Friday, September 22, 2017

A Brief Review of "Thin Scenery"

The King community was surprised recently to learn that a new "story" from Uncle Steve had been released (to literally no fanfare) over the summer.  Specifically, "Thin Scenery" had appeared in the summer issue of Emerson's College's Ploughshares, which, if Amazon's listing is to be believed, debuted in mid-July.
Guest-edited by King collaborator Stewart O'Nan!

The publication was brought to my attention by Peter Hansen, to whom The Truth Inside The Lie issues a hearty thanks and acknowledgment!
I got my copy in the mail this week and read the "story," and if you're wondering why I keep putting the word in quotation marks like that, it's because "Thin Scenery" isn't a short story at all; it's a play.  I suppose you'd technically refer to it as a one-act play.  It runs for 32 pages, and while it is not a short story in designation, it'll take you about as long to read as a moderate-sized short-story-length piece of prose.
So, in other words, this is a substantial piece of work.  When I first heard it was a play, I wasn't sure what to expect; the only other play King has published is the "one-minit" play "An Evening at God's," which is a decidedly insubstantial piece of work.  (Also, if you want to get technical, an unpublished one; King wrote that brief work as a giveaway to be auctioned off for charity.)
"Thin Scenery," though, absolutely has the heft of merit to it.  I'm not sure it will be included in his next story collection, but it will absolutely deserve to be.
And there you have it: that's my review.  I mean, sure, I could tell you what it's about, I guess.  But if you're like me, you don't really need to know what it's about.  It was written by Stephen King!  What more do you need to know than that?
I am always torn when it comes to reviewing short works like these, because it is my assumption that a large portion of my readers won't encounter them until King puts them in one of his collections.  There can't be THAT many King fans who are so chuffed over his every word that they'll buy an issue of Ploughshares, or The Atlantic, or Granta or whatever.  That being the case, when I write a review like this, who am I actually writing it for?  I figure that for the majority of people who come here, me saying, "Hey, King just published a one-act play, it's pretty cool and here's where you can find it" is sufficient.
For everyone else, maybe a few more words (including something about the plot) ARE in order, though.  So with that in mind, I'll try to keep the spoilers at bay and give y'all a bit more to chew on.  I'll go ahead and tell you now, it won't amount to a whole lot.  But, hey, while we're here and all.
So as to provide a buffer for everyone else to bail out, here are five images Google provided me when I did a search for "thin scenery."  All King-related images have been stricken from consideration.
About those, I would say:
(1)  Those seats are freaking me out.
(2)  I'm the weirdo cat-lover who, given a reasonably safe opportunity to do so, would ABSOLUTELY like to pet a tiger.
(3)  Can't get here soon enough.  Oh, and Abrams is a GREAT hire for Episode IX.  Oh, and Howard was a better choice than Lord/Miller ever were.
(4)  I loathe Funko Pops.  there are King-related ones out there, but I'll never own one.
(5)  That guy could only be Frencher if he was wearing a beret.  This is not a slur in my book, FYI.  I applaud the French.
About "Thin Scenery, "I would say this:
It's about a man who shows up for an appointment with a psychiatrist to discuss an issue he's having, which is that he's suddenly no longer certain that the world around him is real.  
For example, at one point the patient (Crosby) points to a wall and asks the doctor (Frobisher) what he sees.  Frobisher tells him that he sees several things, including a painting on the wall -- "Frigate at Sea, by Winslow Homer.  (This is a painting that seemingly does not actually exist.  Winslow Homer definitely does, and a website purporting to contain a gallery of his complete works mentions no Frigate at Sea.)  While looking at it, Frobisher decides it's a little crooked, and gets up to straighten it.
King includes the following stage direction:
He gets up and goes to the picture, which we can't see because it's hanging on the fourth wall, and the fourth wall is invisible.  He reaches out and straightens it.
Crosby, when asked by Frobisher what he sees, replies, "Suppose I told you that when you straightened the Winslow Homer print, I saw you straightening nothing but thin air?  Would you call me crazy?"
In other words, Crosby can see see beyond where the fourth wall should be; he can literally see the audience watching the play.
By this point in the story, we already knew this; King chose to let us in on that aspect before Crosby informs Frobisher.  A few pages previous to this moment where Crosby begins hinting to Frobisher what his issue is, King included a stage direction indicating that "someone's cell phone goes off in the audience" while Frobisher's secretary, Miss Nelson, is having him sign some documents.  "We get maybe six second of howling fuzz-tone guitar before the forgetful one can silence it."  Miss Nelson proceeds to berate the audience for being neglectful.  
King specifies that while this is happening, Frobisher "gives no sign that he's heard."  Crosby, on the other hand, "is staring at her.  He's unsettled but not gaping with wonder, or anything.  This isn't exactly new to him."
From here, things develop apace, with Crosby giving Frobisher more of his background, and King continuing to play with the conventions of the stage.  I may as well admit that I am by no means well-versed in theatrical history, vocabulary, theory, etc.  However, I do know that this sort of thing is by no means new ground in theatrical production; in college, I read a 1921 play by Luigi Pirandello called "Six Characters in Search of an Author" that played with similar ideas.  I don't remember much about it, but I loved it at the time.
I mention that so that nobody feel that I am under the illusion that King is breaking new ground here.  He isn't, and I doubt he thought he was.  I think he's just having fun playing in a medium he's basically never worked in before.
The question I had was: can this play theoretically be performed?  There are a few moments in which visual effects of some sort would be necessary to complete an accurate staging; and I think the production would need a director with a strong vision.  Or maybe stuff like this gets done all the time and I just don't know about it.
Another option for how to produce the play would be to film it, complete with an audience; that way, if you needed to resort to actual visual effects, you could.  And this could theoretically add an extra layer of paranoia to the proceedings, which would be fun.
And this is a fun piece of work.  I was thoroughly entertained by it, in a manner that made me think of The Twilight Zone ("A World of Difference," specifically), and "The Reploids," and David Lynch, and, yes, Pirandello.  
I won't divulge more than that.  Hopefully you will all get a chance to read this for yourselves.  If you're intrigued, why not visit that link to Ploughshares and buy a copy?  If you want to save a few bucks, you could also get the Kindle version.
I won't swear that you'll find it to be worth your time and money.  I found it to be worth both for me, though.
If you check it out -- or even if you don't -- let me know what you think!


