Monday, September 5, 2016

Children Had Been Different In Her Day: A Review of "Suffer the Little Children"

Published in the February 1972 issue of Cavalier, "Suffer the Little Children" was the third story the magazine had bought from him.  1972 marked something of a leap forward for King professionally: including this one, he'd have four stories published, all in Cavalier.  He had the same number published the following year, and his first published novel came out in 1974.  This means that 1971 was the final year for quite some time in which King did not have a significant amount of work published professionally.
In other words, 1972 is kind of where it all really began.
image stolen from
"Suffer the Little Children" did not make the cut when King collected his first book of stories (Night Shift), nor when he collected his second (Skeleton Crew).  This means that most of his fans did not have an opportunity to read it for over twenty years: with the story's inclusion in 1993's Nightmares & Dreamscapes.
You might logically conclude that the story's omission from the first two collections indicates that King feels a bit unenthusiastic about it.  This turns out not to be the case, however.  Let's see what King had to say about the story in the "Notes" section of Nightmares & Dreamscapes:

This story is from the same period as most of the stories in Night Shift, and was originally published in Cavalier, as were most of the stories in that 1978 collection.  It was left out because my editor, Bill Thompson, felt the book was getting "unwiedly" -- this is the way editors sometimes tell writers that they have to cut a little before the price of the book soars out of sight.  I voted to cut a story called "Gray Matter" from Night Shift.  Bill voted to cut "Suffer the Little Children."  I deferred to his judgment, and read the story over carefully before deciding to include it here.  I like it quite a lot -- it feels a little bit like the Bradbury of the late forties and early fifties to me, the fiendish Bradbury who revelled in killer babies, renegade undertakers, and tales only a Crypt-Keeper could love.  Put another way, "Suffer the Little Children" is a ghastly sick-joke with no redeeming social merit whatever.  I like that in a story.
These are interesting comments for numerous reasons, not the least of which is the insight it gives into the story-selection process.  But it also obviously proves that King didn't cut "Suffer" because he was embarrassed by it or anything like that; he cut it because he thought -- rightly so, perhaps -- that Bill Thompson knew better.  Nothing here indicates whether a similar set of factors kept the story out of Skeleton Crew, of course, but one can't expect answers to every question.
It is likely that King made revisions to "Suffer the Little Children" for its 1993 unearthing.  It's a common practice with stories that are getting collected, and we've already seen numerous examples of it within this series of posts.  Whenever possible, I try to track down copies of the original publication drafts, because I'd like to see what the differences might be.  It proved not to be possible for me in this instance, however; the cheapest copy of the Cavalier issue I found was $125, and that's a bit outside the range I'd be willing to pay for this particular story.  As always, those of you who might be lucky enough to have a copy of the magazine are encouraged to do a brother a solid in the form of canning the story and sending it to me.  For the cause, lads!  For the cause!
In any case, it will be the 1993 appearance of the story that I will be assessing in this review.  I'm assuming your familiarity with the story, but I'll give you a very brief plot summary: an old-maidish third-grade teacher, Miss Sidley, is practicing her strict brand of disciplinarianism one day when she discovers that one of her students has apparently been taken over by a shape-shifting monster of some sort.  She quickly discovers that it's not just the one, either: it's a great many of the students, and their numbers are growing.  This, understandably, leads to a couple of panic attacks and to a weeks-long break from teaching.  She comes back with a plan, however, and also with a gun, which she uses to coldly dispatch twelve of the "children."  She ends up in a mental hospital, and there is an intimation that her psychiatrist eventually begins seeing what she'd seen, this time in the faces of institutionalized children.
Much though it pains me to do so, I find it necessary to get something out of the way before we proceed.  I'm writing this in 2016, and for about the past ten years or so, a cancer has spread throughout our culture in terms of the way we read stories.  (Please note that by "read stories" I am making a blanket inclusion of the approach to story consumption and analysis, including not just literal reading, but also the watching of movies, etc.)  I'm referring to the insidious proliferation of readings in which a story is treated as though it has a secret meaning that must be, through studious deliberation by the audience, be revealed and commented upon.  In many cases this sort of reading is referred to as a "fan theory."  
