Miss Sidley’s Twelve Dead Children

A presentation on Stephen King’s “Suffer the Little Children” by Benjamin Azencott, Caroline Anthony, and Gryphon Alhonti

Summary part 1: Benjamin

At the beginning of the story, we are presented to Miss Sidley, a very old school teacher, who has to wear a brace because of her bad back. She keeps her classroom in check with an iron fist, due to a trick with her glasses that allows her to view their actions even when she has her back to them. This leads to all of her students fearing her, not daring to do anything mischievous. One day, she sees that one of her students, Robert, is no longer afraid of her, and when she asks him to answer a question, his words are ominous and give her a bad feeling. She then, out of the corner of her eye, watches him transform into a monster, but he is completely normal when she turns back around. He also gives her a strange look as he heads out of the classroom, and his face haunts her when she tries to go to sleep later that night.

Summary part 2: Caroline A.

After catching a glimpse of Robert’s changed form, Miss Sidley struggles to cope with the image and becomes less focused on teaching and more on what she saw. Mr. Hanning asks her to go inspect the girl’s bathroom, and she agrees, still theorizing on what she’d seen until she overheard two girls talking about her. Suddenly, the two girls changed into monsters, and Miss Sidley presumably fainted, waking up to see Mr. Hanning and Mrs. Crossen, who offer her help. Miss Sidley refuses both of them and continues as usual, though now even more perturbed as to what she’d seen. Her confusion doesn’t last for long, however, because the next day after school, Robert changes before her eyes, causing her to run away and almost get run over by a bus. This incident leads to her taking a break from teaching for about a month. One week after she returns, she brings her brother’s gun with her to school. She decides to put Robert out of his misery and gives the students a Test, asking Robert to accompany her first.

Summary part 3: Gryphon

During the beginning of the end, Miss Sidley has now taken Robert into the mimeograph room and has shot him. She then realizes that Robert, was, in fact, human and not a demon. Despite what the reader may have expected, Miss Sidley does not stop. She takes eleven more students, one by one, and murders all of them. As she’s leading the thirteenth child, Mrs. Crossen catches her in the act. She horrified and screaming. Mrs. Crossen attacks Miss Sidley and she is arrested. There is no trial for Miss Sidley, although the public was hysterical and demanded one. One year later, Miss Sidley is put into a controlled environment with a group of children. At first, all is well. Then, after a bit of time, Miss Sidley becomes upset and requests to be taken away. That night, she committed suicide.

Analysis part 1: Benjamin

Artistic Purpose

The first craft I had to look for was “Artistic Purpose”, which is the message or the reason that the author wrote their story in the first place. In the case of Stephen King’s “Suffer the Little Children”, his artistic purpose for writing the short story was to scare the reader with his vivid descriptions of the horrifying monsters who took over the children at Mrs. Sidley’s school. Each time Robert, the main monster, or any other of the children change, he employs this technique. At the start of the story, when Mrs. Sidley is thinking over what she saw in her dream, King writes:

 What was it I saw when he changed? Something bulbous. Something that shimmered. Something that stared at me, yes, stared and grinned and wasn’t a child at all. It was old and it was evil.

 He is hinting at what the monsters look like. Giving the readers a little bit of information so that they can imagine in their heads what Robert really is, so that when he reveals it, the impact will be even scarier. The next occurrence where a child, in this case two of them, changes, is the scene where she goes to check on the toilet paper in the girls lavatory, and overhear two girls talking about her, and then subsequently turning into monsters. King describes:

They seemed to elongate, to flow like dripping tallow, taking on strange hunched shapes.

He is continuing to build the reader’s image of these alien creatures, each time giving small pieces, so that they fear continues to build up inside of them, and then have it reach its maximum when he finally completes it. The most prominent scene in the story where he uses this technique is when Mrs. Sidley decides to keep Robert after school, and he morphs in front of her into his true form. King writes:

Robert changed. His face suddenly ran together like melting wax, the eyes flattening and spreading like knife-struck egg yolks, nose widening and yawning, mouth disappearing. The head elongated, and the hair was suddenly not hair but straggling, twitching growths. Robert began to chuckle. The slow, cavernous sound came from what had been his nose, but the nose was eating into the lower half of his face, nostrils meeting and merging into a central blackness like a huge, shouting mouth.

Here he now has completely finished revealing the terrifying appearance of the monsters that have taken over the students. The long path he has taken to get there, revealing, bit by bit, small pieces of their physique, and then finally showing the final product, terrifies the reader to an extreme, and hits them much harder than if he had shown the change at once. In the end, Stephen King fully fulfills his artistic purpose, leaving the reader confused and scared, and using a great array of vivid descriptions to accomplish this goal.

