12.13.2012

King's Highway pt. 56: Ranking the Short Stories pt. 2 of 2

I may have mischaracterized King's earlier work last time around by dividing his work into the "pulp" period (Night Shift, Skeleton Crew, Nightmares and Dreamscapes) and his "serious literary work" this time (Everything's Eventual, Just After Sunset.) It was, in fact, an arbitrary division on my part. His earlier stories are from a different tradition than his later stories, but that is as it should be. They were for a different market and from a different background. As King has described in various author's forewards and interviews, that market changed over the twentieth century. Magazines were once a place where people could make a living selling stories and establish their reputations. 

Examples abound, but from stuff like this...

...to stuff like this.

Writing stories for a living became harder and harder as these magazines dried up. It's become a lot more specialized over the years, for various reasons, and as the market changed, the short story changed with it.

The man himself: "When I was young, I used to think it should be easy to wed popular fiction with literary fiction. But as time went by and I got older, I began to realize how difficult it really is. I began to realize how many people are so set against it."

Really, that "wedded-tradition" simply migrated to television (which has undergone its own revolutions in recent decades). Television's gatekeepers seem more formidable, however, than the magazine editors and "slush piles" of old. As King's story exemplifies, any one with talent, perseverance, and a little bit of luck stood a good chance of getting published, even if those publications were softcore porn magazines that needed "filler." Quite a contrast to today: good luck getting an unsolicited script through the front door, much less read, much less purchased, of anyone in the television industry.

So, King's work, as covered pretty fairly in this review of Just After Sunset, has changed. I rated each of the following stories very highly. (I had a five star system and chose stars based on characterization, style, theme, construction, and that certain je ne sais quoi.) The standard of deviation was low, especially in comparison to the three previous volumes. (I don't think any fell below four stars, and most were in the 4.5 stars range.)

First up:

(2002)
Since there are less stories this time around, I'll save discussion of my "top picks" for the playoffs.

12. Autopsy Room 4 - As much of a writing exercise as "1408," and pulled off just as well. A skillful update of "Breakdown" by Louis Pollick (as King mentions in the foreward; it was also adapted as an episode of both the 1950s Alfred Hitchcock Presents and its 80s revival.)
11. L.T.s Theory of Pets - Frankly, this should be higher on the list; it's a fantastic story. I just like the others in this collection so much.
10. Riding the Bullet - I like how King returns to the hitch-hiker of his youth from time to time. (I've never seen the film and am not in any hurry to.)
9. All That You Love Will Be Carried Away - This one deserves special attention. A meditation on oblivion that is quite understated. The horror is in the implications and motivations, here.
8. In the Deathroom - King says: "This is a slightly Kafka-esque story about an interrogation room in the South American version of Hell. In such stories, the fellow being interrogated usually ends up spilling everything and then being killed (or losing his mind.) I wanted to write one with a happier ending, however unreal that might be. And here it is."
7. Lucky Quarter - King's dark sense of irony a la the end of "Fair Extension."
6. That Feeling You Can Only Say in French- Another masterpiece of subtlety and indication. Hell is repetition.
5. The Road Virus Heads North - If this list was based only on titles, this would be number one. I love this title so much.
4. The Man in the Black Suit
3. 1408
2. The Death of Jack Hamilton
1. Lunch at the Gotham Cafe

(2008)
13. Graduation Afternoon - Anything with an atomic bomb is fun in some respect, of course...
12. Harvey's Dream - ...but overall, I agree with Matt Thorne that these two stories seem less compelling as stories than they must have been as dreams.
11. Things They Left Behind - I have nothing bad to say about this one; I just like it less than the others.
10. Ayana - I can't help but wonder if King is addressing some of his earlier critics here re: how his wife refers to the little girl. Regardless (again from Thorne:) "His emphasis in this collection is on survival, and if survival's not possible, then in the possible consolations of the afterlife. King doesn't believe in organized religion, but he thinks that humans survive death in one way or another, a possibility that inspires the two most charming stories in the collection, "Willa" and "Ayana"." I think of the two, "Willa" is the more successful, hence its appearance higher in the countdown.
9. The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates - This is a good example of a perfectly-readable, touching, well described encounter, but for me, it's not much in the way of a complex short story. (Not that it needs to be, just saying) Nonetheless, its success at conveying all the former is considerable.
8. Stationary Bike - I started this list thinking this would be among my top 2 or 3, but a second read reminded me a little of "Word Processor of the Gods." It may have worked better with an additional few pages, or a larger story arc. It's fun, though, and genuinely surprising.
7. The Cat From Hell - An oldie but goodie, gone from the charts but not from our hearts. Here, humanity's diabolical nature is eviscerated by the supernatural and violent insanity of cats. More than a match for one another.
6. Rest Stop - Great pace to this one. If I were a lit critic and could get away with such descriptions, I'd say this "seems illuminated from every corner of its interiors, but you never notice the lights."
5. Willa - I'm generally a fan of afterlife-as-waiting-room/staging-area metaphors, be they of the Third Policeman or Beetlejuice variety. Either/or. This is fun and touching.
4. Gingerbread Girl
3. A Very Tight Place
2. Mute
1. N.
QUARTERFINALS

