It’s been a while since the last of these entries in my ongoing examination of Stephen King’s short stories. Sorry about that! I wish I could say it was never going to happen again, but I’d be almost willing to guarantee that it will. I promise to do my best to increase my output; that ought to be doable, at least.
In any case, we now resume, with a look at the obscure 1971/1981 short story “The Blue Air Compressor.”
|Image stolen from http://www.akyle.f2s.com/pre_carrie.html, which appears to be a hell of a collection.|
The story was first published in the January 1971 issue of Onan, a University of Maine literary publication. A revised version appeared in the July 1981 issue of Heavy Metal, but King opted not include it in his next collection (Skeleton Crew), and has continually decided against collection or republication ever since.
I can’t say that I blame him, because it’s not much of a story. The odds are quite good that you’ve never read it; the percentage of King fans who have cannot be more than a fractional fraction. If you are determined to do so, I suspect that a copy of the Heavy Metal version can be had for relatively cheap. It didn’t cost me much when I went looking for a copy a decade ago, and I doubt things have changed that much since. (As of this writing, Amazon has copies starting a bit above $13.) Whether it has or whether it hasn’t, that’s going to be your only good way of finding the story, and it’s the version of the story I will be examining today.
Before we proceed, I’m going to issue a spoiler warning. This is something I’m reluctant to do. It’s not that I don’t believe in spoilers; I do. It’s just that I don’t believe in the concept of spoilers for a 45-year-old story. Sometimes I don’t believe in them for a five-year-old story. This isn’t the time for me to go on a rant about it, but I can give you the short version: if you don’t want to know, why would you be reading this at all? That said, I’m issuing a spoiler warning not for the sake of this story, but for the sake of the Dark Tower novels, specifically for books 5-7. I’m going to talk very explicitly about a certain element of those books, and it’s reasonable for you to expect that a review of “The Blue Air Compressor” wouldn’t spoil those books. And yet, it shall! So consider yourself warned.
A brief synopsis: Gerald Nately, a writer (perhaps a would-be writer, though that is unclear), rents a beach house from an abnormally large woman, Mrs. Leighton. Mrs. Leighton is 6’6”, and as fat as a hog; her sheer bulk repulses Nately, but fascinates him. He writes a story about her. She finds it, reads it, and laughs at its incompetence, which she finds to be woefully inadequate as a means of capturing her. Nately is enraged by her dismissal, and murders her by stuffing the hose of an air compressor down her throat and inflating her until she explodes.
As I said, it’s not much of a story. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot to discuss, though. We’ll start by considering the style of the story, which is a fourth-wall-breaking dialogue between the narrator and his audience.
This element of the story is not at first apparent. The story begins in routine fashion: “The house was tall, with an incredible slope-hinged roof. As he walked up toward it from the shore road, Gerald Nately thought it was almost a country in itself, geography in microcosm.” Things continue like that for several paragraphs, and then things come to a head as Mrs. Leighton opens the door and makes her presence known.
Nately reacts to Leighton’s size, and the story cuts away to a separate section that seemingly represents his interior monologue: “this woman is so goddam fucking big and old she looks like oh jesus Christ print dress she must be six-six and fat my god she’s fat as a hog can’t smell her white long white hair her legs those redwood trees in that movie a tank she could be a tank she could kill me her voice is out of any context like a kazoo jesus if a laugh I can’t laugh can she be seventy god how does she walk and the cane her hands are bigger than my feet like a goddam tank she could go through oak for christ’s sake,” it reads.
The story then breaks sections again and returns to the normal third-person narrative. After three brief paragraphs, there is another section break, and we return to what seems to be a first-person interior monologue: “wait get that written down,” it says, interrupting the story in the middle of a descriptive sentence about Leighton. Whoever is thinking this (or saying it, or writing it, as the case may be) then jots down an image in quotation marks, and concludes by thinking/saying/writing, “okay she’s there it’s a story i feel her,” which implies not an interior monologue so much as a conscious and directed chain of thoughts.
We then return to third-person for a page or so. Nately and Leighton talk a bit and have something to drink. “Millions of eyes seemed to watch them,” the narrative says without explanation. “He felt like a burglar, stealing around the hidden fiction he could make of her, carrying only his own youthful winsomeness and a psychic flashlight.” I like that last sentence, and it’s clear we are on the verge of something interesting happening.
