The idea," he has said, "is to go back and confront your childhood, in a sense relive it if you can, so that you can be whole." We are haunted by our childhoods, by the important things we lost on the long walk to adulthood: the intensity of loves and fears, the talismanic rituals and objects of affection, and the moments of certain comprehension of our place in the scheme of things. To tell of these things now, as adults, exacts a high price:

The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you've said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That's the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for the want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear.

Unlocking that secret is difficult, as King laments: "The most important things are the hardest to say, because words diminish them." In The Body, he reaches out to his past more directly than in any other story—crossing a bridge of time not unlike the railroad trestle that is the setting for the novella's most frightening scene. What he finds are memories of childhood friendships, of laughter and bravado, of tears and pain, all tinged with a wistful nostalgia. When he returns to the present, that bridge (again like the trestle) is gone, but the storyteller—and his story—endure.

The final novella of Different Seasons is set in that mysterious brownstone at 249B East Thirty-fifth Street. "A Winter's Tale" for the collection, The Breathing Method answers the question "Who will bring us a tale for Christmas then?" Christmas, the traditional time for the telling of ghostly tales, offers the visitants to 249B East Thirty-fifth Street (and the readers of Different Seasons) the horror tale expected of Stephen King, written in a framework evocative of both Jorge luis Borges and Peter Straub (to whom the story is dedicated).

The narrator of The Breathing Method is a middle-aged, unambitious attorney whose foremost love is books. He tells the story of his introduction to the club at 249B East Thirty-fifth Street and, in turn, of the Christmas tale that is told there one night. This story within the story is the reminiscence of an elderly, genteel doctor whose experiments in the 1930s with a predecessor of the lamaze "breathing method" of childbirth produce a frightening result when the mother dies in labor.

As these levels upon levels of narration suggest, The Breathing Method serves as a fitting conclusion for King's collection of stories about storytelling. That imaginary brownstone at 249B East Thirty-fifth Street encompasses the jail cell where red begins his tale of Andy Dufresne, the small bungalow where Kurt Dussander recalls the crimes of an uneasily buried past, and the room where Gordon lachance taps out his sentimental retrospective on an IBM keyboard. The stories all flow from that brownstone—a metaphor for the storyteller's mind—whose keeper, appropriately enough, is named "Stevens":

[T]he question that came out was: "Are there many more rooms upstairs?"

"Oh, yes, sir," [Stevens] said, his eyes never leaving mine. "A great many. A man could become lost. In fact, men have become lost. Sometimes it seems to me that they go on for miles. rooms and corridors. . . . Entrances and exits.". . .

"There will be more tales?"

"Here, sir, there are always more tales."

Sandra Stansfield—the doomed, husbandless mother of The Breathing Method—completes the cycle of King's seasonal protagonists. Each faces the rite of passage—from childhood to adulthood, innocence to experience, life to death—as inevitable as the change of seasons. When Gordon lachance describes the railroad tracks that defined his journey, he pinpoints King's obsession with the theme:

There's a high ritual to all fundamental events, the rites of passage, the magic corridor where the change happens. Buying the condoms. Standing before the minister. raising your hand and taking the oath. Or, if you please, walking down the railroad tracks to meet a fellow your own age halfway . . . It seemed right to do it this way, because the rite of passage is a magic corridor and so we always provide an aisle—it's what you walk down when you get married, what they carry you down when you get buried.

In the night journeys of Different Seasons, we find a "brute persistence" as relentless as the rite of passage, the change of seasons—and in that persistence, the dilemma and a final horror. When Sandra Stansfield refuses to allow even her own death to prevent her from giving birth, King offers a parting image of a stone statue as timeless as the stone walls of Shawshank in which the collection of stories began:

[T]he statue . . . stood, looking stonily away . . . , as if nothing of particular note had happened, as if such determination in a world as hard as senseless as this one meant nothing . . . or worse still, that it was perhaps the only thing which meant anything, the only thing that made any difference at all.

The four short novels of Different Seasons [confirm]. . . that the deepest horrors are those that are real. Indeed, the very reality of Apt Pupil caused some concern at King's paperback publishing company, New American library, which initially asked that the novella not be used. As King recalls:

They were very disturbed by the piece. Extremely disturbed. It was too real If the same story had been set in outer space, it would have been okay, because then you would have had that comforting layer of "Well, this is just make-believe, so we can dismiss it."

And I thought to myself, "Gee, I've done it again. I've written something that has really gotten under someone's skin." And I do like that. I like the feeling that I reached between somebody's leg like that. There has always been that primitive impulse as part of my writing.

I don't really care for psychoanalyzing myself. All I care about is when I find out what it is that scares me. That way, I can discover a theme, and then I can magnify that effect and make the reader even more frightened than I am.

I think I can really scare people, to the point where they will say, "I'm really sorry I bought this." It's as if I'm the dentist, and I'm uncovering a nerve not to fix it, but to drill on it.

As these comments suggest, in answering the questions of whether Stephen King can write more than horror fiction, Different Seasons did not presage a change in the direction of King's writing. John D. MacDonald's prediction in the "Introduction" to Night Shift—"Stephen King is not going to restrict himself to his present field of intense interest"—has proved correct, but only to a point—a point on which King is highly vocal:

[T]here are a lot of people who are convinced that, as soon as I have made enough money, I will just leave this silly bullshit behind and go on to write Brideshead revisited and spy novels and things like that. I don't know why people think that. This is all I've ever wanted to write; and if I go out and I write a novel about baseball or about a plumber who's having an affair with some other guy's wife—which I have written, by the way—that is just because it occurred to me at the time to write that story. And I don't think anybody would want me deliberately to reject an idea that really excited me.

As if to make his point certain, the projects that followed Different Seasons have proved decidedly horrific. Close on the heels of its publication came the release of Creepshow, the first motion picture created specifically for the screen by Stephen King, and two flat-out horror novels, Christine and Pet Sematary.

Susan Bolotin (essay date 1985)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 915

SOURCE: "Don't Turn Your Back on This Book," in The New York Times Book review, June 9, 1985, p. 11.

[In the following review, Bolotin provides a mixed assessment of Skeleton Crew.]

Stephen King's fiction, at its best, is equivalent to the post-Expressionist art found in the tiny galleries of Manhattan's East Village, where painters, sculptors and collagists often turn to the aggressive headlines of tabloid newspapers for inspiration. What erupts in their work is an apocalyptic world, at once magnetic and repulsive, in which good howls at evil, nature runs headlong into technology, humor provides life's one grand escape and "control" is a word with little meaning.

At its worst, Mr. King's writing resembles generic campfire stories.

Skeleton Crew, a fat collection of short fiction and two forgettable poems, as indiscriminate in its assemblage as its author can be with words, shows off Mr. King's virtues and failings. He makes mistakes, sentences such as this one: "There was a bit of pain, but not much; losing her maidenhead had been worse." He pokes fun at himself, by confessing to "literary elephantiasis" and saying, in his introduction, that he writes "like fat ladies diet." But unfortunate images and bloat aside, Mr. King is a real talent: his scary tales are fun to read and, I would argue, accurate gauges of our deepest nightmares.

The book's opener, The Mist, a story so long that less prolific souls might call it a novel, proves you can't fool Mother Nature. When the Army pursues an ominous top-secret project, all hell literally breaks loose. Mr. King escalates our worst anxieties into a hyperbolic fairy tale. In his world, the evil creatures that attack the classic sleepy village, the deaths of loved ones and the tests that the narrator-prince undergoes do not dissolve into a last, happyever-after sunset. The story is, however, written in typically cinematic King style; the first sentence starts a reader's internal movie projector humming.

In the 11 years since he published Carrie, Stephen King's reliance on the symbols of popular culture—not just movies, but rock-and-roll, advertising jingles, hot cars—has become legendary and spoofable, perhaps because he understands these symbols better than some more upscale writers who likewise sprinkle their stories with brand names. His uncensored and uncensoring subconscious allows him to absorb the world around him and in him, and to spit it out almost undigested, as if he were walking around in a constant hypnagogic state.

This condition is in some ways (or at least to some people) enviable. He conjures up the forgotten artifacts of childhood—talismans such as the fortune-telling Magic Eight-Ball—more easily than someone 10 years on the couch. And how many of us could bear living with such a rampant imagination? Mr. King provides a clue to what it might be like in his slightly ingenuous "Notes" section. He is telling how he came to write "Survivor Type," a silly but effective story from the gross-me-out school of literature. (A doctor, stranded on an island after a shipwreck, progressively amputates parts of his body and eats himself. After he dines on his left foot, he writes in his journal, "I kept telling myself: Cold roast beef. Cold roast beef. Cold roast beef.") Anyway, Mr. King explains: "I got to thinking about cannibalism one day . . . and my muse once more evacuated its magic bowels on my head. I know how gross that sounds, but it's the best metaphor I know." Freud would have gone crazy—and so would Mr. King's readers, if he did not distance himself from his material through humor, self-awareness and irony.

Take, for instance, "The raft," a wonderfully gruesome story about four innocent kids marooned in the middle of a lake by a human-eating water slick that looks like "dark, lithe Naugahyde." One of the boys, so terrified that he punches himself in the nose to feel the vitality of his own blood, keeps his cool long enough to tell the creature to "go to California and find a Roger Corman movie to audition for."

But, again, what saves Mr. King's stories from genre purgatory is his moral vision. He is in love with his readers, as someone in his income tax bracket might well be, and he wants to share his world view with them. He believes that primal, mythological beings and rites have extraordinary power; that we should stand in awe of nature; that good does not always beget good; that death is not necessarily dreadful; that violence is an expression of powerlessness; that creativity demands listening to inner voices; that madness attracts all of us; that true love never dies.

Sometimes, as in "Cain rose Up," in which an analretentive type turns into a mass murderer, or in "Nona," a failed attempt at Bergmanesque ghostliness, his visions run amok. Sometimes, as in "The Monkey," a story about an evil toy, or in "Uncle Otto's Truck," about a machine that avenges murder, the vision is predictable. But as a character in The Mist says, conveniently explaining the popularity of books about the supernatural: "When the machines fail . . . when the technologies fail, when the conventional religious systems fail, people have got to have something. Even a zombie lurching through the night can seem pretty cheerful compared to the existential comedy/horror of the ozone layer dissolving under the combined assault of a million fluorocarbon spray cans of deodorant." The felicitous phrase is not always Mr. King's strong suit, but our very own Brother Grimm almost always speaks the truth.

Peter Nicholls (essay date 1985)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1084

SOURCE: A review of Skeleton Crew, in Book World—The Washington Post, June 16, 1985, pp. 1, 13.

[Nicholls is an Australian critic. In the following review of Skeleton Crew, he lauds King's use of colloquial images and dialect, while asserting that occasionally King's use of vulgar language or imagery is detrimental to his narratives' effectiveness as well as his characters' appeal.]

Stephen King could no doubt make a megabuck deal for a paraphrase of the telephone directory, so a simple short-story collection (his third) may seem unsurprising. When you think about it though, it reveals a commendable absence of greed. Even for Stephen King (and especially for anybody else) short stories are not great money spinners. If he writes them, it must be because he enjoys writing them.

Skeleton Crew makes it obvious that King is not worried now, if he ever was, about his pulp-magazine past. There are stories here from 1968 onwards. As his first collection, Night Shift, did not appear until 1978, there seems no reason why some of these stories should not have been published then rather than now; presumably he was more self-conscious then. These days he can afford to be amused by his own juvenilia (some from the University of Maine magazine Ubris) and rightly so. The early stories are pretty good, but the real winners are recent.

There are two poems (better than some of you might have expected) and 20 stories. Four stories are classics. The other 16 are, without exception, highly readable; eight definitely above average and none of them contemptible. Other critics might call the score a little differently, but overall there can be no argument: the big guy from Bangor, Maine, has made another touchdown. No question, King is the most successful good ol' boy in the book business, though he continues to give the impression (can it be true?) of being unspoiled by success.

King is, of course, well known as an excellent contriver of laid-back New England dialect (Ayuh, those old fellers sitting on a bench and yarning), and also of a generalized downmarket prose, either straight-from-the-shoulder or filtered-through-the-beercan. But it would be a mistake for King to become over-confident about his mastery of the common touch. In his afterword he tells an anecdote about the difficulty he had in selling a story ("Mrs. Todd's Shortcut") to women's magazines. It seems that two of them turned it down "because of that line about how a woman will pee down her own leg if she doesn't squat." Well, Steve, I don't want to be difficult, but the same line made me wince too, and it didn't do a bit of good to the story; it makes a likeable narrator seem momentarily insensitive, even vulgar. I suspect that a lot of us plain folks who admire King's work do so in spite of, and not because of, this sort of thing. My granny, herself plain folks, would have said "That Stephen King should wash his mouth out with soap."

But one's adverse judgments are really quite mild. Several of the stories, as with too many genre short stories, are of the kind which one describes to friends in sentences that begin "Did you ever read the story about.. . ?" For example, in more than one interview, when asked to define the term "gross-out," Stephen King has referred to his own story "Survivor Type," which appears here. This is well told, but once you have heard someone say, "Did you ever read the story about the man on the desert island who got so hungry he ate himself?," there is not a lot of point in reading the actual story. As gross-outs go, I preferred the scene in "The raft" where a teen-age couple, menaced by a floating and carnivorous blob, make desperate love. Unfortunately, the young man notices too late that "HER HAIR IS IN THE OH GOD IN THE WATER HER HAIR . . . randy screamed. He screamed. And then, for variety, he screamed some more."

The short story is not, on the face of it, a form to which King's undoubted talents are suited. Polished gemstones of precision are not his line, and mandarins and collectors of lapidary delights should seek their pleasures elsewhere. One joins King for more leisurely, outdoor pursuits: a ramble through the graveyard perhaps, with the chill of fall in the air.

Even in the short story, however, King's refusal to be hurried can pay dividends, especially in "Mrs. Todd's Shortcut," a vibrant, memorable tale about a young woman obsessed with the possibility of finding ever shorter automobile routes between her home village and Bangor, 79 miles as the crow flies. As the shortcuts become more elaborate, the back roads wilder and the distance shorter, it is no longer certain through what dimension these tracks are cutting, but some nasty little animals get caught up in the radiator grille. Part of the story's strength lies in the ironical, moving contrast between the relaxed telling of the tale and the mad hurry it encapsulates.

