Catching Up With King: “Nightmares & Dreamscapes”

When I moved to Stephen King’s home state of Maine in 2013, I thought it would be fun (if a bit cliché) to finally read his books in earnest, and discover how I really feel about his work. For this installment, I read my first collection of King short stories – 1993’s Nightmares & Dreamscapes.

“‘It was like Jeopardy,‘ he said. ‘In fact, it was like Final Jeopardy. The category is ‘The Inexplicable.’ The Final Jeopardy answer is ‘Because they can.’ Do you know what the Final Jeopardy question is, Officer?”
-Stephen King, “The Moving Finger”

Nightmares&Dreamscapes

I work in a building with a small bathroom to employee ratio. After a year or so of stilted urinal conversations and close-quarters crapping, I discovered a hallway I hadn’t been down before. It led to the perfect men’s room – one stall only, off the beaten path, subtly effective air freshener. When the stall is free, life is good. But when it’s occupied, and I see the shoes of the guy who beat me to the punch, it feels like defeat.

Few writers could spin something memorable out of this mundane bit of oversharing. But with “Sneakers,” Stephen King essentially does just that. It’s one of my favorite short stories in his mammoth 1993 collection Nightmares & Dreamscapes, in which an up-and-coming record producer keeps seeing the same pair of sneakers, in the same stall, on every bathroom break. The more it happens, the creepier things get – and that’s before the flies show up.

Before I continue expressing my newfound love for bite-sized King, this disclaimer: I have yet to tackle any of the author’s longest books (including The Stand and It, both more than 1,100 pages), so I can’t give the most informed opinion on the King short story vs. King novel argument. But I think I can definitively say this – his short stories are more fun.

The first four entries in Nightmares & Dreamscapes make for an exhilarating ride. I flew through them in one fevered sitting, marveling at the intensity and versatility on display. Over the course of just 135 pages, we get a gripping, “Tell-Tale Heart”-indebted mob revenge story; a harrowing cautionary tale to scientists who think they can solve the world’s problems; a creepy-kid horror piece best avoided by rookie teachers; and a brilliantly pulpy vampire story that involves a tabloid writer, small-town airports, and buckets of you-know-what. It’s a perfectly paced assault of sledgehammer-blunt ideas, hurtling relentlessly to their endings. King relishes the chance to spin these yarns. You can see the glint in his eye as he dangles us over the precipice, hinting at what’s to come and ensuring you will most definitely not stop reading until you know as much as he does. Take this passage from the third story, “Suffer the Little Children”:

“Miss Sidley frowned after them, reflecting that children had been different in her day. Not more polite – children have never had time for that – and not exactly more respectful of their elders; it was a kind of hypocrisy that had never been there before. A smiling quietness around adults that had never been there before. A kind of quiet contempt that was upsetting and unnerving. As if they were …”

This moment is one of several that made me think if King had been born a few decades earlier, he would’ve fit right in with Serling, Matheson and Beaumont in the Twilight Zone writer’s room. But that would be discounting the majority of his work, which attempts to give its characters and themes as much physical and historical context as possible. The half-hour episode grind would’ve driven him mad. In this book’s charming, conversational introduction, King addresses this issue head on, admitting that “everything wants to be a novel, and every novel wants to be approximately four thousand pages long.” He sounds weary of the subject, of having to respond once again to.critics who regard “generosity with suspicion.” Every time he writes a great short story, he’s proving a point that he disagrees with. Props to him for just doing it anyway.

If Nightmares & Dreamscapes kept its initial momentum going throughout, it would really be something special. And it comes close, thanks to a finger that comes out of a drain, a fiercely loyal pair of chattering teeth, and a group of smokers who uncover a conspiracy that involves hideous bat-people. But it’s just too odds-and-endsy to truly hold together, capsizing at the end under the weight of several writer’s exercises – a Sherlock Holmes story runs into a Raymond Chandler homage, which gives way to an essay about his son’s Little League baseball team (the book’s only true WTF moment).

Still, I had the best time reading it. And I think that’s exactly the kind of review that King would hope for.

THE “CATCHING UP WITH KING” RANKINGS

1. Pet Sematary

2. The Shining

3. Nightmares & Dreamscapes

4. 11/22/63

5. The Gunslinger

 

Catching Up With King: The Shining

When I moved to Stephen King’s home state of Maine last month, I thought it would be fun – if a bit cliché – to finally read his books in earnest, and discover how I really feel about his work. For this installment, I let the Overlook Hotel tell me what to do – unsurprisingly, it chose The Shining.

“Has it ever occurred to you what would happen to my future, if I were to fail to live up to my responsibilities? Has it ever occurred to you? Has it?”
–Jack Torrance

200px-ShiningnovelEven though I’m merely two volumes into this little project of mine, I feel like I have a pretty solid grasp on what makes Stephen King’s best work tick. He doesn’t restrict his creepy crawlies to the supernatural realm, and that’s why his stories have struck such a resounding chord with a wide swath of humanity. Just like Pet Sematary, which twisted the intensity of parental love into something thoroughly unwholesome, The Shining takes a universally understood emotion and holds us hostage with it.

The feeling in question here involves the nature of free will, and the frightening implications of its absence. The Shining is as much a classic ghost story as a study of family dynamics, pitting the Torrances – father Jack, mother Wendy, and son Danny – in a battle against not only the hostile spirits of a haunted hotel, but also the rather shoddy track record of its own DNA. After losing his teaching job at a Connecticut prep school because of a violent incident with a student – a job that was already on shaky ground thanks to his alcoholism – Jack takes a job as the winter caretaker of the Overlook, a ritzy, destination hotel high up in the Rocky Mountains. The Torrances will be the only residents in the huge old structure for the entire season, during most of which they will be completely snowed in. It’s a setup that hasn’t always gone well – the previous caretaker murdered his family, for instance – but whatever. Jack sees it as the perfect way to get back on track, with his writing career and his family (in that order).