Something interesting does happen, but probably not anything we are expecting. We cut away to a new section again, and while we have been trained by this point to expect cutaways to the secondary viewpoint, this time we end up in a clearly-defined first-person narrative. I’m going to replicate this entire section for you:
My own name, of course, is Steve King, and you’ll pardon my intrusion on your mind – or I hope you will. I could argue that the drawing aside of the curtain of presumption between reader and author is permissible because I am the writer; i.e., since it’s my story I’ll do any goddam thing I please with it – but since that leaves the reader out of it completely, that is not valid. Rule One for all writers is that the teller is not worth a tin tinker’s fart when compared to the listener. Let us drop the matter, if we may. I am intruding for the same reason that the pope defecates: we both have to.
You should know that Gerald Nately was never brought to the dock; his crime was not discovered. He paid all the same. After writing four twisted, monumental novels, he cut his own head off with an ivory-figured guillotine purchased in Kowloon.
I invented him first during a moment of eight o’clock boredom in a class taught by Carroll F. Terrell of the University of Maine English faculty. Dr. Terrell was speaking of Edgar A. Poe, and I thought
ivory guillotine Kowloon
twisted woman of shadows, like a pig
some big house
The blue air compressor did not come until later.
Readers of The Dark Tower will have raised an eyebrow during this, one suspects. How could they not? As we know, Wolves of the Calla and Song of Susannah, the fifth and sixth novels in the series, revealed that the entire saga was being written by a writer named Stephen King, whose fate was inextricably linked with that of the Tower itself. There’s more to it than that, of course; it’s not a mere Chuck Jones style cartoonist-erasing-the-cartoon-while-the-cartoon-comments-upon-it-snarkily sort of gag. The implication is that the saga of Roland and his friends actually IS happening, but that parallel dimensions and multiverse theory are at work, and that all of creation is somehow speaking its way into existence – an existence it already, paradoxically, possesses – by way of this author, “Stephen King.” Welcome to the final Dark Tower novels, ye who ignored my spoiler warning above.
Many people have cried bullshit on those novels, and many more will continue to do so as time goes by. Are they right to do so? I'm of a split opinion in this regard, but that's a subject for another day. Either way, I’ll be damned if the seeds of the divisive plot twist aren’t present right here in the pages of this grim little misfire of a story, “The Blue Air Compressor” (which, I might add, had to have been written at around the same time the first Tower stories were written).
Let me clarify what I mean. I’m not intimating that “The Blue Air Compressor” serves as some sort of secret key to understanding The Dark Tower, nor am I suggesting that it influenced the composition of The Dark Tower (or vice versa). The former would be silly; the latter would be a leap from analysis into invention on my part, and the mere fact that it could theoretically be true is no reason for me to assume it to be true.
What I’m suggesting is that we can learn something about The Dark Tower by paying attention to the way King employs this technique in “The Blue Air Compressor.” Let’s take the above-quoted section slowly, and consider the implications of what is happening:
(1) “My own name, of course, is Steve King…” – It’s the “of course” that makes this interesting as much as it is the appearance of the author’s name. By saying “of course” in this context, King is stating a thing which need not be stated.
What would another example be of using “of course” in that manner? Let’s say we were talking about the Harry Potter books with someone else who had read them (assuming we have read them also). We might say something such as “Dumbledore, who, of course, is the headmaster at Hogwarts.”
What would that mean? By which I mean, what would our use of the phrase “of course” be intended to convey? Not that Dumbledore is the headmaster of Hogwarts; we already know this to be a given within the bounds of our conversation. I suppose we might say it satirically, for effect, to amuse ourselves; or, if we have reason to suspect that the person we are talking to is lying about having read the books, we might say it as a passive/aggressive challenge of some sort. There are plenty of things that that specific phrasing could mean; only context will tell us for sure, and my example is purposefully bereft of context.
What, then, does it mean for Stephen King to have used it in this context? Good question. However, King’s usage seems to also be intentionally bereft of context, meaning that we must extrapolate. He is saying it in the way one would say it as an aside during a lecture. This presumes a foreknowledge on the audience’s behalf of who he is and why he is there. This in turn assumes that “Steve King” is someone who is known to the reader, and that the reader would not be particularly surprised to be addressed by him.