I took the winner from last-blog as well as the "division champs" and put them up against the top four of both Everything's Eventual and Just After Sunset. Match-ups were determined by drawing crude diagonals from one bracket to another with a crayon I gripped between my toes while bumping my head repeatedly against padded walls. 

Jerusalem's Lot vs. N.: King's Lovecraft-ian colonial evil vs. his Machen-ian tale of OCD mayhem. Got to give the nod to "N.", here. It's told "nested narrative"-style (and though it's referred to as a novella, I'm ruling it a short story; Captain's discretion.) Says King of this one: "I loved the chance to put neurotic behavior—obsessive/compulsive disorder—together with the idea of a monster-filled macroverse." WINNER: N.

The Night Flier vs. The Man with the Black Suit: Both stories deal with encounters with the supernatural, particularly the kind that suggest the afterlife isn't a neat-and-orderly place but contains horrors the living can't imagine. As much as I love Renfield and Richard Dees, the 1996 O. Henry Award and World Fantasy Award winner that channels both Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown" and Nietzsche gets the points. WINNER: THE MAN WITH THE BLACK SUIT

Children of the Corn vs. Mute: I suspect Playboy's December 2007 issue is presently-remembered more for having Kim Kardashian on the cover, but years from now, one would hope, it will be remembered as the first appearance of Stephen King's "Mute." (The same way the March 1977 issue of Penthouse is better remembered as the first appearance of "Children of the Corn.") "Mute" is a very well-written tale-within-a-tale that doesn't strain the credulity of a tale-being-recounted as in "Flexible Bullet" or "Dedication." But I';ve got to go with those wacky kids from Gatlin on this; like the corn stalk god they serve, it casts a long shadow. WINNER: CHILDREN OF THE CORN

Survivor Type vs. 1408: Two very different stories, on the face of it, but both deal with a man alone and the horrors of his setting and his own mind. Both have especially prominent "writing flair." But here, the absolutely creepy and manic voice of the hotel/ room saying "Five! This is Five! Ignore the sirens. Even if you leave this room, you will never leave this room. Eight! This is eight! We have killed your friends. Every friend is now dead." carries the day. WINNER: 1408.

A Very Tight Place vs. The Death of Jack Hamilton: Both of these stories are good examples of King's "true crime" side, not that the former is "true," really, but it's a comfortable kissing-cousin. Of the two, I prefer "Jack Hamilton." I like how King's "extracurricular reading" influences his tales; here's the wiki for the real-life John Hamilton. WINNER: THE DEATH OF JACK HAMILTON.

The Gingerbread Girl vs. Lunch at the Gotham Cafe: The San Francisco Chronicle described the former as "a harrowing almost-novella, [which] anchors the book and bridges the inner-psyche thrillers of King's 1990s work with his more recent stories. A story of abuse, psychosis and loneliness, it is physically exhausting to read — an astounding thing to say for a short work of fiction." I think that's a spot-on description. "Gotham Cafe" is a different sort of tale, but as a metaphor for irreconcilable marital differences / inability to understand one another (or humans to interpret the motivations of others in general) it is top-notch. WINNER: LUNCH AT THE GOTHAM CAFE.

SEMIFINALS

Children of the Corn vs. The Man with the Black Suit: A tough call, to be sure. Far be it for me to disagree with the juries for its aforementioned awards, but I'm going with the Corn here.

1408 vs. N.: I could see either of these getting the nod for "King's Best," so it's almost a toss-up. But the narrative construction of N. may give it a leg-up. 

The Death of Jack Hamilton vs. Lunch at the Gotham Cafe: I can't see a problem with either of these stories, either; not a single word is wasted. But Gotham simply hits on more levels. 

THREE-WAY FINAL!

In the case of "Children of the Corn" vs. "N." vs. "Lunch at the Gotham Cafe," the jury is tempted to call it a draw, but since ties are not acceptable this late in the game, it is with much consideration that we return a verdict of Overall Champion to... Lunch at the Gotham Cafe.

