Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Thing I Don't Want to Look At: A Review of "Under the Weather"

Guess what I've got for you today?


So proceed with caution if you have not read "Under the Weather," or if you have never seen The Sixth Sense, Fight Club, The Usual Suspects, The Wizard of Oz, Unbreakable, Planet of the Apes, or Psycho. Cause I'm gonna ruin 'em all.

And frankly, if you haven't seen those movies, you've got WAY better things to be doing than reading this blog.  So get to it!

Everyone else, allons-y!




I can't recall ever hearing the word "spoiler" used in this context pre-Internet.  Probably it was and I simply wasn't aware of it.  In modern parlance, though, it's got rather a double meaning, doesn't it?  Used literally, it refers to one's enjoyment of a story being spoiled through the unwitting or inopportune revelation of key details of that story (often meaning the details of a crucial plot-twist).  As a secondary -- and, one suspects, unintended -- meaning, it also refers to the unavoidable fact that many people have become spoiled (in the sense of a child who has been given too much) by the idea that they should be able to read anything, anywhere, at any time, and never run the risk of finding out anything about any story from anyone.  A lot of people will tell you that no matter who you are, where you are, or what you're talking about, you should NEVER discuss spoilers, lest you ruin somebody else's future good time.

On the one hand, I get that.  Let's say we're discussing a novel that's just been released; 11/22/63, for example.  Not everyone reads books in hardcover; many people wait until the paperback comes out.  So, until the paperback version of that novel has been out for a reasonable period of time -- let's call it six months -- then I figure it would be poor netiquette to talk about how it ends without saying beforehand that I'm going to be doing so.

After that six months, I feel considerably freer, and a point will come when something has been around long enough that I consider it to simply be a part of our shared culture, and therefore fair game no matter the context.

For example, let's say that I want to talk about M. Night Shyamalan's masterpiece, The Sixth Sense, and tell you that this image


is from the end of the movie, during the scene in which Malcolm (Bruce Willis) finds out that he is dead, and has been for nearly the entire movie.  (They only see what they want to see.  They don't know they're dead.)  As far as I'm concerned, it's within my rights to do so and to not have to hear shit about it; the movie is nearly thirteen years old, and I figure anyone who wants to see it has had ample opportunity.  If you didn't take that opportunity, well, pal, that's on you.  Oh, and by the way, in Unbreakable (another Shyamalan masterpiece, and yes I meant it literally both times), Mr. Glass was the bad guy the whole time.  Spoilers, lol!

While we're spoiling things, here's some more plot twists spilt onto the floor for all to see and know:


In Psycho, "Mother" is actually Norman Bates, wearing a wig and brandishing a knife.  A boy's best friend is his mother.


In Fight Club, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) and the unnamed character played by Edward Norton are actually the same character: when Norton "goes to sleep," he becomes Durden, and has no knowledge of it when he "wakes up."  I am Jack's split personality.


In Planet of the Apes, it turns out that the titular planet was Earth all along: a far-future post-apocalyptic Earth.  You maniacs!  You blew it up!  Oh, damn you!  God damn you all to hell!


In The Empire Strikes Back -- please note that I did not refer to it as Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back -- we find out that Darth Vader was once Anakin Skywalker, and is therefore Luke Skywalker's father.  No!  That's not true!  That's impossible!


In The Usual Suspects, Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) IS Keyser Soze.  And like that ... he's gone.


And, in my all-time favorite movie, The Wizard of Oz, it turns out that Oz was merely a dream: Dorothy has been asleep in Kansas the whole time.  There really is no place like home.

Now, WHAT has all this got to do with Stephen King's "Under the Weather"?  Directly, nothing.  Indirectly, also not much.  But there is (arguably) a plot twist, so I thought some conversation about the spoiling of such plot twists might be in order.

Ellen, Brad's wife in "Under the Weather," is -- in Willis-esque fashion -- dead the entire story.

The question that needs answering here is this: should this be counted as an actual plot twist?

Most of the above examples -- The Wizard of Oz is excluded, to some degree -- are plot-twists in the traditional sense of the phrase, by which I mean that there is a specific point in the film in which the filmmakers intended the entire audience to collectively hitch in a surprised breath, and then let it back out again in a gleefully surprised "whaaaaaaaaa...........!!!!!!!!!!" noise.

