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Unless otherwise noted in the post title, these are not
reviews, per se. They are articles for people who have already seen the film or read the book in question--meaning that there will be spoilers. If you're already familiar with the material being covered, or don't mind the plot being spoiled, please read on and leave a comment.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Horror in the Heartland: Going Deep into Stephen King’s “1922”

FULL DARK, NO STARS - Stephen King - Cover Image
Cover Image

1922 is the opening novella in Stephen King’s 2010 collection FULL DARK, NO STARS, and it takes the form of a written murder confession by farmer Wilfred Leland James, scrawled in a motel room in 1930, eight years after the crime.

Wilf’s wife, a bit of a harpy named Arlette, has inherited one hundred acres of farmland from her father, and refuses to give into her husband’s wishes of folding that property into his existing acreage.  Instead, she wants to sell it to a large corporation and move to the city, where she dreams of opening up a little dress shop of her own.  Wilf, who usually gives into Arlette’s demands, steadfastly refuses to sell.  But as this property is in Arlette’s name, there is really nothing that he can do.

Or is there?

Using his wife’s crude behavior against her, Wilf manipulates their 14 year old son Hank into assisting in Arlette’s murder and concealing the crime.  The official story is that she stole some cash and ran off on her family, never to be seen again.  In seven years’ time, if she is not found, Wilf can declare her legally dead and do with the land as he pleases.  Until then, it sits in limbo, though he’s not the only one who believes it is rightfully his.  Andrew Lester, a lawyer retained by the Farrington Livestock Company, wants to lay claim to it, but first he must find Arlette and have her sign on the dotted line.  And that is to say nothing of Sheriff Jones who comes sniffing around, searching for evidence of foul play.

Lester and Sheriff Jones aren’t their worst adversaries, though.  For Hank, that title goes to his own conscience and the dark evolution that it sparks; for Wilf, it would be the spirit of Arlette herself, and her small army of flesh-hungry rats—if they do, in fact, exist.  Are they supernatural manifestations, or manifestations of natural guilt?  But more on that later.

This bulk of this story takes place in the fictional Hemingford Home, Nebraska (not to be confused with the real Hemingford, NE), which originally appeared in King’s novel THE STAND, as home to the spiritual Mother Abigail, and has been referenced in other of his works.  King's Dark Tower series seems to suggest that there are multiple versions of the world (i.e., alternate realities) stacked atop each other, although from what I have gathered, King's works generally depict only a few: the aforementioned Dark Tower cycle (which I am, admittedly, not well-versed in); the fairy tale-esque reality from EYES OF THE DRAGON; and the two that we are most concerned with here, the Apocalyptic reality of THE STAND, and King's "mainstream" reality, where the bulk of his work exists in—which we know, because the tales often overlap. Although THE STAND is the only other story where Hemingford Home features prominently, it definitely exists in the Mainstream Reality, too, as evidenced by casual references in CHILDREN OF THE CORN and IT. Since this story takes place well before the opening of THE STAND, it is conceivable that it takes place in that reality, but with no other ties than a central locale, I would venture to guess that it belongs to his primary continuity.

Wilfred is not our hero.  As far as heroes go in this story, there are none—not really.  There is the country sheriff, but he never performs as a major character, and doesn’t do a good enough job in his investigation for us to root for him.  Wilfred is not even an anti-hero, in the strictest sense of the word.  He is, in truth, a lowly criminal.  This is the story of an antagonist in a world without protagonists, and because we have nobody else to root for, we root for the villain.  By using Wilfred’s voice to tell the story, and by laying on the table all that was stacked against him, King manages to make him a sympathetic bad guy.  It is perhaps not until the end of the story that we stop and realize that we have been cheering on a man who murdered his wife in cold blood, dragging his young son to Hell in the process.  Some will just shrug, chuckle and move on.  Others will stop to contemplate the implications, which I suspect is precisely what King was aiming for.

Wilf is not what you might consider a typical farmer of the era.  He is not some dusty good ol’ boy spouting off bits of country wisdom through the tobacco smoke of his corncob pipe.  He is a very smart man, deviously so, and a voracious reader, well-versed in Greek myth (all of his cows are named after mythological characters).  He is a self-taught man, like a downhome version of Sartre’s character trope.  The following passage from NAUSEA could just as easily be describing Wilfred:
"He has passed brutally from the study of coleopterae to the quantum theory, from a work on Tamerlaine to a Catholic pamphlet against Darwinism, he has never been disconcerted for an instant. He has read everything; he has stored up in his head most of what anyone knows about parthenogenesis, and half the arguments against vivisection. There is a universe behind and before him. And the day is approaching when closing the last book on the last shelf on the far left: he will say to himself, ‘Now what?’”
In the case of Wilfred, the “Now what?” is murder.

