"The Reaper's Image" appeared in the Spring 1969 issue of Startling Mystery Stories, and though King had published a number of short stories and poems in various school publications during his college years, this marks his second-ever professional sale. The first, "The Glass Floor," had also been to Startling Mystery Stories.
And like "The Glass Floor," "The Reaper's Image" really isn't much of a story. It is a better effort than that early one had been, but in the end, it just doesn't amount to much.
The story would later be collected in 1985's Skeleton Crew, and it is, of course, that version of the story which I will be reviewing today. I don't have a thousand dollars to spend on acquiring a copy of the original magazine, so readers who possess one are encouraged (and would be thanked for) considering scanning the pages in and sending to me. I probably won't quite fall to my knees and bless ye as did Aunt Talitha before Roland Deschain, but hey, you never know.
To be honest, I don't have much to say about this story. I've been putting off writing the post for several days because I did not have the time to devote. When I'm doing what I intend to do with my reviews, it usually (what with all the note-taking and rereading and whatnot) takes me seven or eight hours to pound out one of these short-story pieces, on account of how I'm a dull-witted laggard; I prefer by far to spend those hours in one concentrated dose, and have not had too many seven or eight hourses to spend lately.
But now that I sit down to perform the actual writing of the post, I see that it is going to be a nonissue for "The Reaper's Image." There's just not a lot of meat on them bones.
In case you've not read it in a while, here's a plot summary: Johnson Spangler, an art (antiques?) buyer, is visiting a museum which is going to be selling him a DeIver looking glass. This particular looking glass is reputed to have shown a few people an unusual image in one corner of its surface: to be specific, the image of what appears to be the Grim Reaper. Anyone who sees the Reaper -- which is by no means everyone who looks upon the mirror -- vanishes soon thereafter. The museum's curator takes Spangler (who is 100% dismissive of the mirror's reputation) into the attic where the mirror has been moved, Spangler looks into it and sees the Reaper, and then goes downstairs, presumably never to be heard from again.
The scenario is an interesting one. It is a compelling enough tale that Mark Pavia, director of The Night Flier, wrote a screenplay for an anthology film based on King stories that was not only going to (and, for all I know, may yet) contain "The Reaper's Image" but was going to bear its title. I can only conclude that Pavia feels a close connection to the story, and that he sees something in it that I do not. In and of itself, that idea -- of "seeing into" a story, and one person seeing something shadowy moving there that other people do not see -- has a sort of metafictive pull on me that the story itself lacks.
My problem with the story is that it simply does not do much of anything. The "protagonist" -- I say that because he's also the antagonist, in some ways -- is cut somewhat out of the EC mold, in that he is a bit of an asshole whom we mostly wish to see get a comeuppance. However, we don't actually get to see that comeuppance occur. It probably DOES occur, but the story's point of view shifts from Spengler to the curator (Carlin), and when the story ends Carlin seems haunted by the idea that Spengler has gone off to some unknown fate; but even he does not witness anything. If the story has any emotional stakes, they lie in our desire to see something happy to this nonbeliever Spangler; since we are deprived of actually seeing it happen, the story does not pay off the slim emotional stakes it has established. A better way to proceed -- said the amateur blogger who was rewriting Stephen King in a review -- might have been for us to continue following Spangler, and to actually find out what happens next.
Even better than that -- he continued, foolishly -- would be for Spangler to have a loved one with him: a wife, a girlfriend, a child, somebody like that. And for Spengler, the persistent and complete nonbeliever, to lose that character to the Reaper.
I deflect a bit in the sentences above, but I do feel as if that second idea of mine is a better, scarier idea than the one King actually used in the story. If you feel I'm wrong about that, then you probably feel I am having what Han Solo might call a delusion of grandeur. Maybe so. But I don't feel it's anything remotely like that. I like my idea, personally, and not because it's a great idea in and of itself; it's just that King's idea was a weak, ineffective one. The King of Horror did not begin as the King of Horror, you know; he had to develop into that regal mode, and while he was already well on the way to doing so by the time of this story's publication, he had not gotten there yet.