I'm not sure "Under the Weather" falls into that category.  The reason I say that is that while I can point, in the case of each of the above films, to specific moments in which the plot twist is delivered, there is no real equivalent in "Under the Weather."  Instead, there are several moments in which strong hints are dropped, and I imagine that at each one of these points in the story, a number of readers figure out what's going on: the rest pass through, blissfully ignorant for a while longer, and maybe they figure it out at the next point, or the one after.  Some, I'm sure, get all the way to the end, where it is spelled out point-blank; but I'd imagine most catch on earlier.

The first clue comes on the fourth page, when Carlo the doorman is talking with Brad about the smell which is supposedly coming from dead rats in a neighboring apartment.  "You're the only one on" [floors] "four, five, or six who hasn't complained," Carlo says.  It's reasonable to assume that some people read this, make the connection that only this one apartment hasn't complained about the smell of rotting flesh, and then remember that the wife is supposedly sleeping, then make that two and two equal four.  A lot of readers, however, will roll right past it: King has done a good job of making it very obvious that Brad is an early riser; therefore, it doesn't seem odd -- to many people, if not most -- that Ellen would, in fact, still be asleep, and therefore they never make the connection during the conversation with Carlo.

Several pages later, Brad remembers a bad moment during a vacation he and his wife took years previously.  Flying to Nassau, Brad looks over at Ellen at one point: "...I turned to her and for a moment thought she was dead.  It was the way she was sleeping, with her head cocked over on her shoulder and her mouth open and her hair kind of sticking to the window.  She was young, we both were, but the idea of sudden death had a hideous possibility in Ellen's case."  He goes on to relate the story of how Ellen was diagnosed with a heart condition which would have been an obstacle to bearing children.

On the very first page of the story, Brad wakes up, and is frightened by a noise he hears coming from under the bed.  He nearly screams, and thinks, "It's the thing I don't want to look at.  It's the thing in the window seat."  I've got a poor memory, but many people don't: anybody who remembers that line from the first page would now -- knowing what "the thing in the window seat" is -- undoubtedly put two and two together.  And even for everyone else, the sudden focus on the idea of Ellen's mortality serves as a strong hint.

The next clue comes only a few paragraphs later, when -- still in the flashback to the trip to Nassau -- Brad, seemingly joking, tells Ellen that if if she was dead, he'd take her on the trip anyways. "Because I wouldn't accept it.  No way would I," he says.

"You'd have to after a few days," Ellen replies.  "I'd get all smelly."  At this point, the cat is pretty much out of the bag; this is certainly the point at which I figured it out. But, if you happen to not remember the issue of the dead "rats," then I suppose you might still not catch on.  So, mere lines later, within the same conversation, we get these lines:

"I'd keep you alive."
"Really?  How?  Necromancy?"
"By refusing to give up.  And by using an adman's most valuable asset."
"Which is what, Mr. Fasprin?"
"Imagination."

If this doesn't clue you in, you may be incapable of receiving clues.

So, what do we think: should "Under the Weather" be counted as a traditional plot-twist story, or is it something different?

*****

Regardless of whether you count what's going on in the story as a plot twist or not, I'd have to say it's a fine story.  It's grim as hell, but if you're reading a King story, I can't imagine that grimness bothers you overmuch.  In my previous short story review, I talked about "Herman Wouk Is Still Alive," which is also a grim story; that one, however, at least had two opposing viewpoints, one of which offered some rays of light to shine into the darkness.

In "Under the Weather," we're stuck inside the mind of Brad Franklin, a creative ad man whose newest project involves successfully talking himself into believing that his wife, who has passed away and lies rotting in the bed they have shared, is still alive and well.  The story is full of King's customary sensory-engagement details: the smell of Ellen's decomposition hangs over the story like a malefic green cloud, and the occasional scenes involving Lady the cocker spaniel making a guilty meal out of the Beggin' Strips that were once Ellen's fingers are like thunder within that cloud.  King's writing is mostly restrained, and the ideas come slinking through all the more powerfully as a result.  There's really not much escape to be had here; we are in the mind of a very disturbed man, and there's just not much getting around it.

Brad Franklin isn't the first ad man to appear in a King story.  There's also Vic Trenton in Cujo, who had all those cereal problems.  Vic, too, ended up having to deal with a death in the family, but in that novel, the advertising business is a catalyst moreso than it is a metaphor.  Here, it's definitely a metaphor, one for a topic near and dear to Stephen King's heart: creative imagination.