The other three classics vary in tone. "The Monkey," perhaps, cuts closest to the white dead bone in its tale of a children's toy which laughs and bangs its cymbals when death is due. Here King's well known sore spot (highly visible in Pet Semetary), which has to do with parental love and fear and mortal threats to children, is hectically picked at yet again. On a much more expansive and amusing note, The Mist (almost a short novel) is by far the best supermarket-menaced-by-horrible-monsters story ever likely to be written, and some of the nastiest monsters are human. (Some, on the other hand, have tentacles, enormous claws, and leave footprints in the blacktop deep enough to hide a car in.)

Finally, something out of the way for King: a piece of true-blue surrealism, beautifully judged and paced, "Big Wheels: A Tale of the laundry Game (Milkman ✓ 2)." The horror in this one bubbles up through the beercans that are central to its imagery, and the reader discovers more about the soft white underbelly of blue-collar life than he could conceivably want to know.

Skeleton Crew is probably better than the first collection, Night Shift, and as good in its very different way as the second, Different Seasons. King does not have too much to worry about, though he has one failing, perhaps because he likes to be liked. In a few too many stories (including the last, "The reach") he sacrifices the hard edge of his vision for something that can only be called cute.

James C. Dolan (essay date 1985)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 556

SOURCE: A review of Skeleton Crew, in Best Sellers, Vol. 45, No. 5, August, 1985, p. 168.

[Dolan is an American educator and critic. In the following review of Skeleton Crew, he suggests that King's stories are powerful because of the "realization by the reader that the line between his own life and that of the horror tale is very fine."]

You need only cable TV to know how much this country during the last few years has been in the throes of a horror film epidemic, the "Halloween Syndrome." If you have the stomach for it, you may have been able to see enough to sort the artistic from the trash. I suspect that Night of the living Dead would be near the top of your horror hierarchy, and Stephen King on your elite list of chiller creators. remember Carrie, Cujo, and The Shining? King wrote them all.

What is it that makes a story "horrible"? reading Skeleton Crew might help us to decide. Most of the twenty stories and two poems really make your flesh crawl. This is not a book to read in huge gobbets, but a collection to savor one at a time. The selections that make up the "crew" of "skeletons" are of several different types of the story horrible: the lost in space fantasy, the gory exploits of the psychopathic killer, a twist on the cannibalism motif, the classic mirror story—to name a few. But it's not gory details alone that create horror though they do add that gut-wrenching element so many readers eagerly anticipate. Even that takes—in prose, at least—the kind of imagination and verbal dexterity that enables the reader to re-create the scene and the action vividly enough for him to feel the twinge of terror that thrills and entertains.

The events, in addition to being believable, must happen to characters we can accept and identify with as fully human. No one outside the Wizard of Oz gets gooseflesh at the chilling adventures of a straw man. King's people are palpable, usually ordinary, individuals, and we are led to accept their reactions to the strange things that befall them as recognizably human. Many of King's narrators, as you might expect, are telling their own stories; they, too, speak with individual voices that place us in the action.

The essence of horror, however, I would think is the realization by the reader that the line between his own life and that of the horror tale is very fine. How do we know that some small alteration in the mind's patterns won't make us into killers or eaters of men? The image in the mirror has always asked men to question the validity of their perceptions. We all harbor childhood fantasies of the eerielooking person, or place, or object that seemed to us to bear a threat. King's stories, along with their obvious entertainment value, offer the thoughtful reader a look at his life from new angles. Not all of them are finally frightening; there is comedy here, as in "The Word Processor of the Gods," tragedy in The Mist, satire in "The Jaunt."

Skeleton Crew is an excellent book to keep by your chair for a short read in the evening. I promise you that you'll never look at a sandy beach or a Delete key the same way again.

Leonard G. Heldreth (essay date 1987)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4843

SOURCE: "Viewing The Body': King's Portrait of the Artist as Survivor," in The Gothic World of Stephen King: landscape of Nightmares, edited by Gary Hoppenstand and ray B. Browne, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1987, pp. 64-74.

[Heldreth is an American educator and critic. In the following essay, he provides a thematic analysis of The Body, discussing King's treatment of maturation and use of narrative writing to "[shape] important experiences into a form to be communicated."]

Steven King begins The Body with "The most important things are the hardest things to say. . . . Words shrink things that seem limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they're brought out. . . ." Shaping important experiences into a form to be communicated is one of the major themes of the novella, and into it King incorporates several levels of archetypal experience. He cites the "high ritual to all fundamental events, the rites of passage, the magic corridor where the change happens"; and even at the beginning of the walk down the railroad tracks, "bright and heliographing in the sun," Gordon lachance knows he will never "forget that moment, no matter how old I get"; as the adventure progresses, the hike turns "into what we had suspected it was all along: serious business." The journey the four boys take to find ray Brower's body is more than just a walk along railroad tracks; extending through time as well as space, it integrates diverse rites of passage into one intensely concentrated experience.

In the introduction to Night Shift, King asserts, "All our fears add up to one great fear. . . . We're afraid of the body under the sheet. It's our body." Consciousness of the physical body—its sensations, vulnerability and ultimate termination—is the focus of horror literature; and while The Body is not a horror story, bodily sensations, the physical self, and the dangers that beset it are emphasized and analyzed. Starting over the GS&WM trestle high above Castle river, Gordon lachance becomes "acutely aware of all the noises" inside him: "The steady thump of my heart, the bloodbeat in my ears like a drum being played with brushes, the creak of sinews like the strings of a violin." Halfway across, when he hears the approaching train, he describes for over a page how "all sensory input became intensified." Other descriptions of intense physical sensations appear in passages describing the leech pond, the episode with the doe, and the beating Gordon receives from Ace Merrill and Fuzzy Bracowicz.

Beyond an awareness of the human body, a growing realization of its physical vulnerability draws the boys on the journey. The narrator's concern for such vulnerability appears in his comparison of Brower's body to "a ripped-open laundry bag," in his description of the dead boy's eyes filling with hail, and in his concern for the boy "so alone and so defenseless in the dark. . . . If something wanted to eat on him, it would." lachance went on the hike because of mortality, "the shadows that are always somewhere behind our eyes . . . what Bruce Springsteen calls the darkness on the edge of town." Going to view Brower's body is one way of acknowledging and defying death: "everyone wants to dare that darkness in spite of the jalopy bodies that some joker of a God gave us . . . not in spite of our jalopy bodies but because of them."

This desire to confront the darkness inherent in the body pulls the boys forward on what is, at the literal level, a journey to see death. The subtitle, "Fall from Innocence," refers not only to their loss of innocence but also to the fall of Man and the punishment of that fall by death. The boys' language indicates their awareness that this trip is more than just an overnight adventure. When Vera Tessio first announces the trip in the clubhouse and considers the consequences, he states, "This is worth it," and later he emphasizes, "we hafta see him . . . we hafta . . . but maybe it shouldn't be no good time." Gordon, speaking for the others, acknowledges, "the fascination of the thing drew us on. . . . We were all crazy to see that kid's body . . . we had come to believe we deserved to see it." What fascinates the boys at a level below their conscious thought is the archetype of the journey, whose significance they sense: "Unspoken—maybe it was too fundamental to be spoken—was the idea that this was a big thing." They never really question their "decision to walk down the tracks," for such a journey forward, in time and growth as well as in space, is as inevitable as boys growing into men.

This journey begins by moving them away from home and boyhood toward the world and adolescence. "Home . . . is a metaphysical principle and an ontological condition embodied in a place: the location which affirms who I am, projects what I may be, and vindicates whatever I have had to do to get there" [Langdon Elsbree, The rituals of life: Patterns in Narratives, 1982]. Abused or neglected by parents, each of the boys has been forced into a social identity which he despises; for each of the boys, home has become a limitation. Teddy fights against being labeled the son of a "looney" by Milo Pressman, Vern rejects being treated like a juvenile delinquent because of his brothers, Chris rejects his brothers and his father, and Gordon withdraws from his family that ignores him. Their small town environment has forced them into being "clearly defined contestants with titles, insignia, and traditional sexual or social roles," but they reject these roles, and part of their initial momentum, as they set out, "is the need to break away, or find a new home, identity, or commitment" [Elsbree]. When they are alone, Chris lectures Gordon on the need to go to college and escape: "I know what people think of my family in this town. I know what they think of me and what they expect. . . . I want to go someplace where nobody knows me and I don't have any black marks against me before I start." In the excerpts from lachance's writings, Chico rejects his family and its lifestyle to head for Stud City while lard Ass Hogan takes his revenge on his parents and small town society.

The movement of the journey to escape is contrasted with inertia, stagnation, and images of drowning. Chris warns Gordon to leave friends who will "drag you down. . . . They're like drowning guys that are holding onto your legs. You can't save them. You can only drown with them." Gordon equates this image of drowning with a life unrealized in two later instances: he dreams of the corpses of Vern and Teddy pulling down first Chris and then himself, and he comments about Chris, "I could not just leave him to sink or swim on his own. If he had drowned, that [best] part of me would have drowned with him, I think." Yet three of the boys do die without realizing their potentials.

The journey in contemporary literature tends to include "only the temporary lovers, friends, associates; more rarely the hard-won intimacy with a single companion, or two" [Elsbree], and Gordon acknowledges that "Friends come in and out of your life like busboys in a restaurant . . . when I think of that dream, the corpses under the water pulling implacably at my legs, it seems right that it should be that way." In such a psychic journey, "the self is grateful to find it has the strength to escape the predation of others and to travel on alone" [Elsbree].

In addition to breaking out of a confining existence, Gordon tries to escape the domination of his dead brother together with the guilt he feels about Denny's death. Gordon has always been ignored by his parents and most of the town while they doted on his brother. Even George Dusset extols Denny's virtues and has "a beautiful vision" of the dead boy while he cheats Gordon at the scales. At Denny's graduation Gordon had rebelled and drunk too much cheap wine, but after the older brother's death the guilt returns, and Denny's ghost announces in dreams, "It should have been you, Gordon. " The same guilt appears in lachance's story when the corpse of Chico's brother Johnny returns with similar words. Brower's death, like Denny's, was accidental, and by walking to confront that illogical death—and thus his own and his brother's mortality—lachance moves away from blind acceptance of the guilt and inferiority imposed on him by his parents and the town toward an acceptance of himself and the nature of existence: "Some people drown, that's all. It's not fair, but it happens."

Thus, while this expedition moves toward death in that the goal is a corpse, it also moves toward death in the sense of a journey forward in time toward the demise of the boys' own bodies. Dylan Thomas in the poem, "Twenty-Four Years," describes "a journey / By the light of the meat-eating sun" whose "final direction" is toward "the elementary town," and the boys are embarked on that same mortal trip. Brower's journey is over, as are those of the athletes who were crippled or killed, proving to Gordon they "were as much flesh and blood as I was." Dennis lachance has also entered the "elementary town," as has his literary equivalent, Johnny May; and the beavers seen alongside the tracks will soon join them: "They'll shoot them some beavers and scare off the rest and then knock out their dam. . . . Who cares about beavers?" Foreshadowings of the boys' own mortality appear all about them, e.g., in their flipping a "goocher" at the town dump and in Gosset's quoting the Bible to Gordon, " 'In the midst of life, we are in death.' Did you know that?" Teddy flirts with death in his truck-and-train-dodging and nearly finds it when he falls from the top of the tree. Chico thinks, "Nothing happened to Johnny that isn 't going to happen to you, too, sooner or later, " and the adult Gordon finally recounts the later deaths of Teddy, Vern, and Chris.

Complementing these foreshadowings are images that confuse the quick and the dead to highlight the boys' inevitable deaths. After Chris falls down in the same position as Brower's body, Gordon looks "wildly at Chris's feet to make sure his sneakers were still on," and when Gordon tells the leDio story, he sees the dead hero's face replaced by the imagined face of ray Brower. But Gordon's chief confusion is between himself and the corpse, for in confronting ray Brower's death, he is facing his own. His dream of Denny concludes with the corpse's accusation, "It should have been you," but, so far as his parents are concerned, Gordon feels he is already dead. The "old reliable standby, 'Did your mother ever have any kids that lived?' " loses its humor when compared to Gordon's earlier remark about his mother's feelings after Denny's death: "Her only kid was dead and she had to do something to take her mind off it." The adult lachance, looking back on his experiences at twelve, thinks "That boy was me. . . . And the thought which follows, chilling me like a dash of cold water, is: Which boy do you mean?" The confusion is natural, for, like Margaret in Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem, "Spring and Fall: to a young child," it is himself he mourns for.

Any realistic account of boys at the edge of adolescence inevitably involves sexual imagery, and The Body incorporates as one of its thematic strands the sexual preoccupations, ambiguities, and uncertainties of its pubescent heroes. The boys, all "close to being thirteen," reveal their sexual preoccupation in their language, whose most common expletive is "balls." For example, to describe fear, Vern says, " 'My balls crawled up so high I thought they was trine [sic] to get back home,' " and Gordon describes fear as a pole-vaulter who "dug his pole all the way into my balls, it felt like, and ended up sitting astride my heart." Chris refuses to take a drink "even to show he had, you know, big balls."

Sexual fears and insecurity are evident in the many references to injured testicles. When Gordon pulls Teddy off the fence around the town dump and they fall, the narrator complains, "He squashed my balls pretty good. . . . Nothing hurts like having your balls squashed." In the later fight with Ace Merrill and Fuzzy Bracowicz, Gordon receives a knee in the crotch and protects his "wounded balls," which Aunt Evvie Chalmers warns him "are going to swell up to the size of Mason jars." Worse than injured testicles are lost testicles, a threat personified by Pressman's dog, Chopper: "every kid in Castle rock squeezed his balls between his legs when Chopper's name was mentioned." According to rumor, Chopper has been taught to attack certain parts of the body, and an intruder into the town dump "would hear the dread cry: 'Chopper! Sic! Balls!' And that kid would be a soprano the rest of his life."

The climax of this expedition is a test of masculinity in which a pistol that belongs to Chris's father decides the victory between younger boys trying to prove their masculinity and older ones trying to assert their power. A contest "where the testing and defense of self is central" [Elsbree] is a common activity in adolescence, and such contests appear throughout The Body: it opens with card games, climaxes with the fight over the body, and concludes with the boys trying to survive the game of life. The story also incorporates elements of the contest in other ways. Gordon's surname, lachance, carries the connotation of a game, and his best memories of Denny, who was an All-Conference halfback, involve watching him play ball. In the embedded story, lard Ass Hogan enrolls in the pie eating contest and, in his own way, wins.

The major contest, the fight over ray Brower's body, sets older and younger brothers against each other. Both Chris and Vern are facing their actual brothers across the battle line, and it is Ace's mention of Denny that triggers Gordon's response: in insulting Ace he is striking back at all the people who have praised Denny and expected Gordon to be like him.

