Monday, January 18, 2016

Maybe We Don't Belong Out There: A Review of "I Am the Doorway"

First published in the March 1971 issue of Cavalier, “I Am the Doorway” later appeared in the 1978 collection Night Shift, and was used as fodder for the memorable cover to the paperback edition.
  
  

images stolen from http://toomuchhorrorfiction.blogspot.com/2012/04/night-shift-by-stephen-king-1979-signet.html
  
Remember when book covers didn’t typically suck?  Boy, those days are over.
  
I’ll be examining the Night Shift version today; I tried to find a copy of the Cavalier version for the photos, er, um, I mean to see if there were any notable differences between the two.  I struck out in that regard.
  
  
 

In any case, “I Am the Doorway” is a strong early entry from King.  It’s a short and relatively simple story: a former astronaut, years after his final mission, grows a bunch of alien eyes on his hands.  They begin slowly exerting control over his body and mind, and cause him to commit a couple of murders.  That’s about it.  Not much there.  There doesn’t need to be; this is effective stuff, and King does a lot with what he has.

One of the first things you’re liable to notice is that it’s a science-fiction story, complete with rocketships and astronauts and alien planets (and aliens, after a fashion).  It’s by no means uncommon for King to work with sci-fi conceits: a careful examination of his canon will reveal the presence of that genre in his work as far back as unpublished juvenilia such as “The Star Invaders” and “The Aftermath,” and he was mining those conceits for material in novels as recently as 11/22/63 and The Wind Through the Keyhole.  The entirety of the Dark Tower saga, in fact, can be seen as a sci-fi sojourn into multiverse theory.

There are precious few King stories that could be seen as hard sci-fi of any sort, however.  Mostly, what King does is couch science-fictional elements and conceits inside other genres, or inside character drama.  Nothing wrong with that; King does it well, and the sci-fi elements rarely feel as if they’ve been exploited without just cause.

“I Am the Doorway” has one foot in that approach, but the other foot is in an approach that contains a bit more science (quasi-science, at least) than is typically the case for King’s work.  In so doing, he ends up crafting a story that, in its implications if not its content and style, brings him close to the work of H.P. Lovecraft.  Lovecraft wrote a number of stories that could be said to examine the idea of outer space as a limitless void of horrors (not the oxymoron it seems), and “I Am the Doorway” goes to some of the same places.

The narrator, known only as Arthur, is a wheelchair-bound former astronaut who was once part of a two-man mission (the only one of its kind) that orbited Venus.  Arthur and his fellow crewman orbited that planet four times, and found only a lifeless hunk of rock free of both vegetation and of salvageable precious minerals.  However, while they are orbiting the world, Arthur has a feeling of horror, as though he is in the presence of a celestial haunted house.  King doesn’t dwell on this idea; via Arthur, he presents it in fairly matter-of-fact fashion.
  
  
"Even the former leader of your United States of America, James Earl Carter Jr., thought he saw a UFO once.  But it's been proven he only saw the planet Venus."  (Jose Chung's From Outer Space)

I’ve always been fascinated by outer space and the cosmos, and while what I feel in contemplating it is usually a sense of wonder, I do occasionally find myself feeling oppressed by it.  For example, ask me how I feel about black holes.  I’ll give you the short answer: I don’t feel good about them.  Those damned things are WAY up on my list of neuroses and fears.  The very contemplation of them for more than a few seconds, in fact, brings on a state of unease and dread not unlike what Arthur describes in this story, albeit much less severe.  He says that if the ship’s rockets had failed to fire (to take them out of orbit and back to Earth), he would have cut his throat on the way down to the surface of Venus.  I don’t have any sort of a reaction like that when I think about black holes; I just get a case of the oogies.  Then again, I’m not orbiting one of the fucking things; if I was, game over, man.  Watching Interstellar was enough for me.
  
  


 
The point is, I can relate to what Arthur goes through.  It’s that sense that something – you don’t know what, but something – is wrong.  This is a primal instinct; this is reflex; this is you unconscious (and its various urges) at work.  This is being trapped in a dark room by yourself, unable to see the fingers in front of your face, and then suddenly realizing you’re not alone in the room at all; someone/thing else is in there with you.
 
