Philtrum Press • 1997 • 197 pages
A Collection Critique
In an essay titled "The Politics of Limited Editions," Stephen King indicated that the only true limited editions are those not available elsewhere. Novels such as Christine, The Talisman, and Firestarter had been issued in impressive, sumptuous editions of small print runs: heavily illustrated, signed by King and often the artist, with rich paper stock and other unique elements (Firestarter, for instance, was bound in asbestos). As special as these editions were, the fact that mass-market counterparts existed muted their "limited" cache a little. In home-video parlance, it was really only the special features that were different. The story was there for everyone.
At the time of King's essay (July, 1985), only three of King's books could be categorized as true limiteds: The Gunslinger, The Eyes of the Dragon, and an ongoing work called The Plant. The initial print run for The Gunslinger - published by Donald M. Grant - was a mere 10,000 copies, yet the printings for The Eyes of the Dragon and The Plant (released in annual installments) were exponentially smaller: 300 to 1,000 copies each. Stating that he didn't believe his general readership would enjoy books so divergent from his "normal" fiction, King published The Plant and The Eyes of the Dragon though his own Philtrum Press, making them largely available only to people on his Christmas list.
In 1997, King again turned to Philtrum Press. Six Stories anthologizes a half-dozen shorter recent works by King, all previously published, none yet collected in a Stephen King book. Not merely an arbitrary assemblage of tales, the work in Six Stories represents a writer in flux. Here, King is working with themes and interests extant in his recent larger fiction, while also experimenting with techniques and concepts that will later figure into future work. Each of the stories is offbeat, even in the context of Stephen King fiction. In addition, whether in tone, theme, or narrative device, the stories relate to each other, making the collection seem as cohesive as Different Seasons and Four Past Midnight.
"Lunch at the Gotham Café," the 1995 Bram Stoker Award-winner for Best Long Fiction, borders on surreal. One of two divorce stories in Six Stories, "Lunch" prefigures the acrimonious and somewhat violent breakup at the heart of King's later Duma Key, and in its offbeat examination of associative insanity sets the tone for the remainder of the collection. The situations, too, reverberate through Six Stories: the abrupt appearance of a lunatic maitre d' anticipates the sudden intrusions of the horrific in the other stories, forcing the reader to accept or reject these shifts.
"L.T.'s Theory of Pets," a companion divorce piece with "Lunch at the Gotham Café" is one of King's funniest stories, finding unlikely humor in an unraveling a marriage. The humor ends once L.T., our narrator, starts to worry that a serial killer known as the Ax Man might have murdered his ex-wife. The inconclusive ending prefigures a controversial trend, not just in Six Stories, but in King's larger canon. Later novels and stories such as "All That You Love Will Be Carried Away," From a Buick 8, Cell, The Colorado Kid, and most importantly, The Dark Tower, feature endings open to reader interpretation. While this sort of ending isn't new to King's writing - both 'Salem's Lot and Pet Sematary ended on cliffhangers of sorts - this later penchant for incomplete endings seems a conscious decision to experiment with reader expectations.
Similarly, "Luckey Quarter" has no concrete ending - and, bizarrely, has little in the way of a concrete story. A struggling motel maid named Darlene Pullen (the only female protagonist in Six Stories) receives a mere quarter as a tip; it is accompanied with a note reading "This is a luckey quarter! It's true! Luckey you!" Darlene plays the quarter in a slot machine and hits the jackpot, and just keeps winning. No matter how much she wins, she is unable to shake the luckey quarter. By the story's end, we discover Darlene's winning streak is just a fantasy, but when she gives the quarter to her sickly son, she believes that the pattern will play out just as she imagined it.