The contest in which the younger boys achieve a qualified victory echoes, perhaps ironically, epic engagements in the structure of its action and in its battle prize. The corpse has no value except as an object with which to achieve honor or fame, and, as the story concludes, even that value is denied the participants. The two groups stand on opposite sides of a water-logged bog with Brower's body between them like the Greeks and Trojans on opposite sides of the river Scamander. First, insults and dares are exchanged; then minor warriors, Charlie Hogan and Billy Tessio, start forward, but are called back by Ace Merrill, their leader; Ace offers to negotiate with the other leader, Gordon lachance; Gordon returns an insult and both sides prepare for battle. Then Chris, exhibiting his version of the armor of Achilles, fires the revolver and changes the odds. The phallic gun is particularly appropriate, as are the insults ("Bite my bag," "Suck my fat one"), for the conflict is one of masculine pride, and "Apart from words, the male often fights with the usual phallic extensions of self and/or weapons of power." Although Jackie Mudgett pulls out a knife, the more potent, adult weapon of the younger boys decides the battle, a victory anticipated by Gordon's earlier firing of the gun (sexual maturation) in the alley behind the Blue Point Diner: " 'You did it, you did it! Gordie did it!' "

When the boys return home, Gordon, like the Greek heroes after battle, ritually cleans himself—"face, neck, pits, belly . . . crotch—my testicles in particular"—and throws the rag away. But the epic echoes and the masculine pride ("Biggest one in four counties") are all illusions; after the excitement of battle cools, Gordon acknowledges that ray Brower's body is "a tatty prize to be fought over by two bunches of stupid hick kids." Such heroics have little merit beyond schoolboy conflicts, lachance implies, because the outcome of any contest depends more on chance than ability, and the odds are against the individual: "they tell you to step right up and spin the Wheel of Fortune, and it spins so pretty and the guy steps on a pedal and it comes up double zeros, house number, everybody loses."

A similar nonheroic attitude manifests itself in lachance's ambiguous attitude toward sexuality. In the "Stud City" excerpt, Chico is a sensitive but typical car-crazy teenager with his libido in overdrive; the section opens with his deflowering a virgin and ends with his "rolling" on route 41. But this early writing also describes sex as "Bozo the Clown bouncing around on a spring. How could a woman look at an erect penis without going off into mad gales of laughter?" The older lachance describes the excerpt as "an extremely sexual story written by an extremely inexperienced young man" and as "the work of a young man every bit as insecure as he was inexperienced." The insecurity remains, however, in the comments of the older lachance. It manifests itself in his feelings toward Chris, in his remarks about masturbation, in the leech episode, and in his literary allusions. When they separate after the hike, the twelve-year-old Gordon feels self-conscious about his love for Chris, acknowledging that "Speech destroys the functions of love"; later, as they study together every night through high school, he wonders if his former friends will think he went "faggot," but defends himself by saying, "it was only survival. We were clinging to each other in deep water." When he hears of Chris's death, he drives out of town and cries "for damn near half an hour," yet he cannot share his feelings, even with his wife, for such action would be considered feminine. Sexuality can be seen as hilarious but the rest of the macho creed remains locked in place: strong feelings must be expressed only in isolation or in a joking fashion.

Masturbation, another subject usually treated with humor, also has a serious side in the story. Jokes about it run through the story from Vern's "Fuck your hand, man," through the initial verdict on the swim and the parting speech of Gordon and Chris, to the last comment on the treehouse which "smelled like a shootoff in a haymow." But masturbation is also a part of the nostalgia for childhood innocence: for the boy "masturbation is freedom and omnipotence." The adult lachance associates the pleasure of his early writing with masturbation: "The act of writing itself is done in secret, like masturbation. . . . For me, it always wants to be sex and always falls short—it's always that adolescent handjob in the bathroom with the door locked." Using masturbation as a metaphor for writing conveys the boy's and the adult's real attitudes better than the comments which the boys self-consciously swap among themselves.

The most disturbing sexual image in the story is the leech which attaches itself to Gordon's scrotum while he is swimming. When he discovers it, the leech is "a bruised purplish-red" and has "swelled to four times its normal size." When he pulls the leech loose, it bursts and "My own blood ran across my palm and inner wrist in a warm flood." As they leave, he looks back at the leech, "deflated . . . but still ominous." The image is of selfcastration (pulling the leech loose) during tumescence and is more than a young man on the edge of adolescence can handle: he faints. The leech, a clinging third testicle, is swollen with blood like an erect penis (the opposite side of the image of Bozo the clown cited in "Stud City"), and both Chris and Gordon understand the inherent symbolism of the act. The deflation and the sexual significance, even for later years, are underlined by the adult lachance's equating "the burst leech: dead, deflated . . . but still ominous" with the "used condums" floating off Staten Island. When his wife asks about the crescent-shaped scar left by the leech, he automatically lies, for even symbolic castration experiences are not subjects to be shared with wives.

This castration image, raised earlier in the Chopper rumors, is underscored by lachance's references to ralph Ellison's novel, Invisible Man. He equates himself with the protagonist for he is as invisible to his parents as Jack the Bear is to society. Gordon's dreams in the novella are negative—dreams of people pulling him down or of his dead brother's return—and Invisible Man concludes with a dream in which the narrator is castrated by Bledso and the others who have been running his life. They ask him, "How does it feel to be free of illusion?" and he replies, "Painful and empty." Gordon also has been freeing himself of illusion: at the sound of the train's horn, his illusions fly apart letting him "know what both the heroes and cowards really heard when death flew at them"; he finds he cannot trust George Dusset's arithmetic; and in the meeting with Chopper, he gets his "first lesson in the vast difference between myth and reality"; he has few illusions about teachers after Chris's account of the stolen milk money; and he loses his illusions about death when he smells the decay and sees the beetle come out of Brower's mouth. The leeches lurking beneath the smooth surface of the pond complete the lesson about appearances: "The harder lesson to be learned is essentially paradoxical: how to live without illusion . . . and yet remain committed to some meaningful and coherent picture of things." For lachance, the commitment is to writing: "The only reason anyone writes stories is so they can understand the past and get ready for some future mortality..." This statement echoes Ellison's statement at the end of Invisible Man: "So why do I write, torturing myself to put it down? Because in spite of myself I've learned some things."

Understanding the self requires understanding the past, and the story's final journey is Gordon lachance's archetypal "return to a remembered place after years of absence" [Elsbree]. He returns in memory to the boys' journey down the railroad tracks, he fantasizes returning as an adult for the berry pail, and he describes an actual return to Castle rock. Since the original events, he had "thought remarkably little about those two days in September, at least consciously. The associations the memories bring to the surface are as unpleasant as week-old river-corpses brought to the surface by cannonfire." But in recounting the associations he offers his "inner life, its genesis, changes, restlessness, and moods . . . a journey . . . through the growth of consciousness and self . . . and its interplay with the external world" [Elsbree]. At times he feels "like the pre-adolescent Gordon lachance that once strode the earth, walking and talking and occasionally crawling on his belly like a reptile." He also identifies with the young man who wrote "Stud City," "a Gordon lachance younger than the one living and writing now . . . but not so young as the one who went with his friends that day." The narrator, trying "to look through an IBM keyboard and see that time," can "almost feel the skinny, scabbed boy still buried in this advancing body," for these and other stages in his development form a graph of personal identity, the self as "a construct or a series of constructs of subjective time which is inadequate to resist the march of chronological and historic time" [Elsbree]. In an interview, ralph Ellison argues that the search for identity "is the American theme. The nature of our society is such that we are prevented from knowing who we are," and that the search for and unification of his identity should be a major theme of a writer as American as Stephen King is not surprising. The final (or current) identity achieved is defined in the last pages of the work: "I'm a writer now . . . and most of the time I'm happy," although in an interview with Douglas E. Winter, King reserves his right to switch identities: "I'm just trying on all of these hats."

Writing enables lachance to come to terms with the emotions engendered by the adventure. The narrative exists in three reflexive forms—the basic story, the reprints of "Stud City," and "The revenge of lard Ass Hogan"—the latter two being set in a different typeface. Within these forms are various narrators, from the twelve-year-old boy to the "best-selling novelist who is more apt to have his paper back contracts reviewed than his books." The parts of the narrative comment on each other. For example, the older lachance evaluates the writing of his younger self, while the Hogan story begins as an oral account told by a twelve-year-old, switches to a published version written by the successful novelist, and then returns to the twelve-year-old's point of view. later Chris warns Gordon that the pie story may "never get written down" after the reader has already read it printed, and he suggests that "Maybe you'll even write about us guys," the account of which the reader is holding.

Writing succeeds for Gordon because it offers control over experience. In writing "Stud City" he found "a kind of dreadful exhilaration in seeing things that had troubled me for years come out in a new form, a form over which I had imposed control." Writing and religion, "The only two useful artforms, " permit a pattern to be imposed on the chaos of life: at the end of Invisible Man Ellison states, "the mind that has conceived a plan of living must never lose sight of the chaos against which that pattern was conceived." Writing permits a systematic formulation of the plan or world view and provides the means for keeping it before not only the author but all of his readers. As the narrator of Invisible Man asks at the end, "Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?"

Most of the other themes of the work are incorporated through metaphors with writing. The body examined is not only Brower's but also the body of experience Gordon has shaped into the work and the body of works he has produced; the contest is the writer's attempt to decipher and communicate order out of raw experience; and sex appears in his analogy of writing to masturbation and artificial insemination. Writing, most of all, defines experience in relation to the narrator, a function he embodies in the metaphor of the blueberry pail which ray Brower lost and which lachance dreams of retrieving. He wants to "pull it out of time" and to read his own life in its rusty shine—"where I was, what I was doing, who I was loving, how I was getting along, where I was." Yet the act of writing has given him the blueberry bucket: through The Body he has retrieved the past, looked in its mirror, and found his "own face in whatever reflection might be left." The words whose power he denies at the beginning of the narrative have enabled him to capture and communicate the experiences of his life.

To see Gordon lachance as Stephen King is tempting. Many of the details match: the wife, three children, the million dollars from horror stories, the books made into movies, the youngest son who might be hydrocephalic, even the luck (LaChance) which King acknowledges. ray Brower's death by train and Gordon's close brush with it reflect the story King tells of an incident when he was four in which another child was killed by a train, although he states, "I have no memory of the incident at all; only of having been told about it some years after the fact."

Concluding that lachance is King would be tempting but unnecessary, for whether the writer is lachance or King, an examination of a story or any cultural artifact returns us "to both the culture and the maker as individualized expressions of certain universal human capacities and experiences, of which the living through stories is paramount. It is this perspective which is so valuable—one which sees the human symbolizing process of story making as fundamental to culture, to our creation of an inhabitable world" [Elsbree].

Stevens, King's namesake in The Breathing Method, the next story in the collection which contains The Body, says "Here, sir, there are always more tales"; and indeed, as long as there are more lives, there are always more tales, for although each individual repeats basic archetypal patterns in his journey from life to death, his variations, like Kings' brand names, root him in his time and mark him of his place. By translating these experiences into fiction, by sharing both the universalities and the particularities of existence, King and other writers help to break down the loneliness of life and even of death.

Michael A. Morrison (essay date 1990)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 861

SOURCE: "Stephen King: Time Out of Joint," in Book World—The Washington Post, August 26, 1990, p. 9.

[In the following review, Morrison offers praise for Four Past Midnight.]

Regular visitors to the world of Stephen King know that its horrors burst forth from the least likely places—the four novellas in [Four Past Midnight] find horror in a transcontinental night flight, a camera, a small-town library, and a quiet Maine summer town during the off-season. Some of the environs and themes in these stories are familiar; others are not. One is the penultimate Castle rock story, a prequel to the forthcoming Needful Things. Another, King tells us, is the last of his tales "about writers and writing and the strange no man's land which exists between what's real and what's make-believe." Still another takes us to the midwestern American town of Junction City, Iowa, where King proves that his talents as a regionalist extend beyond Maine into Sherwood Anderson country.

King is above all a master storyteller, and these stories grab hold and will not let go. And, being tales of horror, they have their share of suspense, violence, monsters and eye-popping special effects. But what makes them special—in the way the best of King's work and so little of the rest of modern horror fiction is special—is the believable, often moving ways his characters react when confronted with the unknown.

When, for example, Sam Peebles loses two books that he borrowed from the Junction City Public library and sweet-faced, white-haired librarian Ardelia Lortz dispatches the library Police to get them back, the ensuing events shatter the bedrock of pragmatism and rationality on which Sam has built his life. His search for the missing books turns into a quest of selfhood that takes him into the soul of small-town America and ends in a battle royal with a protean creature akin to the monster in It, King's mega-novel of small-town evil.

And when, in The Langoliers, a handful of passengers on an American Pride airlines "red-eye" flight from los Angeles to Boston awaken half an hour after takeoff to find that somewhere between the Mojave Desert and the Great Divide their L1011 has taken a detour into the Twilight Zone, they must each cope with the shock of the inexplicable and then join in a community of sharing and sacrifice if they are to survive.

Not all of King's people are as well-equipped as Sam Peebles or the passengers on Flight 29 to deal with an incursion of the monstrous. In Secret Window, Secret Garden, writer Morton Rainey comes to Tashmore Glen, Maine, to recuperate from his "eerily quick and quiet no-fault divorce" only to find himself face to face with every writer's nightmare: a charge of plagiarism. Weakened by depression, a severe writer's block and barely suppressed rage at his adulterous wife, Rainey is in no condition to deal with his accuser, let alone with the amazing strings of events that occur when he sets out to prove his innocence. In this story King interweaves character, theme and stunning plot reversals with far greater control than in his earlier, less successful novels about writers, Misery and The Dark Half.

Often King's most memorable characters are larger-than-life recreants whose lack of decency and compassion makes them sitting ducks for the supernatural. Reginald "Pop" Merrill, sole proprietor of the Emporium Galorium and featured player in the last of these novellas, stands out as the most irresistible of King's Dickensian grotesques. Sporting a twinkle in his eye, rimless spectacles, a vest and a corncob pipe, Pop seems just a crusty blend of "cracker-barrel philosopher and hometown Mr. Fixit." But behind this facade is a mean-spirited, duplicitous soul whose allegiance to the technological debris that fills his junk store is far stronger than to the Maine community where he lives. Pop represents the sick undersoul of Castle rock and a thousand like towns and is a fitting companion for the Sun Dog that gives this story its title.