Plot and Action

The second writing craft I had to look for was “Plot and Action”, which is the sequences of action that move the plot or storyline in a story forward, from start to finish. There is an abundant amount of action in this short story, taking the reader from Mrs. Sidley’s first glance of Robert, the only student in her classroom unafraid of her, to the climax, where she brutally murders twelve young children in cold blood. The first important piece of action that sets the story rolling is when she notices Robert isn’t afraid of her like normal, and then she catches a glimpse of Robert changing, but not enough to see his true form, flustering and terrifying her. King writes:

Now she saw a phantomish, distorted Robert in the first row wrinkle his nose. […] Robert changed. She caught just a flicker of it, just a frightening glimpse of Robert’s face changing into something … different. She whirled around, face white, barely noticing the protesting stab of pain in her back.

This is the inciting incident. Because he wasn’t afraid, this led to Mrs. Sidley paying close attention to him and eventually seeing a small part of his transformation into a monster. This makes her scared and frustrated, which will affect all of her choices later on in the story. The next important action is when she sees him transform completely and runs outside, falling right outside of a school bus. King writes:

She ran. She fled screaming down the corridor […] . She clattered down the steps and across the sidewalk and into the street with her screams trailing behind her.

This second event of seeing one of the children fully transform is so terrifying to her that she blindly runs away, going so far as to run in front of traffic, almost dying to an incoming school bus. The fear and frustration she had been building up throughout the last two days is now fully maxed out, and she has to take a month off of school to cope with all of it. When she returns however, she is determined to put a stop to all of this, and brings her brother’s gun with her to school, inciting the clmax of the story, where she murders twelve children, and would have killed more if she wasn’t stopped by fellow teacher Mrs. Crossen. King writes:

She killed twelve of them and would have killed them all.

This action is extremely important to the plot and is the culmination of all the other actions taken before in the story, all leading up to this one point. All in all, Stephen King does a great job of using action in important parts of the story to push the plot forward.

What can be taken from this piece

In the short story, Suffer the Little Children, by Stephen King, there are many great techniques that can be imitated or taken to improve one’s one writing, but the main and most important one is his way of describing the monsters. When he describes their transformation, he uses unconventional words that give the reader a good image of what he is talking about. For example, when he uses the words “flowing like tallow” to describe the transformation process of the monsters, and the words “knife-struck egg yolks” to describe their eyes.

Discussion Questions

1. Artistic Purpose: What do you think was Stephen King’s purpose for writing this short story?

2. Plot and Action: How does Stephen King use action to advance the plot?

Analysis Part 2: Caroline A

Point of View

Stephen King’s “Suffer the Little Children” is told mostly in a third person limited point of view through Miss Sidley. Miss Sidley is a stiff and old schoolteacher who presumably works with young children, judging on the content that she is teaching them, as referenced in this quotation, where she is teaching the children in her class how to pronounce the word vacation.

“Vacation,” she said, pronouncing the word as she wrote it in her firm, no-nonsense script. “Edward, please use the word vacation in a sentence.”

“I went on a vacation to New York City,” Edward piped. Then, as Miss Sidley had taught, he repeated the word carefully. “Vay-cay-shun.”

“Very good, Edward.” She began on the next word.

King uses details such as her “firm, no-nonsense script” to help convey her personality and feelings towards the children in her class. He also does this by indirectly revealing her thoughts to us, as he did when showing us her glasses trick.

One of her little tricks was the careful use of her glasses. The whole class was reflected in their thick lenses and she had always been thinly amused by their guilty, frightened faces when she caught them at their nasty little games.

This also shows us how Miss Sidley does not seem to like teaching very much, or at least she enjoys it for the wrong reasons. This is all shown to us within the first page of the short story, providing us with concrete information as to what Miss Sidley’s personality is. As we continue on through the story and strange things begin to happen, the limited point of view allows us to experience the fear she is feeling.

That was when the shadows changed. They seemed to elongate, to flow like dripping tallow, taking on strange hunched shapes that made Miss Sidley cringe back against the porcelain washstands, her heart swelling in her chest.

But they went on giggling.

The voices changed, no longer girlish, now sexless and soulless, and quite, quite evil. A slow, turgid sound of mindless humor that flowed around the corner to her like sewage.

She stared at the hunched shadows and suddenly screamed at them. The scream went on and on, swelling in her head until it attained a pitch of lunacy. And then she fainted. The giggling, like the laughter of demons, followed her down into darkness.

King’s masterful use of imagery and point of view portray the fear Miss Sidley was feeling almost effortlessly. As the story progresses even more, we follow Miss Sidley’s slow devolve into madness:

She felt no qualms; he was a monster, not a little boy. She must make him admit it.