I loathe fan theories.  the most noxious one of which I'm aware is the one in which people -- "fans," allegedly -- try to tie all of the James Bond movies together by hypothesizing that the character James Bond is not a singular character but is instead a series of different characters, each of whom has at some point prior to their character's first film adopted the code-name "James Bond."  There is ample direct evidence disproving this chowderheaded notion, but that hasn't stopped imbeciles from adopting it, typically in a mood which indicates that they feel they are spearheading a political revolution of some sort.
I'm reluctant to mention any further fan theories like that one, simply because I don't want to junk up your heads with them.  You're welcome.  And in case those of you who are unimpressed by my stridency on this subject feel I'm being overly dickish, let me note that the thought has occurred to me.  It's also not lost on me that I just engaged in some gatekeeping by way of intimating that my way of being a James Bond fan is better than that of certain others.
Guilty as charged, but with a caveat: I don't think my way is better, per se, but I do think it is better-informed.  I'm sure I've been guilty on many an occasion of being a dilettante, so maybe my argument above carries a bit of hypocrisy along with it.  Perhaps.  But I don't think that invalidates the argument, and I stand by it.
I say all that as a means of getting into a conversation about whether the events of "Suffer the Little Children" actually happen, or whether it all took place in Sidley's brain.  I'd be willing to bet that many readers who have come of age in the era of "fan theories" would read this story and take it as a given that there are no monsters in the story, that it's about an insane woman who snaps one day, begins seeing things which are not there, and then murders twelve children as a result.  "What's a story without a plot twist?" they will subconsciously figure, and in the absence of an actual one, they will create their own.
Perhaps this isn't all bad.  Culture changes.  We clearly live in what I like to refer to as Mashup Culture (not my phrase but I'm happy to use it), and there are potentially-good things that go along with that: a questioning of givens, a redefinition of norms, a refinement of values.  Those things can also potentially be bad, but it would be curmudgeonly of me to assume it always would be.  In part, I'm arguing that "fan theories" do a bad job of reading stories the way stories are meant to be read, but a valid response to my assertion about that would be to say, "Why should I have to read stories that way?"  My only answer to that would be, "Because that's how it was intended," to which the response quickly comes back: "But can't we change that?"
Lest you think I'm waffling in my conviction, let me assure you that I'm not.  But I also didn't want to be guilty of not at least trying to see it from the other side.
Anyways, when I reread it last week, "Suffer the Little Children" struck me as a story ripe and ready for a fan-theory takeover.  My knee-jerk reaction was to ignore that aspect of it and move on, but that would have been disingenuous, and so YOU have had to suffer: through this preamble.  Apologies, but it could not be avoided; not by me, at least.
Thing is, I think King is playing around with the story enough that he wants readers to not entirely be sure about Miss Sidley's sanity.  It's my opinion that he is firmly on the side of there being monsters, because virtually his entire career speaks to that stance; but here, I think he wants you to have the question in your mind, if only so that when you answer it with a "yes" you've had to consciously reaffirm your belief in Things That Go Bump In The Night; or, if not actual belief, then at least the willingness to suspend disbelief.  That suspension of disbelief is a crucial element in the relationship King has with his readers, and I'd argue that if the reader is unwilling to provide it then there can be no relationship; but that doesn't mean that King isn't within his rights to occasionally ask, "Hey, you still with me?"
And with "Suffer the Little Children," I do think he's approaching things from a somewhat more ambiguous place than usual.  That approach begins with the title itself, which is arguably working in at least two ways simultaneously.  Being no Biblical scholar, I had to rely on Google to tell when the genesis of the saying.  It's from Matthew 19:14 (King James version), and goes like this: "But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven."

Okay, but what does that mean?  We need some context.  Believe it or not, I actually own a Bible or three, so I cracked one open -- a long-ago present from my mother -- and started reading Matthew Chapter Nineteen.  (NINETEEN, y'all.)  In it, Jesus is visiting Judaea, and is being followed by great multitudes, including some Pharisees who ask him for some specifics as to whether divorce is allowed.  (It isn't.)  Jesus goes on to say some stuff about eunuchs, and then this happens:

Then were there brought unto him little children, that he should put his hands on them, and pray: and the disciples rebuked them.  But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.  And he laid his hands on them, and departed thence.