With the exception of this story, which suffers from the digressions and repetitions that have marred King's last few novels, the tales in Four Past Midnight are exceptionally well crafted. King shapes his material with the sure hand of a master woodworker, tossing off unexpected similes, deftly using dreams to reveal character, subtly planting clues to coming revelations, and skillfully managing the coincidences on which his stories often hinge. If, like me, you have loved King's work for years but were pretty disappointed in his last several novels, then you'll be delighted with Four Past Midnight, his best work since Pet Sematary.

As King notes in his ingratiating introduction, these stories share a preoccupation with time "and the corrosive effects it can have on the human heart." But they share with the rest of his work a deeper concern for basic values such as selflessness, honesty and friendship. Now, as the blood and chaos of their spectacular finales begin to fade from memory, what I am left with is the warmth of King's abiding faith in "that stubborn, intangible spark which carries life on in the face of the most dreadful reversals and ludicrous turns of fate."

Andy Solomon (essay date 1990)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 628

SOURCE: "Scared but Safe," in The New York Times Book review, September 2, 1990, p. 21.

[In the following review, Solomon asserts that while Four Past Midnight contains many of King's weaknesses as a fiction writer—including awkward prose—the collection is successful in providing readers with a way to escape the frightening aspects of modern life.]

A decade ago, in Danse Macabre, Stephen King made his literary esthetic clear: "I try to terrorize the reader. But if. . . I cannot terrify . . . I will try to horrify; and if I find I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out. I'm not proud." The figures on his royalty checks suggest this strategy works, and he sticks to it closely in Four Past Midnight. Unlike Mr. King's adventurous novel The Eyes of the Dragon, this quartet of short novels risks few departures from earlier form.

By now, everyone knows Stephen King's flaws: tone-deaf narration, papier-mâché characters, clichés, gratuitous vulgarity, self-indulgent digressions. Each is amply present in these pages ringing with echoes of earlier King. Most tales revisit the old Maine setting. The characters are types rather than individuals. Even the taste for the crude looks familiar—five pages rendered with more detail than we care for to describe a man's getting interrupted in the bathroom by a phone call.

Not proud at all, Mr. King rehashes plot devices as well. like an earlier work, The Stand, one of these novellas, The Langoliers, eliminates all humanity but for a few survivors, this time on a plane that has passed through a "time rip." This ploy of minimizing his cast serves Mr. King's purpose; he constantly relies on there being no one around with the common sense his characters invariably lack—until the last moment when, miraculously, they realize exactly how to avert catastrophe.

However, we don't read Stephen King for common sense, originality or insight into the adult world. Many who wouldn't want the fact broadcast read this master of suspense to escape their helpless fear of the headlines and to re-experience the more innocent terrors of childhood, to be once again a preschooler whose heart pounds from a nightmare.

In this collection, only Secret Window, Secret Garden, because it is about an adult's psychological disintegration, fails to achieve that effect. The Langoliers exploits the primal infant's fear of abandonment, even of ceasing to exist. The library Policeman reawakens the most haunting dimensions of childhood admonitions. In The Sun Dog, the terrifying agent is a boy's Polaroid camera. Mr. King's recurring tactic of making the ordinary function in a bizarre way always hooks the child in us. Significantly, this "simplified" Polaroid is too complex inside to fix. We had hoped, growing up, for comforting knowledge of how the world works, but the technology opening onto the 21st century has out-raced us.

Also abundant here is another source of Mr. King's mass appeal, springing ironically from his clichéd diction, what Paul Gray in Time magazine once called "postliterate prose." Admittedly lazy, —he says "I'm a lazy researcher"—Mr. King often avoids laboring at description by summoning pre-existing images from cartoons, old movies, television shows and commercials. Here, sinister men wear "white Andromeda Strain suits." People wind up in a "dreary version of Fantasyland." A ruffled adulterer, when caught, looks, "like Alfalfa in the old little rascals." Men wish for guns "like the one Dirty Harry wore." Slacks are "the color of Bazooka bubble gum."

As the poet laureate of pop, Mr. King is read by many who might otherwise never read fiction at all. He creates an immediate and familiar landscape and could form the ideal bridge from the road runner to Dostoyevsky's raskolnikov.

There is little here Mr. King has not done before, but once again he proves difficult to lay aside.

Edward Bryant (essay date 1990)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1986

SOURCE: A review of Four Past Midnight, in locus, Vol. 25, No. 4, October, 1990, pp. 23-4.

[Bryant is an American science fiction novelist, short story writer, playwright, and critic. In the following review, he finds the novellas in Four Past Midnight highly entertaining.]

At least for us outsiders, there seems to be a lesson in Stephen King's new collection, Four Past Midnight. Just as happened in the similarly structured four-novella set, Different Seasons, the master story-spinner of the American century demonstrates what he can do when he writes comparatively short and direct, punching right to the heart and brain, cutting to the bone, tapping tear ducts and adrenal glands as though they were sugar maples. I say "comparatively" because King's novellas in this book are about as long as other people's entire paperback originals back in the dear, dead days before literary gigantism became both a menace to North American forests and an inflated, greedy-guts pass to popular marketability.

In baseball terms, Four Past Midnight bats about .850, not too shabby in any league. The four novellas each have distinctly individual personalities. They each provide entertainment commensurate with the reader's investment of time in reading them, and all have something legitimate to say about the author-as-craftsman. A lot of the charm of the book is in what it says about writing and the writer himself, as well as treating the primary thing, the fiction.

Like the proverbial one-ton gorilla, Stephen King can do anydamnthing he wants, and he uses that power wisely and well in Four Past Midnight. At least half the book is the author rethinking and reworking old materials—not rewriting as such, but still making some considered and thoughtful decisions about previous stories and themes he's tackled. Most of the rest of us never get a second chance, so it's a pleasure to see a colleague handle that challenge and, for the most part, make it work.

The binding energy of this large book is provided by the author's introduction and story notes. There's a little autobiographical material here, some astute observation, and some useful literary footnoting. The tone is fascinating, and to me not nearly so extroverted as most of King's previous, similar notetaking. I may be 'way off as an observer, but the auctorial feeling seems a little bemused, rather sober, a whole lot wry. It's concise, useful, and highly readable, connoting a writer who's been through a lot over the past fifteen or twenty years. Give him enough time to fill out his first quarter century as a creative artist, and King will probably write one killer of a literary autobiography.

Ah, but how's the fiction? It's a four-course banquet.

Four Past Midnight leads from strength with The Langohers, a rather more satisfying and successful version of the survival themes in The Mist But while The Mist, in both its incarnations, never really felt complete in terms of plot sequence and closure, The Langoliers does most everything right, setting up intriguing characters, a decent plot, challenging problems for the folks in the story, and a genuinely horrendous set of antagonists to deal with.

I read the story on a flight from Denver to Philadelphia, which turned out to be a highly appropriate venue. A dozen airline passengers on a redeye from l.A. to Boston wake up from bad dreams to find everyone else on the flight missing, and the widebody L1011 droning along on autopilot. Fortunately, one of the survivors is a deadheading commercial pilot returning home to deal with the accidental death of his ex-wife. The other passengers include a little blind girl, a British secret agent, and a businessman who demonstrates by his nastily swinish ways the need for eugenics when it comes to breeding yuppies. Once the pilot takes control of the plane and everyone has a chance to look around, it becomes clear that something is dreadfully wrong at ground-level America, 36,000 feet down. There are no lights, no signs of city. There's no signal on the airwaves when the survivors use the plane's radio. If this sounds vaguely like an old Twilight Zone episode, don't worry. The truth turns out to be much more like Jerry (Costigan 's Needle) Sohl than ro d Serling. At a loss for a better plan, the survivors fly east, avoid Boston because of heavy cloud cover, and land in Bangor, Maine. The airport's still there, all right, but it's deserted. And there's something seriously wrong with little things like sound, and the air itself, and well. . . everything. The psychic little girl detects the ominous approach of something terrible from the east.

The Langoliers is not supernatural horror. If one is looking for a neat label, the novella is indeed horror, but of a rigorously science fictional nature. It poses a series of problems that the characters have to solve. King covers his rear well when it comes to keeping the plot complicated, yet plays fair with common sense and logic. Every time you think the writer has forgotten something, bingo, the cast catches on to what's happening and does something ingenious but reasonable. Menace comes both internally and externally, and it's suitably scary. No character, no matter how sympathetic, is safe. And when the final menaces, phildickian Odor Eater sorts of agents of entropy, come on the scene, all ready to devour whatever cast-off obsolete reality the humans now inhabit, well, it's a real party.

At 239 pages, this novella could easily have been expanded into a behemoth. But it wasn't, and we should be grateful. No cereal extenders here. In terms of evoked characters, a complete plot, and some nice imaginative imagery, The Langoliers works just fine.

The second novella, Secret Window, Secret Garden, takes another angle of approach to The Dark Half, but without a lot of feinting, flinching, or extraneous running around. This is a 146-page portrait of a writer in deep trouble. Morton Rainey is a best-selling novelist living by himself up in the Northeast after separating from his wife. One afternoon he's confronted by a redneck cracker from Mississippi who claims Rainey stole one of the man's stories. Plagiarism, whether deliberate or unconscious, blatant or subtle ("Well. . . gee, friends, I thought it was just good research. . .") is always a matter of some interest to writers. If we haven't committed that deadly sin ourselves, we've perhaps been the victim, or, more likely, we've watched the whole sordid mess enfold friends or acquaintances.

At any rate, poor Mort Rainey's immediate assumption is that he's the innocent victim of a complete loon. After all, he's got proof of his blamelessness. But then the fissures start to develop in the sturdy walls of his comparatively safe life.

When you start to suspect that everything you know is wrong, that's when fear begins. Secret Window, Secret Garden is full of fear. It's a writerly story that I hope will mean something to the readers whose only conscious connection with writing was filling out the reservation coupon for this book at their local mall chain bookstore.

And if there's a problem with the story, it's probably the sort of thing writers can debate at bleary literary parties. The author makes a conscious decision at the end, when he determines whether Secret Window, Secret Garden is a supernatural fantasy, a weird version of ugly realism, or an ambiguous fictive mugwump. I think maybe the total effect is diminished by the choice that's nailed down. That quibble aside, the rest of the story hums. Well . . . like teeth grinding.

The library Policeman is one of those great childhood images that Stephen King has turned into nearly 200 pages of midwestern nightmare. Did your parents or teachers ever tell you that carelessly overdue books would be reclaimed by the library Cop? He's one of the great archetypes, along with the gum collector, that original recycler who scrapes up the stale Beeman's and Wrigley's from the undersides of cafe booths and movie house seats.

Anyhow, smalltown Iowa realtor Sam Peebles finds himself in serious trouble with the library Policeman after he checks a couple reference books out of the local library. Sam has never before visited his town library, nor has he visited any library in quite a long time. He doesn't consciously realize it, but he has his reasons.

In this one, King does a terrific job of setting up a bucolic, Jimmy Stewart sort of landscape, and then sets Wes Craven in charge to direct it to destruction. like the first story in Four Past Midnight, The library Policeman is satisfyingly complete in itself. Everything's here. It doesn't need to be any longer than it is. The sympathetic characters are nicely drawn. Themes of abuse, whether child or substance, run through the story, and they're handled effectively and with candor.

There is an inhuman monster, however, and when the thing appears in its true form, all snotty, mucoid, and basically disgusting, it's simply not as menacing as when it was passing for human in the shadows. Again, it's an artist's choice: show the critter with the potential for diminishing its effect because of the zipper in the back of the suit? Or try to let it continue playing off the fertile imagination of the reader's worst fantasies?

At any rate, The Library Policeman is a good, satisfying tale, and it's also, just like The Langoliers, got the potential for translating to a very effective movie.

Four Past Midnight winds up with The Sun Dog, marginally the shortest piece in the book, and possibly the least effective. Not that it's bad, mind you, just less satisfying in its incompleteness.

The author, in his story note, cops to The Sun Dog being a sort of transitional piece between The Dark Half and Needful Things, the novel King says will be his last statement on Castle Rock, Maine. The story's about all the sinister things that happen when Kevin Delevan receives a Polaroid Sun 660 instant camera for his 15th birthday.

Something strange goes wrong immediately. Regardless of what the viewfinder shows, every picture taken with the camera depicts a genuinely mean-looking dog on a side-walk. More, there's a sequence of movement to the dog from print to print. And as the dog starts to react to the photographer and move closer to the camera, it appears to be readying a spring and, worse, changing into some sort of demonic creature that looks like it just might be powerful enough, somehow, to break through from its world to ours. Naturally, this realization puts a damper on Kevin's amateur photography, but only encourages Pop Merrill, the local junk store dealer who, upon learning of the camera's magic quality, figures he can unload the Polaroid for big bucks to some New Age mysticaltypes.

The idea of an instant camera from hell (cursed? haunted?) is a perfectly fine EC Comics sort of image. The problem is all the questions that are raised and never addressed. Where does the camera come from? Why does Kevin get it? Just what is the relationship between the other world of the instant photos and this one? It may well be that Needful Things will answer these and other queries. But for now, The Sun Dog is all the reader has to work with. And there's no sense of closure, physical or psychological, to leave the reader with a reasonable sense of completion, satisfaction. The characters are flesh and blood, the horror conceit is good, but the story, as story, is frustrating.

And that's why I can't say the collection bats a thousand. But pretty damned close. Just as did Different Seasons, Four Past Midnight shows off the author to advantage. Stephen King has the talent to do well at whatever length of fiction he chooses to address, but it seems that the novella form is particularly hospitable. It's long enough to allow most of the benefits of the long form, yet short enough to require tight writing.

Good job.

Arthur W. Biddle (essay date 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6586

SOURCE: "The Mythic Journey in The Body'," in The Dark Descent: Essays Defining Stephen King's Horrorscope, edited by Tony Magistrale, Greenwood Press, 1992, pp. 83-97.

[Biddle is an American educator and critic. In the following essay, he examines The Body as a narrative that follows the traditional pattern of the "mythic journey."]

There's a high ritual to all fundamental events, the rites of passage, the magic corridor where the change happens. [King, The Body]

"The magic corridor where the change happens" is the special territory of Stephen King. This zone of extraordinary power takes many shapes. In It Ben Hanscom maintains a connection to his own adolescent past by returning again and again in memory to the glassed-in corridor that connects the children's wing to the adult section of his hometown library. Finally, at the end of the novel, this conduit is fully realized when Ben and the Losers' Club merge past and present in their return to Derry. In The Talisman the Oatley Tunnel is the symbolic passageway for Jack Sawyer from the protected world of his mother to the depraved town of Oatley. In The Body the "magic corridor" for Gordie Lachance and his friends is the railroad tracks they follow in their search for the dead Ray Brower.

