Monday, August 5, 2013

Good God, Let's Eat: A Review of "Cain Rose Up"

Way back in February, I launched an ongoing examination of King's short stories with an extensive -- and pedantic -- look at his first professionally-published story, "The Glass Floor."

Hopefully, I'm going to be able to produce these at a rate of more than once every six months; otherwise, we're all going to be cyborgs by the time this series of reviews is finished.  Ah, well; so it goes.

In any case, the next story on the agenda is "Cain Rose Up."  A bit of background info and housekeeping first:

"Cain Rose Up" was published during King's sophomore year of college, in the spring 1968 issue of Ubris, the University of Maine literary journal.  King actually published two stories in that issue; "Here There Be Tygers" was the second (or the first, depending on how the coin-flip turns out).  Copies of these college-era publications are not exactly easy to come by, so I do not have them.  Instead, we will be looking at the version of the story as it appeared in the 1985 collection Skeleton Crew.  It is likely that King revised the story for its inclusion in that collection, but since that's the version 99.9999999999999999999% of all King readers will have read, we're going to not worry about it too much.

I mention it mainly to point out that while I'll make certain assumptions about how King's style had progressed from 1967 to 1968, it's possible that some of what I'm referring to is actually based on a hypothetical revision that occurred as late as 1985.  Since I've got no means of being sure about that, we're all going to have to just pretend that it's not an issue.  Let's speak of it no further, eh?

Here's an image of that issue of Ubris:


I'd love to think that someday, my King collection will have one of those in it; it's something to hope for, at least.

And now, on to the review.

The story is a simple one: Curt Garrish, a college student who has just finished his final exams for the semester, goes back to his dorm room, grabs a rifle, and starts shooting people from the window.

That's all there is to it.

It is difficult to imagine that a college literary journal would publish this story in 2013, and reading it today provides a bit of a shock.  Part of me wonders if King has ever been tempted to pull the story from Skeleton Crew in the same way that he has taken Rage (which also deals with a school shooting) out of publication.  I'm by no means advocating that King take that action; I'm just curious why Rage got the axe and "Cain Rose Up" -- which in some ways is the more disturbing of the two works -- did not.

My best guess would be that nobody has ever had a copy of "Cain Rose Up" found in their locker after shooting up a school.  Sadly, the same cannot be said of Rage.

Whatever the case might be, "Cain Rose Up" is still available to read for anyone who wishes to purchase a copy of Skeleton Crew.
Personally, I think the story still packs a punch, which is undoubtedly what King intended.  I can imagine a lot of people reading it and being angry about its mere existence.  The sort of people who gave King such grief over his (mostly) well-reasoned and logical pro-gun-control essay "Guns" would almost certainly see it as hypocrisy of the highest order.  He's trying to take our guns, they'd shout, and here he is making money off a story about a campus killer!  

I can see their point.  I disagree with it, but I see why they'd make it, and I see why they'd feel they were in the right to do so.  People who advocate for media being held to a higher standard when it comes to not depicting violence fail to take into account the fact that stories like "Cain Rose Up" can serve as acts of empathy.  Please note the distinction between empathy and sympathy, which is sometimes confused for empathy but is not at all the same thing.

King's goal in "Cain Rose Up" seems to be to simultaneously show us two things: how difficult it can be to identify a killer like Curt Garrish before he strikes; and how it might theoretically feel to be Curt Garrish.  Garrish talks to three different people in the course of this six-page story, and not one of them imagines that he is considering an act of mass murder.  They instead just talk to him about everyday trivialities.  But why wouldn't they?  Garrish doesn't tip them off in any way.  Charles Whitman probably didn't, either, when he killed all those people in Texas in 1966.

What King does is take you inside the mind of Garrish, and show you what it's like at the moment when someone makes the choice to either kill someone or let them live.  Consider this chilling passage:

A little fella wearing horn-rimmed glasses and a valiantly struggling goatee passed him between four and five, holding a calculus book to his chest like a Bible, his lips moving in a rosary of logarithms.  His eyes were blank as blackboards.

Garrish paused and looked after him, wondering if he wouldn't be better off dead, but the little fella was now only a bobbing, disappearing shadow on the wall.  It bobbed once more and was gone.

