The Man in the Black Suit – a short story by Stephen King

Looking for a quick read this morning I somehow settled on a horror story. (I had read over 200 pages of Haruki Murakami’s “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle yesterday and needed a break from that…)

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Written in 1994 (and first published in The New Yorker), this Short Story by King deals with the reminiscences of an old man in a nursing home, who decides to use the gift (a diary) of a niece whose name he can’t remember to finally record the story of something that happened to him when he was nine years old: An encounter with The Man in the Black Suit. He hasn’t felt he could ever tell anyone the terrifying story but perhaps he could write it.

As a young boy, Gary goes fishing on a summer afternoon and, after catching a couple of trout, falls asleep on the grass. When he awakens, it is to the terror of realizing that a bee has lit on his nose. His terror is justified, as his older brother had died by means of a allergic reaction to a bee sting. Gary tries to nudge the bee to fly off, trying in vain to blow upwards out of his mouth. It’s not enough to move the bee, though, and it only is moved to action by a clapping sound made by a man who is suddenly standing behind Gary. A man in a black suit – who has appeared out of the woods that extend for miles away from the stream…

Okay, so, at least for my part, this was a good, scary story. Even if it didn’t particularly stand apart from other King stories I have read, it was good reading and was effective at producing goosebumps for me in a couple places. (and I will say that I hope I never run into The Man in the Black Suit in my travels!)

What struck me most about it, oddly enough, is how tidily it fit in with a couple other works I’ve read recently, namely Neil Gaiman’s “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” and the short story “The Lighthouse Keeper at Aspinwall” by Henryk Senkiewicz. All three deal in some way with memories accessed from across a vast expanse of time, and also with how aging changes us. I just love it when things I read in an unplanned order turn out to complement each other in unanticipated ways. I guess you might say this one of my greatest joys in reading.

What about you? Have you read this story? (It was also published in the collection of fourteen stories, “Everything’s Eventual,” so maybe you read it there?) And what good literary coincidences have you encountered in your reading lately? And it’s never too early to start thinking about what scary stories I want to read this October, Any suggestions?

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So, is Anyone Watching “Under the Dome” on CBS?

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As many of you likely already know, CBS began broadcasting a television adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, Under the Dome, a couple weeks ago. I’ve read a lot of Stephen King over the years and, while this particular book wasn’t among my favorites (I originally posted about it here, in Bibliophilopolis’s infancy), thought it might have great potential for small- or big-screen treatment. Although I was impressed and excited to learn that Breaking Bad veteran, Dean Norris, was cast to play Big Jim Rennie, so far I’ve been a little disappointed in the series – but I’m not anywhere close to abandoning ship yet! Besides, the book is somewhat “special” to me for other reasons…

(below: actor Dean Norris as “Big Jim” Rennie.  Norris’s most famous role – as a DEA agent in Breaking Bad – has a great literary tie in: the mid-season cliffhanger for Season 5 of that series involves him doing some, er, <ahem> “bathroom reading” of Walt Whitman(!) and making an important discovery…)

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“The First”

There is doubtless a magical quality about something that is a “first.” Think about it. Everyone remembers their first car, their first job, their first date, first kiss, first… well, we could go on and on. While I don’t remember my first book (I don’t count educational “readers” like “On Cherry Street”), I do remember my first eBook. It was in February 2010 that I finally took the plunge and bought an e-reader, opting for Barnes & Noble’s “Nook” product. I still have it, but do almost all of my e-reading on my iPad or iPhone now (via the Nook app, though). Anyway, I was having coffee with a friend one Saturday morning and as a fellow reader, she was interested in seeing my brand new Nook and “what it could do.”

I remember showing her how to navigate to the “store” where one could purchase items from B&N. I think she asked something like, “…and how soon do you get it after you order it?” My reply was, “I think almost immediately,” then, being the inveterate wise guy that I am, I said, “Lets find out!” So I ordered “Under the Dome” which was still a pretty recent release that I had been eyeing for a couple weeks. She (and I) were both kind of amazed at the ease of this transaction. “So you can read it right now?”
“Yep.”
Secretly, though, I was still a little worried about reading on an e-reader vs. reading a “real” book. I had already planned, though, to make my first e-read a book of this nature. Nothing too deep that I would want to be highlighting and underlining passages in, etc. This process was painstaking and time consuming on the Nook anyway. My friend, who was then doing some seasonal tax preparation work hadn’t planned on staying long that morning was about to leave:
“So, are you going to read that now?”
“Yep. Well, not the whole thing, obviously.” – but as the Lazy Daze Coffee House does have splendidly comfortable “real” furniture, I thought there wasn’t likely to be a better way to spend the next hour or so than slowly sinking into the cushions as I knocked out fifty pages or so of this new novel – and my first e-book!