Miss Sidley neither heard nor saw. She clattered down the steps and across the sidewalk and into the street with her screams trailing behind her. There was a huge, blatting horn and then the bus was looming over her, the bus driver’s face a plaster mask of fear. Air brakes whined and hissed like angry dragons.

Miss Sidley stared at the children. Their shadows covered her. Their faces were impassive. Some of them were smiling little secret smiles, and Miss Sidley knew that soon she would begin to scream again.

Until finally Miss Sidley feels the only thing she can do to rid herself of this monster that is eating away at her mind is through violence.

Miss Sidley brought the gun to school in her handbag.

And, after killing eleven children and finally getting caught, she even goes so far as to try and force the child she was going to kill next to change, commanding her, saying things like

“It had to be done, Margaret,” she told the screaming Mrs Crossen. “It’s terrible, but it had to. They are all monsters.”

 “Change,” Miss Sidley said. “Change for Mrs Crossen. Show her it had to be done.”

“Damn you, change!” Miss Sidley screamed. “Dirty bitch, dirty crawling, filthy unnatural bitch! Change! God damn you, change!”

By this point in the story however, the third person limited point of view seems to be slowly dissociating, until the narrator is not narrating Miss Sidley anymore, but a different man named Buddy Jenkins. I believe King uses this sudden change in point of view as a way to show the reader Miss Sidley’s deterioration in mental state; from hearing her thoughts, to showing her actions, to a while new person entirely.

King’s use of point of view is quite masterful in this short story, and he uses it both to tell the story and as a method of developing character and story arc.

 Style

Stephen King’s use of wording and style of writing in “Suffer the Little Children” is unique and excellent at getting the feelings that Miss Sidley is feeling across. He uses a simple yet very effective way of description when writing scenes, such as when we see Robert change fully for the first time:

Robert changed.

His face suddenly ran together like melting wax, the eyes flattening and spreading like knife -struck egg yolks, nose widening and yawning, mouth disappearing. The head elongated, and the hair was suddenly not hair but straggling, twitching growths.

Robert began to chuckle.

The slow, cavernous sound came from what had been his nose, but the nose was eating into the lower half of his face, nostrils meeting and merging into a central blackness like a huge, shouting mouth.

Robert got up, still chuckling, and behind it all she could see the last shattered remains of the other Robert, the real little boy this alien thing had usurped, howling in maniac terror, screeching to be let out.

The language is easy to understand and visualize, yet the image that is conjured in the reader’s mind is quite unusual and terrifying. King uses these details throughout the story, yet it is the most noticeable in other moments similar to this one, where something out of the ordinary and surprising happens. For another example, take the scene during which Miss Sidley finally shoots Robert:

Before she could speak, Robert’s face began to shimmer into the grotesqueness beneath and Miss Sidley shot him. Once. In the head. He fell back against the paper-lined shelves and slid down to the floor, a little dead boy with a round black hole above his right eye.

He looked very pathetic.

Miss Sidley stood over him, panting. Her cheeks were pale.

The huddled figure didn’t move. It was human.

It was Robert.

The scene is clearly described and simple, yet it portrays a young boy being shot in the head, and also Miss Sidley’s crushing realization that this boy was just that, a human child. However, this scene is immediately followed by

No!

It was all in your mind, Emily. All in your mind.

No! No, no, no!

She went back up to the room and began to lead them down, one by one. She killed twelve of them and would have killed them all if Mrs Crossen hadn’t come down for a package of composition paper.

Which describes Miss Sidley’s final fall into madness.

King’s use of style in this short story is quite skillful in its simplicity, yet complex in what it is actually describing.

What can I learn from this story that will help me write my own stories?

There are most certainly many things that I can learn from this story that can help me write my own in the future. The way King built up tension throughout the story and the little part where he foreshadows Robert’s changing in the beginning

The reflection was small, ghostly, and distorted. And she had all but the barest comer of her eye on the word she was writing.

Robert changed.

She caught just a flicker of it, just a frightening glimpse of Robert’s face changing into something … different.

She whirled around, face white, barely noticing the protesting stab of pain in her back.

Robert looked at her blandly, questioningly. His hands were neatly folded. The first signs of an afternoon cowlick showed at the back of his head. He did not look frightened.

I imagined it, she thought. I was looking for something, and when there was nothing, my mind just made something up. Very cooperative of it.

… made the scene where Miss Sidley finally begins to shoot and kill the children all the more exciting yet still almost surprising. Even after it is revealed that Miss Sidley had brought her brother’s gun to school that day, presumably to put an end to this whole affair through murder, the day continues eerily normally, creating a false sense of normalcy in the reader, until the action picks up again and she begins to slaughter the children.

I also really admire King’s simple descriptiveness when he’s writing. The description of Robert changing full the first time

Robert changed.

