Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Nobody Should Think About Winter In August: A Review of "Night Surf"

Originally published in the Spring 1969 edition of Ubris, the University of Maine literary magazine, "Night Surf" is best-known to King fans as the short story in Night Shift that serves as a bit of a spin-off to The Stand.  The story seems to take place in the same universe as that epic novel, and tells the tale of a small group of people who are trying to continue their lucky streak of avoiding Captain Trips.


image stolen from: http://www.akyle.f2s.com/images/ubris_4.jpg


Viewing it only as an overture to The Stand is selling "Night Surf" . . . wait, wait, hold on a second.

Fair warning: I seem to be determined to type "Night Shift" instead of "Night Surf"; I've corrected myself three times now, and suspect that eventually I'm going to make the mistake and fail to notice/correct it.  So when and if that happens, my apologies; I do know the difference between the two, but my fingers apparently can't keep the difference in mind tonight.


As I was saying, viewing "Night SURF" only as an overture to The Stand is selling it short.  It is a simple tale, but there is an emotional richness that, for my money, places it head and shoulders above the rest of the stories I've reviewed so far in my start-to-finish exploration of King's short stories.

As I've done with some of those other stories, I have to issue a disclaimer: I am basing this review on the version of "Night Surf" that appeared in Night Shift, some nine years after its initial publication in Ubris.  Were revisions made to the Ubris version prior to its inclusion in Night Shift?  Probably so.  How extensive were they?  Your guess is as good as mine; might be they were as minor as omitting (or adding) a couple of commas; might be King rewrote the whole damn thing.  Unless someone sends me a copy of the original version, I have no way of knowing.  Therefore, it doesn't seem like it's worth worrying about much.  Let us speak of it no further.

*****

It would be understandable to think of "Night Surf" as being only a weird, isolated spinoff of The Stand.  The two don't actually have all that much in common, though, apart from the superflu forming the basis of the events.  The Stand is an epic fantasy tale, so it has significant differences in terms of genre and scope, but apart from that, the novel is also cathartically optimistic in a sense.

Here's what I mean by that: by virtue of its point-of-view characters surviving the superflu in The Stand, we, as readers, also get to survive a plague.  In that way, the novel reaffirms our essential feeling of "aliveness"; it's almost as if the novel is whispering to us that yeah, sure, everyone else is going to die eventually . . . but not us.  Even when the fabled End Of The World arrives, we'll survive it.  If The Stand wasn't proof enough, we've also got The Walking Dead and I Am Legend and Swan Song and so forth to back us up.  Let's not kid ourselves; there's a reason why apocalyptic tales are popular, and this catharsis is a major part of it.

This is where "Night Surf" and The Stand part ways.  The Stand offers the hope of redemption; "Night Surf" includes characters who are fooling themselves into keeping that hope alive, but the hope is crumbling one brick at a time.  The story's POV character, Bernie, is both cognizant of the truth (EVERYONE is going to die in this scenario) and disdainful of it simultaneously; he realizes the truth, realizes that he realizes it, and yet manages to keep it at arm's length.

For me, that grey area of unconscious consciousness contains a great deal of "Night Surf"'s better flourishes, starting with the story's opening line: "After the guy was dead and the smell of his burning flesh was off the air, we all went back down to the beach."

Let's stop and unpack this.  It's a terrific opening line, not only because it is attention-catching, but because of how unemotional it is; it's sort of like saying, "So, like, we burned a guy to death, and stuff.  How're the waves?"  The blasé-ness of it lets us know immediately that we are dealing with people who are not quite on our wavelength.  (Assuming, of course, that we ourselves are not the sort of people who could burn a guy to death and then be more or less unconcerned by it.)

This is reinforced by the fact that as soon as this sentence has ended, the story shifts focus away from the burning, which is not referenced again for nearly two pages (which, in a nine-page story, is a significant amount of time).  King, proving again that he is vastly better as a stylist than he sometimes gets credit for being, is not content merely to shift focus, though: he does so by not even allowing the opening sentence to dominate the paragraph in which it is contained.

Nope.  Many writers would take a great opening sentence like that and set it off as its own paragraph, to give it a bit of extra emphasis.  King, instead, follows it with four sentences about a portable radio and its owner, which in turn are followed by three additional sentences about the sort of radio stations the radio picks up, and the sort of music they play.  If a reader gets to the end of this opening paragraph and has entirely forgotten about the opening sentence, it would be understandable; King has deliberately tossed out a hand grenade and, even more deliberately, muffled its explosion.  And because he is such a good, empathetic writer, we immediately become interested in the business about the radio stations; the person narrating all of this is interested in what those stations play, and so we the readers become interested as well.