It has, from the start, been established that Arlette was a troublesome woman.  She drank too much and talked too much, she was headstrong and stubborn, and she henpecked her husband until he gave into her every whim.  So why, of all the things that she demanded through the years, was it the issue of land rights that finally drove him over the brink?  It is true that his land provided the income, but if they were to sell Arlette’s land, they both would have stood to earn enough money for them to live comfortably for some time.  It is also true that  folding Arlette’s 100 acres into his own 80 acres would have increased their income substantially, but in murdering her, he would have to hold out for seven long years before that could become a reality—and nobody murders today for a payout in seven years.  Wilf claims that he could not allow her to sell because he wouldn’t be able to stand the stench of the slaughterhouse or the sight of the rivers of blood that would surely flow from it, but this sounds like a desperate man grasping at straws, hoping to rationalize an irrational reaction.  It seems quite possible that the truth is something simpler.

Having always given in to his wife, Wilfred was somewhat emasculated (especially in those long ago, less-enlightened days).  If her owning more land than him would be a slap in the face, then her dreams of using the money earned from selling the land to open up her own dress shop would have been like a shot to the heart.  In those days, a woman’s place was in the home, preferably in the kitchen or, when the lights went out, in the bedroom.  They were not to be out in the world, holding down jobs…especially when they threatened to earn more than the husband.  Wilf was an intelligent man, but he was an intelligent man of his time.  These wild dreams of hers would have been the ultimate symbolic castration, and I think it’s likely that this is what finally drove him to murder.  Kill the woman to save the man.

Given the tenuous connection to Sartre’s NAUSEA, it’s no surprise that Wif’s narration is sprinkled with bits of homespun existential philosophy (which is distinctly at odds with the Bible verses and proverbs that those around him are quick to quote).  He ponders on life, death and what comes after with a casual coldness that is not often associated with the American heartland:
"Sooner or later even the stoutest coffin must collapse and let in life to feed on death. It's the way of the world, and what did it matter? When the heart stops and the brain asphyxiates, our spirits either go somewhere else, or simply wink out. Either way, we aren't there to feel the gnawing as our flesh is eaten from our bones." 
His notion of the “nesting dolls” that make up humanity is an intriguing one.  On the outside, Wilf is a kindhearted, intelligent farmer, but within that is his more devious nature which he refers to as the Conniving Man.  Within the Conniving Man is another man, a hopeful man that believes everything will come out okay in the end.  It is the farmer that hangs onto the past, the hopeful man that longs for the future, and the Conniving Man in the present that commits the heinous acts that are meant to tie the two together.

When Wilfred (as the Conniving Man) manipulates his son into assisting with Arlette’s murder, Hank is young and innocent, but in the wake of the horrible crime that they have committed, he changes drastically.  He quickly becomes dark and brooding, aged beyond his years.  Even in 1922, girls tended to go for the dark and brooding type, so his sweetheart Shannon Coterie (daughter of Wilf’s friend and rival Harlan Coterie) becomes putty in his hands.  Wilf theorizes that it is because Arlette is no longer around, thus leaving Hank in need of feminine love, that Hank pressures Shannon into a physical relationship too early.  This results in Shannon’s pregnancy, the dissolution of Wilf and Harlan’s friendship, and the next step in Hank’s dark evolution.

As was common in those days, the young mother-to-be was shipped off to a private school, where she could quietly give birth without embarrassing her family.  Hank, believing that he is in love, goes after her—and it only makes sense.  The baby would be given up for adoption and Shannon was surely forbidden from ever seeing him again.  Having already had a helping hand in the destruction of his own family, he was willing to do whatever it took to create a new one.  He has obviously inherited a good deal of his father’s devious intelligence, because he does not just storm the castle, so to speak.  The headmistresses of Shannon’s school would be waiting for him, ready to call upon the authorities if he should approach.  Instead, he lays in wait, lingering in dark alleyways outside of local hangouts, scouting for a member of the bad girls club who can deliver Shannon a message.  A message that amounts to this: You and me against the world.

