Have you ever had something bad happen to you? Something done to you by another person? Maybe a lover betrayed you? A parent abandoned you? A thief robbed you? It’s probably more surprising if you’ve skated across the thin ice of life, hearing the creaks, cracks, and groans but somehow never falling through yourself.
Bad things happen to the characters in this collection of four novellas from master storyteller Stephen King. Very bad things, done by bad people. Mostly without anything supernatural going on. This collection won 2010 Bram Stoker Award for Best Collection.
It’s 1922 and Wilfred Leland James fights with his wife over her plan to sell the property she inherited to a hog farm. Arlette wants to sell up, including their farm, and move into the city to open a dress shop. Farmer wants to keep the property and more importantly–keep the hog farm away from the farm that has been in his family for generations.
Wilfred narrates the story, revealing what happened from a perspective years in the future. Writing out his confession for the things that he did to his son and wife. And sharing the consequences of his actions.
I found the story compelling and very disturbing. King is a master of voice and it shows in this story. It makes it that much harder to read what happens. The whole story is a punch in the gut as the collection kicks off. Although the story suggests supernatural elements, there’s still the question of whether it’s in the narrator’s head or not.
If the story isn’t disturbing enough on its own, there’s also a movie you can watch.
Tess lives a solitary life writing her cozy knitting mysteries and talking to book groups a few times a year for extra retirement savings. When she gets asked to speak to a group with a last minute cancellation, she agrees because it meets all of her criteria.
On the way home nail-studded boards puncture her car tire. A giant-sized man stops to help except he changes his mind, rapes, and nearly kills her instead.
As I said, this collection is about bad people doing very bad things.
Tess survives and puts her sluething skills to good use tracking down the man who stuffed her into a culvert with the bodies of his other victims.
Unlike the first story, Tess is sympathetic. Someone you can care and worry about. It’s a tense story. And also available as a movie.
The only story in the collection with a clear supernatural angle deals with envy and hate. Dave Streeter encounters a roadside vendor along the airport extension. A vendor offering a fair extension. It could be a penis extension, a hair extension, or even a reality extension. The price, that’s to be discussed, dickered about, and agreed upon. When Streeter accepts the deal he doesn’t believe it is real. Not really, but he’s given a trial to prove it is actually real.
Like Wilfred in 1922, Streeter isn’t a good person. Maybe not the worst person, at least in the beginning. A normal sort of guy hiding his envy and hate. King peels back all of those layers and we see who Streeter really is.
The one story in the collection that has not been made into a movie.
A Good Marriage
Do you have a good marriage? How well do you know your spouse? Inspired by a true story, King asks the questions in this chilling story. When Darcy stumbles across a bondage magazine hidden beneath catalogs in the garage she thinks it’s only curiosity that led Bob to purchase the magazine. It’s only male investigation, she thinks. Except there’s something else hidden in the garage, back behind the box of catalogs and Darcy can’t help but look.
When someone does something bad people have two responses. Either, I can’t believe it, he always seemed so nice. Or, I always said there was something wrong about him, the way he smiled, maybe. The thing that people are more consistent about is asking how family or friends didn’t know what was going on. How could you live with someone and not suspect?
King’s story digs into those questions with this story, asking, what if you didn’t know? What would you do when you found out the truth about your spouse?
Once again, King breathes life and voice into his characters. The story is deeply disturbing. Darcy faces a terror worse than most people ever have to face.
King wrote the screenplay for the movie based on this story.
As disturbing as these stories are, it’s a compelling and impactful collection by a master storyteller.
The next title in July is a reread (though it has been a long time) titled ’Salem’s Lot. I’m reading the big illustrated edition this time around and looking forward to a bit more supernatural horror.
If you’d like to join the 2019 Hail to the King reading challenge and get the PDF with the titles for each month, sign up at ryanwriter.link/kingchallenge-19 and you’ll also join my readers’ group Readinary, receive a free ebook copy of my novel Dark Matters, and get news, updates, and special offers.