The primary horror of “I Am the Doorway,” however, is not the circuit of Venus but the alien eyes that begin growing first on Arthur’s hands and then on his chest.  It’s a ludicrous idea, but King makes it work because he is able to achieve two things: he is able to make us care more about the way the eyes work than on their existence, and he is able to insert a subordinate character who is a sort of antagonist to the first-person narrator and whose skepticism of their existence is therefore cast as being antagonistic toward us.  In other words, by linking our point of view to the narrator’s, we are given little choice but to accept what is happening.  (And it’s worth mentioning that by “seeing” the events through another character’s “eyes,” as well as through our own, we are – and this is arguably true of any story with a defined point of view – already experiencing a sort of bilocation.  Neat, huh?)

Arthur has no way of knowing for sure that the alien eyes somehow infested him as a result of the journey to Venus; he admits that there is room for doubt on the subject.  But really, let's face it: what else could it be?  From a simple storytelling standpoint, it would be very unsatisfying for there to be any other explanation.  Imagine: “I went to Venus and the world was desolate and bare yet seemed so haunted that I’d have killed myself rather than set foot on its surface, and then later I grew these eyes on my hands that made me do things, but those came from an infection I got on the beach.”  Would that satisfy you in any way?

Clearly, it wouldn’t satisfy at all, and so even though Arthur – and we along with him – have no way of knowing for sure, it’s the only conclusion to draw.  The reason for this is clear: growing eyes on your hands and losing partial control of your body and consciousness is a very unnatural thing to do.  In searching for an explanation for how and why this would happen to us, our natural mental impulse is going to be to search our brain's contents in search of about any other “very unnatural” circumstances that might help us explain the situation.  Have we recently spent any time in a nuclear-blasted wasteland, perhaps having been born there, and thereby developed mutations?  No?  Hmm, okay.  Were we recently cursed by any sort of magicians or witches or other supernaturally-powered agents?  No?  Well, hmm, alright.  Were we recently kidnapped and experimented upon by a man in a white coat who spent most of his time laughing ominously and/or injecting us with strangely-hued fluids?  No?!?  Well, gosh, I’m running out of ideas! 

Did we recently orbit any haunted planets?  We DID?!?  Well, then, there’s your answer!

We use a much more realistic version of this sort of thought process all the time.  Has our car recently started to shake when we hit the brakes?  If so, it’s probably related to that guy rear-ending us the other day.  It might not actually BE related to that, but we’ll mentally associate the two things unless we have a more compelling theory.  Any out-of-the-ordinary thing that happened to (or even near) our car is going to be A-#1 Prime Candidate.  Was a man with a chainsaw standing nearby the car one day last week?  That was probably it, then.  Did some jackass kid on a skateboard run into the car and flip over the hood?  Bet that did it.  And so forth.

What this comes down to, I think, is that many of us (though not all) live our lives with an implicit sense of fatalism.  We know something bad is going to happen, and when something outside the realm of our experience happens it hastens our expectations of that bad thing.  Then, when a bad thing actually does occur, we blame the weirdness for it, even if the two things are utterly unrelated.  Even if it’s not logical to do so, we blame that which we do not understand for that which frightens us.  And as a result, we fear and distrust that which we do not understand.  This is because we are biologically prone to do so; it’s a survival mechanism, and more often than not, if we heed these impulses it will keep us out of immediate danger.  It creates other problems, of course, but that's a topic for somebody else to consider; it's outside the scope of this post.

“I Am the Doorway” has an interesting subtheme involving bad weather.  When Arthur and Richard take the dune buggy out to search for the child’s dead body, they do so under a sky that is rapidly growing ugly.  Arthur tells us that “the sky had gone an ugly plum color, and the sound of thunder came faintly” to his ears.  “Lightning forked at the water,” he continues later, and the ocean “looked angry and implacable” under the shadow of the thunderheads.  
  
This, too, is a cause for primal fear; one of the universal experiences of most life on Earth is the threat of inclement weather.  The dinosaurs had to contend with tornadoes and hurricanes just like we do, one assumes; somewhere, a wooly mammoth was struck by lightning and killed; floods have killed no telling how many ladybugs; and so forth.  Humans seem to be born with an innate sense that thunder and lightning and atmospheric pressure changes are bad news.  So when the clouds gather and the sky is the wrong color and it seems suddenly warmer than it ought to be, we have instincts that tell us to seek shelter.

If we don’t, our bodies think something bad is going to happen, and we grow tense.