The notion of creative imagination was present in "Herman Wouk Is Still Alive" also: that story's elderly poets still possessed that lively spark, and the implication was that that same spark was part of what was keeping Wouk himself in the game pitching, even at so advanced an age.  I also found there to be an element suggesting that the suicidal character, Brenda, possessed a quantity of the same creative imagination, but had no particular ability to channel it ... other than to imagine very dismal futures for herself, her children, and everyone else around her. The argument might be made that Brenda uses life to imagine death.  Here, Brad uses death to imagine life, and he is apparently able to do so quite successfully.

One question I had after finishing the story the first time was this: does Brad actually think his wife is still alive, or is he persistently lying to himself -- and, as a result, to us -- in an attempt to convince himself of the unconvinceable?  In rereading the story, I think the answer to the question is that it's a little of both, but I found several clear instances in which Brad does indeed seem to believe his own lies.

Take this passage as an example.  Brad has been leaving messages for Ellen on Post-It notes, which he has been scattering around the coffeemaker for her to find:
I jot on a pad, and for a moment I think of all those notes scattered around the coffeemaker back in good old 5-B -- why are they still there?
There's is no reason for a man who is deluding himself but is also conscious of the delusion to wonder about something like that.  No, instead, it seems to be the case that Brad's imagination is so powerful -- or, if you'd prefer, his psychosis so deep -- that he is able to genuinely believe Ellen is still alive for long stretches of time.  The saner side of his mind sends him the occasional klaxon of alarm such as this one, but for the most part, he's convinced himself.

This, obviously, is not far removed from old Normie Bates, whom I mentioned earlier in the post.  He seemed to be doing much the same thing with Mother; Robert Bloch's novel started it, and Alfred Hitchcock's movie made it legend.  And the unnamed character in Chuck Palahniuk's novel Fight Club -- later given form by Edward Norton in David Fincher's masterful movie adaptation -- did something very similar by dreaming up Tyler Durden to swoop in and make life a bit more interesting.  Brad Franklin the ad man doesn't seem to have the murderous and/or anti-social tendencies of those two models of insanity; but, then again, who knows how far he might be willing to go to protect this illusion?

*****

"Under the Weather" was published in the trade paperback edition of Full Dark, No Stars, and if I can put on my anorak for a moment, I'd like to have a one-sided debate on the topic of whether it is officially a part of that collection.

I can hear you now (which is probably a dangerous thing to say so soon after talking about a man imagining things): "But Bryant, the story is in the book.  Of course it's a part of Full Dark, No Stars!"

If you think about it much -- something you probably shouldn't do, by the way -- then you'll realize that the notion of a story collection is really rather a fragile notion.  What IS a story collection?  Well, the obvious answer is to say that a story collection is a collection of stories, grouped together in a single volume.  That's true facts there, folks.

Here's something else that's true: a story collection is whatever the author -- or editor -- says it is.  With that in mind, the concept becomes more fluid, less easy to pin down and define.

Let's take as an example I Sing the Body Electric!, a Ray Bradbury story collection first published in 1969.  In its initial form, it included the following stories:
  • "The Kilimanjaro Device"
  • "The Terrible Conflagration Up at the Place"
  • "Tomorrow's Child"
  • "The Women"
  • "The Inspired Chicken Motel"
  • "Downwind from Gettysburg"
  • "Yes, We'll Gather at the River"
  • "The Cold Wind and the Warm"
  • "Night Call, Collect"
  • "The Haunting of the New"
  • "I Sing the Body Electric!"
  • "The Tombling Day"
  • "Any Friend of Nicholas Nickleby's Is a Friend of Mine"
  • "Heavy-Set"
  • "The Man in the Rorschach Shirt"
  • "Henry the Ninth"
  • "The Lost City of Mars"
  • "Christus Apollo"

However, I have the 1998 edition, which adds an additional eleven stories, all of which are inserted between "The Lost City of Mars" and "Christus Apollo."  If you want to get really technical -- and I suppose that's what we're doing here -- then it must be noted that the proper title of the 1998 edition is I Sing the Body Electric! And Other Stories.

Here's my question: if I were to sit down and start writing about I Sing the Body Electric!, which edition should I be writing about?  The original edition?  Well, maybe, but if Bradbury decided later that the collection ought to include an additional eleven stories, who am I to argue with him?

So, clearly it's the 1998 edition, right?  Well, maybe, but the original edition was the one that counted for almost thirty years.  That's a long time; why should it matter if Ray Bradbury, once he got to be an old coot, decided to change the contents (or, even worse, if it wasn't him making the decision, but his publisher, who wanted to stimulate sales by piling some new crap into an old sock)?