(2) “…and you’ll pardon my intrusion on your mind – or I hope you will.” – This conclusion to the sentence implies that while readers won’t be surprised for “Steve King” to be interjecting, they might be annoyed by it. This implies irregularity, a breach of protocol, a deviation from the norm . . . but not a huge one.
(3) “I could argue that the drawing aside of the curtain of presumption between reader and author…” – In stage terms, we think of this as a breaking of the fourth wall, but I think I like King’s phrase better. The “curtain of presumption” has a nice ring to it. What is that curtain? I’m speaking for King in continuing, and that’s a foolish thing to do. Instead, let me insist that I am speaking only for myself, though as a means of interpretation for King. What I’d say is that the “curtain of presumption” refers both to the reader’s willingness to pretend that the author is trying to remain hidden AND to the author’s willingness to make that attempt. In other words, it’s a contract of make-believe between both parties.
In other words, the contract states that if we sit down to read The Lord of the Rings, we can do so without the specter of J.R.R. Tolkien actively imposing his views upon us. He is doing so at every turn, of course; but because he has agreed to keep his role in the proceedings as secret as possible, we need not be reminded of it at every turn. This enables us to fall into the story, and to forget that what we are reading is a made-up tale written by a middle-aged man (who is no longer even middle-aged but is thoroughly and irrefutably deceased).
(4) “…is permissible because I am the writer; i.e., since it’s my story I’ll do any goddam thing I please with it…” – Here, King is asserting ownership over his creation with a certain amount of fuck-you aimed at his readers, or at least at the hypothetical ones who might object to his activities of the moment. Anyone who has spent time investigating readers’ reactions to The Dark Tower knows that a decent number of fans took certain developments of the latter half of the series to actually BE a fuck-you from King to them. Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t, but there is certainly an element of it in “The Blue Air Compressor.” It’s leavened somewhat, however:
(5) “…but since that leaves the reader out of it completely, that is not valid. Rule One for all writers is that the teller is not worth a tin tinker’s fart when compared to the listener.” – Okay, sure. I’m not sure I buy that being Rule One, but I’ll rent it. If so, the implication is that the listener has a role to play in “The Blue Air Compressor.” What role is that? Again, I’d be foolish to presume to read King’s mind from across a span of decades, so I’ll only be able to tell you what I think MY role must be: to see what King is trying to accomplish in terms of the story’s overall narrative.
What I keep coming back to is the fact – a fact as I see it, at least – that despite the frequent point-of-view shifts and the literal authorial interjections, the core narrative detailing what happens between Nately and Leighton persists in feeling like the “real” narrative. If one wanted to, one could make the argument that King’s interjections mark “The Blue Air Compressor” not as fiction at all, but as a strangely-crafted nonfictional essay on the subject of narrative persistence. Try as I might, though, I can’t believe that that argument holds water; I can’t make myself see the story that way. There’s something preventing me from making that leap: namely, the fact that I’ve already taken a leap, and can’t undo it. The narrative between Nately and Leighton is a weak one that ends up resolving itself in ludicrous and unconvincing fashion . . . but despite that, it rings true for me in terms of my ability to buy into it.
Does that seem contradictory? It seems contradictory to me. But this is what readers of fiction do, isn’t it? We accept a lie as a truth without ever actually forgetting that it IS a lie. It’s the truth inside the lie, one might say.
I’d make no arguments that “The Blue Air Compressor” is a good story, so it ought to be true that the moment “Steve King” pulls aside that curtain, the whole thing falls apart. But I find that not to be the case. It does eventually fall apart, but not for a few more pages. Let’s press on:
(6) “Let us drop the matter, if we may. I am intruding for the same reason that the pope defecates: we both have to.” – King’s insistence that we drop the matter holds no water. Hey, Steve, you brought this shit up, pal! Not me! I’m just sitting here minding my own business, reading a story! I didn’t fuck with that curtain, you did! And yet, I have been included in the process. I’ve been given the option to drop the matter or not, as is my preference, and as you can see from this post’s very existence, I’ve opted not to drop it. In not dropping it, though, I remain in dialogue with the story, meaning that the relationship between author and reader persists.