In some ways reminiscent of the Robert Louis Stevenson story, "The Bottle Imp" (but nowhere near as effective), "Luckey Quarter" seems bizarre for the sake of being bizarre. The sense of doom throughout the story doesn't feel connected to the plot or Darlene's actions and no explanation is given for the odd spelling. King has written stories of this nature work in the past - "The Moving Finger" from Nightmares & Dreamscapes is an oddity saved by its strange humor - but "Lucky Quarter" has little of the same impact. Interestingly, King would later utilize the same tone and feel in impressive stories like "All You Love Will Be Carried Away," "Harvey's Dream," and "That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is In French," making "Luckey Quarter" seem more a test case than a success on its own merits.
"Blind Willie," also bizarre, is difficult to evaluate. As a character study, it's intermittently interesting, the story a man pretending to be three different people: a businessman, a maintenance worker, and a homeless man and Vietnam veteran who begs for money, keeping the bills and donating the change to local churches. Interesting as the concept is, it seems like a fragment of a larger work. Frustratingly, we are given few details that allow us to connect it to anything bigger. King has worked with the concept of dual and even triple identities in the past - see Odetta Holmes/Detta Walker/Susannah Dean and Thad Beaumont/George Stark - but "Blind Willie" is not interested in motivation, and feels flat because of it. Still, its references to Vietnam connect it to "Autopsy Room Four," as well as King's longer recent work, Desperation. Later, "Blind Willie" would be included in King's larger examination of Vietnam and the 1960s, Hearts In Atlantis. While it's unclear whether King wrote the story for inclusion in Hearts or modified it to fit the book, "Blind Willie" is a far more powerful piece in this context. Understanding Willie's backstory and history provide a gravitas and closure not present in the Six Stories version.
Six Stories' best tales, "Autopsy Room Four" and "The Man In the Black Suit," are King's most traditional "horror" stories of the volume. "Autopsy Room 4" is told from the point of view of a man named Howard Cottrell, who might be dead. On a table in the autopsy room, he tries desperately to make noise or movement before he is cut open, but his attempts are too subtle to be noticed by the medical examiner or her inexperienced assistant (obliquely referencing the oblivious and self-involved Diane from "Lunch at the Gotham Café," tying these stories at least tenuously together). The somewhat deus ex machina ending robs the story of none of its horror, the revelation of a venomous snake bite foreshadowing the deadly bee sting in "The Man in the Black Suit." One of King's tensest pieces of fiction, it also features one of King's most darkly hilarious denouements.
The closing story, "The Man in the Black Suit," was first published in The New Yorker, and won King his first mainstream fiction prize, the O. Henry Award for Short Fiction. Linked by location and theme to King's larger body of work, this story also functions as an homage to Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown," the story of a young man who meets the Devil while walking in the woods. "The Man in the Black Suit" is told by an elderly man named Gary, who lost his brother to a fatal bee sting when he was a boy (this detail recalls not only "Autopsy Room Four" but also the novel-in-a-novel in Misery). A year later, he is confronted by Satan in the woods, who tells him that his mother has died the same way, and offers to stop his sorrow by eating him. Gary's slow, cautious speech recalls Paul Edgecombe's in The Green Mile, and most of "The Man In the Black Suit" takes place in Castle Rock. The Kashwakamak township is mentioned often, a link to the later Cell and the earlier Gerald's Game. Thematically, "The Man in the Black Suit" brings to mind not only Gerald's Game, but also It and Four Past Midnight's "The Library Policeman": the evils done to children rising up to damage the adults they become. Beyond its deeper resonance and implications, "The Man in the Black Suit" is also an exciting horror story, featuring a thrilling chase and wildly disturbing imagery.
All the tales in Six Stories would later appear in more mainstream books, either the collection Everything's Eventual or Hearts In Atlantis, rendering Six Stories no longer a "true" limited edition. Still, reading these six stories together in collection that functions similarly to Night Shift, Skeleton Crew, and Nightmares & Dreamscapes (featuring a strong opening story and a quieter, elegiac finale) is a unique, rewarding experience. Its length - just short enough to be read in a single sitting - strengthens the feel of the book as a unified work. While the quality of the individual stories varies, the impact of Six Stories as a whole is impressive, especially in light of these stories' second - or third - life in King's more accessible books.