In short, we are firmly in the point of view of the narrator, and his mind refuses to take much interest -- consciously, at least -- of the fact that he has just participated in a murder.

The next we hear of that murder, it's via another character making the offhand remark, "Some fire."  And after that, we finally explore the situation a bit:

He had been behind the wheel of a big Lincoln when we found him, semi-conscious and raving.  His head was bloated to the size of a football and his neck looked like a sausage.  He had Captain Trips and not far to go, either.  So we took him up to the Point that overlooks the beach and burned him.

And the reason?

     It was Corey's idea to burn him up, but it started off as a joke.  He had read all those books about witchcraft and black magic at college, and he kept leering at us in the dark beside Alvin Sackheim's Lincoln and telling us that if we made a sacrifice to the dark gods, maybe the spirits would keep protecting us against A6.
     Of course none of us believed that bullshit, but the talk got more and more serious.  It was a new thing to do, and finally we went ahead and did it.

So, semi-religious optimism, enabled by a heavy dose of underlying boredom.  They burned him 5% because they thought it might do them some good, but 95% because they had nothing better to do.

The narrator's name is Bernie, and before long, his friend Needles tells him that he is sick.  Bernie takes the news for what it's worth to him:

Needles had Captain Trips.  That made everything real all over again.  It was late August already, and in a couple of weeks the  first chill of fall would be creeping in.  Time to move inside someplace.  Winter.  Dead by Christmas, maybe, all of us.  In somebody's front room with Corey's expensive radio/tape-player on top of a bookcase full of Reader's Digest Condensed Books and the weak winter sun lying on the rug in meaningless windowpane patterns.
     The vision was clear enough to make me shudder.  Nobody should think about winter in August. It's like a goose walking over your grave.

The news of Needles' likely impending demise via football-head and sausage-neck brings Bernie into at least that much of a state of self-honesty about what is happening.  He's still not taking much responsibility for having participated in a sacrifice-style murder, but he does seem self-aware enough to at least begin contemplating the idea of his own eventual demise.

It's true, though; nobody should have to think about winter in August.  That is, there's a time for self-awareness about one's own eventual mortality, and maybe youth ain't that time.  Because hey, lookit: you WILL think about it once you're not young anymore.  It's unavoidable.  So all things considered, maybe being forgetful of it while young is an entirely permissible option.

Here, though, we're not entirely given that option.  "Night Surf" takes place in a world that, seemingly, is doomed.  Or, to be more precise, all the humans on that world are doomed.  No more civilization; no more radio stations, or books, or counting of the seasons, or ritualistic murders, or smoking, or being mean to your girlfriend, or buying lousy tchotchkes at souvenir stands.  All that jazz, gone forever.

It is a very difficult thing to contemplate; not merely from an emotional standpoint, but from a logistical standpoint.  For me, the only way I really can contemplate it is to imagine somebody finding it eons later; but unless I want to get science-fiction involved in the conversation, there IS nobody, not even eons later.  It's just . . . nothing.  The question ceases to be "if a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound?" and becomes, "if there is nobody in all of Earthly existence to define the concept of sound, or to name trees 'trees', then do sounds and trees exist?"  Same question, really, but supersized; it's like how housecats and panthers are kinda the same thing, but one is vastly more intimidating than the other.

Anyways, it is literally difficult to imagine such a state of human nonexistence, because it relies on human perception, and without humans, there can be no human perception.  So understand: a plague wiping out all of humanity wipes out all of our thoughts and philosophies, as well.

If you're like me, you perhaps begin to see why Bernie and his friends in this story are having a hard time staying cognizant of what is really happening to/around them.

King has an uncannily effective way of bringing some of these ideas home.  Here, he touches on the idea of what the concept of a beach means to the average American:

     We came over the ridge and I paused.  I always have to pause.  Before A6, this had been a public beach.  Tourists, picnickers, runny-nose kids and fat baggy grandmothers with sunburned elbows.  Candy wrappers and popsicle sticks in the sand, all the beautiful people necking on their beach blankets, intermingled stench of exhaust from the parking lot, seaweed, and Coppertone oil.
     But now all the dirt and all the crap was gone.  The ocean had eaten it, all of it, as casually as you might eat a handful of Cracker Jacks.