Leaving aside the juvenile and not especially witty pope analogy, there is something interesting in these couple of sentences. One of King’s most effective metaphors for the creative-writing process is the one in which he compares the act of writing to a person digging in the earth to expose something buried beneath it: the idea is buried, but is fully-formed and intact, if only the digger can successfully excavate it. For this reason, King says that he almost never knows how a story is going to end; he hasn’t dug it up yet, so how could he know? Therefore, the act of writing a story is an act of discovery, but it’s also a metaphorically bereft of actual creation or invention: the idea already exists, so there’s no creation necessary.
There’s an argument to be had about the extent to which this is true, but I think it’s beyond doubting that Stephen King feels it to be true. It’s his process, for better or for worse. So when he tells me that he has to intrude on “The Blue Air Compressor,” I take him at his word. It would be interesting to ask him whether the story began with no such device in sight, or if he knew from the outset that it would eventually take that form. If the former, did he resist it at all when “Steve King” reached for the curtain?
Regardless, I think it once again tells us something about The Dark Tower. There’s no reason to assume that it was any different a process in writing those novels; when it became apparent that “Stephen King” was going to put in an appearance, and that the entire resolution was going to be tied up with metafictional ideas such as this one, King must simply have shrugged and rationalized that he had no more choice than the pope has about squatting one out. In “The Blue Air Compressor,” we’ve got a bit of evidence for how that process works, and we see evidence that it may not necessarily be all that elegant.
(7) “You should know that Gerald Nately was never brought to the dock; his crime was not discovered.” – And just like that, we’ve slipped back into the narrative; we’ve done so without even leaving King’s interjectional perspective.
(8) “He paid all the same. After writing four monumental, twisted novels, he cut his own head off with an ivory figured guillotine purchased in Kowloon.” – We’ve had no intimation of this being a story in which violent crimes could or would happen, apart from the fact that we always expect such things to be possible in Stephen King stories (this was probably true even in 1971, was certainly true in 1981, and is a stone-cold fact in 2016). I don’t know if it’s the semi-unexpected violent imagery or the revelation that such things lie in Nately’s future, but these sentences have the effect of snapping me back to a state of full investment in his story. Why would he go to such elaborately grand-guignol lengths to kill himself? Why would he kill himself at all? What happens to cause this change in his character?
All of those questions are specified variations of one question: what happens next? That’s the question we always ask of the author sitting on the other side of that curtain of presumption, isn’t it? It’s either that, or once the next thing has happened, we’re asking a variation of “why did he/she/they do that?”
(9) After the word “Kowloon,” King breaks paragraphs, and continues: “I invented him during a moment of eight o’clock boredom in a class taught by Carroll F. Terrell of the University of Maine English faculty.” – Just as suddenly as we had been jerked back toward Nately’s narrative, King jerks us back into his own metafictional narrative.
(10) “Dr. Terrell was speaking of Edgar A. Poe, and I thought ivory guillotine Kowloon / twisted woman of shadows, like a pig / some big house” – The Poe connection will become extremely apparent as the story develops, but what interests me fully here is the appearance of the images. As you can see above, the actual text is set aside on separate lines, almost as though the images form an off-format haiku. This makes me think of a young Steve King, sitting in a class, not-listening to somebody talk about Poe – about whom he probably already knows a great deal, hence the inattention – and having story ideas pops into his head. King uses the active verb “thought” to describe his initiation of the moment, but I wonder if he couldn’t just as easily have described the images being beamed into his brain, or otherwise simply being there suddenly. If King’s self-described metaphors hold up, it wouldn’t necessarily be an act of conscious thought on his part: it would be a realization that the images were already there. Not a thought, then; a recognition.
(11) “The blue air compressor did not come until later.” – For me, this is the clincher. And note how it is phrased. He doesn’t say, “I didn’t think of the blue air compressor until later.” He says, “The blue air compressor did not come until later.” There’s a world of difference there. For the record, I think it would still have worked even if he had used the first-person variant I just used. In either case, it works as a concept because of the relation between the title and the story. Because we’ve invested the story with a certain amount of power over us, we’ve also invested the title with a similar version of that power. It’s a totem of sorts; we know that it means something, and that whatever that something is, it’s a summation, a totality, a completion. So when King gives it an even greater presence by setting it off in its own paragraph like that, and then using it as a cliffhanger that hangs over the remainder of the story, it becomes even greater in significance; or, if you prefer, we invest it with even more significance.