King’s metaphors can be a little on the nose, like the outdated furnace that can’t handle as much pressure as it used to, but the snowed-in hotel works sturdily as a symbol of what stands in Danny’s way. Despite all of Jack’s dreams and aspirations, he ended up a spitting image of his asshole father. Wendy isn’t on speaking terms with her cold, judgmental mother, and one of Jack’s go-to insults is to say she’s acting just like her. Like the Overlook, Danny’s home life is stacking the cards against him, and the obstacles are just getting scarier and more intimidating. Which brings us to the core question of the novel will all of us, whether we like it or not, become exactly like our parents?

The Shining would be one hell of a suffocating read if its answer was “Yes.” Thankfully, King’s opinion on the matter is more hopeful, coming in the form of the titular psychic gift that Danny possesses – the ability to read people’s thoughts, and to go deep enough within one’s self to see visions of the future (courtesy of a figure Danny calls “Tony”). When Danny meets Dick Hallorann, the Outlook chef, he has his first encounter with somebody else who “shines,” and it’s no coincidence that he’s by far the friendliest and most heroic character we meet, other than Danny himself. People who are able to step outside of themselves are more likely to have a greater understanding of others, King posits. And this understanding gives them the perspective necessary to make a deeper connection with their true self – their “Tony,” if you will – no matter what horrors might stand in the way.

The book ends with a conversation between Danny and Dick about how to overcome, and its poignancy goes down all the easier after such a long, dark, claustrophobic struggle. For me, this is what makes King’s novel a more meaningful achievement than Stanley Kubrick’s film (which still trumps the book as sheer entertainment). Where the latter has no regard for the Hallorann character and is satisfied with a purely physical escape for Danny, the former ends with the two telepathic heroes sitting by a Maine lake in the summertime, placing itself firmly on the side of healing, and freedom, and hope.

Catching Up With King #1: Pet Sematary

Catching Up With King: Pet Sematary

I read very little Stephen King growing up, partly because Douglas Adams was more my kind of thing, and partly because my brother read King and we took care not to infringe on each other’s pop culture obsessions (e.g. I loved Metallica, he loved Megadeth, and never the twain shall meet). But when I moved to King’s home state of Maine in June, I had the frightfully clichéd idea that now was the time for me to catch up on all the stories I’d heard so much about and/or seen in movie form. The first one I picked up might be the Maine-iest of all – 1983’s Pet Sematary.

“…Gage was still in his crib, sleeping in typical Gage fashion, spread-eagled on his back, a bottle within easy reach. Louis paused there looking in at his son, his heart abruptly filling with a love for the boy so strong that it seemed almost dangerous.”
–Stephen King, Pet Sematary

Pet Sematary

As somebody who doesn’t have kids, I’ve been told many times that everything changes once they enter your life, and not just your sleep patterns; your love for this small and helpless thing you helped create becomes so intense, it does something to the fiber of your being. Call me naive or unfeeling, but that scares the shit out of me. Which goes a long way towards explaining why Pet Sematary really got me good.

The plot is standard horror fare – Doctor Louis Creed moves his wife Rachel and two children (Ellie and Gage) from Chicago to a big old farmhouse in Ludlow, Maine, where he was recruited to run a college infirmary. He immediately befriends Jud Crandall, the 83-year-old man who lives across the highway (and regular trucker route), when Jud plucks a bee stinger out of Gage with unexpected dexterity. Jud proves to be a well of knowledge about the woods abutting the Creed property, eventually leading the whole family on a hike up to an old, seemingly harmless pet cemetery. Yet the trip really bothers both Rachel and Ellie, the specter of death not something they’re comfortable thinking about (especially Rachel, whose gruesome, bone-chilling memories of her late sister Zelda make for some of the book’s most visceral moments). Soon after, with the wife and kids away visiting the in-laws, the family cat Winston Churchill is run over by a passing semi, and Louis’ heart breaks at the thought of having to tell his daughter. Jud, who feels he owes Louis for saving his wife Norma when she had a heart attack, tells him there’s a special place they can bury it …

You probably have a good idea where the story goes from there. Suffice it to say that it’s not the last we see of the Creed family cat, and after a gut-wrenchingly tragic human death, things get a whole lot worse. But – and this is something I never really expected to think about King’s writing – the storytelling isn’t what makes Pet Sematary truly horrifying. It’s that the thing driving Louis to drag corpse after corpse into the woods is the same thing that parents always use as a selling point – a love so strong, it changes everything. In the blink of an eye, those unfathomably intense feelings for your fragile creation can transform into crippling fear, or worse – the kind of grief that forever warps the mind.

So while King’s writing is as satisfyingly pulpy as ever, gleefully regaling the sluggish movements of a reanimated house cat in sickening detail – right down to its un-Febreze-able grave-stench – his creation claws at something deeper within our hearts. Yes, this is the kind of scary story you could tell around a campfire. But it’s also one that confronts people who say they’d do anything for their child, and asks them, “Anything?”

On our next trip through King country, we’ll talk about The Shining, a King book that has the rare task of living up to its movie adaptation. I suspect I’ll agree with Stanley Kubrick’s decision to trim the hedge animals (from the script).