Thursday, November 22, 2007

Everything’s Eventual (Stephen King)

Between the ages of 12 and 18, I read, by my best count, 196,000 pages of Stephen King. He gets a bad rap in literary circles—mainly, I suspect, by people who either haven’t read much if anything by him, or by people who dislike horror and science fiction and the like on general principle—but his best work has always been about more than just monsters and the supernatural. The Stand is about an epic post-apocalyptic confrontation of good and evil, yes, but it’s also about the dangers inherent in human civilization, and whether we’re doomed to destroy ourselves. It is about a supernatural alien clown, but it’s also about the fears of childhood, and what it means to grow up. And, as his writing memoir On Writing showed, he cares a lot more about the craft of telling stories than he generally gets credit for.

His short fiction can be even more uneven than his novels—for every lovely, elegiac ghost story like “The Reach,” you also tend to get one like “Graveyard Shift,” about a group of mill workers being devoured by mutant rats. But I had high hopes for Everything’s Eventual, which I picked up at a used-book sale for our local library and which includes four stories published in the New Yorker, one of which won an O. Henry Award.

I have to admit I was more than a little alarmed by the first story, a semi-horror, semi-comic take on premature burial in which a man wakes up, unable to move or speak, as he’s about to be autopsied. (The way in which they eventually discover he’s alive provides the comic element.) Apparently he chose the order of the stories at random by drawing from a deck of Tarot cards (yes, yes, very good, Mr. King), but as can be the case with his short fiction, there simply wasn’t much to it other than the premise itself. (I’m looking at you, mutant rats.)

Fortunately, it just turns out that the Tarot cards were a bad idea, because that was hands-down the weakest story of the bunch, and the next one, the O. Henry winner “The Man in the Black Suit,” was a major relief. He includes a short paragraph or two on each story explaining how they originated and giving other thoughts on them, and interestingly, he says of this one, “I thought the finished product a rather humdrum folktale told in pedestrian language. . . . When The New Yorker asked to publish it, I was shocked. When it won first prize in the O. Henry Best Short Story competition for 1996, I was convinced someone had made a mistake. . . . This story is proof that writers are often the worst judges of what they have written.” Indeed. The frustrating thing about King is that sometimes he does seem to write stories that have depth and power to them by accident, while he’s occupied elsewhere with getting his monsters out onto the page. “The Man in the Black Suit,” about a boy who meets the devil during an afternoon of fishing, might be humdrum by the standard that no one is devoured by mutant rats,* but that’s because the story isn’t really about meeting the devil—it’s about a boy confronting mortality for the first time, both his own and that of those he loves. In that sense, it’s as good a story as he’s ever written.

Like his other collections, Everything’s Eventual can be uneven: alongside the opener of “Autopsy Room Four,” I’d be hard-pressed to make a case for “In the Deathroom” or “The Road Virus Heads North” as worth rereading, and I suspect “The Little Sisters of Eluria” would be of little interest to anyone who hasn’t already been sucked into the world of his thoroughly excellent Dark Tower books. But alongside “The Man in the Black Suit,” you also have stories that reach for deeper issues—like the title story, about a supernaturally gifted young man, working in a go-nowhere job and bullied by a coworker, who winds up recruited into work that lets him truly use his talent for the first time, but at the cost of deluding himself about both his employers and what he’s actually being paid to do. And those stories, like his best work, are well worth rereading.

* I promise this is the last time I’ll harp on the mutant rats.

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