The fundamental event in The Body is the coming into identity of the young hero, Gordon Lachance. From Friday afternoon until Sunday morning at the end of August 1960, Gordie undergoes a series of trials that bring him to selfhood, to identity both as a young man and as a writer. The narrative pattern that King employs is the archetypal rite of passage that marks the transition from one life stage to another.

In a recent interview, Stephen King acknowledged the influence on his work of mythologist Joseph Campbell: "I was particularly taken by the book The Hero with a Thousand Faces" [Magistrale, Stephen King, 1992]. That influence shapes the structure and major themes of King's tale of the journey of four boys on the brink of adolescence. Their adventure, especially that of the central hero Gordie, recapitulates the timeless rites of passage that order human experience. In his The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell summarizes the pattern:

The standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero is a magnification of the formula represented in the rites of passage: separation—initiation—return: which might be named the nuclear monomyth. A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

The modern reader has become accustomed to viewing the journeys of Jason or Ulysses [both Homer's and Joyce's versions] or even Jesus in these terms. But it may seem a bit pretentious to apply the mythic pattern to the experiences of four twelve-year-olds in the Maine of 1960. Critic Northrop Frye recognizes the modern author's difficulty in incorporating "a mythical structure into realistic fiction." The solution is what Frye calls "displacement," essentially deemphasizing and disguising the mythic elements in order to achieve plausibility. King accomplishes this displacement with great skill: the story of The Body works for the contemporary reader as a nice bit of adventure that seldom strains credulity. Yet, the underlying structure is clearly that of Campbell's monomyth: "a separation from the world, a penetration to some source of power, and a life-enhancing return."

The "kingdom" of Castle Rock is a drought-stricken, heat-beaten wasteland. The soil is barren; no garden has produced a crop in this the driest and hottest summer since 1907. The metaphoric ruler of this land—King of Castle Rock—is Gordie's father, a figure of abject futility as he stands amidst the dust of his ruined garden, "making useless rainbows in the air" with his watering hose. He looks "sad and tired and used. He was sixty-three years old, old enough to be my grandfather," Gordie observes. His powers have deserted him, and as a result his entire realm suffers a corresponding loss of vitality. The older Lachance is a modern version of an ancient figure—the Fisher King. Jessie L. Weston remarks, "the intimate relation at one time was held to exist between the ruler and his land; a relation mainly dependent upon the identification of the [Fisher] King with the Divine principle of Life and Fertility" [From Ritual to Romance, 1957]. Mr. Lachance and Castle Rock are in death's grip.

Reinforcing this theme of sterility in the Kingdom is Gordie's mother, who has suffered alternating periods of fertility and barrenness. After three miscarriages she was told she would never have a child; five years later she became pregnant with Dennis. Ten years after that at age fortytwo she conceived Gordie, whose birth is unusual: "the doctor had to use forceps to yank me out." His parents have told him this story many times: "They wanted me to think I was a special delivery from God."

Special delivery from God or not, Gordie was always ignored in favor of his older, more talented brother Dennis. When Denny was alive, Gordie felt like Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man: "Nobody ever notices him at all unless he fucks up. People look right through him." With Denny's death in a jeep accident, his parents behave as if they have nothing to live for. The senior Lachance is a king without an heir: "He'd lost a son in April and a garden in August." When his father notices Gordie at all, it is only to attack his friends as "a thief and two feebs," and by implication to put Gordie into the category of social misfit. Gordie accounts for his mother's distracted behavior by flatly pointing out that "her only kid was dead." He sees himself as the true target of the ultimate putdown, "Did your mother ever have any kids that lived?"

One result of this treatment at the hands of his parents is his fear of his brother's ghost, which he is sure lurks in Denny's closet. In his dreams Denny's battered and bloody corpse emerges from his closet and confronts him: "It should have been you, Gordon. It should have been you." These dreams are the product of the guilt Gordie feels for being alive. Subconsciously he feels that his survival somehow makes him responsible for Denny's death as well as for his parents' grief. Gordie dreads that "it" might yet become him, accounting in part for the power that Vern's tale of the discovery of Ray Brower's body exerts over him. These fears move out of his dreams and into his writing—"Stud City," "The Revenge of Lard Ass Hogan," and the Le Dio stories—a literature of guilt and death.

Joseph Campbell provides some insight into the role Gordie is to play in the ensuing adventure. The hero of the monomyth "and/or the world in which he finds himself suffers from a symbolical deficiency" (Campbell). In The Body that deficiency is two-fold: both personal and societal. Gordie experiences a grave crisis of identity, not so much an uncertainty about who he is, but that he is. If no one acknowledges your presence, do you really exist? Gordie's very being is called into question. Thus as soon as Vern tells about his brother's discovery of the body, Gordie empathizes with the dead boy: "I felt a little sick, imagining that kid so far away from home, scared to death." His ego is so undeveloped that he needs to view the body of young Ray Brower to be sure it is not he himself who has died. He also needs to acknowledge the existence of death in life, something he was unable to do at Denny's funeral. Ray Brower's body offers a concretization of Gordie's many fears. Only through this quest can Gordie begin to deal with the shadow that hangs over all our lives.

The second symbolical deficiency inheres in the world in which he lives, a parched and infertile wasteland, like the land of the Fisher King. On the surface, the sterility of Castle Rock is a result of the prolonged drought and extraordinary heat of the summer of 1960. But at a deeper level, it is the aridity of a community that cannot love. Castle Rock is a place where parents maim their children by burning their ears, bruising their faces, or destroying their spirits. Where teachers steal and shift the blame to their students by lying. Where shopkeepers cheat their innocent customers. And where public employees train their dogs to attack children. The destructive machine appetites of Castle Rock are shown throughout the book—from Milo's junkyard of American waste to the pollution of the Castle River to the life-threatening train itself bearing down on the boys from the direction of the town. The true purpose of Gordie's journey, then, is to remedy these two deficiencies of self-identity and sterility of the kingdom, although he is aware of only the first and that but inchoately.

Twelve-year-old Gordon Lachance is, admittedly, an unlikely candidate for hero. But that shouldn't be a total surprise. The archetypal hero of the monomyth always fulfills a pattern according to the nature and the requirements of the particular narrative. Campbell describes two variations on the type of the hero and the fruit of his adventure:

Typically the hero of the fairy tale achieves a domestic, microcosmic triumph, and the hero of myth a world-historical, macrocosmic triumph. Whereas the former—the youngest or despised child who becomes the master of extraordinary powers—prevails over his personal oppressors, the latter brings back from his adventure the means for the regeneration of his society as a whole.

Like the hero of the fairy tale, Gordie is the youngest and the despised child who confronts a variety of personal oppressors: his parents, the storekeeper, the dumpkeeper and his dog, the older boys. Only by mastering these trials will Gordie be able to achieve identity. But as the son of the King, he is also called upon to redeem the realm; through his tests he will develop the extraordinary powers required to regenerate his society. By tracing the course of his quest, we may come to understand the achievement of these prizes.

"You guys want to go see a dead body?" Vern Tessio sounds the call to adventure by bringing news of the discovery of the body of a boy missing for three days. By announcing the challenge to find the dead Ray Brower, twelve-year-old Vern acts as herald who calls the hero to the adventure. Chris Chambers supports the call and embellishes it: "We can find the body and report it! We'll be on the news!" Gordie's three friends—Chris Chambers, Vern Tessio, and Teddy Duchamp—have also been scarred by the adult world and denied its love. The boys see this as an opportunity to achieve attention and perhaps even affection.

Campbell explains that the call "signifies that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown." As we shall see, Gordie is challenged to an adventure which promises a spiritual transformation through a dying and a re-birth. Jungian analyst Erich Neumann supports the psychological import of this type of archetypal experience: "The dragon fight of the first period [onset of puberty] begins with the encounter with the unconscious and ends with the heroic birth of the ego." In accepting the call, Gordie (accompanied by Chris, Vern, and Teddy) enters on a quest that, unlike their existence in Castle Rock, is life-confirming and morally unambiguous. "We knew exactly who we were and exactly where we were going."

Although their preparations are scant (mainly concocting stories to cover their absence), they sense intuitively the significance of the journey ahead. It is high noon when they set off. The older Gordie, sitting at his computer twenty years later, reflects: "I'll never forget that moment, no matter how old I get."

Leaving behind the security of home, the boys walk through the afternoon heat until they come to the dump, that repository of "all the American things that get empty, wear out, or just don't work any more." Situated on the edge of town and populated by a vaguely demonic assortment of rats, woodchucks, seagulls, and stray dogs, it marks the limits of their known world. The dump functions as what Campbell calls the threshold, representing "regions of the unknown" that are "free fields for the projection of unconscious content." Poised on the brink of puberty, the boys have outgrown their old haunts and pastimes. To develop, they must move forward. But first they must penetrate the threshold to the source of power.

Barring the way are the threshold guardians, Milo Pressman, the dumpkeeper, and his dog, Chopper. Campbell points out that the watchman functions as the guardian of established bounds of consciousness: "And yet—it is only by advancing beyond those bounds, provoking the destructive other aspects of the same power, that the individual passes, either alive or in death, into a new zone of experience." Reminiscent of Cerberus, the three-headed watchdog of the underworld encountered by Aeneas, Chopper is "the most feared and least seen dog in Castle Rock." Legends abound. Chopper, it was said, had been trained not only to attack, but to attack specific parts of the body on command from Milo. The command every boy dreaded to hear was "Chopper! Sic! Balls!"

As in the subsequent episode with the leeches, the boy's paramount fear is emasculation. The pubescent boy, unconfirmed in his sexuality, is sensitive to every threat, real or imagined. Their town and families have symbolically emasculated them. And the boys' frequent teasing about being a "pussy" or being "queer" and the boasting of penile size impress the centrality of this concern to all of them. Gordie doesn't even see Chopper as he races for the fence and safety, but he feels him gaining. Like Cerberus, that other threshold guardian, Chopper is perceived as a hound from Hell: "shaking the earth, blurting fire out of one distended nostril and ice out of the other, dripping sulphur from his jaws." It is only when Gordie has scaled the fence and looks back through its mesh from a place of safety that he actually sees that Chopper is a rather ordinary mongrel of medium size: "My first lesson in the vast difference between myth and reality." Paradoxically, though, King's narrative (as well as Jung's and Campbell's world views) shows that myth and reality are not poles apart. Indeed reality recapitulates myth. So that even though Chopper may not be truly a hound of Hell, he fulfills the function of threshold guardian perfectly well. And as both the reader and Gordie will soon discover, the journey to see the body emphasizes the similarities, rather than the differences, "between myth and reality."

Gordie's experience at the dump allows him passage beyond the realm of ordinary existence in Castle Rock, through trial, to new possibilities. With his friends he leaves the dump/threshold much as Ulysses departed from the Cyclops, hurling imprecations. The threshold gained, the adventurers move into unfamiliar territory and new tests of their will.

Gordie and his friends have now completed the first phase of the rite of passage: separation from the known world. As they seek to penetrate to a source of power thus far denied them, they, and especially Gordie, will have to pass even more severe tests. Although Gordie is accompanied by three friends, they play distinctly supporting roles as far as the mythic quest is concerned. They are reminiscent of J. R. R. Tolkien's merry band of Hobbits who support Frodo on his adventures in Middle Earth. Chris Chambers, of course, does stand out as Gordie's special friend and guide, more like Tolkien's Sam or Dante's Virgil than Don Quixote's Sancho Panza. (Their relationship and the special kind of love they share is too rich a theme to explore here.) But though Chris and the others participate in the communal tests, only Gordie is tested alone. He is the singular hero challenged to relieve the symbolical deficiencies of self and society through an act of initiation.

The mature narrator characterizes the rites of passage as "the magic corridor where change happens." "Our corridor," he continues, "was those twin rails, and we walked between them, just hopping along toward whatever this was supposed to mean." Those twin rails pose a more-than-symbolic threat, though, when the boys must cross a railroad trestle over the Castle River. Its height—fifty feet above the river—is dizzying. Its length—well over a hundred yards—is terrifying because the time of the next train remains unknown. The will to face the danger is perceived as a test of masculinity: "Any pussies here?" Chris asks. Gordie accepts the dare "and as I said it some guy pole-vaulted in my stomach. He dug his pole all the way into my balls, it felt like, and ended up sitting astride my heart." To Gordie, the fear of death is perceived largely as a sexual threat. Chris and Teddy lead the way, followed by Vern and then Gordie far behind.

Gordie is halfway across when he has to stop to calm his jitters and overcome his dizziness: "that was when I had my first and last psychic flash." He realizes that the train is coming and that he will surely be killed if he is caught on the trestle. Fear grips him, he urinates involuntarily, time stops. Transcendent terror causes mind and body to disconnect. He is unable to move. "An image of Ray Brower, dreadfully mangled and thrown into a ditch somewhere like a ripped-open laundry bag, reeled before my eyes." The gut-wrenching fear that Gordie felt when he first heard of the boy's death was premonitory. In his mind's eye he is reliving Ray Brower's fate, he is becoming Ray Brower. That thought breaks the spell, freeing Gordie to rise from the railbed like "a boy in underwater slow motion."

Gordie never saw the train, just as he never saw Chopper during his pursuit. The train, Chopper, the mills of Castle Rock, the fate that took Dennis away—all seem larger than life, like Ace and his gang of bigger boys. One purpose of Gordie's journey is to humanize these mythic enemies by obtaining control over them.

When the four find a cool, shady spot where they can rest and recover, Gordie admits his fear, "I was fuckin petrified." But in facing that fear Gordie gains a new-found strength. "My body felt warm, exercised, at peace with itself. Nothing in it was working crossgrain to anything else. I was alive and glad to be." Through his brush with death he has discovered a new sense of wholeness and well-being. Twice he has been pursued, once by a creature of nature, Chopper, and once by a creature of technology, the train. Twice he has confronted the worst fears of his subconscious and the threat to his emerging ego and survived. In the next test he is actually touched by death.

The group walk only a mile beyond the trestle before making camp for the night. After an improvised supper and a manly cigaret, they lie in their bedrolls talking about things twelve-year-olds talk about: cars, baseball, teachers. Gordie thinks about how different nightfall is in the woods with no lights and "no mothers' voices" calling their children to the safety of home. Teddy tells about witnessing a near-drowning at White's Beach. What they don't talk about is Ray Brower, but Gordie thinks about him, "so alone and defenseless. . . . If something wanted to eat on him, it would. His mother wasn't there to stop that from happening." A necessity of every boy's journey to adulthood is leaving forever the comforting bosom of the mother. Gordie feels the pain of that separation and the danger to which it exposes him; he does not yet understand the potential gains of the break: freedom and power.