For that reason, the confrontation between Arthur and Richard playing out against the backdrop of worsening weather gives “I Am the Doorway” an amplified sense of fatalism.  Both of them should know not to be doing what they are doing; both of them ignore that feeling, and, as expected, something bad happens.  Does it have anything to do with the weather?  No, of course not; the weather never even becomes a factor.  But physically, and emotionally, it feels related.

All of that is happening underneath the story, of course, but it serves as a sort of a backbone, and with it in place King is able to sell the idea that a man with fingers growing on his eyes makes Doctor-Strange-like signals with his hands and makes another man’s head explode.  Why?  Something bad in the air, so why not?

Let’s shift into bulletpoint mode now and take a look at a few other elements of the story:

  • “I Am the Doorway” is, following “The Blue Air Compressor,” another story with an oceanside beach setting.  This actually pops up relatively frequently in King’s work, enough so that it might be worth my time to eventually do an entire post on that topic.
  •  The story begins with Arthur and Richard sitting on Arthur’s porch.  Arthur has already told Richard the story, but he asks Arthur to tell him once more.  As I examined the story, I found myself wondering why King hadn’t simply started from the outset, with Arthur telling Richard this strange tale of eyes on his hands exploding people’s noggins.  I took a note to that effect, and indeed, I began typing this very bulletpoint with the intent to pose that question.  In doing so, the answer made itself apparent to me: by having that conversation already have happened, King begins the story with his two primary characters already in the disposition in which they will remain for most of the rest of the story.  Arthur is already that person with eyes on his fingers; he won’t be cast in our eyes as somebody who has to make that claim, even though we ourselves have not yet experienced that claim.  Similarly, Richard is already skeptical of Arthur’s claim, even though we don’t know what that claim is.  Essentially, this technique serves to double the experience and to cause our “eyes” to see these events as alien in a way, despite our placement inside Arthur’s point of view.  We are Arthur, but also aren’t; we are ourselves, but also aren’t.
  •  The setting is “Key Caroline,” which, given Arthur mentioning that he likes to “watch the rockets take off,” must be in Florida relatively near Cape Canaveral.  As far as I can tell, there is no such place, although Google’s voluminous results for “Caroline Key” are making it hard for me to tell for sure.  Anybody know?
  •  Arthur mentions a grave early on, and then tells us that the word “had a hollow, horrible ring, darker than anything, darker even than all that terrible ocean Cory and I had sailed through five years ago.”  On a first read, unless we already know what the story is about, it will not be immediately apparent that Arthur is referring to outer space.  We’ve got no particular reason to assume he means anything except an actual ocean, so, as it turns out, the ring of “the grave” has an even darker cast to it than we think Arthur thinks!  I like that effect.  And, again, it’s a sort of doubling of vision; it becomes compounded on a reread, too, which is even better.
  •  King mentions going into space on a “Saturn 16” rocket.  I found myself wondering how much of an invention this was, and then wondered the same about the Saturn 1-B, and the Redstone (both mentioned in the same section).  The latter two were real; the former was fiction.  King blends this all up nicely.
  •  Arthur mentions being told by a NASA official that it doesn’t matter what the astronauts find on Venus, as long as they find something.  This is bureaucracy justifying its existence by any means.  It fits with the generally anti-governmental stance King took during these years.  Not a major facet of the story, though it is a recurring theme of sorts.
  • It only takes Arthur and Cory sixteen days to get from Earth to Venus.  That means the space program has come a long way since ’62, when the (real-life) NASA Mariner 2 traveled to Venus in 110 days.  King doesn’t dwell on this; he’s very matter-of-fact with it, and that makes sense, because Arthur would be very matter-of-fact about it since for him it IS a fact.  King doesn’t write much sci-fi, but he nimbly avoids one of its traps in this moment.
  •  It is unclear whether King was aware of the unmanned Soviet probes that – briefly – explored the planet during the sixties; they discovered that not only was the temperature so great that a human will likely never be able to set foot on its surface, but that the atmospheric pressure is so great that it may never be possible for probes to study the planet in any meaningful way.  If he was, he ignored the information at hand, which would make this story more pulp sci-fi than anything else.  Fine by me, but I’d be curious to know which it was.  (Sidebar: Lovecraft co-wrote a Venus-set story, “In the Walls of Eryx,” which certainly did not have the benefit of mankind knowing about the planet’s surface.)
  •  Arthur exchanges waves with a boy he assumes to be a local, and he thinks of the two of them as “strangers yet brothers, year-round dwellers set against a sea of money-spending, Cadillac-driving, loud-mouthed tourists.”  This is precisely the sort of insular attitude that one sometimes encounters in King’s fiction about small-town Maine.  Interestingly, it seems to fit in with some of the other things I talked about earlier regarding fear of the unknown.  Humans may be biologically prone to fear and suspect outsiders for the same reasons we do fear inclement weather.