Our society tends to think of beaches as vacation spots and diversions, but what they really represent is humanity's irrelevance in comparison to nature.  I mean, yeah, sure, I believe there is such a thing as climate change, and I believe there is a better-than-average chance that humans are contributing heavily toward worsening the current bout of that phenomenon.  But that doesn't make me feel sorry for Mother Nature.  Why?  Because Mother Nature is going to be just fine.  Mother Nature's existence is measured -- assuming there is anyone around to do the measuring, hah-hah... -- in epochs and eons and other such vast quantities of time.  Comparatively, we are like fleas on a dog.  Yeah, we might annoy that dog, and we might even do it some harm if its owner doesn't take care of it.  But the second someone in a position of power decides that something needs to be done about those fleas, then brother, them fleas is history.  Or history-in-the-making, at the very least.

So, again, sure; we might be hurting Mother Earth.  But when she's good and ready, she will slap us down so hard we won't even be able to understand the force of it.  She'll take a bit of a rest, and when she wakes up, Mother Earth will be fine and dandy and ready to see what comes next.

Compared to that, candy wrappers on a beach don't mean much.

Except as it pertains to our time while we are still here.  And that's the damnable shame of it, is that so many of us waste that time; we care about each other so little that we -- some of us, at least -- do shitty things like leave our worthless-ass popsicle sticks on the beach, so that when the next guy comes along, intent on spending a few moments of his Allotted Time on a lovely beach, he's first got to contend with a motherfucking discarded popsicle stick, which is, let's be clear, not one of the glories of Mother Nature's empire.

Lest you think I am differently opinionated, let me clear: I don't think there is a solution to a problem of this nature.  XX% of humans are inclined toward being foul, gross, lewd, horrible, and otherwise uncool toward one another; the only option the remaining XX% have, really, is to just try and present a different option at times when doing so seems feasible.  This will almost never result in clean beaches, at least not in the metaphorical sense.  But hey, it's worth hoping for, right?

The option is to surrender to hopelessness and despair, which is what seems to be happening to Bernie and to the other characters in "Night Surf."  Understandably so, one might even say; they've crossed the point of no return, and realize it, and so the best they can do is push the realization away as effectively as possible and keep doing the things that have defined their existence up to that point.  Hence, radio.

Here is another passage that gets at some of this:

     We walked up the beach toward the main concession.  The man who ran the place had had a small overhead apartment.  There was a bed.  She didn't really deserve a bed, but Needles was right about that.  It didn't matter.  No one was really scoring the game anymore.
     The stairs went up the side of the building, but I paused for just a minute to look in the broken window at the dusty wares inside that no one had cared enough about to loot -- stacks of sweatshirts ("Anson Beach" and a picture of sky and waves printed on the front). glittering bracelets that would green the wrist on the second day, bright junk earrings, beachballs, dirty greeting cards, badly painted ceramic madonnas, plastic vomit (So realistic! Try it on your wife!), Fourth of July sparklers for a Fourth that never was, beach towels with a voluptuous girl in a bikini standing amid the names of a hundred famous resort areas, pennants (Souvenir of Anson Beach and Park), balloons, bathing suits.  There was a snack bar up front with a big sign saying TRY OUR CLAM CAKE SPECIAL.
     I used to come to Anson Beach a lot when I was still in high school.  That was seven years before A6, and I was going with a girl named Maureen.  She was a big girl.  She had a pink checked bathing suit.  I used to tell her it looked like a tablecloth.  We had walked along the boardwalk in front of this place, barefoot, the boards hot and sandy beneath our heels.  We had never tried the clam cake special.

There is some sort of dark magic in that passage's final sentence.  I'm tempted to (as I am wont to do) belabor the point and spell out my feelings about it, but I think it's sufficient merely to hint at them: it's about the melancholy allure of the road never taken, which becomes oh so much more alluring once the possibility of taking it has vanished forever.  When you're passing by those clam-cake specials, they don't seem like all that much; but when you realize that you'll never again even have the option of stopping in to try one . . . well, need I say more?

Here's how the story ends:

     The surf coming in, coming in, coming in.  Limitless.  Clean and deep.  We had come here in the summer, Maureen and I, the summer after high school, the summer before college and reality and A6 coming out of Southeast Asia and covering the world like a pall, July, we had eaten pizza and listened to her radio, I had put oil on her back, she had put oil on mine, the air had been hot, the sand bright, the sun like a burning glass.

It is a hauntingly simple ending.  But hauntings are never really simple, are they?  And what's really being expressed in that final paragraph is the finality of life; it's there, and then someday -- maybe even soon -- it isn't.

Can you think of anything more complicated than that?

Can you think of anything simpler?

It's a contradiction, yes; but it's a valid one, and I think "Night Surf" explores the fact of that contradiction in a compelling manner.

