Storm in a Teacup

I first discovered Stephen King when I was a sophomore in high school. A friend was carrying a paperback copy of Carrie around with her, and I neither recognized the title nor the author. The cover was interesting looking, in that weird kind of alternate reality type way that speculative fiction covers so often got at that time. “What is this about?” I asked when I picked it up and examined the book.

“It’s about a bullied girl with psychic powers,” she replied. “My mom was worried about letting me read it because she’s afraid I’m like her.”

It rather broke my heart a little to hear my friend, who was overweight and had very bad skin but also incredibly kind and intelligent, say this; but I could also relate a bit because I, too, was picked on and bullied. I, too, knew what it was like to walk past a gaggle of kids both pretty and “cool”, notice that they stopped talking as I approached only to whisper and laugh once I walked by…while simultaneously feeling grateful that they had the decency to whisper so I couldn’t hear what was said (and typing that really made me sad).

I opened the book to the first page and there it was, about halfway down the first page, in italics: Carrie White eats shit.

The preceding sentence, not italicized, read: “Graffiti scratched on a desk of the Barker Street Grammar School in Chamberlain:”

The realism of this, its brutal reality and recognition of the horrors bullied kids face, was like a 2 x 4 across my forehead. I started reading, and kept reading, until the bell rang and I was about thirty pages in, completely drawn into the story. I’d never read anything like it before; it was so real, so honest, so like what high school was actually like as opposed to the cutesy stories I was accustomed to reading about teenagers, where the concerns were “who will take me to Prom?” or “should I go ahead and have sex now or do I wait till I get married?” This was visceral, and I regretfully passed the book back to my friend, thinking, “I’ll look for it at Zayre’s when we go there next.”

My friend, who shared my love of reading, just smiled and said, “I haven’t started it yet–why don’t you go ahead and finish it and then give it back?”

I read it instead of paying attention in my next class–it was Drama, the little play we were rehearsing for class had me assigned stage managing duties, so I really had nothing to do since I wasn’t rehearsing–so I sat in a seat in our school theater, reading. I read it on the bus ride home. I read it when I got home, sitting on my bed with my back propped up by cushions. And I finished it that night–establishing a pattern with King’s fiction that lasted for decades: I would read the book as soon as I got a copy from start to finish, usually in one sitting (It kept my up all night because I couldn’t put it down).

When I saw Night Shift on the wire racks of the News Depot several years later in Kansas, I was terribly excited. A new Stephen King! I bought it immediately and took it home…slightly disappointed to discover it was merely a short story collection, and I wasn’t a big fan of reading short stories; I only read the ones I was required to read for a class assignment.

I read the first story, “Jerusalem’s Lot,” and didn’t like it at all; I put the book aside and didn’t return to it until months later…the next story, however, was “Graveyard Shift” and it was amazing…suffice it to say, I read the rest of the book through in one sitting–and it’s also been my go-to for rereads and so far when I don’t have a lot of time, or I want to simply relax and enjoy reading…one of the reasons for years I would often reread a favorite book.

But last night we started watching Chapelwaite, which I knew was an adaptation of that first story I didn’t care for–and have never reread as a result–and so I decided to go ahead and revisit the story.

I am really glad that I did.

Oct. 2, 1850

Dear Bones,

How good it was to step into the cold, draughty hall here at Chapelwaite, every bone in an ache from that abominable coach, in need of relief from my distended bladder–and to see a letter addressed in your own inimitable scrawl propped on the obscene little cherry-wood table beside the door! Be assured that I set to deciphering it as soon as the needs of the body were attended to (in a coldly ornate downstairs bathroom where I could see my breath rising before my eyes).

I’m glad to hear that you recovered from the miasma that has so long set in your lungs, although I assure you that I do sympathize with the moral dilemma the cure has affected you with. An ailing abolitionist healed by the sunny climes of slave-struck Florida! Still and all, Bones, I ask you as a friend who has also walked in the valley of the shadow, to take all care of yourself and venture not back to Massachusetts until your body gives you leave. Your fine mind and incisive pen cannot serve us if you are clay, and if the Southern zone is a healing one, is there not poetic justice in that?