When Gordie finally falls asleep, he has the first of two swimming dreams: he and Denny are bodysurfing at Harrison State Park. The dream is interrupted as he awakens, confused and disoriented, unsure of where he is or what woke him. Then he hears a drawn-out unearthly scream. Everyone is awake now and speculating on the source: a bird? a wildcat? Ray's ghost?

Again Gordie dreams of swimming, this time with Chris at White's Beach, the scene of the near-drowning Teddy had told of earlier in the evening. As the boys swim out over their heads, one of their teachers floats over on an inflatable raft and orders Chris to give Robert Frost's "Mending Wall" by rote. In despair he begins to recite, then his head goes under water. He rises again, pleads with Gordie to help him, and sinks beneath the surface once more.

Looking into the clear water I could see two bloated, naked corpses holding his ankles. One was Vern and the other was Teddy, and their open eyes were as blank and pupilless as the eyes of Greek statues. Their small pre-pubescent penises floated limply up from their distended bellies like albino strands of kelp. Chris's head broke water again. He held one hand up limply to me and voiced a screaming, womanish cry that rose and rose, ululating in the hot summer air. I looked wildly toward the beach but nobody had heard. The lifeguard . . . just went on smiling down at a girl in a red bathing suit.

As Chris is dragged under a last time, his eyes and hands implore Gordie's help. "But instead of diving down and trying to save him, I stroked madly for the shore." Before he can reach safety, though, he feels the grip of "a soft, rotted, implacable hand" pulling him down. The dream ends when he is shaken into wakefulness by Teddy's grip on his leg.

Every element of this dream either derives from Gordie's recent experiences and present fears or presages events yet to come. The dream again links Gordie with Ray Brower, the child as helpless victim cornered by forces larger than himself. The corpses of Vern and Teddy grow from Chris's earlier observation that "your friends drag you down. . . . They're like drowning guys that are holding onto your legs. You can't save them. You can only drown with them." Their small limp penises reflect both their physical immaturity and Gordie's fears about his sexual adequacy. Their corpses also foreshadow their deaths at an early age, although Gordie couldn't have foreseen that. And Chris will be murdered when he is only twenty-four years old. His imploring figure reflects his reliance on Gordie, as an understanding friend in the present and as a mentor in the college prep courses in high school. His thin womanish scream is the unexplained cry they heard earlier in the night. Fearful for his own life, Gordie does not dive down to save Chris. Instead, he looks to the adult world on the beach for help. In the person of the lifeguard charged with protecting swimmers, that world ignores Gordie's pleas, just as the adult world of Castle Rock has failed to heed the cries of its children. As Gordie himself is being dragged under water by "a soft, rotted, implacable hand," he is awakened by Teddy; it is time to stand his tour of guard duty.

This dream represents the first stage of Gordie's night sea journey, an archetypal pattern symbolic of rebirth. Briefly, the archetype as employed by Virgil, Dante, and the author of the Book of Jonah among others, sees the hero making a perilous journey, usually by night, into the depths of the sea or a dark cavern. He may be swallowed by a sea monster. Joseph Campbell characterizes the hero's perilous journey as a descent "into the crooked lanes of his own spiritual labyrinth." Entering a cavern, the belly of a whale, or the depths of the sea, the hero leaves behind the upper world of light and life to confront his own death. Jungian analyst Erich Neumann explains that puberty is a time

of rebirth, and its symbolism is that of the hero who regenerates himself through fighting the dragon. All the rites characteristic of this period have the purpose of renewing the personality through a night sea journey, when the spiritual or conscious principle conquers the mother dragon, and the tie to the mother and to childhood, and also to the unconscious, is severed.

The second part of the archetypal pattern, the dragon fight, will take place the next day.

During the rest of the night Gordie passes in and out of consciousness. Finally, he awakens from a light sleep to discover that dawn has broken. He is savoring his solitude when he notices a deer standing less than thirty feet away, looking at him. The impact of the sight nearly overwhelms him: "My heart went up into my throat. . . . I couldn't have moved if I had wanted to." When he perceives the deer to be looking at him "serenely," Gordie projects into her being, "seeing a kid with his hair in a sleep-scarecrow of whirls and many-tined cowlicks." It is as if "he" (some part of him) has moved out of his body and looks at that twelve-year-old standing there. The doe emphasizes her trust of Gordie by confidently crossing the tracks and beginning to feed. "She didn't look back at me and didn't need to." They coexist in a state of perfect trust and harmony. The deer remains until an approaching train frightens her off.

"What I was looking at was some sort of gift, something given with a carelessness that was appalling." For the psychic meaning of this remarkable gift, we look to the symbolic values of the deer. The opening lines of the Jerusalem Bible version of Psalm 42 equate the deer with the human spirit: "As a doe longs for running streams, so longs my soul for you, my God." Cirlot's A Dictionary of Symbols doesn't treat doe, but identifies an analogous animal, the gazelle, as "an emblem of the soul" and of "the persecution of the passions and the aggressive, self-destructive aspect of the unconscious." Another related animal, the stag, is said to represent "the way of solitude and purity." Interestingly, the same source notes that the stag is "the secular enemy of the serpent," a variation on which will figure prominently a little later in the adventure. What this gift seems to signify is the awakening of Gordie's spiritual nature. The deer is his soul, which he had not known before. Although the boy doesn't understand all this, he does intuit the deer's import: "for me it was the best part of the trip, the cleanest part, and it was the moment I found myself returning to, almost helplessly, when there was trouble in my life." We realize that this state of grace is not carelessly given at all, but earned by Gordie's inner readiness. An awakened soul is essential for the tests that are yet to come. When Gordie returns to the camp and the other boys, he doesn't tell them about the deer. This is his secret.

A final obstacle stands between the boys and the object of their quest, between Gordie and the development of his ego. That obstacle is the dragon who guards the treasure, denying access to all comers. In his discussion of the child archetype, Carl Jung asserts that "the threat to one's inmost self from dragons and serpents points to the danger of the newly acquired consciousness being swallowed up again by the instinctive psyche, the unconscious" [The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, 1969]. Gordie's recent experiences of individuation—crossing the threshold, escaping the train, seeing the deer—have strengthened and developed his conscious ego and his spiritual dimension. But he is not yet secure. As Neumann pointed out earlier, the dragon must be slain in order to sever the tie "to the mother and to childhood, and also to the unconscious." As dragons are scarce in Maine, the leeches infesting the beaver pond must function as a displaced dragon, just as the pond itself is a continuation of Gordie's sea journey into the unconscious.

Gordie's dreams have anticipated this swim and warned of the threat that the unconscious poses to the developing consciousness. When the four boys emerge from the pond after their swim, they discover their bodies covered with bloodsuckers. Gordie and Chris take turns plucking the repulsive creatures off the other's body. Then Gordie sees "the granddaddy of all of them clinging to my testicles, its body swelled to four times its normal size."

Jung relates a patient's dream that is remarkably like Gordie's situation. In the dream "a snake shot out of a cave and bit him [Jung's patient] in the genital region. This dream occurred at the moment when the patient was convinced of the truth of analysis and was beginning to free himself from the bonds of his mother-complex" [Campbell]. The snake-dragon-leech, by threatening Gordie's sexuality, is attempting to prevent maturation and the subsequent ego independence it represents.

Terror-stricken, Gordie can't bring himself to touch the leech and appeals to Chris to remove it. But Chris cannot help. Gordie must confront the dragon himself. "I reached down again and picked it off and it burst between my fingers. My own blood ran across my palm and inner wrist in a warm flood. I began to cry." Although Gordie has killed the leech, he himself is wounded. The leech, the chthonic symbol of the subterranean world of the unconscious, appears to have achieved mastery even in the moment of its own death. Gordie faints, that is, he loses his consciousness, and falls to the ground as if dead. Symbolically the wound is fatal. This is as it must be: Gordie has to die in order to be reborn. The sacrificial blood that he sheds is in the cause of his own growth and of the redemption of his society. Neumann explains that "the transformation of the hero through the dragon fight is a transfiguration, a glorification, indeed an apotheosis, the central feature of which is the birth of a higher mode of personality."

That transfiguration marks for Gordie a significant step in his passage from childhood to maturity, establishing an ego consciousness independent of his parents. This development is both a fruit of his quest and a precondition for the successful completion of his journey which he resumes when he regains consciousness.

As the four boys approach their destination, the weather begins to change. The arrival of storm clouds signals the end of three months of bright clear skies. The boy's shadows grow "fuzzy and ill-defined." Then the sun is blotted out: "I looked down and saw that my shadow had disappeared entirely." To Jung the shadow is the primitive, instinctive part of the psyche. Gordie stands poised on the brink of discovery. Elemental forces are gathering to punctuate the climax of the adventure. A cosmic blue-white fireball races along the track, passes the boys, and then disappears without a trace.

When Vern, the herald who called the adventure, spots Ray Brower's pale white hand sticking out of the underbrush, the skies open, loosing a downpour. "It was as if we were being rebuked for our discovery, and it was frightening." Rebuked perhaps, but the rain marks the end of the drought that has oppressed the land for months. The consequences for the life of the community of Gordie's long journey have already begun.

In death Brower is defenseless against the chthonic forces: black ants crawl over his hand and face, a beetle creeps out of his mouth and stalks across his cheek. Gordie is sickened, but what makes a stronger impression still is that Ray's feet are bare. His sneakers are caught in some brambles several feet away. The realization hits Gordie hard: "The train had knocked him out of his Keds just as it had knocked the life out of his body." The Keds are a powerful symbol for Gordie—of youth, of life, of the physical journey itself. He reflects on what death means for a twelve year old, what he wouldn't get to do, ordinary things like pulling a girl's braid in homeroom or wearing out the eraser on his pencil. Through the agency of a pair of filthy tennis shoes, Gordie finally is able to transmute death from an abstraction to a concretion and to understand it as a denial of life.

When Ace Merrill, Eyeball Chambers, and their gang arrive to claim the body as their prize, Chris and Gordie warn them off. Gordie senses the unfairness of it: "as if their easy way was the right way, the only way. They had come in cars." The older boys are disqualified from victory, from achieving the goal, not only because they took the easy way but also because they have broken the law in stealing the car. They represent negative forces that would usurp the treasure.

Ace Merrill orders Gordie to be sensible and relinquish the treasure and credit to his gang. Gordie's scorn is as great as his courage: "Suck my fat one, you cheap dimestore hood." His assertion of masculine dominance enrages Ace, who starts toward him intending to break both his arms. Only through Chris's introduction of a weapon, his father's pistol, is Gordie spared an immediate beating. Firing the gun first into the air and then at Ace's feet, Chris drives off the usurpers. That Chris, not Gordie, uses the gun is striking, but is in accord with Chris's status as the leader of the gang, war chief of the tribe. Gordie's role has always been that of the shaman, the story-telling medicine man in touch with the spirit world.

The big boys driven off, Chris and Gordie discuss what to do with the body. The strength of Chris's desire to carry it out of the woods suggests the depth of his need for approval and acceptance by his parents and the entire adult world. Finally, he is persuaded by his friend not to risk potential trouble if the big boys somehow implicated them in Brower's death.

As they leave, Gordie reflects on Ray Brower and mortality: "He was a boy our age, he was dead, and I rejected the idea that anything about it could be natural." Why? Probably because he felt he could guard against extra-natural causes; it was the natural ones that sneak up on you. The berry pail haunts him, though. Throughout his adventure Gordie has projected onto the missing boy. His own sense of self was so fragile that he had to see the body to be sure it wasn't himself. This confusion is evident in the mature writer's reflection: "That boy was me, I think. And the thought which follows, chilling me like a dash of cold water, is: Which boy do you mean?" The matter is still not entirely settled. We see the twenty-two-year-old Gordie exploring similar themes in "Stud City." Even the thirty-four-year-old writer is troubled from time to time. He remembers the berry pail and thinks about finding it: "it's mostly just the idea of holding that pail in my two hands, I guess—as much a symbol of my living as his dying, proof that I really do know which boy it was—which boy of the five of us."

Unlike the journey to the body, the return is uneventful. Retracing their steps, the boys cross the trestle and pass through the dump without incident. The town is still asleep when they arrive at five o'clock on Sunday morning, a propitious time for a return or a rebirth. Chris needs confirmation of their adventure: "We did it, didn't we? It was worth it, wasn't it?" "Sure it was," Gordie assures him. The parting from Vern and Teddy is routine, but between Chris and Gordie there is an undercurrent of things left unsaid: "I wanted to say something more to Chris but didn't know how to. . . . Speech destroys the functions of love, I think."

After the two boys part, there remains for Gordie one final act to conclude the adventure: the ritual cleansing and dressing of wounds. Standing at the kitchen sink, he scrubs his body all over with especial attention to his crotch. The mark left by the leech is fading, but a tiny scar will always serve as a reminder of his struggle.

What has Gordie's agon accomplished? At the onset of the journey two kinds of deficiencies required remedy. The first was Gordie's own psychic need to defeat his personal oppressors and to grow beyond the bounds of childhood. As he recapitulated the archetypal rites of passage, he prevailed over Milo and Chopper, the leeches, and the older boys. He achieved his goal of discovering the body and helped prevent the negative forces represented by the older boys from claiming it. He confronted the loss of his brother and his own worst fears of death and emasculation. He forged bonds of affection and mutual support with Chris. He moved beyond childhood and mother in the discovery of his spirit and the development of his own ego.

The second deficiency that Gordie was called upon to remedy was the sterility and lack of love in the kingdom of Castle Rock. Here, the fruit of his journey would appear less than "a world-historical, macrocosmic triumph" [Campbell]. His actions have not created a revolution of fertility and love. Yet Gordie's initiation does have results that impact on the larger community. When Gordie and his companions arrive at Ray Brower's body, the skies open and rain pours down for the first time in three months, ending the devastating drought that has plagued the land. When Gordie and Chris stand up to Ace Merrill's gang, they reestablish a rule of justice that had been lost in Castle Rock. And Gordie's actions testify to a truth forgotten by the adult world—the truth of love and caring. His concern for the lost body of Ray Brower initiates his quest. His love for Chris closes it and enables the one-time loser to succeed in a college prep course in high school and go on to college and graduate school.

But it is as writer that Gordie can have the greatest influence on his world. In a 1989 interview [published in Stephen King, The Second Decade] Tony Magistrale asked about the use of writers as protagonists in several of King's recent books.

[Magistrale]: But it also seems to me that in the many books which feature writers and writing you have endowed these characters with certain powers. . . .