His face suddenly ran together like melting wax, the eyes flattening and spreading like knife -struck egg yolks, nose widening and yawning, mouth disappearing. The head elongated, and the hair was suddenly not hair but straggling, twitching growths.

Robert began to chuckle.

The slow, cavernous sound came from what had been his nose, but the nose was eating into the lower half of his face, nostrils meeting and merging into a central blackness like a huge, shouting mouth.

Robert got up, still chuckling, and behind it all she could see the last shattered remains of the other Robert, the real little boy this alien thing had usurped, howling in maniac terror, screeching to be let out.

… was very easy to understand and visualize in my head, despite it being very disturbing and unnatural. This, along with many other important moments in the story, like the bathroom scene where Miss Sidley first sees the children change, help build tension and conflict. None of the words he used were out of place, and each one worked to move the story along.

Another aspect of King’s writing that I aspire to learn is his use of dialogue. Through each of Miss Sidley’s encounters, whether it be with fellow teachers or with demonic melting children, we learn more about her character, and each interaction feels very human and natural despite the unnatural and unsettling circumstances. Miss Sidley’s conversations with “Robert,” even though he was inherently possessed, seemed like perfectly normal conversations a perturbed adult may have with a mischievous young child. Even once Miss Sidley returned back to school after her first incident with Robert, their first encounter seemed so normal yet cold, and once Miss Sidley led him to the back room to kill him and he began to speak as the demon again, the dialogue still fit so perfectly for the situation I couldn’t imagine a better way of writing it.

All in all, I admire King’s pacing throughout the story, as well as his phenomenal dialogue and simple yet complex descriptions.

Discussion Questions

  1. How does the structure of this story help it build tension?
  2. How does the point of view affect how the story is told, and if it were told from a different point of view, how would it change.

Analysis Part 3: Gryphon

Stephen King does a great job in developing Miss Sidley’s character in “Suffer the Little Children”. You get a good sense of the evil she senses from Robert and the other children, and you almost begin to sympathize with her when others tell her that she’s being outrageous. You get a sense of the doubt she’s feeling without even knowing that. For example,

Very well, she would keep their secret. For awhile. She would not have people thinking her insane, or that the first feelers of senility had touched her early. She would play their game. Until she could expose their nastiness and rip it out by the roots.

She knows that the children are hiding something from her, but she is willing to let it play out for a bit more. At first, it’s innocent and she suspects that they know of her trick with the glasses, but it begins turning into a much darker story.

He also does a good job of giving you an idea of the time and place that this story is set in. The children are allowed to go home by themselves, and it is completely acceptable for a teacher to hold a child back after class without notifying the parents. Miss Sidley is also allowed to tell Robert (a young child) that

..little boys who tell stories go to hell..

That would’ve never been okay in today’s world. This gives the idea that this story is set in the 60s, maybe early 70s.

What can I use in my writing?

There’s a lot we can learn from Stephen King. From how to tell horror stories the correct way, to making you sympathize with a psychopath. There’s not a lot of people that can say they’ve successfully been able to do that. The way King gives you a dark story from a light perspective of a scared old woman is absolutely incredible. In “Suffer the Little Children,” he says

She would shake them. Shake them until their teeth rattled and their giggles turned to wails, she would thump their heads against the tile walls and she would make them admit that they knew.

which gives you a clear idea that Miss Sidley is ruthless. At this point in the story, she only suspects that the little girls knew about her trick with her glasses, not that they were possessed by demons. You feel both uncomfortable and empathetic for Miss Sidley. She’s lost her power, but she’s threatening to hurt small children. Simply despicable, you could argue. He also manages to show, not tell very well. For example,

A slow, turgid sound of mindless humor that flowed around the corner to her like sewage.

You can feel Miss Sidley’s anger without being directly told that she’s angry. At the beginning of the story, you are impressed by Miss Sidley. She’s managed to scare her students enough to respect her, and that’s not an easy task to ask of a third grade teacher. However, as the story goes on, you feel a sense of uncomfort and at times, disgust, at what she plans to do, and even more disgust when she actually goes through with it. On the second to last page, Miss Sidley says

“No one can hear you,” she said calmly. She took the gun from her bag. “You or this.”

When she insinuates to a nine year old boy that she’s going to shoot him, you lose all sympathy for her. That type of character development characterization is, as aforementioned, not an easy task to accomplish. It takes skill, and believing in your characters, which isn’t something that’s easy. That’s something a lot of writers⁠—including myself⁠—can improve upon.

Discussion Questions:

1. Why does Miss Sidley just now notice this behavior? Is it a recent development, or has it been occurring for some time? Why?

2. Why was there no trial after this absolutely horrific event? Are the demons real? Does the court believe in their existence? Were there previous incidents?

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