After that, a rich young man comes up and asks him how to get into heaven, and is told that he'd better give all his possessions away on account of how it's easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to get into heaven.

In short, Matthew 19 seems -- and bear in mind my lack of Biblical scholarliness -- to consist of a decent amount of laying-down-the-law by Jesus.  He's not laying down much actual law, mind you, but he is saying that some things work better than others, making recommendations and interpretations, and leading by example.  If I understand the moment with the children correctly, what's happening is that Jesus and his disciples (and whoever else is present) are having a fairly intense set of talks wherein Jesus is recommending personal policies, and then suddenly a bunch of deadbeats with children show up wanting the children to be blessed (or maybe even healed).  The disciples are all like, "Get those dirty kids out of here, we are doing serious stuff right now!"  To which Jesus responds, essentially, "Ain't nothin' more serious than this," then lays hands on the kids and seemingly puts an end to the "serious stuff," which one feels is perhaps taken more seriously by the disciples than by Jesus himself, by going someplace else.

So in the context of this verse, "suffer" means "tolerate" or "withstand."  Right?  In other words, Jesus is saying, "Look, I know children can be kind of an annoyance, but you deal with it.  And don't turn them away from me," for such is the kingdom of heaven.  That last part requires interpretation, but I think what it means is that the sufferance of that which is necessarily annoying is part of what it means to attain the kingdom of heaven.  In other words, you'll never get to heaven if you don't learn to live life with that sort of sufferance.

Let's work our way back to Stephen King.  Those with knowledge of the Bible and of the Book of Matthew will likely read the title "Suffer the Little Children" as a command direct from Jesus: tolerate the children.  Those without that knowledge might read it that way (i.e., with "suffer" being an active verb, and one with a subject different than "children"), but they are probably just as apt to read it as a passive verb for which "children" is the subject.  What I mean by that, in case I'm not being clear enough, is that "suffer the little children" could be read as a statement describing the suffering -- i.e., the pain and anguish being experienced by -- of children.  In that same way, if you wanted to describe children who were eating lunch, you could say "the eating of children."  You likely wouldn't want to write it that way, but you could, and grammatically you'd still be within boundaries of correctness.

I'm willing to bet that if you are not familiar with the use of the word "suffer" in the sense of meaning "to endure or tolerate," then you probably read it in that passive sense.  Would Stephen King have considered that possibility when he titled the story?  Impossible to say for sure, but my money is on yes.  King had begun teaching high school in the fall of 1971, and so he was almost certainly teaching English classes at the time he wrote "Suffer the Little Children."  He would likely have been dialed-in to language mentally, so I'd bet he was at the very least conscious of the possible double-meaning of his title.

It gets better: a great many readers will also be conscious of the possible double-meaning carried by the title.  In order to proceed, it's necessary for each reader to -- (again) consciously or otherwise -- pick a side in terms of which meaning they lay onto the title.  Part of that process involves choosing whether or not to bring any active Biblical context to the reading.

In that way, I'm a bit agnostic.  I don't think King intends there to be any significant Christian overtones (or even undertones) to this story of shape-shifting monsters wearing child costumes; but at the same time, I don't think he'd shy away from consideration of the story within that context.  So it's dealer's choice, really.  What's clear, though, is that he's opened the door to the consideration.

From there, the meanings continue to pile up.  Miss Sidley could be said to be doing the Lord's work as a teacher; she, after all, has been actively engaged in the practice of suffering children for years.  She lays metaphorical hands on them by way of teaching them the subjects she is required to teach them; and while it's obvious that their wild ways aggravate her, she is obviously committed to getting through that and giving them the tools they need to progress.

If Sidley can be seen as a Christ stand-in (in the sense that she is teaching the children and providing for their furtherance), then what does that imply about the actions she takes later on in the story?  That's obviously a tricky subject, but we may as well get into it.

