Story Playlist 29: One for the Road

Stephen King: “One for the Road” (1977) Stephen King is my favorite author. I know you’re not supposed to say that, but there is no other author who I have so consistently enjoyed and admired. I like Michael Crichton novels, but I don’t admire them the way I do King. I enjoy Nabokov, but I don’t compulsively devour his work, checking the clock to see when I can return to his novel, my heart beating faster as I read it. There is no other author whose work I was so eager to read my way through, nor so grateful that the catalogue is so long—the hyper-prolific King publishes a book a year, at least.

King’s stories are character-driven, beautifully-written, highly intelligent. They happen to feature monsters of all sorts, from natural to preternatural, but that is secondary to their core as great stories, well-told. As an author King is wonderfully approachable and open, writing about his writing process and what he likes about horror, letting his readers into his head to snoop around, to check behind the drapery. He tips his hat to some of the authors featured in this project: Hawthorne, Poe, and Lovecraft above all.

Among his short stories, there were several favorites from which I might choose. It came down to a choice between the two scariest, both of which appeared in his 1978 collection, Night Shift. “Children of the Corn” is the scarier of the two, but “One for the Road” is easier to write about, as it deals in archetypes that are the heart of good horror fiction.

On a snowy night in southern Maine, two septuagenarians are drinking at Tookey’s Bar, about to close up the joint. Herb “Tookey” Tooklander, the proprietor, and our narrator, Booth, have one more drink before calling it a night, when someone bursts into the bar, half-frozen. A tourist in Maine, Jerry Lumley was en route to visit his sister-in-law when his car broke down several miles away. He left his wife and seven-year-old daughter in the car, and trudged through the snow to get help. When he stumbles into the bar, he’s frost-bitten and about to pass out. The two old men agree to help him, but are concerned about more than just the cold weather when they learn where Lumley’s car broke down—en route to Jerusalem’s Lot.

Tookey and Booth take an SUV into the snow, through barely-passable roads in the blizzard. Before we arrive at the car, King wonderfully winds us up, when Tookey warns that, if the wife and daughter are not in the car, then the group will turn straight back around, and that if they see anyone out on the road, even if they are spoken to, they will not speak back. This is before anyone drops the “v-word” and mentions vampires. In fact, the moment that vampires are invoked, a bit of the mystique is lost. Just a bit, because King is so deft.

But consider: the creepiest parts of really creepy books and films are in the first half, when inexplicable things start to happen (footfalls on the stairs, blood on a doorjamb, rooms filled with flies). The fact of their being inexplicable is what makes them effective. As soon as we have an explanation, it sort of “explains away” the mystery and is less effective. From that point on, scares come down to jump-out frights, chases, mortal peril, that sort of thing. Creepy turns to thrilling. Thrilling is good, but I’m an unabashed fan of creepy. Most authors feel the need to explain things by the end of their stories, even if the explanation is not really an explanation at all (“aliens are behind this”). Vampires, or any other known-entity monsters, are a way of explaining things with something we feel we understand. Your average Joe knows enough about vampires, from Dracula, from films, (dare I say it, from Twilight) and so on, that they’ve lost their mystique. They are a cool, archetypal villain, and much ink has been spilled on the subject of just why we are so fascinated with vampires, but they are also a known commodity. I’d venture to say that Average Joe knows more about fictitious vampires, their characteristics, behaviors, and so on, than they do about real goldfish.

So when the creepiness preceding the action in “One for the Road” is chalked up to vampires, I almost winced—but not quite. Because after the reveal of what is doing the creepy doings, the action part is so well done that I wanted to slather butter on the pages of the story and eat them right then and there.

What makes “One for the Road” particularly effective is the sympathy we feel for Lumley, lost and cold and desperate to get to his family, whereas the locals know that it is already too late. Anyone would react as Lumley did. Shocked to see the car empty, and his daughter’s parka inside, he set off to follow the footprints in the snow, fast-disappearing beneath the blizzard. About to give up, he hears his name being called and, emerging from a “copse” (a wonderful choice of word by King, one letter away from “corpse”), his wife. He rushes to her, as would we. Tookey and Booth know that she is no longer human, however, and try to stop Lumley, but of course he ignores them. He realizes too late that he’s about to become lunch. When Tookey and Booth retreat to their truck, to drive away, there’s a heart-stop moment when the daughter (whom we almost forgot about) suddenly appears beside the truck, asking in the sweet, helpless child’s voice for help. Booth immediately sees that something is wrong—the child is standing upon the snow, her feet not sinking into it—but cannot resist, hypnotized by the vampire child (and if vampires are scary, child vampires are scarier). Only a well-thrown Bible from Tookey saves Booth, and they drive away.

King uses sympathy to his advantage. We side with Lumley—if we were to fear for the lives of our family, dismissing vampires as hooey, and suddenly see our wife or daughter alone in the snow, we would rush to them. It’s an irresistible urge for non-sociopathic humans. And yet that very urge is used by vampires to hunt their prey.

Vampires will always hold an endless fascination for us, because they tap into some powerful Jungian archetypes. They appear human, with slight differences. They are hybrids between carnivore creatures and people. They hunt humans, which we humans find fascinating because, grumpy sharks and a few ornery mammals aside, humans are hunters, not the hunted. They live forever, which sounds good to us, but do so in a way that doesn’t sound so appealing. There is a sexual component to how they prey on us, essentially doling out elaborate hickeys. They drink blood. Unlike humans with refined palates, they are not partial to garlic. There is much to wonder at, but most of all, we are fascinated by how they inhabit the liminal zone between dead and living. Add real character depth and development to a story featuring vampires, and you’ve got yourself one heck of a cocktail. Here’s to you, Mr. King.