Regardless of what you think about my potential alteration to the story, I think the problem at the heart of "The Reaper's Image" is that it fails to truly resolve the tension which lies at the heart of the story: Spangler's nonbelief versus Carlin's belief. The first indication we get that Spangler is a skeptic is probably the collector's attitude toward the contents of the museum he is visiting. He is in the former home of somebody named Samuel Claggart, who collected heavily but in Spangler's view was "a connoisseur of canvas monstrosities, trashy novels and poetry collections in expensive cowhide bindings, and atrocious pieces of sculpture, all of which he considered Art." This marks Spangler as an art snob, but you could make an argument that King here is also in some ways prefiguring his relationship with snobby critics, who, in their seeming opposition to horror and other such literary genres, could be seen as nonbelievers of a sort.
I might be reaching with that last assertion. But even if you think he fails to make a credible stand-in for the Harold Blooms of the world, Spangler is undoubtedly an art snob. He is at the Samuel Claggart Memorial Private Museum to obtain one of what he considers Claggart's only worthwhile pieces, the DeIver glass, made by John DeIver, a craftsman who made several such mirrors. Only one other (which was destroyed during the bombings of London) possessed the same supernatural reputation, which makes this piece a true one-of-a-kind.
We find out fairly quickly that Spangler is rubbed the wrong way by Carlin's deference to the legend of the glass. "He understood now that there would be no stopping Carlin," we are told; "he had a mind which was perfectly in tune with the age." That sentence leads me to believe that Spangler is not merely a disbeliever, but that he is -- if only within his own mind, and not in any outwardly projected manner -- the sort of person who rails against what he perceives to be a too-prevalent belief in mysticism and the supernatural. "They saw nothing but themselves," Spangler later states flatly in response to a comment from Carlin in which he expresses fear of seeing what "the rest of them saw."
Part of me wants to try to parse out what this might mean in terms of the era in which it was published (i.e., the late 1960s), but I don't see a clear way to proceed down that particular corridor. Was the sixties about moving toward a sort of mysticism? I'm not at all sure that it was, which means that this is an avenue I'd be better off not even trying to explore.
We get a few other bits of Spangler's skepticism. "Facts," he exhorts his guide. "Facts, Carlin. Not cheap paperback novels, not cheap tabloid stories or equally cheap horror movies. Facts."
What this story seems to want is for Spangler to be humbled in front of Carlin. Those are the stakes. But for my money, the resolution is a failure. Spangler sees the Reaper (even if he will not admit it to Carlin or himself), complains of being nauseated, and goes off downstairs to find the restroom. He steps onto the ladder which h and Carlin had to use to get into the attic, and here is what happens next: "It rocked under his weight and for a moment Carlin thought -- hoped -- that he would fall."
In that sentence, the story's point of view is transferred from Spangler to Carlin, and we spends the remainder of the story (about a page) with the curator. There is no comeuppance for Spangler in this approach; because we shift ourselves into Carlin's viewpoint, we by proxy become what we already were: people who believe. We don't want that. We want the catharsis that comes with seeing somebody else suffer as a result of their disbelief, and being glad that that person is not us. The story has put us in Spangler's shoes, and while we might not think of it in these terms, what we really want is to continue to live in his shoes long enough for something really nasty to happen to "us." And then, by virtue of the fact that we, as readers, make it out whereas our proxy, Spangler, could not, we gain the peculiar thrill that only a story of this sort can provide us with.
Putting us in Carlin's viewpoint is a subversion of that expectation, and since there is nothing to replace it, the subversion is a failure, because it carries no significance of its own.
|art by J.K. Potter from the limited edition of Skeleton Crew [Scream Press, 1985]|
In baseball terminology, I would have to say that King did not get all of the ball during this particular at-bat. He has a few good concepts, but he doesn't do anything with them; the story fails to satisfy its own needs.
It occurs to me that in my disdain for this story, I am in some ways not unlike Spangler myself. And again, I find that my own ideas about some of the story are creepier to me than is the story itself. But I suppose those ideas would not, themselves, exist if "The Reaper's Image" did not exist.
Is "The Reaper's Image," then, itself a mirror of some sort, and these thoughts a version of some dark shape looming in one corner, invisible to most, but visible to my semi-scornful eye?
Let's not think about it too deeply. I'm feeling a bit ill, you see. Might be that barbecue I had earlier.
Might be something else...