  •  Even though we are in his point of view, Arthur does not immediately inform us that there are eyes growing on his fingers.  We know something is up, but we don’t know what.  King is wise to take this approach, because it allows him to hook us via another method.  He first discusses Arthur’s hands by way of talking about how much they itch.  We can’t necessarily sympathize with someone who has eyes growing on his hands, but we can all sympathize with somebody who has an itch they can’t scratch to satisfaction.  So King hits us with that first, then quickly hits us with the eyes, but continues to focus on the itching so that we continually come back to a point of human reference.
  •  “I had an aunt, back in my childhood,” Arthur tells us, “who lived the last ten years of her life closed off from the world in an upstairs room.  My mother took her meals up, and her name was a forbidden topic.  I found out later that she had Hansen’s disease – leprosy.”  Again, fear of the unknown, and don’t let’s glide right by that not-quite-stated fact that Arthur is raised with this relative in the same house, unexplained and secret and feared and dreaded.  A person wasting away in an upstairs bedroom pops up explicitly in one Lovecraft story, and implicitly in a few others, and it’s also a factor in Pet Sematary.
  •  “My eyes were closed, but I was still looking at the book,” Arthur tells us.  This is a great horror moment, and it’s an idea that permeates the entire story.  King doesn’t dwell on it overmuch, but he does just enough to make us buy into the notion of seeing – physically seeing – through multiple sets of eyes at once.  If that thought – which is as utterly outside the human experience as it gets – doesn’t horrify you, you may not be capable of being horrified.  King returns to the idea in a different way much later on in The Drawing of the Three, during the scenes in which Roland is inside the minds of Eddie, Odetta/Detta, and Jack.
  •  Arthur compares being driven by the consciousness behind the alien eyes to a dune buggy being driven by Richard.  “This is dead, too,” he says, trying to explain why his legs would work for the aliens when they will no longer work for he himself.  “But when you enter it, you can make it go.  You could make it kill.  It couldn’t stop you even if it wanted to.”  I can’t help but think of “Trucks” and Christine when I read this.  But also, it’s just sort of a horrifying notion to consider our bodies as a dead thing that some other consciousness could drive like a car.  This is, thanks to the dune buggy analogy, relatable; but it is also profoundly outside the realm of human experience.  Again, our vision is being doubled in a strange way.
  •  I feel as if I need to mention the possibility that Arthur is an unreliable narrator.  There, I’ve mentioned it.  Now, let me mention that I mostly don’t believe in the concept of the unreliable narrator.  I think King means for us to believe that all of this happened to Arthur.  If he didn’t, why did he bother writing the story?  There are other places in his fiction – 1922, for example – where a narrator's unreliability might work for the story; but here, I'd say there would no upside to it.  So I reject it!  If you believe in it, it’s fine by me, but the unreliable narrator mostly does not exist in this dojo, and it definitely does not exist in relation to my approach to "I Am the Doorway."
  •  After Richard’s death, Arthur decides the eyes have got to go, so he starts a fire, and when “it was burning well I went out back to the kerosene drum and soaked both hands.  They came awake immediately, screaming with agony.  I almost didn’t make it back to the living room, and to the fire,” Arthur tells us.  King then breaks paragraphs, and continues: “But I did make it.”  That’s just a terrific use of the line break.  King isn’t a perfect writer, but he often demonstrates a very canny knowledge for what makes prose work on the page.  There’s just such an ominous import behind that simple sentence; its being set off on its own like that makes it work so much better than it would in the middle of a paragraph. 
  •  And yet, a few paragraphs later, he achieves a similarly great effect right in the middle of one, and this time it’s due to the very fact that the information he presents DOES come in the middle of a bunch of other sentences.  Let’s have a look: “I get along just fine with these hooks,” Arthur tells us.  “There was terrible pain for the first year or so, but the human body can adjust to almost anything.  I shave with them and even tie my own shoelaces.  And as you can see, my typing is nice and even.  I don’t expect to have any trouble putting the shotgun into my mouth or pulling the trigger.  It started three weeks ago, you see.”  He breaks paragraphs again, and delivers the story’s final line: “There is a perfect circle of twelve golden eyes on my chest.”  That works just fine, but I’m more taken by the sentence about the shotgun.  We’ve read the three paragraphs after the kerosene fire from the perspective (another doubled perspective!) of thinking that that horrible act of self-mutilation worked, and was therefore a good thing.  By cramming the sudden knowledge that it failed, and that a further act of self-mutilation shall now be required, King makes the mundanity of Arthur’s reaction the real horror.  The idea that we could become that beaten down and jaded is somehow the worst horror of all.
  •  I haven’t mentioned the notion that the title and Arthur’s refrain of the same implies that this is an alien invasion of sorts.  I don't have much to say about it, but it's kind of fun to think about what happens next in the universe built by this story.  My guess: nothing good.
  •  During the final section, Arthur tells us, “I found out the boy’s name, not that it matters.”  And in fact, it matters so little that Arthur refrains from telling us!  Yet another example of our expectations combining in an unusual manner with the actual content.