Before we do, I have to take another reluctant detour.  It's still 2016, and trust me when I tell you (o hypothetical readers of the future) that gun violence is kind of a loud conversation right now.  Not so much a conversation as an argument, actually; and not so much an argument as a lot of one-sided hollering.  Any time children get entangled in that hollering, things get exponentially worse, and just as I can imagine the proliferation of fan theories involving this story, I can also imagine accusations of triggering and exploitation and whatnot.  I mean, we do live in a post-Sandy Hook world, and there's no going back from that.  I'm assuming that anyone who is able to suffer my writing is probably capable of separating themselves sufficiently to not be triggered by any story, much less by one from 1972.  I don't believe in the concept of trigger-avoidance, personally; I mean, the fact is that it's a nasty old world out there, and if you consciously avoid recognizing that fact then you're missing out on the educational and cathartic potential that fiction holds.  Your loss, sucker; don't expect me to lose right alongside you, or to make allowances for your loserly habits.  You'll find little such behavior here; I'm too busy making allowances for my own loserly behavior, and you are free to create zones that are disdainful of that behavior as you see fit.

That said, there's no denying that reading "Suffer the Little Children" in 2016 results in a different set of feelings than in 1972, or even 1993.  It surely would have been shocking and horrifying in both of those earlier times, but in a less-politically-fraught manner.  I'm opposed to saying that events like that should never be the subject of fiction; I am not, however, opposed to questioning whether the resultant story approaches the subject in a manner that justifies plumbing those depths of morality.  That's a way of asking whether or not "Suffer the Little Children" can bear the weight of dealing with that subject (even if you allow for the climate in which it was written being so relatively different).

I think it can.  By no means is this a great story -- if you were compiling a mix-tape called Stephen King's Greatest Hits 1972-2016, I doubt you'd even consider this even if it were a two-cassette release -- but it's solid enough to make for a well-regarded deep-cut.  It doesn't surprise me that it took three collections to get it into mass circulation, though; and if Nightmares & Dreamscapes had not been such a whopper of a book, I suspect "Suffer the Little Children" would still be missing in action (alongside "Man with a Belly" and "Night of the Tiger" and others).

Still: pretty good story.  I think the mass-murder element is what seals the deal, too.  Up until that point, it's a well-written story, and the kids-as-monsters angle is persuasively mysterious.  Sidley is sympathetic enough to keep us tentatively on her side, but odds are good that we also have a mean teacher or two in our past and can therefore drum up a little interest in seeing how much worse things could get for her.  Either way, I think we're reading this story from a place of wanting to know what's going to happen next.

I don't think there's much chance that we expect the dusty old teacher to begin marching third-graders into a mimeograph room and commence to executing them via headshots.  That's a plot development that few people would anticipate.  This despite the fact that King has foreshadowed it.  One of King's strengths as a nuts-and-bolts writer of prose lies in his knowledge of how to employ line breaks and paragraph breaks.  When a line break sets one section of a story off from the one which preceded it, the effect is typically of transition: from one point of view character to another perhaps, or from one time period to a slightly different one.  King has a scene on a playground in which Sidley has returned to teaching after a medical absence of several weeks' time.  She is confronted by Robert, the "child" who has made known to her the presence of the monsters; she pretends not to know what he is talking about when he mentions his true being, and Robert goes off, smiling.

King deploys a line break, and then begins the next section thus: "Miss Sidley brought the gun to school in her handbag."  The way King uses the line break implies heavily that something has changed between the end of the foregoing section and the beginning of this new one.  It's left to us to decide what that is, but I take it to mean that Sidley has determined that a boiling point has either been reached or will soon be reached.

Still, though, what reader would predict what happens?  I first read "Suffer the Little Children" in 1993, and I've got no memory of how I responded to it.  I feel certain that if you had a time machine, and could use it to go back to 1993 Tuscaloosa, find me wherever I was as I read "Suffer the Little Children" for the first time, and stop me immediately after I'd finished reading that sentence, you'd get an answer like this if you asked me what she would end up doing with the gun: "She'll probably have to defend herself against Robert or something.  Maybe her principal will find it and fire her or something, and the monsters will take over because nobody believes her."