I always enjoy delving into King’s prose with that attention to the micro details. Ultimately, I think examining that one section has gotten across most of the points that I wanted to make with this review. It compels me to see that in such a minor story as this one, King felt free to play around with the idea of the relationship between author and audience. On the one hand, you’ve got to feel as if the experiment were an unsuccessful one. He has done very little such postmodern/metafictional writing elsewhere in his fiction-writing career (although I think you can see shades of it in his nonfiction-writing career, especially in his occasional addresses to his Constant Readers). Also, the fact that he’s never allowed the story to be reprinted post-1981 says something about his feelings toward it; I wouldn’t presume to say what it says, but it surely says something.
And yet, when one of the most defining moments of his career lay before him – when he, returned from death’s very door, decided that the time had come to get that great God a’mighty steam shovel moving again and finish the series which formed the long novel that had hung over virtually his entire career – he turned to a modified version of that approach to fiction-writing. One supposes that he felt he had to. If so, then lurking behind that monumental moment of decisiveness was, perhaps, “The Blue Air Compressor.” Antagonistic critics could use this as fuel to fan the flames of derision of The Dark Tower; proponent critics could cite this as additional evidence that not merely does the resolution make sense, but it makes the entire series a sort of autobiographical statement, as well as a summative essay in fictional form about the power of storytelling itself.
The objective critic might surmise that it’s both of those things.
My point is mostly made, but before we call this one quits, I wanted to touch on a few other issues briefly:
- It is mentioned at some point that Nately is a friend of Mrs. Leighton’s husband. Her husband never appears in the story, and there isn’t any evidence definitively clarifying whether he is still alive. However, the implication is that Nately has learned of Mrs. Leighton via Mr. Leighton, and has decided to rent from her so as to write a story about her. His motivations in doing so are completely unexplored. This is either evidence of shabby writing on King’s behalf, or possibly evidence that he didn’t care enough to excavate that corner of the story. I say it’s both.
- “He was fascinated by her huge, animalistic bulk, by the slow, tortoiselike way she trekked across the space between the house and the cottage,” King writes. It’s hard not to be reminded of Sylvia Pittston, the obese but alluring preacher woman in The Gunslinger. Pittston and Leighton must have come into existence at around the same time, which is an intriguing notion. Are there other unnaturally large women in King’s canon? There’s the titular “Gramma,” there’s “Mother” in Revival, there’s the roont twins in Wolves of the Calla. King obviously has a thing when it comes to large women; he treats them almost as forces of nature, if not supernature.
- Eventually, King tells us that Nately begins to feel like the young man in Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” This is perhaps where the story begins to fall apart. It is difficult to accept this as a natural development. Why would that be the case? I think it’s no more complicated than that King, while the curtain was drawn aside earlier, mentioned Poe. Therefore, when Poe – and his most famous story – are mentioned here, it’s another instance of attention being drawn to the curtain. In terms of this story, we’ve been introduced to Poe not as an element of the Nately narrative, but as an element of the metafictional narrative.
- Nately begins to feel an urge to show Leighton the story he has written about her. This is an insane, irrational urge, and it marks Nately as an obsessive and/or compulsive personality. King has told us that Leighton is a perceptive critic, however, so Nately’s compulsion toward revealing his “secret” story can be seen as actually being a compulsion toward knowing the truth about himself (which actually means knowing if his perception of Mrs. Leighton is a truthful perception, which in turn actually means knowing if his perceptions can be trusted, i.e., if he is sane).
- “On this day he had just returned from the Stowe Travel Agency in Portland, where he had booked passage for the Far East,” we are told. “He had done this almost on the spur of the moment; the decision to go and the decision to show his manuscript to Mrs. Leighton had come together, almost as if he had been guided by an invisible hand.” Thanks to the earlier metafictional interjections, we know that this is true. King then ruins the moment by interjecting again and spelling it all out: “In truth,” he writes, “he was guided by an invisible hand – mine.” This is a pointless clarification, so much so that I’m tempted to believe the pointlessness is intended to be part of the effect. But no; I think this is just an example of badly-motivated overwriting on the part of a writer who, let’s be both honest and generous in admitting, was still basically just a kid. Even so, couched as it is within the framework of a traditional narrative, the initial bit about the invisible hand can’t help but make us think of times in our own lives when we’ve had ideas or done things that seemed similarly motivated from some external source. Are we, in those moments, like Gerald Nately? If so, are we being moved by a definitively-extant invisible hand? Once more, I can’t help but think of The Dark Tower, of Eddie Dean objecting to the idea of being merely a character in a book; and of Roland, a mere character in a book, reassuring him that even though it may seem that way, it isn’t. Amazingly, thanks to the amount of time we have spent with both he and Eddie, Roland’s words ring true!