*****
  
And with that, I think I’ve said more or less everything that needs saying.  I didn’t touch much on the element of the story involving Arthur seeing himself (and Richard) through the aliens’ eyes, and seeing himself as a monster.  I alluded to it, but it probably does deserve a bit of time before I sign off.

Thing is, I don’t have that much to say about it.  It works.  Period.  What more is there to say than that, really?  King is famed for his horror-making ability, but I don’t recall anyone ever listing this story as being among his highlights.  In the broad scope of his work, maybe it isn’t, but I know that it struck me forcefully during this reread and examination.

I’m continuing to enjoy these explorations of the short stories; they are yielding up a lot of insights for me.  The next one on the docket will be “Suffer the Little Children,” which I don’t remember in any detail.  I remember thinking it was mediocre.  Maybe we’ll be in for a surprise; and if we aren’t, maybe the mediocrity will be compelling in some way.

Either way, see you then!

20 comments:

  1. I thought less of Lovecraft here and more of Bradbury's "Martian Chronicles" mixed with some of the same sort of stories in "Dangerous Visions." But maybe it exists more accurately in the intersection of all 3 of these things, with a dash of King's own secret seasoning. (And maybe some Robert Bloch. Not bad company, I guess.)

    Not one of my favorite King stories - I think I prefer "The Jaunt" and "Beachworld" both to this one, of his sci-fi short stories. But this is a cogent analysis if there ever was one and makes me want to re-read it immediately.

    I really wish he would write one full-on all-out sci-fi book one of these days. Or at least another short story.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I definitely prefer "The Jaunt," but I can't remember enough about "Beachworld" to say for sure.

      A King sci-fi pulp novel would be terrific. I'm not sure he'd do a good job with it, but it'd be fun to read a failure from him.

      Delete
  2. I've been reading your blog for quite a while, but never commented before. However, you mention wanting to do something about places within SK novels. Well! I just finished (in November) a giant reread of SK that included documenting all of the real and fictional places he mentions or sets his stories in (took me about two years, and I finished up just as Bazaar came out). I can send this giant, unwieldy spreadsheet to you, if you'd like to use it as a jumping off point for a locations blog. Honestly, now that I'm finally finished, I have no idea what to do with it (I was originally going to write an article for a local paper about King's use of my home state in his writing, but that died somewhere along the way).

    Incidentally, my biggest takeaway was that I could usually figure out where King was living when he wrote a specific book. Lots of Maine, Florida, and CO, with Florida appearing more and more often in the later years (particularly the stories in Just After Sunset).

    --CW

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That would be awesome. I would love to see an in-depth post from Bryant about all the fictional places King has invented. He could title it something like "Stephen King's Maine" or something.

      Delete
    2. I've got very vague plans to eventually sit down with all of King's fiction and create my own encyclopedia. Stuff like that appeals to me.

      Cecil, I think you should write something based on what you have. If you don't want to start your own blog to do it, you might be able to do something else with it.

      Have you ever visited the blog Talk Stephen King? If not, I'd recommend doing so -- its author loves to run guest pieces, and my guess is he'd be very interested in this idea of yours. Sounds very cool! Must have been a ton of work; I couldn't have gotten that done in four years, much less two.