My brain at that time was a lot more focused on plot than on any of fiction's other virtues.  King, however, has typically placed more emphasis on character; and along with that comes an increased emphasis on emotion, mood, and tone.  Turning this story into "Miss Sidley Saves the World" was never in the cards for King, I'd imagine.  He wouldn't have asked himself what kind of good story he could tell from that point forward; he'd have been more interested in asking himself what an actual somebody like Miss Sidley might have done in that situation.  For him, the answer was that Sidley would see no way to convince anybody else of the truth, so her choice was simple: to sit back and let whatever was happening happen, or to do something about it.  In other words, to let the monsters proliferate or to try and stop them.

How else would you stop them?  Monster stories almost always involve killing the monsters.  Nobody in Dracula is asking how they can humanely allow Dracula to continue his miserable existence; they are asking how they can prevent Dracula from harming another person the way he's harmed Lucy.  Nobody on LV-426 wants to figure out to corral all the xenomorphs, they want to figure out how to kill them all so they can get the fuck off that planet; they'll drop a nuke on the site if they have to (as it is the only way to be sure).

I'm not arguing that there would be no way to write those stories from that angle; I'm simply arguing that their authors didn't write them that way.  I'm arguing that that is what a monster story is: an avoidance of refined approach; an advocacy for Final Solution.  I use that designation knowingly, and not lightly.  Because in real life, you'd have to be nuts to think there are monsters.  Not even animals are monsters; nobody wants to kill all the sharks just because a few people get killed by them every year.  We mostly accept that sharks are merely doing what sharks do, and adjust our behavior accordingly.  We're not wired to walk through life actually believing in monsters.  However, we are wired to believe in the possibility of them once the sun goes down and we hear noises at night.  I mean that literally; it's a survival mechanism that helps us not be eaten by tigers and bears and whatnot.  Again, it prompts us to adjust our behavior.

Being smart enough to be self-aware in that regard, we now believe in monsters only by proxy: that is, we permit characters in fictional stories to believe in them for us.

So here comes Emily Sidley, who believes that there are monsters hiding inside her third-graders.  Nobody know it but her.  She has that knowledge, and she has a gun; what should she do when she puts those things together?

If you accept Sidley's assessment, isn't the answer obvious?  These are monsters, and we know what has to be done with monsters, right?  It's for the good of the clan.  Those monsters have got to go.  Don't give 'em no tree-fitty; that ain't the way to handle 'em.  Levity aside, we are wired to not just accept Sidley doing what she does, but to demand it.

What, then, does it say about us that we are shocked by her actions, and that we feel uneasy about it?

I think it means we are functional human beings who know enough to fight through our impulses.  King has masterfully done a good job of leaving enough doubt in our minds -- and in Sidley's mind -- that we can't be 100% sure these actually are monsters.  That being the case, we are uncomfortable treating them as such, despite the fairly overwhelming evidence in favor of convicting them on grounds of monsterdom.

King is revealing our own humanity to us.  That should come as no surprise; it's what he's best at.

This is seemingly what the first two pages of the story looked like in their Cavalier debut.

A few remaining issues I'd like to touch upon:

  • The opening line is: "Miss Sidley was her name, and teaching was her game."  First, can I specify that her name is Emily Sidley, not "Miss" Sidley?  I don't take this as an error on King's part, though; you get the feeling that Sidley would think of her actual name as being "Miss Sidley."
  • Second, let me say that I have no idea where the saying "__________'s my name, and __________'s my game" came from, nor do I know how old it is.  I've heard it my whole life, though, so I'm guessing it has been around since at least my grandparents' youth.  How'd it get coined as a thing people say?  No idea.  My perception of it is that it's the sort of thing disingenuous verbalists say; shady salesmen, carnival barkers, con-men, and the like.  People who rely on their method of speech to gain them an advantage over those with weaker minds than their own.  Moreso, those people would say it because they've had success saying it; it would be a tried-and-true, well-worn saying in their mouths, and it would sound like they'd said it a hundred hundred times, because they probably would have.  With that in mind, what function does it serve for King to begin the story with that line?  One could say that it's simply a poor turn of phrase on King's part, but before one said that, one really ought to ask whether the triteness of it works to the story's benefit in any way.  I think it does, because while the story is not written from Sidley's point of view, strictly-speaking, it nevertheless does offer far more of her perspective than it does for any other character.  The implication is that -- perhaps only subconsciously -- Sidley would think such a thing about herself.  I don't think this implies disingenuousness on her part, though; I think it speaks more to the tried-and-true, well-worn approach she has to teaching.  She has adopted a method through trial and error; it would sound like she'd said the things she says a hundred hundred times, because she has.
  • "Like God, she seemed to know everything all at once," King says of Sidley.  You may recall that I opined that one could not immediately write off a christian reading of this story.
  • King describes Sidley as a "small, constantly suffering, gimlet-eyed woman."  This puts me in mind of the likely manner in which the word "suffering" came to mean what it means to us (i.e., the process of being in physical or emotional anguish).  Our brief study of Matthew earlier taught us that "to suffer" means "to tolerate," implicitly at whatever price is required.  A sufferer, then, is one who is paying the price to achieve a desired goal.  This, in turn, implies that true suffering can only occur when one willingly submits to the anguish.  If the anguish were forced upon one, I suppose that would be torment instead of suffering.  Fun with vocabulary!
  • The plot hinges on the idea that Miss Sidley can see what's happening behind her back.  How?  She uses the reflection in her glasses.  I've worn glasses since about 1983, and I'm here to tell you that I can't see jack shit in that manner.  Certainly not while wearing them; if I remove them, I can kind of catch a glimpse of a thing or two by moving them around a bit.  But they don't show me anything that's happening behind me, and no pair of glasses I've ever owned would be any different in that regard.  Are Sidley's perhaps considerably larger than mine?  Could her peripheral vision be considerably better than mine, sufficient to enable this trick?  It feels to me like some bullshit Stephen King made up . . . and if so, I can roll with it.
  • King has an occasional lovely turn of phrase in this story.  "The look wouldn't leave her mind," he says about Sidley first glimpsing Robert's "true" self.  "It was stuck there, like a tiny string of roast beef between two molars -- a small thing, actually, but feeling as big as a cinderblock."  Who among us can't sympathize with that?  Vegetarians, perhaps; but otherwise, you know exactly what King means here.  It's a simple and obvious way to describe this persistent thought of Sidley's, but the very simplicity and obviousness of it works in the story's favor, because it makes it easy for us to relate to and sympathize with Sidley.  We know exactly what she's going through.  It will make it easier for us to continue to do so, which is crucial to the story's impact.
  • Another nice bit of description: "She knew she was getting older and accepted the knowledge calmly.  She was not going to be one of those old-maid schoolmarms dragged kicking and screaming from their classes at the age of retirement.  They reminded her of gamblers unable to leave the tables while they were losing.  But she was not losing.  She had always been a winner."  King deploys a paragraph break; Sidley looks down at her dinner of poached eggs, and he deploys another.  "Hadn't she?"  Everything about this works.  Sidley's attitude toward retirement seems logical, even enviable; this attitude puts us more firmly on her side.  And yet, her life does seem to be a somewhat lonely and forlorn one, as the arguably-pathetic dinner attests.  King's paragraph breaks steers us in precisely the right direction: with Sidley herself, who has the presence of mind to doubt the efficacy of her approach to life.  But that very doubt causes us to empathize with her all the more!  King has just given us a master's-class demonstration of point of view.
  • The story plays on the notion that the old always look upon the young with a certain degree of disdain and judgment.  It's not lost on me that I've done that very thing in this very post, by the way.  Luckily for me, I'm self-aware enough that I can do that (and mean it) while also recognizing that it has always been thus.  "Children had been different in her day," Sidley reflects, and it's true; but it's also false.  Children have likely always been the same in some ways; but changing times can, and do, result in differences in the way that sameness presents itself.  Not just children, either; if you think there hasn't always been some version of annoying hipsters wearing tour t-shirts for bands that broke up before they were even born; slovenly-looking folks wearing their pants three-quarters of the way down their ass; and millennials who genuinely think their college ought to be free even though they flunked out after the first semester they paid for (to name a few such groups), then you're wrong.  Different lyrics, maybe; but the song remains the same.  See also: crusty and bitter old fucks who refuse to admit the fact that the world has already turned beneath their feet, and won't get out of the way of the people who do admit it and want to turn right along with it.  That never changes, either.  Maybe it's the natural order of things.  If so, "Suffer the Little Children" seems to reflect it.
  • After her killing spree, Sidley is declared insane and is put in Juniper Hill.  This mental asylum pops up in several of King's novels: most prominently, it's where Henry Bowers goes after seeing the Deadlights in It, but it's also where Nettie Cobb had been in Needful Things, and Raymond Joubert in Gerald's Game.  I suspect (but cannot prove) that the reference to Juniper Hill was added for the 1993 revision of the story.
  • The final section begins thus: "Buddy Jenkins was his game, psychiatry was his game."  This, obviously, is a mirroring of the beginning of the story.  Should we read anything into that?  I'll engage in some Satanic advocacy for a moment and say that if I were formulating a fan-theory approach to reading this story, I'd hypothesize that Sidley is a partial psychic who goes insane, and speculate that once she is in Juniper Hill, her psychosis is telepathically transmitted to Buddy Jenkins the way a flu virus might be.  Do I believe that?  No!  Fuck no, I surely do not.  That said, King gives us a moment near the very end in which Buddy, observing Sidley, sees a disturbed look appear on her face while she is looking at the group of children with whom she is interacting.  There is no evidence that he has seen anything at all unusual on the children's faces himself, so we have to wonder: IS it all in Sidley's head?  Alternatively, the children's backs may all be to Buddy.  The point is, we don't know for sure.
  • Either way, King ends the story by hinting that Buddy does eventually begin to see the children for what they are: the looks on the faces of the retarded children seems "somehow deep," and Buddy is said to in the end be "hardly able to take his eyes off them."  That's King's phrase: "in the end," implying that there is a resolution of some sort.  Clearly, something happens, and it seems obvious to me that King wants us to think Buddy sees what Miss Sidley saw.  So unless he really did contract her insanity like a flu, don't we have to assume the monsters are real?