And there was much rejoicing.
It's interesting to consider what King's reputation would be if he only published the stories that made the "playoffs," here. What if his entire output was comprised of "Lunch at the Gotham Cafe," "Children of the Corn," "N.," "1408," "The Death of Jack Hamilton," "The Gingerbread Girl," "Jerusalem's Lot," "Survivor Type," "Mute," "The Night Flier," and "The Man with the Black Suit?" Would King then be mentioned alongside folks like Breece D'J Pancake, perhaps? (i.e. A considerable talent; who knows what might have been...?) Would a book including only those stories (perhaps "padded out" with the other finalists from last time, such as "Home Delivery" or "Umney's Last Case") be taught in college courses as a pristine example of the form, like Salinger's Nine Stories? (I say this with no fanboy-tinted-glasses; the aforementioned stories more than stand up to the comparison.) 

EDIT 11/9/2015: Of the offerings in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, I nominate "Ur" (if it counts here and not in the novellas), "A Death," and "That Bus Is Another World" as additions to the all-star team, above.

NEXT: Actually, given the crunch-in-reading described at the beginning of last post, I'm no longer entirely sure what will be the next installment. Whichever I finish first, is the short answer. Probably Pet Sematary or the e-books or Black Ribbons, is the longer. Hope to see you then.

17 comments:

  1. I love this gladiator-arena-style post! Long ago, I used to maintain a list of my favorite 100 movies, and that was how I went about ranking them.

    One of these days, I want to make a post wherein I rank all of King's short fiction, but it's been way too long since I read some of them. I remember very little about the majority of "Nightmares & Dreamscapes," for example.

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    1. I look forward to your eventual listings.

      It probably won't surprise you to hear I too had a top 100 list. I don't recall when I stopped maintaining it, but sometime around Beetlejuice, I think. I remember crossing out Rambo 3 and dropping that down, steadily, as I took more and more in. I wish I still had it; it'd be a fun window into 7th and 8th grade for me.

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    2. It's an incredibly nerdy pursuit, but also a very fun one. And you're right; what it is is basically just a window onto our past selves.

      That's what blogging is for me, ultimately; it's just Present Me opening the window so Future Me can see into it, all because Present Me wishes he could see Past Me a little better.

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  2. If you don't know what you're going to do next, why not knock off the year with something light like Kingdom Hospital and the New Year resolution can be to have it all finished by same time next year?

    Just a thought.

    ChrisC

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    1. Kingdom Hospital's already done - I forget which month, but it's back there. July or August, I think.

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    2. I'm currently two episodes out from being done rewatching "Golden Years." Which is not "Kingdom Hospital" at all, now that I think about it.

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  3. Hey I just had another idea. How's this for a challenge, watch "Chinga", King's episode for The X Files, then go to Rocky Wood's Uncollected book and look up the entry for that episode (or you can look it up before the episode) and compare and contrast, and maybe even contemplate the relation of the Kingverse to the X Fileverse.

    Just another thought.

    ChrisC

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    1. I covered "Chinga" in the same entry I covered Kingdom's Hospital in, if memory serves. Somewhere back there, at any rate - I enjoyed it.

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    2. Here it is: http://mcmolo.blogspot.com/2012/08/kings-highway-pt-26-some-odds-and-ends.html

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    3. Boy, isn't that Rocky Wood book just a treasure-trove? The section on "Chinga" is especially great.

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    4. Admittedly, King's original version of "Chinga," titled "Polly", sounds a whole lot BETTER than the aired version.

      For one thing, characters are more fleshed out and sympathetic, and King even goes out of his way to work in some "Files" mythology in his script. Unfortunately, according to King, Chris Carter of "One of those guys who has to have all the pie."

      One element of King's script that's seems interesting is a college friend of Scully's, name of Rebbecca CALLAHAN.

      ChrisC

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    5. Very cool!

      I see the Kindle version of that book is only seven bucks. I may have to download it.

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    6. Well worth $7.

      The as-produced version of "Chinga" is definitely more of a Chris Carter product than a Stephen King one. It's a pretty good one, though. And I'm still going to use it as an excuse to do a full series re-watch at some point in the next couple of years ... which I will then use as an excuse to write a series of episode reviews.

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  4. I love your blog very much. I have followed you. And I wonder if you can do the same for me to give me a support. Have a nice day!

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    1. Hi Jessica - so sorry to have missed this comment when you first left it. I clicked over to your blog and followed it, but it appears you don't post anymore, eh? Too bad. Hope you get back into the swing of it all!

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  5. Having finished rereading "Jerusalem's Lot" earlier tonight, I can definitively say that that story is every bit as good as you give it credit for being.

    But I'm with you: I'd give "N." the edge. That one is truly exceptional.

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    1. I enjoyed your brief revisit of "Jerusalem's Lot," and good point on its being a different geographical entity than Salem's Lot. Well-spotted.

      I should re-read both it and "N" sometime soon, actually. Maybe even re-do these short story rankings.

      Oy vey!

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