      Delete
  3. A very good post overall, I think.

    Some interesting points:

    King's narrative techniques and audience reception.

    You're analysis of the mechanics of King's story and what makes them effective got me thinking about, of all things, that whiny Nostalgia Critic guy. Yeah, I know, just bear with me for a minute.

    The point is your post demonstrates an awareness about storytelling, and what goes into it, that enables you to appreciate a work if it's good. In contrast, the Critic seems to have a strange kind of aesthetic anhedonia towards a lot of art, especially of the fantastic variety, from what I've seen of him.

    To whit, he doesn't "get" films like "Signs" or "The Blue Brothers" (yes, really). He depreciates any film that relies on information he can't understand or doesn't know before hand (when the logical thing would be to use the film's intelligence as a means to expanding one's horizons). Finally, he seems bored by the more classic Hollywood, treating it with a kind of dogmatic PC-ism.

    I mention all this because taken from a psychological perspective, I think it tells something fascinating about how stories are received by an audience.

    To be continued.

    ChrisC

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Continued from above.

      It's pretty clear that in the Critic what we're dealing is, for lack of any better description or evidence, a mind that somehow is constricted in its imagination. If I had to guess the reasons, one idea that occurs is simple narcissism. No offense, but the Critic seems kind of full of himself.

      If any of that is true, then it does demonstrate at least one mental roadblock to being able to enjoy a story.

      With that in mind, your analysis seems to be at the opposite end of the spectrum, displaying a familiarity with not only the mechanics of writing or the horror genre, but also the knowledge that there are other equally valid forms of storytelling, something which I'm not sure the Critic is aware of (or perhaps even cares about).

      The interaction between an audience and any given story is just something I've had ample opportunity to grow fascinated by is all. It's a topic which I think has a minor relation to another element of your review:

      Fatalism and biological determinism.

      Widening the scope quite a bit, in terms of how humans take most of what life hands them; based on what little I know, the idea I get is of a general open-minded puzzlement on behalf of the species. Far as I can tell, we're just looking for answers.

      ...I don't even know if I should take my meds on that or not...Which technically may prove my point...

      General themes:

      One idea I think the story toys with is perhaps the growing lack of confidence America was having that anything was worth doing in space. It is strange, but with the effective closing of the Space Program, we seem to have turned our back on the idea of a future in space. Perhaps King's story is suggesting that fear has a lot to do with it. Who knows, but it's an interesting thought.

      ChrisC

      Delete
    2. I've watched more or less all of the Nostalgia Critic's videos. It doesn't seem like you've watched many.

      First, his issue wasn't with The Blues Brothers (which he loves) but with its sequel, which I agree with him on. You writing off his "not getting" Signs ignores the fact that he was pointing out the movie's MANY weak points, including the idea that these aliens invade a planet chock full of things that are fatal to them.

      Second, you do understand that the NC is a character, right? He doesn't review movies as himself. His character is sorta like the Colbert Report's version of Stephen Colbert. He exaggerates a lot for the sake of comedy.

      Also, he LOVES classic Hollywood. He's constantly making references to classic films and classic directors and how much better they did things back in their day.

      Nor is he unable to enjoy genre films. He enjoys them immensely. He simply asks that they be well-made. He doesn't demand that they explain "everything", just that he isn't expected to suspend his disbelief well past the breaking point.

      I don't agree with all of his viewpoints, but I can always see where he's coming from.

      For one thing, he's one of the few critics that noted The Force Awakens's similarity to the first Star Wars film, but actually thought beyond that as to why they did that.

      Delete
    3. I've only seen a few minutes from the Nostalgia Critic, but that was enough for me. It might be a character, but it's a character who annoys me intensely.

      Chris, I like what you say about the growing lack of American confidence in the space program. I wonder if it wasn't more a case of a growing lack of confidence in the American government, viewed through a sci-fi prism so it can be at a "safe" remove.

      To me, this reads very much like the same King who wrote "The Running Man" and "Roadwork" and "The Gunslinger." There's a deep sense of pessimism permeating everything, and it feels very much like an examination of at least one facet of American society.

      "Anhedonia" is a great word, by the way. Worth at least $10.

      Delete
  4. This one has always been a favorite of mine. Maybe no one calls it one of his early highlights, but I do.