That's the question, isn't it?

So, to sum up: pretty solid story, and one that is more fraught with meaning than it might appear at first glance.

Next up in our chronology: "The Fifth Quarter," by John Swithen.


  1. Mr. Burnette,
    Very nice in-depth review. However it does encourage me to come up with a fan theory of what you're really saying here!
    I do like how you broke down the way King begins and ends the story. It does appear cheap and simple on the face of it, but I like your reading of it.
    Keep up the good work.

    1. Thanks a lot! I appreciate you reading it. If your fan theory about my true message involves me actually have been dead the entire time, then you are on the wrong track. I hope.

  2. I feel a curious urge to watch "Aliens" again soon...

    I like this story. I think you're right to place it as an fondly-remembered deep track and not necessarily a Greatest Hits selection. But the twist is good - and earned. And as you point out, it's not even really a twist: killing the monster(s) is what you're supposed to do in these things. The twist is more or less the ironic context. Very much a 70s vibe, I guess. God bless those cycnical bastards!

    I wonder if there are specific glasses or lenses where you could use them as rearview mirrors. I bet you could, but I'm with you - it feels more like some BS King made up. That's how I read the first line, too, just King needing some entry point to get the ball rolling and then not editing it properly after. Of course, that doesn't work, though, because then he recalls it with the Buddy/psychology's-my-game recall. So, I guess he just liked that phrase and didn't find it awkward or out-of-step with the rest of it. I do, I guess, so there's where King and I diverge on that, I guess. Not that it sinks the story for me or anything.

    I would love for a Juniper Hill anthology show.

    My fan theory is that the whole thing is taking place on Altair IV.


      "Juniper Hill" anthology series for the win!

      There is nothing curious about wanting to watch "Aliens." Day in the Marine Corps is like a day on the farm...

      I didn't think to describe this way during my actual post, but the reason the opening line feels off to me is that it's reminiscent of forced jocularity. King pulls water out of that well every so often, and it almost always falls flat for me. Here, though, I think I was able to rationalize it for myself somewhat.

  3. have you read the cookie jar yet?

    1. I have a copy of the magazine, but no, I have not read it yet.

  4. Hey, meant to post this last week, but it's good to see a new post. I just finished End of Watch, so I may actually be ahead of you for once.