[King]: Well, we do have powers. The guy in The Dark Half says that writers, actors, and actresses are the only recognized mediums of our society.

The storyteller is shaman, then, the one in touch with the world of spirit. His function is to reveal that world to his people.

The early stories ("Stud City" and "The Revenge of Lard Ass Hogan") show the suffering and the guilt and the need for retribution experienced by the young Gordon Lachance. The final story, told by the mature narrator, of four twelve-year-olds venturing along the railroad tracks to see a dead body—that story demonstrates the power of honesty, courage, and love. The great boon that Gordie Lachance brings back from his quest are those values that offer redemption for his society.

Gene Doty (essay date 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3616

SOURCE: "A Clockwork Evil: Guilt and Coincidence in 'The Monkey,' " in The Dark Descent: Essays Defining Stephen King's Horrorscope, edited by Tony Magistrale, Greenwood Press, 1992, pp. 129-36.

[Doty is an American educator and critic. In the following essay, he explores themes and narrative technique in "The Monkey. " ]

In "The Monkey," Stephen King has used an extremely unlikely object to arouse terror in his readers, a toy that is "nothing but cogs and clockwork" [Skeleton Crew]. This [essay] will explore the means by which King makes the monkey's association with the deaths in the story convincing and answer William F. Nolan's charge that, while powerfully written, "The Monkey" "lacks interior logic" [Kingdom of Fear; The World of Stephen King, 1987].

Douglas Winter, who calls "The Monkey" "one of King's best short stories," sees the monkey as representing a random, or fated, evil, "without apparent logic or motivation." Tony Magistrale takes an opposite view when he says that the monkey represents Hal's "dark recollections" of "childhood . . . guilt and anxiety." The tension between these two possible understandings of the monkey creates much of the effect of the story.

The question of the story's "interior logic" centers on the relationship between Hal and the monkey. There is an alternative to Winter's view that the monkey is an external, irrational evil, and Magistrale's view that the monkey is an objective correlative for Hal's guilt. In explaining this third possibility, I will also show the interior logic, which Nolan says the story lacks.

In the story, Hal Shelburn returns to his boyhood home after his aunt's death, bringing with him his sons, Dennis (aged 12) and Petey (aged 10), and his wife, Terry. His sons discover the monkey in the attic, and its discovery brings back the fear and guilt that Hal felt after discovering the monkey as a young child. After perceiving its association with several deaths, including his mother's, Hal attempts to destroy it by throwing it down a dry well. The story narrates the "present" when Hal as an adult has to deal with the monkey again, but the narration is interwoven with extensive flashbacks to Hal's childhood experiences with the monkey.

Hal first finds the monkey in his mother's attic when he is four years old. The monkey holds two cymbals, which it is supposed to clash together when wound up. Hal quickly discovers, to his disappointment, that the monkey does not work when he winds it up, but it does sometimes spontaneously clash its cymbals together. The horrible thing is that when it does so, someone dies. Its first victim is a child who falls from a tree. Other victims include Hal's and his brother's babysitter, a dog, yet another child, and the boy's mother.

The deaths associated with the monkey are not narrated in chronological order, but in an order of increasing emotional intensity. The effect of the interweaving of Hal's childhood and adult experiences is to identify Hal the adult with Hal the child, and also to create a strong link between Hal and Petey, his younger son. The interweaving also establishes a strong but ambiguous link between Hal and the monkey.

King describes the monkey both as a mindless mechanism and as taking malicious pleasure in the deaths it causes. Being a mere mechanism, it lacks conscious purpose; nor does it act directly to cause the deaths with which it is associated. Hal, as the viewpoint character, connects the monkey with the deaths. No one but Hal, and at the end Petey, perceives the connection between the monkey and the deaths. Through Hal, the reader is convinced of the connection between the monkey's cymbals and the deaths.

On one level the monkey embodies our dread of the accident that can befall any of us at any time. As much as we would like to pretend otherwise, none of our lives are secure. Heart embolisms, enraged lovers, drunken drivers, bizarre accidents: all of these and more are possible every moment of our lives, and all of them bring death in "The Monkey." Hal's life seems to have a large share of such dreadful accidents, beginning with the disappearance of his father, who may have been a victim of the monkey also, although neither Hal nor the reader is ever sure of this.

In connecting the monkey with the deaths, Hal has found a cause for these irrational accidents. Tragically, the monkey is beyond Hal's control and understanding. William F. Nolan asks the obvious question; why doesn't Hal "simply destroy the monkey?" Part of the answer is that the monkey exerts a will of its own, returning from the junk dealer whose truck Hal has thrown it on, reappearing in the same carton he originally found it in, and even appearing again twenty years after Hal had thrown it into a dry well. Terrified of the monkey, the child Hal is powerless to destroy it, disable it, or throw it away. Hal's inability to rid himself of the monkey suggests that the connection between them is complex.

When Hal takes the monkey to the well to dispose of it, he almost falls through the rotten boards covering the well, and becomes badly scratched by the thorns growing around it. This scene clearly suggests that the monkey has the power to destroy Hal, that Hal endangers himself when he threatens the monkey. In an earlier incident, when he is seven, after kicking the monkey violently, Hal "hears" the monkey telling him that Hal can kick as much as he wants, the monkey is "not real, just a funny clock-work monkey," implying that Hal really cannot injure or deter it; the monkey is both intimately linked to Hal and independent of his conscious control.

On this occasion, which results in the death of another child, Hal attacks the monkey, determined "to stomp it, smash it, jump on it"; but as Hal rushes the monkey, it sounds its cymbals again, quietly, "and a sliver of ice seem[s] to whisper its way through the walls of [Hal's] heart, impaling it, stilling his fury and leaving him sick with terror again." The monkey has the power to act on its own, even though it is "merely" a toy. Furthermore, the terror that the monkey instills in Hal keeps him from being able to destroy it.

On the day his mother dies, Hal comes home from school to find the monkey on a shelf in his room, after he thought he had hidden it in the attic where he originally found it. So far in the story, Hal's father has disappeared, Beulah the babysitter has been shot, and Bill's friend, Charlie Silverman, has been run over by a drunk. Hal connects the monkey's sounding its cymbals to the deaths and suspects that the monkey is connected to his father's disappearance. Now, home from school, Hal approaches the monkey "as if from outside himself—as if his own body had been turned into a windup toy at the sight of the monkey." Hal watches himself take down the monkey and turn the key, and he hears its mechanism begin to work. The nightmarish quality of this experience is due to Hal's awareness of the significance of what he is doing, and his inability to stop himself from winding up the monkey.

When his mother dies (of a brain embolism—there is always a natural cause for deaths associated with the monkey), Hal and the monkey exchange conditions. Hal becomes an automaton, doing the monkey's will, and the monkey becomes alive: "it was alive. . . and the vibration he felt through its balding brown fur was not that of turning cogs but the beating of its heart." In addition to the loss of his mother, Hal feels "guilt: the certain deadly knowledge that he had killed his mother by winding up the monkey on that sunny after-school afternoon." Neither Hal nor the monkey is the physical cause of his mother's death, but Hal feels guilty because he associates the monkey's action with her death—and he wound up the monkey.

Hal's relationship to the monkey is complex. When Hal first finds the monkey, it startles him because he thinks it is alive. Then, realizing it is a toy, he is delighted: "Its funny grin pleased him." Remembering the incident as an adult, Hal wonders if there was not another element in his initial response to the monkey: "Hadn't there been something else? An almost instinctive feeling of disgust?" As this passage shows, when Hal remembers his initial, childhood response to the monkey, he is unsure of exactly what that response was. But what King records in the narrative of Hal's discovery is delight. This delight expresses an immediate bond between Hal and the monkey, a bond that leads to his obsession with it. Because of this bond, Hal believes that the monkey has somehow caused the deaths of several people, a dog, and even a fly.

Hal is not simply the witness and indirect victim of the monkey's malevolence. Instead, several details indicate a close relationship between Hal and the monkey. When Hal returns to his childhood home at the beginning of the story, he looks into the well where he had thrown the monkey twenty years before. At the bottom of the well, Hal sees a reflected face, which he at first thinks is the monkey's. However, as Hal quickly realize, the reflected face is his own. Throughout the story, Hal "hears" the monkey's voice speaking to him personally and directly. The monkey also influences Hal's consciousness and his actions; for instance, the monkey tries to get Hal to wind it up. After Hal has tried to get rid of the monkey by putting it on a rag-man's truck, it returns, and "speaks" to him: "Thought you got rid of me, didn't you? But I'm not that easy to get rid of, Hal. I like you. We were made for each other, just a boy and his pet monkey, a couple of good old buddies."

The story is not really about a spooky toy monkey; it is about Hal, his fears and shames, and his desperate efforts to deal with them. Hal, like any normal child, must experience resentments toward the other people in his life, and, consequently, must also fantasize about their deaths. Abandoned by his father, orphaned by his mother's death, Hal has more than the usual reasons for resentment and fantasies of what his life might have been. Such resentments and fantasies create guilt in the normal person, and in Hal's case, they bind him to the deadly monkey. This guilt, violence, and anxiety link Hal and the monkey at a deep level but also make them antagonists. Hal struggles with the monkey, seeking to resist the attraction it exerts on him, and to cleanse himself of the negative qualities it expresses.

Hal's childhood guilt and rage have carried over into his adulthood. The monkey expresses a destructive urge in Hal as a father and husband. Hal feels an "uncontrollable hostility toward Dennis [his older son] more and more often." In this scene, Hal slams Dennis against the door several times; the monkey grins,"as if approbation." The monkey's malevolent grin expresses a facet of Hal himself. As a man and a father, Hal is unpredictable and violent. He fears the growing disaffection of his older son, Dennis, and is inwardly terrified that something awful will happen to his younger son, Petey. He feels alienated from his wife, who is taking "a lot of Valium." These anxieties and frustrations lead Hal to unintended violence against his son. They also repeat the fears of his childhood, providing the emotional context for the monkey's return; Hal is bonded to the monkey by his fear and guilt.

Petey, the favored son, shares Hal's sensitivity to the monkey. Having touched the monkey, he tells Hal that he both hates and likes the way the monkey feels. Then he informs Hal, "Daddy, I don't like that monkey" and also recognizes that the monkey is "bad." Like Hal, Petey has heard the monkey's voice, urging him to wind it up: "Wind me up, Petey, we'll play, your father isn't going to wake up, he's never going to wake up at all." The monkey has displaced Hal's father, and now seeks to displace Hal as Petey's father. The monkey's power of initiative and malevolent will are shown clearly as it seeks Hal's death.

When Hal rows out on the lake to sink the monkey, it appears to him that Petey regresses from nine years old to four. Significantly, Hal was four when he first found the monkey. Even though Petey does not go out in the boat with Hal, he definitely plays a part in sending the monkey to the bottom of the lake. From his position on the shore, Petey encourages and exhorts Hal, and warns him of the cloud that blows up with the storm. The love between father and son makes it possible for Petey to help Hal reexperience his original contact with the monkey, and rid his life of its maliciousness by banishing the fear and guilt rooted in his own childhood.

Even though it appears to be an ordinary toy, there are several indications that the monkey is unnatural. These include the monkey's apparent delight in the deaths it causes, as well as the anxieties it produces in Hal. King's repeated descriptions of the monkey's teeth and grin imply that the monkey consciously relishes its role in bringing death and suffering to human beings. In these descriptions, King clearly suggests that the monkey is more than a toy, but the descriptions do not in themselves suffice to make the monkey an objective agent of evil.

The reader is partly convinced of the monkey's malice by the credibility of Hal's experience. Hal is believable largely because, like many of Kings's characters, he is one of us. One might see him in line at Radio Shack or at a PTA meeting. He experiences the same family difficulties that many middle-class fathers face. The reader can easily recognize and identify with these experiences and emotions.

Thus, the reader is prepared to accept Hal's memories of his childhood, as well as the new terrors he experiences after returning to his childhood home and rediscovering the instrument of his earlier terrors. Many readers will find their own childhood fears and anxieties intensified in the unusual ones that Hal experiences.

The story has a subtler dimension that gives the monkey its air of dread: even though nothing shows it directly causing the deaths, it is clearly connected with them. In fact, all of the deaths are "accidental," with natural causes to explain them. The closest thing to an act directly caused by the monkey is the death of the fly toward the end of the story. Petey drops the bag with the monkey in it; the monkey's cymbal strikes a rock and clangs. At that moment, a fly drops dead. But the only connection between the sounding of the cymbal and the death of the fly is that they happen in immediate succession. No direct causal link between the two is apparent.

There is a suggestion in the story that the monkey is more than a clockwork toy. When Hal rows out onto the lake to sink the monkey into the deepest part, a monkeyshaped cloud appears in the sky, associated with a storm that arises suddenly: "The sun was behind the cloud, turning it into a hunched, working shape with two gold-edged crescents held apart." King makes the nature of the monkey more complex by giving the earthly monkey a "celestial" counterpart, a cloud-spirit that manifests when the monkey is in great danger, almost bringing about Hal's death through the storm.

Just before Hal drops the monkey in the lake at the end of the story, he talks to Petey about its origins. Hal recognizes that while the monkey must have originally been one of many identical toys, subsequently "something bad" had happened to it. Hal then speculates that perhaps "most bad things" are not conscious of their badness, "that most evil might be very much like a monkey full of clockwork." The monkey combines the horror of a mindless evil with that of a deliberately malicious evil, as it seems both a (broken) mechanical toy and a living force that Hal cannot throw away or destroy. And, as stated before, the only connection between the monkey and the deaths is Hal's consciousness of the coincidence of its clanging its cymbals as each death occurs.

Throughout the story, the pattern of simple coincidence is the same: the monkey sounds its cymbals, and then someone dies. The question remains, What is the link between the cymbals and the deaths? Or, in William F. Nolan's phrase, What is the "interior logic" of the story? The monkey's role in the deaths is established through Hal's interpretation of events. Just because one event precedes or accompanies another does not mean it causes the other event. However, from an emotional and symbolic perspective, Hal's connecting the cymbals with the deaths is quite convincing.

The sound of the cymbals often initiates Hal's hearing the monkey's voice. In terms of sound-associations and resonances, when Hal (at seven years old) throws the monkey down the well, he hears the cymbals' jang-jang after it has hit the bottom, and flees, "his ears still jangling" (my emphasis). In several sentences that climax this section, King uses notable alliteration, establishing a cluster of sounds associated with the monkey's deadly action:

If the monkey wanted to clap its hellish cymbals now, let it. It could clap and crash them for the crawling bugs and beetles, the dark things that made their home in the well's stone gullet. It would rot down there. Its loathsome cogs and wheels and springs would rust down there. It would die down there. In the mud and darkness. Spiders would spin it a shroud. (emphases mine)

The sounds in these sentences are woven together so closely and subtly that there are more repetitions and partial alliterations than I have emphasized. The syntactical repetitions also contribute to the effect of this passage, which is an emotional and imagistic climax, effectively expressing the dreadfulness of the monkey.