- The beachside setting is one which pops up several times in King’s work. “Night Surf” may have been the first, but we’ll later have works like Duma Key, “The Gingerbread Girl,” “A Very Tight Place,” and “The Dune.” Also, the opening scene of The Drawing of the Three.
- Nately intends to show Mrs. Leighton the story, but she finds it on her own and reads it first. Rather than being offended, she is merely amused by it. “You haven’t made me big enough, Gerald,” she says between peals of laughter. “That’s the trouble. I’m too big for you. Perhaps Poe, or Dostoevsky, or Melville . . . but not you, Gerald. Not you. Not you.” I’m reminded of a couple of things here. First, I’m reminded of Glenn Bateman laughing at the inadequacy of Flagg’s physical appearance (as opposed to his dream-self) in The Stand. Second, I’m reminded of the tittering Man In Black laughing at Roland’s humorlessness and staid qualities toward the end of The Gunslinger. In all three instances, you could make the argument that he/she who laughs is doing so as a revealer of truth, and that the rage engendered by those who are laughed at is a rage borne out of being made aware of something he did not want to know. This is less true of The Gunslinger than of the other two examples, but only because Marten is intentionally not revealing certain things to Roland. Interesting! And in the case of both “The Blue Air Compressor” and The Stand, the person being laughed at is driven to murder.
- Right after the titular air compressor finally makes it actual, physical debut in the story, King breaks in with another authorial analysis. “Most horror stories are sexual in nature,” he says conversationally. “I’m sorry to break in with this information but I feel I must in order to make the way clear for the grisly conclusion of this piece, which is (at least psychologically) a clear metaphor for fears of sexual impotence on my part.” He goes on in that manner for about three quarters of a page. It’s fairly delightful stuff, but I’m going to leave it unexplored, an act of willful bloggerly coitus-interruptus.
- “Abnormal psychology has become a part of the human experience,” King concludes the just-referenced section. It might be that “The Blue Air Compressor” and its stylistic quirks are intended as an illustration of that idea. If so, it sort of works, in an English-majorly sort of way.
- Nately has been accused by Leighton of not being able to make her big enough on paper, so he opts to make her bigger in life: he crams the hose of the air compressor down her throat and inflates her until she explodes. Can I request a Myth Busters episode on this topic? Can a person be inflated and explode from it? I mean, sure, I know that’s how Bond dispatches Kananga in Live and Let Die, so there must be something to it, right?
- King’s playfulness becomes more frequent in these last few pages, and encompasses an admission of having nicked the idea from an EC comic; a defense of / accusation of plagiarism; a wholesale nicking of lines from “The Tell-Tale Heart”; and a wholesale nicking of the resolution to that story, albeit with a greater degree of success from a presumably self-aware protagonist. But in these last few pages, I find that the technique becomes tiresome and ineffective; Nately’s narrative has lost its focus, and along with it any resonance it might have had.
|Dig that Walter Simonson illustration!|
And that, I think, does it. “The Blue Air Compressor” is a weak story, surely one of the weakest in King’s canon. And yet, I’ve managed to write a fairly lengthy essay about it. There are ideas in it, especially when considered within the broader scope of his entire canon.
I suspect many shitty writers wrote and published many shitty stories in 1971. How many of those do you suppose contain anywhere near as much food for thought as does “The Blue Air Compressor”? Not many, I bet.
So while I definitely consider it to be a misfire, there are many successes that would almost certainly envy the spectacular manner in which it misfired.
All in all, I’d say writing this one was a lot of fun. I’ll try to keep the series going and get another one of these posts out before I take on any major projects again. The next story in the queue is “I Am the Doorway,” which is one I like a lot. Or did the last time I reread it; we'll see how it holds up to scrutiny from yours truly.
See you then!