  1. I just finished reading, thanks to a friend's scanning it in and passing it on. (Hell of a chap, really, quite cricket.) I enjoyed it very much. Definitely from King's "Twilight Zone" side of things, in the vein of "The Ten O'Clock People" or "Afterlife," or even "Ur." So many, actually, I can't just limit to those. And of course I don't consider any of the derivative of The TZ, just in the same, fun, well-done wheelhouse.

    (Or "The Reploids," as you point out.)

    This was a great read. I feel like a lot of writers work or have worked with this scenario ("man in play realizes he's on stage and can see the audience") - and I had a sense of deja-vu on this as (as happened with "Afterlife") as a young man I, too, made an attempt at just such a story. Mine ended on the same note (screaming at the audience) but had none of "Thin Scenery's" flair, readability, great last line, great stage directions/ narration, and organization, and surreal touches. Or any of its meta-narrative on the artifice of theater itself (the cross, thin scenery, double casting, etc.)

    I thought of that one 80s TZ segment, too, about the purple people (stagehands) building the future second by second.

    As to your question as to whether it could be staged in a conventional theater, I think so. The more higher-tech productions could easily accommodate everything in the script, but even an amateur one could improvise the fx. And (like "Spectre of the Gun" and its sparse sets) it's even got that going for it: its unreality is covering fire for a cheap set/ tech!

    1. In that case, I look forward to eventually seeing lots of mediocre student productions of it pop up on YouTube!

      I haven't seen that episode of the '80s Twilight Zone, but it sounds cool. Langoliers-esque, except in reverse!