    Did I miss some kind of official announcement of what you're writing about now? Sounds like you're in a short story mood?

    1. I'm always in a mood for everything; it's just a matter of what I can find time for and what I can't. Short stories are within my grasp. No official announcement; I find that every time I make one of those, I can't get the job done, so maybe it's best for me to make no plans.

      How'd you like "End of Watch"? I'm hoping to get to that while it's still 2016.

    2. I liked the whole trilogy. There are some spots that strain credulity, but overall, I think King proved himself a formidable writer of crime fiction. I definitely didn't understand all of what was going on in End of Watch, as far as the technology is concerned. You probably already know that Brady Hartsfield is up to his old tricks, and there is some techy stuff that feels like King is trying to pass off as hypnotism while minimizing the supernatural element. It would be interesting to know what someone who has an expert understanding of the inner workings of computers and the web would say. You'd also probably be happy to know that Jerome's alter ego that breaks out into slave jive only makes one very brief appearance.

  5. Man, great to see another post after quite a while.

    Random thoughts:

    On fan theories.

    Technically, I tend to be more open to fan theories more often than not. However I also would like to think i know when not to go overboard with it, unless something in the text, or script seems to imply it (for instance, how does Ferris Bueller know what Cameron's going to say, even when he's nowhere around to hear it?).

    In terms of this story, I think I like your theory about the story very much. I don't necessarily think she's Ms. Sidley is psychic so much as she of the victim of that little spot "out of the corner of the eye". I don't know if that counts as any kind of trope, but there seem to be something almost folkloric in her happening to catch the monsters "by chance".

    In other words, I think a good way of reading the main catalyst is that through bad luck or fate, Sidley is able to catch a glimpse a crack in the surface of reality, and of what horrors lie underneath. At the end, I think it's implied that Buddy Jenkins is able to discover this same crack from more deliberate means. If that is the case, then technically that makes Jenkins a Lovecraft protagonist.


    1. Oooh...! The Lovecraft-y aspect of that had not occurred to me. Good call!

      I'm familiar with that "Ferris Bueller" theory, but it's been too long since I saw the movie for me to have an opinion on it. I'll default to being grumpy about it, just to be on the safe side. ;)

      I don't think I mentioned this in my review (and am too lazy to check to be sure), but I think it would be very possible to speculate that the "children" have actually revealed themselves to Miss Sidley on purpose. Perhaps they are similar to Ardelia Lortz and/or Pennywise in that they draw sustenance of some sort from fear.

      Something to consider, at least. But all things considered, I think I'd prefer to think that she has simply stumbled upon their true natures unwittingly. That reading implies that life is full of such unwelcome surprises, if only we are looking in exactly the right way at exactly the right place at exactly the right time.

    2. Speaking of Lovecraft, I don't remember if you covered this flick already in your HPL overview, however I found this neat-cheesy-retro 80s song from the soundtrack of "The Unnameable". It's called "Up There" by Mark Ryder:

      Lyric wise, it's pretty much your standard break up song. Transferred to a different context, it could be linked with Lovecraft's ideas of "Cosmicism", I guess.

      Personally, going by pure association, it reminds me of The Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland.

      No seriously! If I had to justify that then all I can say is it just seems to fit the vibe or ambience they were going for with that ride.

      In fact, I can almost imagine how you could make a Mansion music video out of this cong, invloving the ballroom organ player and the singing busts.

      ...Yes, I am a hopeless geek.

      Still, the 80s were a good decade for horror movie soundtracks. I think we've lost something vital in that respect.


    3. I dig that song. I mean, I would; I'm exactly the right age to like songs like that one. I couldn't agree more that the '10s pales in comparison to the '80s as regards horror-movie music. "Stranger Things" is probably the closest we've gotten to a resurgence in that approach to the aural delights of cheesy synth-pop.

      I've never been to the Disneyland Haunted Mansion. I've been to the Disney World version many times, though, so I know what you mean. (And technically, I have been to Disneyland's -- but it was when the Nightmare overlay was on it, so I don't count that, even though it was awesome.)

      If you ever make that video, send me a link to it!