Sunday, November 29, 2009


“It is only when a man feels himself face to face with such horrors that he can understand their true import.”
Bram Stoker, Dracula (Jonathan Harker)

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Stand: The Complete and Uncut Edition by Stephen King

Well, it's been about two months since I wrote about a book I've read, and that's because for the past two months I've been reading all 1,153 pages of the complete and uncut edition of Stephen King's The Stand. And mostly not enjoying it.

I'm a Stephen King fan from way back, but I sometimes wonder if I've outgrown him the way I outgrew Piers Anthony. This is not necessarily the book the judge him by, I suppose, because it is one of his earliest, but it also is the one that many fans consider his masterpiece.

I don't see it.

First of all, what exactly is The Stand? After setting us up for a thousand pages for the ultimate battle of good vs. evil, madness comes strolling along in the form of The Trashcan Man with an atom bomb and destroys them both. Is that supposed to be the message we take away from the book?

And then there's Randall Flagg. Is he a man? Is he the devil? Is he something in between? Some primordial force of evil that exerts itself whenever the society of man grows too big for its own britches? I think he's the latter, but it's not like I'm going to get any clues from the old Walkin' Dude himself, because I don't think he knows, either. There are only a couple of pages in the novel where we get to spend time inside Flagg's head, and it probably would have been better if King had never given us those glimpses, because all we get is a jumbled mess. Sometimes he's a man (like when he's thinking about how to defeat his self-appointed enemies and worrying that he may not be strong enough to do it), sometimes he's a demon (like when he transforms while impregnating Nadine with his hellish seed), and sometimes he's the primordial force (like at the very end when he seems to coalesce back out of the nothingness to infiltrate another burgeoning human society).

And then there's this little exchange:

"I can't read the future, Fran," Glen said, and in the lamplight his face looked old and worn--the face, perhaps, of a failed magician. "I couldn't even properly see the effect Mother Abigail was having on the community until Stu pointed it out to me that night on Flagstaff Mountain. But I do know this: We're all in this town because of two events. The superflu we can charge off to the stupidity of the human race. It doesn't matter if we did it or the Russians, or the Latvians. Who emptied the beaker loses importance beside the general truth: At the end of all rationalism, the mass grave. The laws of physics, the laws of biology, the axioms of mathematics, they're all part of the deathtrip, because we are what we are. If it hadn't been Captain Trips, it would have been something else. The fashion was to blame it on 'technology,' but 'technology' is the trunk of the tree, not the roots. The roots are rationalism, and I would define that word so: 'Rationalism is the idea we can ever understand anything about the state of being.' It's a deathtrip. It always has been. So you can charge the superflu off to rationalism if you want. But the other reason we're here is the dreams, and the dreams are irrational. We've agreed not to talk about that simple fact while we're in committee, but we're not in committee now. So I'll say what we all know is true: We're here under the fiat of powers we don't understand. For me, that means we may be beginning to accept--only subconsciously now, and with plenty of slips backward due to culture lag--a different definition of existence. The idea that we can never understand anything about the state of being. And if rationalism is a deathtrip, then irrationalism might very well be a lease until it proves otherwise."

Speaking very slowly, Stu said: "Well, I got my superstitions. I been laughed at for it, but I got em. I know it don't make any difference if a guy lights two cigarettes on a match or three, but two don't make me nervous and three does. I don't walk under ladders and I never care to see a black cat cross my path. But to live with no science...worshipping the sun, maybe...thinking monsters are rolling bowling balls across the sjy when it thunders...I can't say any of that turns me on very much, baldy. Why, it seems like a kind of slavery to me."

"But suppose those things were true?" Glen said quietly.


"Assume that the age of rationalism has passed. I myself am almost positive that it has. It's come and gone before, you know; it almost left us in the 1960s, the so-called Age of Aquarius, and it took a damn near permanent vacation during the Middle Ages. And suppose...suppose that when rationalism does go, it's as if a bright dazzle has gone for a while and we could see..." He trailed off, his eyes looking inward.

"See what?" Fran asked.

He raised his eyes to hers; they were gray and strange, seeming to glow with their own inner light.

"Dark magic," he said softly. "A universe of marvels where water flows uphill and trolls live the deepest woods and dragons live under the mountains. Bright wonders, white power. 'Lazarus, come forth.' Water into wine. And...just maybe..the casting out of devils."

He paused, then smiled.

"The lifetrip."

"And the dark man?" Fran asked quietly.

Glen shrugged. "Mother Abigail calls him the Devil's Imp. Maybe he's just the last magician of rational thought, gathering the tools of technology against us. And maybe there's something more, something much darker. I only know that he is, and I no longer think that sociology or psychology or any other ology will put an end to him. I think only white magic will do that...and our white magician is out there someplace, wandering and alone." Glen's voice nearly broke, and he looked down quickly.

