Only one person has sold more books than Stephen King, and that’s God. The questionable source I stole that line from may have incorrectly reported his death three years ago (Stephen King’s, not God’s), but the veracity of this claim…it turns out is also dubious.
And yet, has any other writer’s name appeared more in the debate about what qualifies as “good” writing? Does any other writer have such an apt Dickensian moniker? If you want to reach mass audiences, for god’s sake, read him. But if you want to be “good”? For someone who’s averaged almost a book a year since he started publishing over four decades ago, there’s bound to be a quality differential. Two of his stories that reflect this gap for me are “Autopsy Room Four” and “A Death.” I would classify the latter as literary, while arguing that the former falls short. Good or bad, though, both still utilize techniques worth emulating.
“Autopsy Room Four” is told from the first-person perspective of a man who finds himself on an autopsy table, unable to move or communicate his consciousness to the morticians about to cut him open. We come to understand exactly where the narrator is as he does, via the sensations he’s experiencing: the sound of a squeaky wheel, the smell of vinyl, the scuff of shoes, the motion of rolling. King is a master of sketching the setting via specific physical, sensory details. Crackles and “rubbersmelling stuff.” The hiss of a pneumatic hinge. The tickle of his handler’s tie on his forehead. The whine of a drill, the sight of various scissors and saws. The convincing physical sensations are what yank the reader in, making us a) sympathize with the narrator by making us feel like we are also paralyzed on a gurney; b) want to know what is going to happen; and c) want to know what has already happened. The tension of b and c is further heightened as the narrator regains snippets of memory about what he was doing just before he landed here (golfing), and from the question of whether he’s dead or not. But for this reader, both the mode of revelation of what happened to land him here (what’s going to happen) and what actually landed him here (what already happened) fall short of living up to such a grand, tense setup. Basically a guy storms in just in the nick of time and yells something along the lines of: he’s not actually dead! While just how he figured this out is unclear, it seems he needn’t have bothered anyway, since the narrator’s erection simultaneously reveals he’s alive to the female doctor who is holding it because, in the process of noting markings on the corpse, she has come across an old Vietnam shrapnel wound near his groin. This approaches satisfying irony in that something painful from his past turns out to save him, except that it turns out it doesn’t actually save him, the arbitrary burst-in does, and the emotional pain surrounding this physical past wound is pretty much undeveloped. At any rate, he’ll end up dating this doctor, despite having experienced some pretty grave breaches of corpse-handling protocol during his paralysis.
And how did our narrator get here in the first place? Does it turn out someone was seeking revenge on him for his arrogance, a character trait that’s been seeping subtly through his generally indignant reaction to the situation (“What the fuck do they think I am, a buglight?”) and is hinted at through his nickname, “Howard the Conqueror”? Has he perhaps committed some wrong he’s not even aware of, symbolic of many similar wrongs committed throughout his life that he’s now being called to task for, grabbed by the emotional collar and shaken in a way that forces him to take a long hard look at himself and ask why am I such an asshole? No. A snake bit him. The paralysis will slowly fade, and he gets to date the doctor. Everyone’s happy. And that’s why I would say “Autopsy Room Four” is ultimately not a “good” story. “Good” fiction can never be completely happy; that’s for your sitcoms and blockbusters. As Buddhists know, only suffering leads to redemption. This narrator suffers on the surface, but he never has to reckon with the shortcomings of his own character, and therefore the suffering will not lead to meaningful change. The problem is, what happened to him could have happened to anyone who wound up in that particular place at that particular time, who wound up there as the narrator does: randomly. It was not some essential element of his character that drove him into the brush where the snake was hidden. It would be different if he’d been at the golf course with his wife and pissed her off and she’d hurled her wedding ring out there and that’s why he wound up in the brush where the snake was (for a bad example). If he was in this situation because of something he himself had done, being avenged for ripping someone off in a Ponzi scheme or sleeping with their significant other or just being a general dick bag, then he truly would have suffered in an existential sense, and perhaps would have properly earned his date with the doctor via the charming honesty of a newly turned leaf. But he didn’t really get himself into this mess. No one can blame him for golfing, unless he’d been there in service of some sleazy business shortcut or something (see Ben Fountain’s “Asian Tiger” [note: that is only the beginning] for a golf game that really ups the moral stakes). The snake bite is random, the equivalent of an asteroid, and leaves this tale hovering in the realm of anecdote instead of story.
In 127 Hours, based on the memoir Between A Rock and A Hard Place, Aron Ralston cuts off his own arm to survive. His suffering is not just that induced physically by the extremity of the situation. The thirst, hunger and heat he feels are intensified dramatically by the knowledge that he hurled himself into their clutches. If he only hadn’t been so self-involved as to not tell anyone where he was going, his aggressive independence a fatal flaw…
King is the king for the same reason sitcoms and blockbusters are ubiquitous: we’ve been conditioned to take short-term pleasure over long-term gain. But King is really the king because he’s proven he can also grab those of us who are seeking a challenge by the literary balls when he wants to.