*****

Now that we're all bummed out, let's wrap this sucker up.  I'm tempted to get drunk and begin ranting about my various lost loves, but Fact #1 is that nobody wants to read that shit, Fact #2 is that I don't want to write that shit, Fact #3 is that I have zero alcohol in my apartment, and Fact #4 is that I need to wrap this up so I can do laundry and watch the most recent episodes of True Detective, Girls, and Almost Human.  So know this: while I would be more than capable of doing such a thing, it just ain't in the damn cards, and that's a good thing.

Before I sign off, though, here are a few other things about "Night Surf" that I felt ought to at least be mentioned:
  • We think of it as a sort of adjunct to The Stand, which is arguably fair.  However, there is no real evidence indicating that "Night Surf" and The Stand actually take place in the same universe.  Or, if you wish, on the same level of the Tower.  After all, A6 is not mentioned in The Stand, and there is no mention in "Night Surf" of anything specific that ties the two stories inextricably together.  "Captain Trips" is used as a nickname for the disease, but that's about it.  So personally, I'm inclined to think that this is actually taking place in a different (though obviously similar) universe.
  • I could write an entire second post about how much of a shit Bernie is to Susie.  But I won't.  Just know that I could...
  • The amateur deejay coming over Corey's radio plays "Angie" by the Rolling Stones, which is an interesting choice for several reasons.  First, it's a hugely melancholy song about something (a relationship) that has essentially died beyond all hope of repair; therefore, it fits pretty damned well with the themes of "Night Surf."  Second, it helps pin down some of what was revised for this story's appearance in Night Shift: "Angie" didn't get released until 1973, so clearly, this can't have been in the 1969 appearance of the story.  Third, the deejay refers to the song as a "blast from the past," which might be a clue that (like The Stand) the story takes place several years in the future.  Or he may merely be saying it sarcastically.  Who can say for sure?  Either way, great song.
  • "When I was a kid my mother used to take us kids to Harrison State Park," says Bernie via narration at one point.  The Fall 1968 issue of Ubris had included a poem by King titled "Harrison State Park '68," which is kinda cool.  Harrison State Park is a real place, and there is no seeming connection between the poem and "Night Surf" beyond the brief mention (and the poem's focus on death).  Still, kinda cool.
  • A couple of other, later King short stories come to mind as having similar end-of-the-world content: "The End of the Whole Mess" and the very-recent "Summer Thunder."

And with that, we're gonna bring this whole sorry mess to a close.

Speaking of sorry messes, when next we speak, the subject will be the Blu-ray set of season one of Under the Dome.

So we've all got THAT to look forward to...

9 comments:

  1. Great post. I'm now, officially going to have to read that story.

    Meaningless thoughts:

    If this is a rewrite, then I think a case can be made that it is Stand connected based on the fact that King rewrote it. It was published in 69. In Danse Macabre, King details how he came to write The Stand (a combination of a radio preacher, and a photo of Sixties radical group the Symbionese Liberation Army with their leader's face obscured) in roughly the mid going on late seventies.

    I'm willing to believe that King was working at the story that became the Stand as far back as 69, and that maybe he just needed more time to develop it further. Also, according to Bev Vincent, King began writing The Gunslinger as far back as 66. So that raises interesting musings about the relation between the two stories. Like wouldn't it be interesting if the Golgotha Roland and Flagg palaver at is actually the Night Surf setting many years on (and what if those bones are all that is left of the Night Surf cast!).

    ChrisC

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    1. A cursory amount of research informs me that a revised version of the story was published in the August 1974 issue of Cavalier. So there may be as many as three distinct versions of the story in existence. The Internet may somewhere tell what the differences are, but I'm too lazy to go looking for it.

      When writing these short-story reviews, my approach is going to be to find the original publications whenever possible, and compare them to the collected versions. So far, though, this has not been economically viable -- I found only one copy of that issue of Cavalier, and it was $75. I've got no particular opposition to spending $75 on a magazine that old, but I've got no inclination to spend it right now; maybe some other day.

      If I'm not mistaken, the beach Roland and Flagg visit is on the Pacific, whereas the ocean in this story is on the Atlantic. Still, it's a cool thought.

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    2. A mildly interesting update: it had not occurred to me to look for a copy of this magazine on Amazon, so I hopped over there and did so.

      One copy.

      $9.99.

      I even sprung for expedited shipping on that puppy! So all told, less than $17, and it's mine.

      Once it comes in and I can give it a read-through, I'll post an update in the comments here.

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    3. Well, I've now read -- skimmed, technically -- the Cavalier version of the story, and I can say definitively that the phrase "Captain Trips" is not used. Which means that when King revised the story for "Night Shift," he did so with "The Stand" in mind.