Is the solution to treat I Sing the Body Electric! and I Sing the Body Electric! And Other Stories as two separate, distinct collections?  I tend to think this is the only way to proceed without madness taking hold, and the fact that the books have different titles makes that doable.  Do a little research on Bradbury collections, though; a great many of them have variable contents from one edition to the nexet, and in many cases, there are no title variations to assist the would-be critic.

Making decisions of this nature may seem tedious; for many, they undoubtedly ARE tedious.  But they are, on occasion, necessary (at least for the critic, or the blogger, or the fastidious fan).  As an example, let's return to the question that started me down this road: is "Under the Weather" to be considered a part of the collection known as Full Dark, No Stars?

My answer is no.

My evidence for this is that it isn't listed in the Table of Contents, even in the trade paperback edition.  That tells me that King -- or his publishers, or both -- is thinking of "Under the Weather" in the same way as he would think of an excerpt from a yet-to-be-published novel when it appears in the back of one of his books: it's value-added content, nothing more.  If future editions of FDNS continue to include the story, I might be forced to revisit my opinion, of course; but until then, I say the Table of Contents is what counts, and "Under the Weather" ain't in it.

That said, it fit Full Dark, No Stars relatively well from a thematic standpoint. That collection's stories might be said to have a common theme: men who do really bad things to women.  ("Fair Extension" doesn't fit that thesis perfectly, but I'd argue that it still fits.)  That's what is -- arguably -- going on in "Under the Weather," too: Brad is motivated out of love rather than hate, but it's still a fairly bad result for Ellen ... or at least for what's left of her.

So, from that standpoint, "Under the Weather" belongs.  (So would the story "Morality" have done, by the way.)  But I still say that it shouldn't be considered to officially be a part of Full Dark, No Stars.

What say you?

*****

A few more notes before I go:

  • Would you describe "Under the Weather" as a horror story?  I ask because so far, I can't make up my mind one way or the other.  Regardless, the opening paragraph is a great horror paragraph.
  • On the fourth page, there is what I assume to be a mistake: Carlo the doorman, talking to Brad, asks him how his wife is doing.  "How is Mrs. Nathan?" he asks.  The few other times it is mentioned in the story, Brad and Ellen's last name is given as Franklin.  Editorial boo-boo, I assume.
  • That said, I wish it was Nathan instead of Franklin, and I'll tell you why: the name "Nathan" makes me think of Nathan Grantham, the poor fellow in Creepshow who only wanted his cake ... and who had it, too.  What with him being a murderous corpse and all, I kinda liked the association my mind created between him and poor, rotting Ellen.
  • Po-10s = awesome name for boner medication.  Something tells me Stephen King is a top-notch ad man in some other reality.
  • "Billy Ederle's leaning in the doorway, drinking a Nozzy. It's a remarkably lousy soda, but it's all we vend.  The company's a client."  This, obviously, refers to Nozz-A-La soda, which appears in the Dark Tower novels, and in Kingdom Hospital.  It also, apparently, made an appearance in an episode of Lost!
  • All the ad agency stuff makes me think of Mad Men.  It's not fair, and I know it, but I just can't help it.  Not making it any easier for me not to: this story features one character named Pete Wendell (Mad Men has Pete Campbell), another named George Slattery (Mad Men co-stars John Slattery as Roger Sterling), and another whose "admirable breasts rise and fall in a theatrical sigh" (tell me that doesn't make you think of Christina Hendricks).  Oh, you don't know who Christina Hendricks is?  Well, she plays Joan on Mad Men, and she's kinda like a human Po-10s.  Here ya go, and careful pitching them tents, fellas:





If those aren't admirable breasts, then I don't know what are.  Hendricks is also an astonishingly good actress, whom I first noticed playing the charmingly villainous Saffron on Firefly.  On Mad Men, she exudes grace, power, charm, wit, and fragility, sometimes all within the space of a few seconds; she knocks it out of the park just about every scene she's in (of which there are typically not enough).

Wait.  What were we talking about, again?

Nope, I can't remember, either.

Oh, well, let's just call it a night, while we've all got visions of Christina Hendricks dancing in our heads.  I'll be back soon with part three in this series, a look at King's "Mile 81."  Until then, just remember: in advertising, making a silk purse out of a sow's ear is the main job seven times out of every ten.

2 comments:

  1. Very interesting essay! I think "Under the Weather" is one of those stories where the reader knows what's going on the whole time (or most of it), but the narrator doesn't know. I don't think it's a horror story, really, but it IS a bit creepy. Thanks for posting this.

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