Yes, the house is quite as fine as I had been led to believe by my cousin’s executors, but rather more sinister. It sits atop a huge and jutting point of land perhaps three miles north of Falmouth and nine miles north of Portland. Behind it are some four acres of grounds, gone back to the wild in the most formidable manner imaginable–junipers, scrub vines, bushes, and various forms of creeper climb wildly over the picturesque stone walls that separate the estate from the town domain. Awful imitations of Greek statuary peer blindly through the wrack from atop various hillocks–they seem, in most cases, about to lunge at the passer-by. My cousin Stephen’s tastes seem to have run the gamut from the unacceptable to the downright horrific. There is an odd little summer house which has been nearly buried in scarlet sumac and a grotesque sundial in the midst of what must once have been a garden. It adds the final lunatic touch.

But the view from the parlour more than excuses this; I command a dizzying view of the rocks at the foot of Chapelwaite Head and the Atlantic itself. A huge, bellied bay window looks out on this, and huge, toadlike secretary stands beside it. It will do nicely for the start of that novel which I have talked of so long (and no doubt tiresomely).

When I first read this story (and disliked it so intensely) I was a teenager completely turned off by the archaic style of writing, as well as the concept of a story told in letters and diary entries (I wasn’t aware of the concept of epistolary fiction at the time; it was also why I stopped reading Dracula when I first tried as a teenager), and the story itself was just kind of…weird–with all its references to things inside the walls and “great worms” and “horrors from beyond the cosmos”…it wasn’t until I read King’s study Danse Macabre that I became aware of Lovecraft’s work and eldritch horrors; but remembering how much I disliked this story, it didn’t exactly inspire me to go on to read Lovecraft or works in a similar vein (the cultural war over Lovecraft in the speculative fiction community over the last decade–not sure of the time line, frankly, and don’t care enough to go look; I am loosely affiliated with that community and have many friends in it, so can’t not be aware but simply observed).

But watching Chapelwaite put me in mind of this source material for the show again, and I decided to reread it this morning, since I’ve never reread the story since its initial read back in the 1970’s. I’ve since read Dracula; Les Liaisons Dangereuses was the book that cured me of my disdain for epistolary fiction–the book is extraordinary–but yet, never gave “Jerusalem’s Lot” another try.

I’m glad I did.

This second read made me appreciation the story a lot more than I did over forty years ago. A quick glance at the copyright page for Night Shift shows that the story was an unpublished work included in this collection and seeing print for the first time; a shame, because it not only shows King’s incredible versatility as a writer but also it’s chilling and creepy; it’s almost Gothic in tone, certainly using a writing style from the past (although I don’t know that a man in 1850 would mention needing to relieve his bladder in a letter to a friend); one that is very formal and I didn’t care for much as a teenager but have come to greatly appreciate in the years since. The story is simple: Charles Boone, after some ill health after the loss of his beloved wife, has inherited a family estate on the coast of Maine. There was a family rift between his grandfather and great-uncle; the death of the former master of Chapelwaite has left Charles as the lone survivor of the family. Once he and his man-servant arrive, they begin to experience strange phenomena that they originally tribute to rats in the walls; but rats don’t explain when no one in the nearby town of Preacher’s Corners will come near the place, or will have anything to do with Charles. A few miles from the house is a pristine yet abandoned village: Jerusalem’s Lot (yes, the same name of the town from King’s classic vampire novel ‘salem’s Lot), and Charles–despite being warned (do people in horror stories ever listen to warnings?) investigate the little town, and…yeah.

GREAT story, and the end is *chef’s kiss*.

Very glad I decided to revisit the story, so thank you, Chapelwaite, for getting me to do so.

And I will add there’s another Jerusalem’s Lot story in Night Shift, “One for the Road”–which I deeply love.

And now back to the spice mines.

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