    I think what really got me was the way the eyes react to humans; with extreme xenophobia. I mean, if we encountered an alien, we might scream and want it dead, but I'm not sure every human being would, on first impulse, try killing it. These eyes do.

    Venus's atmosphere actually makes this story work for me more. After all, he and Cory don't actually land on Venus, they just orbit it, and take some long-range pictures. But the fact that we'll never land on Venus or really figure out if something's happening there makes the premise easier to buy. After all, just because something doesn't seem like life to use, or behave in a way we expect does not mean it's not alive. If a being lives on Venus that invades through a body after traveling from the surface to a spaceship completely unseen, it's not like we'd have any way of knowing it's alive from this distance.

    I agree that Arthur is not an unreliable narrator, but how do you figure there's not really such a thing? Check out The Yellow Wallpaper for a fantastic example.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I believe unreliable narrators exist in some cases, but I believe they are nowhere near as common as some people think. Some folks think a narrative being first-person automatically implies unreliable narrator. I think that's bullcrap, which means that if we're going by statistics, I think the unreliable narrator is a rare beast in the wild.

      I couldn't quite tell from the story whether King knew Venus's surface was unattainable, or whether he was implying that the astronauts could theoretically have walked on its surface. I think it's the latter. Arthur tells Richard that if the ship's thrusters hadn't fired (i.e., if he and Cory had been forced to land), he'd have cut his throat on the way down. To me, that implies that he is unaware that he would be dead WAY before he actually got to the surface; that, in turn, implies that in this story, Venus is a more habitable planet, relatively speaking.

      Either way, I'm fine with it. And I agree that that brief trip to Venus is one of the story's highlights.

      Delete
  5. I agree that this is one of King's most effective stories (that I've read). I also had a thought occur to me on why I don't love it more and why I think it would be extremely difficult to make into a commercially successful movie, and the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that I'm onto something...

    In Danse Macabre and elsewhere, King speculates a lot about why people love horror, and I think he's spot-on. Even before I had read King's analysis, when my wife asked why I liked a lot of dark, sinister books and movies, my answer would be basically, "catharsis," and I tried explaining that it was actually a little bit of a relief to consider the troubles of the world through the prism of fiction. But in most of our horror fiction, the threats are at least plausible, if not highly unlikely. Even supernatural stuff like Poltergeist FEELS real when it's done well. And even torture porn like Hostel (which I detest) presents a situation that, while it's probably not going to happen to us, could and likely does exist in some of the nastiest parts of the underworld. A story like this, with constant tension and no real comic relief, that actually adds a horror that we've never even considered, but feels horrifyingly real, is a hard sell. Life is scary enough with just the stuff we're already aware of, like getting abducted and sold to some sick degenerate who's going to torture you to death. "Doorway" is creative genius, but crosses the very fine line between "the world can be a very sick and twisted place" to "I'm going to come up with something even more sick and twisted than being tortured and eaten by hillbilly cannibals". An actual movie or series drawing a story like that out to feature length is probably too intense for mainstream viewers, and if my theory has any merit, it would explain why you don't see Hollywood treatments of, say, Lovecraft. Anyway, I'd be interested in hearing what you think of that.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's an interesting theory, and I think in many cases, you are probably correct. I think many people who enjoy horror films do so because it's fun to them; the last thing they want is to take it seriously, they only want a sort of funhouse experience. I don't think there's anything wrong with that, and you could probably make the argument that adding a layer of supernatural content that approaches (or even reaches) silliness -- like "I Am the Doorway" could be said to do -- gives people that out so they are able to take it all as a rollercoaster ride.

      I do think there is an argument to be made that the more suffocating type of horror is sometimes able to find a foothold with audiences, though. Examples I can think of include "The Exorcist" (HUGE hit upon its release, and probably still the biggest horror hit of all time if you adjust for inflation), "Psycho," "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre," "The Blair Witch Project" (which people took very seriously upon its release), and the first "Paranormal Activity" (ditto).

      I think you can also put both "Saw" and "Hostel" into that group. I'm no fan of the torture porn genre, either; I can deal with gore, but only up to a point. However, I thought both of those movies were awesome, and still think it. "Saw" works well because of the plot twist, and "Hostel" has some really compelling themes about sexuality. Even the sequel (which I didn't like at all) tried to be about something.

      But I'm sure most of that sub-genre is sheer filth. Ah, well; horror has always had that side to it. If many horror films are roller-coasters, it stands to reason that others must be the guy outside the gates who's waiting to rob you.