Hank and Shannon embark on a traveling crime spree, robbing (and occasionally murdering) in order to survive, headed toward some unattainable but dream-like future together.  The media refers to them as Handsome Hank and Sweet Shannon, the Sweetheart Bandits.  For the depiction of their crimes, King more than likely drew inspiration from Bonnie and Clyde, whose exploits were still ten years away from the date this story takes place.  But for all intents and purposes, 1922 may as well be 1932.  A decade didn’t bring about nearly as much change back then as it does today.

Although the Sweetheart Bandits may be based on Bonnie and Clyde, the modern audience may find similarities to a later case…even if they don’t realize it.  Charles Starkweather and his teenage girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate began their own crime spree in late December 1957, which lasted until the end of the following month.  Although you don’t hear about the Starkweather case very often these days, their legend lives on through popular cinema, being the inspiration for BADLANDS, TRUE ROMANCE, and NATURAL BORN KILLERS, among numerous other films.  It’s doubtful that Starkweather based their crimes on any previous criminals (he was more of a James Dean fan, and tried to emulate him in style and dress), but the parallels were still strong enough for the media of the day to grab hold of, calling them modern day equivalents of Bonnie and Clyde.

The crimes of the Sweetheart Bandits come to a screeching halt, though, in a manner all their own.  The pregnant Shannon is mortally injured during a robbery, and when she expires in an abandoned house, Hank takes his own life.  And in the end, the rats get them both.

The story wraps up with a news article that describes the strange death of Wilfred, apparently by self-inflicted bite wounds. Throughout the entirety of the story, we were led by Wilf to believe that the rats were real, sent out by the spirit of his deceased wife to wreak havoc and vengeance upon those who had destroyed her, but if this epilogue is to be believed, it was merely the work of a psyche shattered by guilt...much like the nameless narrator in Poe's THE TELL-TALE HEART. That story is also told as a confession to murder, the narrator equally desperate to convince others of his sanity, and is pursued, not by the rodent familiars of his victim but by the steady and insistent heartbeat that emanates from beneath the floorboards.

Nearly any analysis of THE TELL-TALE HEART will state that the story is being told by an Unreliable Narrator. The same people who wrote those analyses would very likely attach the same label to Wilfred. Whether he is an unreliable narrator or not, of course, depends on what side of the fence you sit on when it comes to the supernatural nuances of these tales. Was the heart of the old man under the floorboards really beating, detectable only by the murderer, whose senses were terribly acute, or was he merely mad? Was Wilf really pursued, judged, and executed by monstrous rats sent by his deceased wife, or were they simply hallucinations of a deranged mind? Both Poe and King are too smart to say for sure, and instead leave it up to the reader to decide.  But any astute observer will tell you that neither answers lies outside the realm of the author's possibilities. 

In other words, madness is just as likely as monsters. 

No matter which side of the fence you fall on, almost certainly at least a few of the rats that Wilf sees along the way are real. Living in a farm out in "the middle", they would be a commonplace sight, and there were indeed provable consequences to their presence—among them, the attack on Achelois the cow, and the bite on Wilf's hand that grew so infected it had to be amputated. Unless, of course, even these attacks were performed by Wilf in some sort of mad fugue, as the news report that closes out the story may seem to imply. Death by self-inflicted bite wounds is bad enough, but imagining Wilf gnawing off a poor cow's teat is almost unthinkable.

Some readers will be quick to point out that the ghost of Arlette comes to Wilf to prophesy the impending doom of Hank and Shannon, using this as proof that the supernatural elements in this story are indeed genuine.  But even Wilf, who steadfastly declares that he knows the things he does because his dead wife told him, admits that he later read of his son’s crime spree in the newspapers (which “only confirmed what I already knew”), and that he was also suffering from a severe infection around that time, which disoriented him to the extent that he couldn’t tell if one day had passed or three—which makes his chronology of these days suspect, at best.  Even after the infection has cleared, Wilf makes no real effort to seek out his son or to prevent his death, which seems like a logical (even if futile) course of action.  It is just as likely that he learned of the deaths of Hank and Shannon after the fact, and in hindsight, turned his fears into prophecy—Wilf being manipulated by his own Conniving Man, as it were.

Nobody can say with any certainty if the supernatural truly exists in this story, probably not even King himself.  I don’t lean one way or the other with any degree of certainty.  I do, however, believe that Wilfred believes.  

And as a reader, that is good enough for me.

--J/Metro

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