This is an extremely simple moment, but a very powerful one.  What is it in the "little fella" that makes Garrish consider him a potential target?  The glasses?  The goatee?  The calculus book?  The blankness in the eyes?  Some combination of those factors?  Garrish probably does not know.  Consider for a moment the possibility that as you walk down the street, or up the aisle at a grocery store, or through the corridors of a school, there are eyes sizing you up, making that decision: should I kill this person or let them live?  If that thought does not chill you to the bone, then you and I are of different mental and emotional makeups.

Now, consider the flip side of the coin: you are the one making that decision.  Each person you pass is a potential victim; you hold their life in your hands.

Guess what?

You do!  And odds are, you've used that power wisely.  I suspect there are no murderers reading this blog, past or future.  But we each -- every single one of us -- have the potential for violence somewhere within us, and we each do with it as we will.

Garrish has a monologue wherein he speaks to a poster of a gun-wielding Humphrey Bogart:

"Let me tell you something," Garrish told Bogie.  "God got mad at Cain because Cain had an idea God was a vegetarian.  His brother knew better.  God made the world in His image, and if you don't eat the world, the world eats you.  So Cain says to his brother, 'Why didn't you tell me?'  And his brother says, 'Why didn't you listen?'  And Cain says, 'Okay, I'm listening now.'  So he waxes his brother and says, 'Hey God!  You want meat?  Here it is!  You want roast or ribs or Abelburgers or what?'  And God told him to put on his boogie shoes.  So... what do you think?"

This is a horrifying moment, for any number of reasons, but partially because there is at least a kernel of truth to it.  If you believe or if you don't, you have to acknowledge that each of us -- either via Cain or via biology -- has been given the potential for homicidal behavior.  Most of us exert it every day.  You eat a steak, some cow has been murdered so that you can have that privilege.  The Smiths were right; meat is murder, and whether directly or indirectly, most people take part in it.

Myself included, of course.  I had a sausage biscuit for breakfast, composed of who knows what animals; for lunch, I had a turkey sandwich.  Dinner hasn't happened yet, but I'm planning on a burger.  That'll make three times today that I enjoyed the results of somebody else's murder.  The first two times were fairly satisfying; I anticipate that the third will be as well.

Now, lest you misunderstand me, I'm not trying to put anyone off eating meat.  I applaud vegetarians, and in some ways admire them; but their choice is one I am unwilling to make.  If I ever have to start killing my own meat, that might change; but for now, I remain a carnivore.  So, no, rest assured, I'm not trying to change anyone's mind about their carnivorous nature.

If you're capable of eating a beef steak, what else are you willing to do?  We all recognize that there is a difference between killing a cow and killing a man.  I don't think I could kill a cow personally.  Lots of other people can, and presumably they would balk at killing a man; but either way, death is the end result.  Either way, a live being becomes a dead one.  So if you think you could kill a cow, how much easier does it then become to kill a human?

If we had to kill a cow to have a steak and found that we were capable of doing it, we probably wouldn't feel all that bad about it.  And for someone like Curt Garrish, maybe that's how easy the choice to kill the people he kills is.  He has been made capable of it; the world is (in his mind) likely to kill him if he doesn't kill it first.  So he utters an invocation -- "Good drink, good meat, good God, let's eat!" -- and pulls the trigger.  Simple.

My point is this: we are not Curt Garrish.  For me, the idea of that moment is an utterly alien one.  I can imagine it, if I force myself, but it immediately feels foreign and invasive and horrible, and I reject it utterly.  And doing that tells me that I'm probably okay, at least insofar as this particular line of inquiry goes.

That's what reading "Cain Rose Up" does.  It tells us that we're okay; we're not Curt Garrish, or Charles Whitman, or James Holmes.

But maybe we'd better be on the lookout for him.  Because we aren't him, but somewhere out there, somebody else is.  How do we know?  Because we've all got the capacity for it, somewhere inside us.

Next time you pass someone on the street, consider: they might be judging your glasses, or your goatee, or the book you're carrying.  They'll probably take it no further than that, but...

That's the world we live in, folks.  We lived in it in 1968, and we live in it in 2013.  That's horror, and it's why "Cain Rose Up" still works decades later.

Be back at some point soon with a look at "Here There Be Tygers," but before I go, some words of horror from Annie Hall via Christopher Walken:

Let's eat, y'all!