I remember being pleasantly surprised at how quickly I forget the fact that I was using an e-reader. I made it up to about page 75 as I recall and finished the book a couple weeks later. So, I’ll always remember this book as my first experience with an e-reader. What about you? Do you remember your first eBook? Your first book? Audio book? Are YOU watching Under the Dome on CBS? Do share… 🙂

(Below: a first-generation Nook reader – similar to mine)

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(Below: here’s a blast from the past:  this was the “Ginn Reader” book that I started learning to read with – “On Cherry Street”)

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Tunneling to the Center of the Earth by Kevin Wilson

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Back in early 2006, after repeated recommendations by my friend Jim, I finally read Stephen King’s “Dark Tower” series. In case you’re not familiar with the series, one of the themes is that of a world that has run down, a civilization that has decayed to the point that it could hardly be called one any more. At one point, in one of the later books, the hero Roland stumbles upon a kind of “control room” where apparently the conditions of the world of his and his companions can be adjusted by changing the settings on the room’s control panels. Now, the fact that our lives are governed by forces beyond our ken is certainly not a new one (see Homer, for example) but this technological manifestation of a control room was a neat twist that I hadn’t encountered before.

What I think I’m coming to realize now, the more I read, is that many authors have access to such a control room of sorts – one that not only changes the destinies of the characters themselves, but also the laws of nature or rules of the world they inhabit. Many of the stories in Kevin Wilson’s collection, “Tunneling to the Center of the Earth” take place in a world whose conditions have been tweaked ever so slightly. Behavior and environments that “could never be” in The Real World are present, and present with such a light touch that even a stodgy reader is able to suspend disbelief and enjoy the stories nonetheless…

Of the eleven stories in the book, only a couple didn’t “do it” for me. Of the remaining nine, there are some real treats. “Grand Stand-in” deals with a woman who works for a kind of rent-a-grandmother service for families whose children don’t have a grandmother and are thus robbed of the experience. (See? Not part of the world we live in, but not that far removed from reality.) Things go swimmingly for the stand-in Grandma until she gets a new “assignment” for a family whose grandma is… still living.

Another favorite was “The Museum of Whatnot,” featuring a young woman who works in a museum of curiosities. Her mother is concerned that she’ll “never meet a man” while working in such an oddball place, and it seems she may be correct – until a doctor begins visiting every day, just to look at the museum’s collection of spoons…

“The Shooting Man” is the darkest of the tales, but also quite effective. It would not be out of place in a collection of Flannery O’Connor short stories:  A husband is insistent that his wife go with him and his friends to see a traveling sideshow-type performance that includes the famous “shooting man” – who appears to shoot himself in the forehead every night for curious audiences. She doesn’t want to go, but eventually relents. Predictably, she finds it gruesome and distasteful, while he becomes a bit too curious to learn what the “trick” is.

The title story involves three recent college graduates who, searching fruitlessly for some aim in life, having “devoted our academic careers to things we couldn’t seem to find applicability to the world we were now in.” So (why not?) they begin to tunnel in the backyard of one of their parents’ homes…

Probably my favorite though was the longest story titled “Go, Fight, Win” whose main character is a sixteen year old girl who is the “new girl” at school, and whose mother pushes her to try out for the cheerleading team. “Penny” doesn’t really want to, but does so for her mother’s sake, or perhaps just to get mom off her back. Add to the mix a strange and precocious neighbor boy and Penny’s obsession with building plastic model cars (Aha! That story finally explained the book cover picture) and the result is a great story. I enjoyed this short book and was also impressed with how convincingly he wrote from the female voice in some of these stories.

Has anyone else read any Kevin Wilson? I first heard about him last July through Melody’s blog, Fingers and Prose.

(Below: author Kevin Wilson. Looks an awful lot like poker player Tom Dwan!)

The author’s website may be found here.

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“A Good Marriage” a novella by Stephen King from the collection “Full Dark, No Stars”

I finally drew the three of spades for my “project: deal me in” on Saturday, and was thus finally ‘allowed’ to read the last of the four novellas in this Collection by Stephen King. I’ve written about the other three (1922, Fair Extension, and Big Driver) elsewhere on this blog. This last story was titled “A Good Marriage.”