Closely associated with the sound of the cymbals is the clicking sound the key makes when it is turned. In the scene narrating Hal's original discovery of the monkey (at age four), King describes the sleet "ticking" off the windows "sporadically," and off the roof "hypnotically." Both adverbs are significant: the monkey only works "sporadically," and it affects Hal "hypnotically." Further, the resemblance between the "ticking" of the sleet and the various "clicks" that the monkey's key makes is an example of the way sounds cluster around meaning, and, in the process, become expressive of the irrational qualities of experience. And, of course, the wintry chill of the sleet is congruent with the tone of the whole story.

The coincidence between the monkey and the deaths has an overwhelming and dreadful meaning for Hal because of his guilt over his part in its action, his fear of the monkey's apparent independence, and the emotional impact of the deaths themselves. The reader, in so far as he or she identifies with Hal's experiences, shares in the uncanny dread aroused by the monkey's association with the deaths and the apparent impossibility of getting rid of it.

"The Monkey" presents a world in which evil constantly threatens human beings, who do not even have the comfort of being afflicted by a personal evil, which they might at least be able to understand. The clockwork monkey's maliciousness embodies the accidental, irrational evil and suffering that constantly threaten all of us. In a world in which parents are absent (Hal's father), violent (Hal himself ), or drugged (Hal's wife), the child must survive by his own resources. The return of the monkey puts Hal back in a child's state of terror and powerlessness. Paradoxically, by returning to a child-like state, Hal is able to relive his link with the monkey, and to untie the bonds of guilt and fear that connect him to it. His love for Petey gives him additional access to the innocence and directness of childhood. Through their shared love and courage, Hal and Petey are able to defeat the evil represented by the monkey, an evil that lies both outside them and inside them. Working together, Hal and Petey integrate the child and the adult.

Douglas Winter and Tony Magistrale posit two opposite interpretations of Hal's relationship to the monkey, Winter suggesting that the monkey is an objective evil, external to Hal, and Magistrale suggesting that it is a subjective evil, expressive only of Hal's personal fears and guilts. I have shown that the monkey's relationship to Hal is both objective and subjective—that the monkey is an evil beyond Hal's understanding and control, while at the same time, it is an evil intimate to Hal, a vehicle of his fears and guilts. One could say that the monkey embodies a more universal Evil, while Hal simply embodies a more personal evil.

The open-ended conclusion of "The Monkey" shows the subtle relationship between Hal and the evil toy. After Hal has sunk the monkey in the lake, he imagines a boy, fishing with his father, hooking the stuffed animal and reeling it in, "weeds draggling from its cymbals, grinning its terrible, welcoming grin." Then the story ends with a newspaper column describing "hundreds of dead fish" found in the lake. King suggests that, while Hal may finally have rid his life of the monkey, it is not finished and is biding its time.

Ray Olson (essay date 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 340

SOURCE: A review of Nightmares and Dreamscapes, in Booklist, Vol. 89, No. 21, July, 1993, p. 1918.

[In the following brief review, Olson responds favorably to Nightmares and Dreamscapes, noting King's successful imitations of such writers as Conan Doyle and Raymond Chandler, as well as such television shows as "The Twilight Zone" and "Alfred Hitchcock Presents."]

When you're reading him, you can think that Stephen King is the best writer in America. [Nightmares and Dreamscapes, his] first collection of shorter stuff in eight years, includes plenty of reasons for harboring that litcritically heretical thought. Mind you, nothing in it suggests King's about to go toe to toe with Updike, Mailer, Bellow, et al. But which of them has, all at once, his color and vitality, his sheer joy in words and the power of the imagination? Okay, he's a "genre writer," but one who's brilliantly revivified the visceral poetry and allure of the fantastic, emblematic romance tradition that, traceable back to the Bible and Greek mythology, flowers in America most famously in Hawthorne. Yet it is Dickens and Kipling whom King's verve and dynamism most powerfully bring to mind, even if, when he decides to flat-out imitate an old master, he chooses—as he does here, in fact—Conan Doyle and Raymond Chandler. (For the record, the Doyle pastiche is a delightful Holmes case that Dr. Watson solves first, and the Chandler hommage propels the whole hard-boiled milieu into the empyrean of metaphysics while managing to be funny.) In less direct imitations, King pens a hard-boiled vampire story that's both amusing and thoroughly chilling, sets up "Twilight Zone" and "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" situations and works them out better than those excellent TV series would have, and creates striking variations upon themes by Shirley Jackson. But star of this volume, and a nonfiction piece, is "Head Down," which traces the winning season of a little league team that included King's son. This may be the most suspenseful and moving writing he's ever done, a sports story that everyone who cares about American prose should read.

Publishers Weekly (essay date 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 220

SOURCE: A review of Nightmares and Dreamscapes, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 240, No. 31, August 2, 1993, p. 62.

[The following is a laudatory review of Nightmares and Dreamscapes.]

[Nightmares and Dreamscapes] is a wonderful cornucopia of 23 Stephen King moments (including a teleplay featuring Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, a poem about Ebbet's Field and a brilliant New Yorker piece on Little League baseball) that even the author, in his introduction, acknowledges make up "an uneven Aladdin's cave of a book." There are no stories fans will want to skip, and some are superb, particularly "You Know They Got a Hell of a Band," in which a husband and wife drive through a town that may literally be rock-and-roll heaven; "The Ten O'Clock People," about unredeemable smokers; and "The Moving Finger," which chronicles a digit's appearance in a drain. Together with Night Shift and Skeleton Crew, this volume accounts for all the stories King has written that he wishes to preserve. The introduction and illuminating notes about the derivation of each piece are invaluable autobiographical essays on his craft and his place in the literary landscape. An illusionist extraordinaire, King peoples all his fiction, long and short, with believable characters. The power of this collection lies in the amazing richness of his fevered imagination—he just can't be stopped from coming up with haunting plots.

Edward Bryant (essay date 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1375

SOURCE: A review of Nightmares and Dreamscapes, in Locus, Vol. 31, No. 4, October, 1993, pp. 29, 31.

[In the following review, Bryant praises Nightmares and Dreamscapes for its wide range of subjects, tones, and moods, and commends King's revisions of his previously published stories.]

In the introduction to his new story collection, Nightmares and Dreamscapes, Stephen King refers to the volume as "an uneven Aladdin's cave of a book." That's a good analysis, an apt potential blurb that will never be used, and is a bit harsher on the book than it deserves. King notes that he publishes a reprint collection about once every seven years (the first two were Night Shift in 1978 and Skeleton Crew in 1985). So far as the author's concerned, all the short stuff worth reprinting is now in print, and we can maybe expect another collection in a year starting with a "2."

Nightmares and Dreamscapes is one hefty tree-mugger. At 810 pages, it's only a dozen pages shorter than the first published version of The Stand. The first printing will issue 1.5 million copies, so you needn't squirrel away first editions as though they were The Shining or Carrie. Besides King's intro and an entertaining section of story notes, the collection contains 20 pieces of fiction (some original to this volume), a teleplay, a poem, a long essay, and a fable. So much for the stats. What about the behemoth (carefully neglecting to specify whether I'm referencing the book or the author)? Is this collection going to offer more ammo to such goofball grudge-bearers as the Time critic who, some years ago, labeled King "the master of postliterate prose"?

I don't think so. If you're a reader, you'd have to possess a heart of stone and a brain of cauliflower not to warm to this genial giant. Reading Nightmares and Dreamscapes is something like I'd imagine the menu to be if one were to spend a long weekend's slumber party at the King manse in Bangor. Many, many hours listening to Uncle Steve telling askew epigrams, gross anecdotes, broadly funny bits, dramatically scary stories; hamming it up, doing all the voices and the effects; in short, doing what storytellers do best. Entertaining, thrilling, and diverting the audience.

To wit:

"Dolan's Cadillac" previously existed only as a luxury item, a finely produced chapbook from Lord John Press. This is a nice tough Jim Thompson sort of revenge play about a school-teacher patiently and implacably out to get the mobster who ordered his wife murdered. Another former luxury item is "My Pretty Pony", a genuinely affecting tale of wisdom passing between the generations. The origin of the story is unbelievably complicated—that's why the end-notes are fascinating. "My Pretty Pony" was originally published by the Whitney Museum for something like $2,300, clock and batteries included. Later it appeared as a disastrously designed $50 trade hardback from Knopf.

One of King's salient characteristics is his evolution through the swamps of popular culture. We share similar steepings in music, reading, and pop phenomena. Hence I nod my head in vehement empathy when he mentions the Ripley's Believe It or Not illustration of a guy wearing a lit candle in a hole drilled in his cranium. Some of the stories in this collection ring faint chords, suggesting near or distant influences. A good example is "The House on Maple Street", one of the volume's originals. King mentions that this one's based on the final illustration in Chris Van Allsburg's magnificent kids' book, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. True enough. But a part of this tale of rebellious children and an unsympathetic stepfather also seems to go back to the '50s. In an evident hommage, the children are named Bradbury. They could, with equal appropriateness, have been called the Matheson kids. Remember "Shipshape Home"? "The House on Maple Street" has its own identity, but it also has resonances.

Another of the new pieces is "The Ten O'Clock People", a nice novella about an innocent guy in the banking business who discovers that aliens are running the world. It's a paranoids' delight in which only a certain level of active smokers are capable of penetrating the hideous aliens' psychic disguise. Episodic, this account of human rebellion and betrayal offers some good observations about addictive personalities—as well as paralleling some of the tone of John Carpenter's They Live.

I'd forgotten how many recent original anthologies King's contributed to until I started reading the collection. "You Know They Got a Hell of a Band" is a good devil's advocate's jaundiced take on rock'n'roll by an acknowledged rock devotee. This account of a yuppie couple trapped in the sargasso of lost rock stars somewhere deep in the Oregon wilderness has its moments. King allows as how sometimes Bad Things really do happen to Good People for no real reason other than random circumstance, a dramatic structure that can be debated. The story also tries to skate on a few gross-out details when the real horror lies a lot deeper. First published in Shock Rock the story's grown on me a bit. So has "Home Delivery", King's contribution to Skipp and Spector's zombie anthology, Book of the Dead. When I first read it, I thought this account of a Maine island woman's coming to terms with the loss of her husband and the collapse of the entire world came across too much as the beginning of a novel. Now it seems much more self-contained and emotionally satisfying. I must be mellowing.

You want vampire stories? There are a couple of back-to-back bloodsuckers. "The Night Flier" is a nastily accurate portrait of a tabloid reporter in search of a possible vampiric aviator. "Popsy" may well feature the same vampire in a satisfying revenge fantasy of a very bad man stealing a small child from a shopping mall.

A taste for the gruesome? "Chattery Teeth" puts a travelling label salesman and a pair of wind-up novelty dentures into a collision course with a young psychopath. "Crouch End" is a beautifully atmospheric Cthulhu Mythos story about an American tourist woman losing her husband in a very peculiar—eldritch, even—London neighborhood. "Rainy Season" skirts the edge of ridiculousness, but still manages to evoke some chilly moments as an every-sevenyears rain of toads descends upon a Maine village.

Don't like toads? There's plenty more on the agenda. "Sorry, Right Number" is a Tales From the Darkside script about prescient knowledge and doom. No happy ending here. "The Doctor's Case" is a Sherlock Holmes piece in which Watson gets, for once, center stage. Inspector Lestrade has an unusual role as well. Nicely done. "Umney's Last Case" is a piece of Chandleresque metafiction about a tough detective doing his best to puzzle out and survive a complete reality crunch. "The Fifth Quarter" is a hard-edged crime tale. All show some of the breadth of King's interests and abilities.

Ditto for "Sneakers" (an unusual haunting in the record trade), "Dedication" (an impressive handling of race relations, voodoo, and love), "It Grows on You" (a solid and keenly observational treatment of community secrets), and "Suffer the Little Children" (a vintage King tale about the worst fears of a teacher). There are plenty more I haven't mentioned. This is a long book.

As well, it is a satisfying one. King answers his critics through demonstration. His range of concerns is broad. While his experiments don't always work, he's always willing to try something new, something that does not carbon-copy his past work. He fiddles, tinkers, tweaks, and outright revises work until he believes it's right. First time out doesn't make it sacred.

Oh, and let me mention the really great stuff at the end. "Head Down" is a New Yorker essay about a year in the life of a competitive Little League team from Bangor. I read it just before I watched the televised 1993 Little League championship game between Long Beach and Panama. Timing couldn't have been better. "Brooklyn August", a baseball poem, and "The Beggar and the Diamond", a retelling of a Hindu parable, make for perfectly appropriate codas.

What a feast! In The Stand, King dedicates the novel to his wife and refers to the novel as "This dark chest of wonders." The phrase could not be better tailored to describe Nightmares and Dreamscapes as well.

Richard E. Nicholls (essay date 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 253

SOURCE: A review of Nightmares and Dreamscapes, in The New York Times Book Review, October 24, 1993, p. 22.

[In the following review of Nightmares and Dreamscapes, Nicholls declares that while critics may not be impressed byKing's "baggy—if exuberant—tales, "fans will find the collection entertaining and satisfying.]

Pay no heed, Stephen King says in the introduction to Nightmares and Dreamscapes, to the critics, their voices "the ill-tempered yappings of men and women who have accepted the literary anorexia of the last 30 years with a puzzling (to me, at least) lack of discussion and dissent." There's certainly nothing skimpy about this collection of large, leisurely short stories packed with dozens of gaudy, baffled characters reluctant to believe the varied but uniformly outrageous threats that confront them, forever trying to talk or think themselves out of some unpleasant situation until, inevitably, they're trapped. Even the horrors here are oversized: a resilient vampire with a particularly gross sense of humor; an invading army of hungry, meateating toads; and, most marvelous, batlike beings who are passing quite successfully as humans and can be seen as they truly, hideously are only by smokers—and only by those smokers who ration themselves to a few cigarettes a day. Fans of Mr. King's work will find here his usual menu: wild conspiracies; repellent, zestful monsters; scenes speckled and splashed with gore. Critics, that yipping chorus that seems to unsettle Mr. King more than all the ghouls in his stories, are unlikely to be converted by these baggy—if exuberant—tales.


King, Stephen (Vol. 12)


King, Stephen (Vol. 26)