      What interests me about that is that King did not remove all references to "A6" from the story. At no point in "The Stand" (unless I misremember) is the superflu referred to as "A6," so I'm a little surprised he didn't purge it entirely from "Night Surf."

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  2. I didn't think too much of this story when last I read it, but this review makes me think I really missed a lot going on in there. These excerpts you've isolated are each fantastic.

    That sure is a cool connection between the poem King published in Ubris and Harrison State Park's mention in the story. (That's a great state park, by the way, though really, in Maine, you can't go wrong at any of them - beautiful scenery up that way.)

    Reflections on The Void are, in my opinion, essential.

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    1. I always liked the story, but it never resonated with me until I gave it some of the laser-focus I gave it here. Which is part of the reason why I'm doing this project; it's giving me a new perspective on some of these stories.

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  3. QUOTE: "by virtue of its point-of-view characters surviving the superflu in The Stand, we, as readers, also get to survive a plague. In that way, the novel reaffirms our essential feeling of "aliveness"; it's almost as if the novel is whispering to us that yeah, sure, everyone else is going to die eventually . . . but not us. Even when the fables End Of The World arrives, we'll survive it. If The Stand wasn't proof enough, we've also got The Walking Dead and I Am Legend and Swan Song and so forth to back us up. Let's not kid ourselves; there's a reason why apocalyptic tales are popular, and this catharsis is a major part of it."

    Bulls-eye!

    I'm 46 years old. My entire adult life has been involved with either the U.S. Army; Army National Guard, Army Reserve and Regular Army, (1986-2000) or police work (2000 - present). Even when I was in college I was in the National Guard or Army Reserve. I loved PA stories as a younger guy and I still like them.

    When I was younger I saw myself as being one of the survivors. That changed after 9/11.That bitch called reality kicked the door in and I was standing right there when the door came slamming open. Suddenly I realized that in any "Die-Off" scenario (zombies, Virus, you pick) I was essentially screwed. I had chosen professions that put me right on the front line. In the case of a Captain Trips scenario even if I was one of the immunes I would probably catch it during the chaos that rips apart the world during the pandemic. Notice how few military survivors there are after the virus wipes out civilization and only one cop shows up. And he works for Flagg! Very few medical folks either.

    So while I still enjoy (is that wrong?) a good PA story and zombie movies and television series are my guilty pleasure (own the first three seasons of "The Walking Dead" on Blue-ray) I'm under no illusions. I figure in a zombie apocalypse you'll see me outside of your stronghold wearing my tattered navy blue uniform and a big old nasty bite mark on my face. In a post Captain Trips world you'll find my corpse next to a barricade or laying outside of a hospital. Possibly with a bullet hole somewhere in my body. Possibly many bullet holes. Hey I'm realistic.

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    1. Realistic is a good thing to be, I'd say. If the zombies ever do strike, I'm toast almost immediately, what with my 325ish pounds. They're gonna LOVE to see me...!

      I watch "The Walking Dead" with my parents every Sunday night, and trust me when I tell you that they are about the last people on Earth who'd typically be up for watching a gory zombie series. Or even a non-gory one. But my Dad watches some show about the stockmarket in the morning, and the anchors apparently talk about "The Walking Dead" all the time, and he got intrigued. So I started going over and watching it with them so I could be amused by the sight of my mom hiding under a blanket every so often, and amused by my dad laughing in disbelief at some of the zombie kills.

      We were talking about the show a couple of weeks ago, and he mentioned seeing that the most recent episode at that time had pummeled the Olympics AND The Beatles semi-reunion in the ratings. I wondered aloud WHY the series is such a big hit. I mean, I like the show; I think it's gone through some rough patches, but it's been solid lately, and overall is way more win than fail (as the kids say).

      But given the fact that until "World War Z" there had never been a zombie movie that was a huge hit -- "Zombieland" and the remake of "Dawn of the Dead" were hits, but not on the level "The Walking Dead" is -- I'm not sure I understand where the huge, and consistently building, audience is coming from. I could tell my dad was putting some thought into it over the next couple of hours, and what he eventually came up with was the theory that people are just obsessed with seeing who is and isn't going to continue to survive.

      Makes as much sense as anything else to me.

      Anyways, Jeff, I wish ya luck when and if the crap hits the fan! But what I really wish is that the fan stays as clean as possible.

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  4. My son (he's sixteen) and I also watch "The Walking Dead" together. It works for many different reasons, but I think the biggest reason is that it's a really intense soap opera with Zombies and Guns. Guys (and others) can watch therefore watch a soap opera, but not feel effeminate because there are Zombies and Guns! My wife was the one who made this observation and I long ago acknowledged that in many aspects she's smarter than I am.

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