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***SPOILER ALERT***
King mentions in his comments in the back of the book* that the “inspiration” for this story came to him when reading about the “BTK” killer, Dennis(?) Rader, who, if some are to be believed, carried out his heinous acts unbeknownst to his spouse. King began to speculate upon what the course of events would be if a spouse DID find out her husband was secretly a serial killer. Chapter one describes how the “happy couple” had reached this point in their lives, only hinting about “that day in the garage” where the reader assumes some discovery is made or some incident occurs.

There is good suspense as the wife goes through a natural stage of denial and then ponders what to do about her situation. Her resolution is a bit surprising, but in a way I liked the way King wrapped things up, especially with the final paragraphs involving a visit to the wife by the shrewd, semi-retired detective.

This was not my favorite story in the book though – actually maybe my least favorite, perhaps in a dead heat with the story, Big Driver. Still, King fans – and I count myself among them – are likely to enjoy it.

*One thing I really appreciate about Stephen King is that he frequently gives us a peek into his process, as he does in this collection. As readers,we’re often thinking, “Where did this story come from?!” and the like. King is gracious enough to let us know.

My Book Club’s March book: The Help by Kathryn Stockett

This book has been on the best seller lists for quite some time now.  It’s been a wildly popular book club selection.  (I remember hearing about it at the Barnes & Noble form about book clubs that I attended last year). Based on that, I mentioned it to my fellow book-clubbers, and one of them added it to our “virtual bookshelf” of potential reads.  It was picked for our March 2011 book.

I’m always interested in books that become uber-popular.  When I read them, I find myself unable to resist trying to figure out what is it about this particular book that has made it so popular above and beyond “normal” popularity.  I wonder if part of the reason for this one is the “rooting for the underdog factor.”  I want Skeeter Phelan to succeed. I want Abeleine’s story to be told.  I want Milly to escape her abusive husband and improve her life.  There’s also a component of “the villain you love to hate factor.”  How despicable is Hilly Holbrook?  The New York Times review of this book describes her as such a witch “the readers want to see someone drop a house on her.” I think she is made more loathsome since she conducts her villainy under a mask of gentility. I am reminded of my top ten literary villains list post from last year where one of my “favorites” was Ellsworth Toohey from The Fountainhead.  The villain who masquerades as a crusader for good.  Those are the most despicable kind.  Never underestimate the literary power of a good villain!

I’m not generally a fan of the multiple viewpoint novel.  I often find it distracting.  Just as I’ve settled into reading from Skeeter’s viewpoint, we switch back to Milly’s (Oh, and all of these are written in the First Person) with her different attitudes and different language.  Then, just as I’d get used to that, we’d switch over to Abeleine’s.  This isn’t my preferred way to read, but in this case it wasn’t that bad.  I was able to deal with it.  I remember one of my earliest experiences with the multiple-viewpoint novel was Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  Written in epistolary style with multiple letter writers (or gramophone recorders in one case), I found it distracting as well.

Stockett weaves in some “reality” to the story with brief mentions of actual historic events. The murder of Medgar Evers,  The Vietnam War, The assassination of JFK, the civil rights marches, etc.  This helps put the novel in historical context, but I was continually surprised by the naivete of the Skeeter character.  How she repeatedly doesn’t realize the full danger and “explosiveness” of the situation she and the maids are in, how she doesn’t keep close enough tabs on her satchel, and several other instances just stretch the limits of my credibility. I guess we can say she is young and just write it off to that, but she’s  a college graduate and supposedly a journalist and writer.  Maybe her lack of experience (also further illustrated by her somewhat awkward relationship with Stuart Whitworth) in the world makes this believable, but I struggled with it. Several members of my book club pointed out that they “kept waiting for something terrible to happen” to the maids or to Skeeter, but it never really does – this also stretched the limits of my credibility.

Another thing I liked about the book was the editor character in New York, Mrs. Stein, and her “detached mentoring” of Skeeter.  I loved the first letter she sent Skeeter and how she concluded it:  I do this only because someone once did the same for me…  I thought that was great.  It reminded me of a passage from Stephen King’s excellent non-fiction book, On Writing.  He had already been experimenting with writing for years in school, and finally – in an effort to channel his mischief elsewhere – his school administrators shepherd him into a part time job for the local paper (as in a Real World writing job).  King includes a photocopy of his first article’s submitted text with the editor’s mark-ups.  It was an epiphany for him.  I can’t remember the exact language but he basically says, “why couldn’t someone have told me this long ago?”  That is also a great book, by the way, part biography, part writing instruction.