  1. "every single one of us -- has the potential for violence somewhere within us, and we each do with it as we will."

    Actually, as someone who's been inside two analysts offices in a single lifetime, (though nothing Garrish related, the first my parents thought I was too quiet, turns out it was called Introversion, the second was not knowing what OCD was) I know at least enough to say that's not commonly true.

    Something like that takes quite a lot of effort but before that can happen, and to paraphrase Patrick Mcgoohan (at least I think, or maybe I just like to imagine Mcgoohan said something like it) the seed of such acts have to be "Put into you by Experts", most often parents and peers.

    That said, I have on occasion found myself walking into drug stores and wondering if the next person to walk in is going to be a section 8, or if I just walked in on one that hasn't happened yet. I gotta quit buying into this "Modern Life" fad.

    What's interesting about the line quoted from the story is it sounds eerily like an exact copy of the speech the Warden (I think) gives to Dicaprio in Shutter Island!

    The final curiosity is a sort of riff on the Garrish speech found in a short story King cites in Danse Macabre, "A Good Man is hard to find." There King says that short story is "Very much like the story (Urban Legend, sic) of The Hook in it's construction."

    It's only now as I write this that I sort of wonder if that short story might not have served as partial inspiration at least.

    One other thing to bring up here is a Boris Karloff film (his last) that I saw like maybe one or two years ago called "Targets".

    My five word review: Scariest thing Karloff ever did. I think King mentions that in "Macabre" as well, and the film itself serves as an interesting examination of film horror versus real life terror.

    The funny thing about the film is that at it's heart it isn't just about why people do things like Garrish, Starkweather et al, but more important what are we afraid of. And it's because the movie asks that question and dares a radical answer that I can't help feeling that it ends on a note of optimism. Not a bad way to polish off one of the greatest careers in cinema.

    And now you'll excuse me, I have been waiting to make this joke!:


    1. I've been meaning to see "Targets" for years, and keep failing at it.

      On the other hand, I've been meaning to not see "McBain," and so far, I've been pretty adept at that. I got several chuckles out of that video, though.

  2. "Targets" is also distinguished as the first effort by Peter Bogdanovich. There are some really fantastic sequences in that one. (The actual shooting scenes along the overpass, with no music just the distant sounds of the cars, and the crack of the gun: very effective.) Along the same lines as the old noir "The Sniper," which is another great one.

    Karloff's scariest film? I mean, as a film, it's unsettling, is that what you mean? Karloff plays a good hero in "Targets," world-weary, charming, resigned to action. Great performance and, as you say, a great curtain call on a legendary career.

    (Just watched "Isle of the Dead" over the weekend - that might be my all-time favorite Karloff performance. What a movie. They don't make 'em like they used to.)

    I think this story is an interesting glimpse into King's writing at a young age. The ingested-bacteria / consuming meat angle is an interesting detail, and it's not written badly or anything, just not very complex. Not that every story has to be, but King's later short fiction is so much better-constructed. Still, its proper competition is the other work King wrote in his earliest phase. And it's probably among the best of that.

  3. "Karloff's scariest film? I mean, as a film, it's unsettling, is that what you mean?"

    Yeah, especially the overpass scenes. I can't speak for anyone else, yet the realism in those scenes, it quite frankly freaked the living hell out of me.

    That's why I think it's Karloff's best work.


    1. I getcha, now. Yeah those overpass scenes are just chilling. I think it's a strong contender for scariest-film-with-Karloff-in-it, to be sure.

  4. I came across this review as I used the internet to help me remember the title of this story, and found some great movie recommendations in the comments. Thanks for those.

    1. Always happy to hear how people stumble across my blog. Thanks for reading, Nick!

  5. Hello,

    I am reading Skeleton Crew right now, and I have a tendency to check online more that I can learn about the story after I have read one, and that is how I came across your review(or rather your view/perception) about Cain Rose Up.
    I quite agree with you regarding the truth that each one of us has the potential for violence and your views as to how this thought is portrayed in the short story.
    As for me, I see the story as to be narrating the truth of the masks that we wear everyday. No one knows what makes a person, and what thoughts are unraveling in his/her mind. Curt Garrish is an intelligent man and he is liked by his peers and it is the sight of who is beneath this mask that we get to see in this tale.

  6. I love the style of your writing! You've got a new follower. Cheers :)