      Delete
    2. I think it's highly possible that I was in a too-serious mood when I read Night Shift, which was exactly a year ago. It didn't feel like a rollercoaster ride to me. As I said, it's incredibly well-written, but there wasn't much of a fun element to it. I should probably re-read it. I had a bit of an aversion to the idea of seeing it onscreen when Josh cast it. I'm sure Brad Pitt would be great as always, but my impression for now is that it would be a huge risk.

      The Exorcist is a great movie that has held up remarkably in just about every way other than some of the effects (although I still find that spider-crawl pretty oogie). But I think you could make a case that Hollywood was a lot more daring and ballsy in the seventies than they are now. Texas Chain Saw is another good example, even though it's not gory. For what it's worth, you might really like Chain Saw Confidential. Gunnar Hansen recounts the whole miserable experience of making the original movie, and I read it a couple of years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it.

      I agree with you completely about the first Saw, as long as you aren't including the umpteen sequels. I knew from the trailers and reviews of Hostel that I wouldn't find anything the least bit redeeming in it, so I'd probably put it in the "sheer filth" category. But to each his own. I've got a friend who thinks I'm a complete degenerate for liking Quentin Tarantino movies.

      Delete
  6. Holy crap, this is unrelated, but it's frakin' incredible!

    Right now, it seems "11/22/63" is the gift that just keeps on giving (should anyone be worried?).

    The latest Lilja's Library Podcast features a discussion about the book and upcoming mini-series, along with two other podcasters who have started an actual cast dedicated to that one King story and it's adaptation alone.

    The Lilja podcast is here:

    http://www.liljas-library.com/article.php?id=4702

    And the "11/22/63" podcast is here!:

    http://barrenspace.com/112263/

    All I can say is, if these guys want to make a podcast around the JFK assasination they better think carefully about fan feedback, because their gonna have boatloads of people chiming in about that day.

    Sadly, the mini-series is still two to three weeks away.

    In the meantime, here's something from the Cohen Brothers:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kMqeoW3XRa0

    ChrisC

    ReplyDelete
  7. Do you think it is a coincidence that so long after his trip, his hands start to itch while he is having drinks with Cresswell, who is concerned with him divulging classified information?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't think it's a coincidence at all. You?

      Delete
    2. No, I don't. I'm wondering about the connection. It's clear from later in the story that Arthur believes they are aliens, and I'm inclined to believe him. However, it was odd to me that it turned on during his meeting like "an electric current" and that Cresswell was grinning. He also considers calling Cresswell and involving the Navy when stuff really starts going down. I was considering the idea that the government may be spying on him, or in cahoots with the aliens in some way, but aliens' revulsion and total hatred of humanity kind of points away from that. Just wondering what Cresswell's purpose/role could be.

      Delete
    3. Hmm. I hadn't thought about it in that way.

      I skimmed back through parts of the story to see how I felt about what you're asking, and here's what I'd say. Regarding Cresswell's grinning I think that King intends that to indicate that Cresswell doesn't take Arthur even a little bit seriously. It made me think of how, if you are babysitting a four-year-old and the kid comes up to and says something like, "I blew my nose and a booger came out and it was ten feet tall and it said it was going to go to Whole Foods and get us some pineapples" and you just look at the kid and grin and say, "Well, okay." That's just me reading into things -- and in what seems in retrospect to be a rather weird manner -- but it's what it makes me think of.

      The "turning on" like an electrical current, I think, is meant to indicate the moment the aliens wake up. It doesn't happen gradually; it happens like a light switch being flipped.

      As for considering calling Cresswell, I think my take on it is that Arthur is, at the bottom of things, still a military man who has a certain amount of faith in his superiors, so he feels like there's a chance Cresswell could maybe help him. Or maybe he even feels that it's his duty. But these are weak feelings, strong enough to exert a pull on him but too weak to actually make him change the course of action he is on. Or maybe this is the influence of the aliens keeping him from following his better instincts.

      All of that is just my interpretation, of course. I think I kind of like the fact that we don't get answers to those issues. A big part of this story is the cumulative dread; the mounting sense that things just are NOT right, in ways you maybe can't even quite put a finger on.

      Thanks a bunch for reading this review of mine! I'm always thrilled when somebody writes me about these things, so feel free to do so any time.

      Delete