One thing I didn’t like about the book was what I’ll just call (for anti-spoiler reasons) “The Gross-Out Factor.” If you’ve read the book you’ll know what I mean.  I kind of guessed early on what this ‘secret’ was, but if you haven’t read it, I’ll leave it for you to discover.  I realize this was an important plot element that allows Skeeter and the maids to get away with publishing their book – and keeping it from being suppressed – but it was still gross.  J 

Have you read The Help?  What did you think of it?  Why do you think it’s been so very popular?

Fair Extension – a novella by Stephen King

This is story #3 from King’s latest book, Full Dark, No Stars.

Short and (not so) Sweet is how I’d describe this story. I liked it better than story #2, but not as much as story #1. This one felt like it was straight out of a Twilight Zone episode…

****Spoiler Alert****
Dave Streeter has terminal cancer. We first join him in this story as he is puking up his last meal. (Nice, Mr. King…) He is on a little-traveled road driving alone and “thinking” when he spots a roadside vendor selling “extensions.” The odd man’s name is George Elvid (yes, I immediately re-shuffled the letters of that last name too). He offers to sell Streeter a fifteen-year life extension. Streeter, at first assuming the guy is mentally ill, plays along and says something like, “What’ll it cost me? My soul, right?” The new twist on the story, however, is that it won’t cost Streeter his soul. He’ll only have to transfer his “misfortune” to someone else – and transfer 15% of his annual income to Elvid’s offshore bank account. I think we’d all agree to the latter in that situation, but how about the former?

Elvid begins by asking Streeter who he hates. Streeter claims he has no enemies but when pressed admits he “hates” his lifelong “best friend,” Tom Goodhugh. Elvid is, of course, delighted and grants him his extension. The actual source of Streeter’s “hatred” is more envy and jealousy. Goodhugh stole Streeter’s first love, married her, and has been living happily ever after.

After his encounter, Streeter pays his doctor a visit and – guess what?- his tumors are rapidly shrinking. Soon, of course, Elvid begins to subject the Goodhugh family to a Job-like crash course of suffering and misery. The first lesson involves Goodhugh’s wife getting and dying from breast cancer, and it goes downhill from there. While reading, I kept thinking that somehow things would bounce back on Streeter, but they never do. I would have thought the death of his former love would at least trouble him, but no. His wife feels sorry for the Goodhughs and says as much to Streeter, but he rationalizes that it’s only “fair.” They had their time of fortune and now it is his turn. He gets promoted at his job several times, and dutifully forwards his 15% to Elvid’s account. Their children also prosper as Goodhugh’s suffer. An unpleasant story, overall, made more so by Streeter’s unapologetic acceptance of the new order of things in his world…

This is Story 2 from my “Deal Me In!” Short Story Reading Project for 2011.

Big Driver (story 2 from Stephen King’s Full Dark, No Stars)

I posted about the first story in King’s new book a week ago; this second one I wasn’t quite as taken with. “Big Driver” is the story of a female author – seems her specialty (as i imagined it anyway) is a series of “Jessica Fletcher-toned” mystery novels featuring a crime solving cooking club – who encounters misfortune returning from a bookstore appearance and book signing in a nearby town. Actually, misfortune is not the right word; she is violently assaulted and left for dead. Of course, she’s not dead, though. We wouldn’t have a story then now would we?

What I liked: I enjoyed King’s early descriptions of the nature of the book store event, and all of its associated routines and rituals clearly aggregated from years of his own personal experience. I enjoyed the device that King uses to share the protagonists internal deliberations. Her cat, the dog of one of her perpetrator’s accomplices, and even her own Tom-Tom GPS system (creepy!) all take turns serving as her foil as she decides what she is going to do in the wake of her attack. I liked her spunk after being a victim. She decides to take action, rather than the route so many victims of sexual assault apparently take – not reporting the attack. According to the statistics referenced in the story, two-thirds go unreported.

What I didn’t like: The violence. Not a big fan. (of course, there was also plenty of violence in the first story in this collection, which I really liked, so I guess violence is not a deal breaker) I also thought things worked out a little too easily for her towards the end of the story. I mean ***Spoiler Alert!*** are we really expected to believe she’s going to get away with her vengeful killing spree? And her one “loose end” too easily agrees to be complicit in her crime. (fortunately – not surprisingly, though – this particular loose end was also a victim of sexual assault earlier in her life. Overall, not a bad story and an easy read at just over one hundred pages. I suspect, though, that this story will be one I remember almost nothing about a few years from now. Although, now that I’ve started blogging about what I read, I find I’m remembering a LOT more than I used to, so we’ll see…

(above: a Peterbilt 389; the newest truck in the fleet of Red Hawk Trucking (“Big Driver’s” Company)

This is the first short story of my “Deal Me In!” Short Story Reading Project of 2011.