“A Death” (note: that is the whole story) takes what could be called an opposing narrative stance to “Autopsy”’s voice-y first person. The reader is left to interpret events described in a cinematic external third person rather than having a character-narrator mediate them. The story opens with Sheriff Barclay arresting Jim Trusdale for what we eventually learn is the murder of a little girl. Everyone is certain Trusdale is guilty, though Barclay eventually comes around to believing the opposite:
“I ain’t lying,” Trusdale said, and that was when Sheriff Barclay believed him.
Once Barclay does, it almost becomes inevitable, for plot’s sake, that he is wrong and Trusdale is guilty. Trusdale insists upon his innocence until the end, but the silver dollar that the victim was murdered for, whose absence has played significantly in Barclay’s assessment of innocence, turns up in Trusdale’s stool after he’s hanged. Thanks to the even-handed third-person narration, the reader is stuck squarely in Barclay’s position of having to evaluate Trusdale based on sca(n)t evidence. We experience Barclay’s learning of Trusdale’s guilt as though we, too, have been fooled (though one might note we were set up to be, “true” being in the lying character’s name). But as another character points out:
“Maybe that says more about you than it does about him.”
But no one wins here. The key change that is the “what happens” in this narrative happens in both Barclay and the reader: it is revealed how little we know of human nature. Judging a person innocent based on little more than that person’s own claims shows you’re a chap who’s inclined to give humanity the benefit of the doubt. Barclay is stuck, as he is with the crap-coated silver dollar, with the knowledge that the townspeople so quick to condemn turned out to be correct—but at the same time, these people have long misjudged Trusdale’s intelligence, allusions to Trusdale’s stupidity surfacing throughout:
‘Ain’t got a brain in his fuckin’ head,’ one of the men remarked. ‘Makes his daddy look smart.’
‘…He’s too bone-stupid. If he’d had that dollar, he’d have gone back to the Chuck-a-Luck and drunk it up.’
Justice was done, and yet the reader’s left with a feeling in the pit of the stomach as unsettling as we’re left to imagine swallowing a silver coin must be. That’s because several passages underscore how justice was not done:
Roger Mizell, who had familiarized himself with the case, served as prosecuting attorney as well as judge.
Prosecutor Mizell called half a dozen witnesses, and Judge Mizell never objected once to his line of questioning.
During the jury’s lunch hour, hammering was heard from behind the stage depot and not ninety paces from the scene of the crime. This was the gallows going up.
The jury took an hour and a half. “We voted to hang him on the first ballot,” Kelton Fisher said later, “but we wanted it to look decent.”
Trusdale may have been guilty, but his elaborate measures to hide the coin and maintain his innocence prove he was never given enough credit.
“He didn’t have any holes in his pockets,” Barclay said. “Only one in his boot, and it wasn’t big enough for a dollar to get through.” He drank some of his beer. The tumbleweeds blowing up Main Street looked like ghostly brains in the snow. [boldface mine]
The silver coin implicates Trusdale as guilty of murder while simultaneously implicating the townspeople of ostracizing Trusdale, perhaps implying that they play a much larger role in this crime than they’re willing to recognize. They go on singing their Christian hymns in church right after he’s hanged in front of them. (That the hymn-singing gets the very last line—“It was the Doxology.”—might imply that Christian attitudes spawned this whole cycle to begin with; here at the end, we’re back at the beginning.) Barclay says of the recovered silver piece:
“I don’t know what I’m going to do with it.”
Me neither. There are no easy answers here. And that’s what makes this good—it’s truer to the human condition than a happy ending.
But this is just one reading: mine. Another reader wondered if Trusdale might have been framed. Confronted with this possibility, it seemed to me only the undertaker could have been in a position to plant the coin in Trusdale’s excrement. This undertaker, Hines, pops up quite a bit throughout the story. The truck with “Hines Mortuary” is mentioned very near the beginning, it is Hines who yells passionately at Trusdale during his trial testimony and must be escorted from the courtroom, and Hines is the one who confronts Barclay about his belief in Trusdale’s innocence, suggesting he simply threw the coin away (though if he wants Barclay to believe this story, one wonders why he’d go through the trouble of then planting the coin in Trusdale’s crap). There is no textual confirmation of Hines’s framing, but the text does leave the possibility open.
Supposing, on the other hand, that the coin does indict Trusdale and there was no framing, this other reader and I also read different implications into the silver’s discovery. I thought the act of concealing the coin indicated a certain mental astuteness beyond what Barclay thought he had, while the other reader thought it seemed like something a child might have done, and wondered if his lack of competence was supposed to somehow exonerate him from the murder as not being responsible for his own actions. The more I ponder these possibilities, the further away any concrete conclusion seems. And this is exactly what makes “A Death” such a great story, that it leaves possibilities open so the reader’s own presumptions are revealed.