“1922” -Story #1 from Stephen King’s “Full Dark, No Stars”

Santa brought me this:

“There on the great high-backed carved oak chair by the right side of the fireplace sat an enormous rat, steadily glaring at him with baleful eyes.”

Stephen King’s knowledge of the canon of horror literature cannot be disputed. I learned this years ago when I read his non-fiction effort, Danse Macabre, a sweeping review of the horror genre. It’s not surprising, then, that I found many elements of this new story that recalled to me several of the horror classics. The quotation above, for instance, isn’t from “1922”, but instead from a classic Bram Stoker (yeah, the Dracula one) short story entitled The Judge’s House. I was also, on other occasions during reading, reminded of The Monkey’s Paw and The Tell-Tale Heart.

Stephen King’s Danse Macabre

***Spoiler Alert*** A quick summary of the plot: the story is presented as a written confession (told eight years later, in 1930) of a man who murdered his wife. Wilfred James was a contented farmer. He had a wife, Arlette, and an almost fifteen year old son, Henry. (I guess that would make the murderer “the father of Henry James”… Not sure if that has hidden meaning or not) Anyway, Arlette is NOT a contented farmer’s wife and wants to sell the farmland and move to The Big City (as in Omaha or St. Louis). Wilfred is legally powerless to stop her, as she owns the majority of “their” land herself. He calls upon his inner, so-called “conniving man” and decides to kill her and dump her down an old well on his property, planning on explaining her absence by saying she “ran off” to The Big City. Somehow he convinces his son (who also loves and doesn’t want to leave the farming life) to become complicit in the murder.

They figuratively (and literally!) make a mess of it though, and returning to the well a couple days after the deed find her body seemingly animate (turns out it’s rats(!) though, who have already begun to feast on her) and with her head in an odd position which seems turned upwards to laugh and mock Wilfred. Poor Henry struggles to deal with the secret of their crime and begins to view Wilfred with contempt. His life speeds “down the tubes” after he follows a neighbor girl (who he’s gotten “in trouble”) to an Omaha “home for girls” where her parents have sent her.

Wilfred struggles on alone, but is haunted by Arlette’s spirit (or her literal corpse, if we assume he’s not hallucinating) and her minions (rats!). Her visit to the house is eerily reminiscent of the W.W. Jacobs story, “The Monkey’s Paw,” and his guilty-conscience-driven hallucinations of seeing rats everywhere reminded me of Poe’s “The Tell Tale Heart.” All in all a great short story/novella (it’s 130 pages) in classic Stephen King style. Of her corpse’s visit he writes:

“I can see it now, as I write. I told myself to die, but my heart kept pounding. Her hanging face slid alongside mine. I could feel my beard-stubble pulling off tiny bits of her skin, could hear her broken jaw grinding like a branch with ice on it.”

Wow, doesn’t get much creepier than that.

P.S. Reading this alone at night is not recommended.

Horror master Stephen King:

Just Finished: Under the Dome by Stephen King

This is the first book that I have read completely using my new nook e-reader from Barnes & Noble.  It was 1,100 pages long (real pages, not e-pages) and took me almost two weeks to finish.  Of course, I was also reading Gone With the Wind ‘at the same time,’ and I consider it no small accomplishment (for me, anyway) to have finished both of those long books in a combined total of about 20 days.  I do now look forward to reading something a bit shorter, however.

I’d have to say Under the Dome was among my least favorite of the Stephen King books that I have read.  This just triggered the internal question: How many (and which) Stephen King books have I read?  Okay, the ones I remember are: Read the rest of this entry »

Now reading: Under the Dome by Stephen King

Actually, I started reading this book last Saturday.  When showing my new “nook” reader to a friend, I thought “well, let’s just buy & download a book right now as my first book to read via this ‘delivery method’…”  So, I bought this book which I had heard about and had been intrigued by the premise – a small town in Maine (there’s a surprise for a Stephen King book!) is suddenly cut off from the rest of the world by an invisible, indestructible (at least through page 450) dome.  The people trapped within the dome try to deal with the situation, which includes many very, very bad and evil people who see the dome’s presence as an excuse to grab power.  The book moves pretty fast, but thus far – although I’m enjoying reading it – I’ve been less impressed with it than I have been with the dozen or so other King books I’ve read over the years.  I’ll relay a more detailed report upon completing it – hopefully before the end of the week.