I know King is in the business of weaving tales about magic--about trolls that live in the deepest woods--but I think he turned this one on its head. There are other hints throughout the novel that Flagg and his followers represent the forces of science and technology, and that Mother Abigail and her followers are the magical druids at one with their spiritual environment. But neither metaphor actually works. Both camps use rationality and irrationality in equal measure, and their ultimate confrontation is a vindication of neither way of thinking. It might've been a better book if King had actually chosen sides.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


“There is a luxury in self-reproach. When we blame ourselves we feel that no one else has the right to blame us. It is the confession, not the priest, that gives us absolution.”
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

Sunday, November 8, 2009


“Still you must admit this solves all your problems splendidly: suddenly you’re a free widower. Whenever you like you can marry a beautiful young woman with lots of money, who, furthermore, is already yours. That’s what simple, crude coincidence can do, right?”
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Devils (Peter Stepanovich)

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Suicide is Just a State of Mind (1987)

Mainstream Fiction
2,281 words
Copyright © Eric Lanke, 1987. All rights reserved.

+ + + + + + + + +

Jack stared at the forty-four. Big gun, he thought. Cold stainless steel. Eight-inch barrel that fired slugs as big as a marble. Dirty Harry. Make my day. He hefted the firearm into the air and felt its weight strain against the muscles in his wrist. Heavy. With a lot of kick. Put both hands on that baby or she’ll break your arm. Just sight down the barrel and squeeze the trigger. And that’s all she wrote.

Jack swung out the cylinder and dropped three bullets into the holes, leaving an empty chamber between each pair of hollow points. He gave the cylinder a good spin and flicked his wrist, snapping the cylinder back into place. Without pause, without ceremony, he cocked the hammer, placed the barrel in his mouth, and pulled the trigger.


Jack brought the gun down and opened the cylinder. He retrieved the bullets and set them down upright on the nightstand, next to the three hollow points already there. He closed the cylinder, wiped his saliva off the forty-four with a rag, and set the gun down next to the bullets.

This was the third time Jack had tried to kill himself. Each night, usually around seven, he would slip a growing number of bullets into Mr. Loudmouth and play a round of Russian Roulette with his tonsils. And tomorrow the odds of Jack surviving would fall to one in three.

Jack got to his feet and walked to the kitchen to make himself a sandwich. He was standing in front of the open refrigerator, trying to decide between the turkey and the ham, when the phone rang.


“Hi, Jack? It’s Kelly out at the observatory.”


“Well, I hate to bother you like this, but I’m having some trouble with the drive on the Schmidt, and I was wondering—”

“You were wondering if I could come out and take a look at it.”

“You’re a mindreader, Jack.”

The Schmidt-Cassegrain, Jack thought. I’ve replaced more parts on that telescope than I have on my car. Nearly the only original thing left on it is the objective, a smooth thirty-six inch parabolic mirror.


“Yeah, I guess.”

“Thanks, Jack. I owe you one. Oh, and could you get here as soon as possible? I want to get the Crab before it sets.”

“Twenty minutes?”

“You’re an angel, Jack. See ya.”

+ + + + + + + + +

Kelly Pemberton was a college senior working nights at the observatory for credit. Astrophysics was her major, but Jack had her pegged as someone who just liked to watch the stars. Jack liked her, they had much in common, and he often wished he had known her back when he was in college. All the women he had known then had either dismissed the stars as trivial points of light in the sky or had asked him his sign when they found out he was an astronomer.

When Jack reached the top of the mountain, he parked next to Kelly’s red Toyota and entered the observatory through the office entrance. Kelly was sitting there, reading a Stephen King novel.

“Hey, Jack,” she said when she saw him. “Thanks again for coming.” She put the book down and crossed the room to the sealed door that led into the observatory. She turned out the light and opened it.

“What’s the assignment tonight?” Jack asked as they entered the circular room with the domed roof.

“I don’t know,” Kelly said with a wave of her hand. “Some quasar in Draco.”

Jack nodded. “Three Cee Three Five One.”

“Yeah, that’s it. Now, what about this Cassegrain? I hit the drive and nothing happens.”

“Probably a stripped gear. Go get me the toolbox out of the office.”

Jack watched Kelly walk back to the office. She has a nice figure, he thought. She’s nice all around, really. And we have so much in common. Shooting the more spectacular parts of the sky while waiting for the exposure on the assigned target. I used to do the same thing when I worked here back in college. If only I was ten years younger.

Kelly returned with the toolbox. “What’s the damage?”

Jack crouched down and looked at the motor below the telescope. “Yep, stripped gear all right.”

“You don't have to run out for parts, do you?”

“No,” Jack said. “I should have some spares in that toolbox. Hand me a crescent wrench, a screwdriver, and a three-inch gear.”

Jack put his hand out behind him, took the materials from Kelly, and brought them to his face. He remained hunched over the motor for a moment and then stood up and turned around.

“Done?” Kelly said hopefully.

Jack smiled and held out a pair of pliers. “I said a crescent wrench.”

+ + + + + + + + +

“Okay,” Jack said with the stripped gear in his hand. “That should do it.”

“Great,” Kelly said. She began to page through a star catalog.

“Shooting the Crab, eh?” Jack said.

“Yeah. Just as soon as I can find the coordinates.”

Jack nodded. “Five hours, thirty-three point three minutes, right ascension. Plus twenty-two degrees, one minute, declination.”

Kelly look up from the catalog. “Why do you bother memorizing all that stuff? It is written down, you know.”

Jack put the tools back into the box. “Look, Kelly, I did have plans for tonight, so if that’s all you need...”

“Oh sure,” Kelly said. “I understand. Hey, thanks again.”

She followed Jack as he walked back to the office. He opened the door and entered the room beyond, and was about to pass through the outside door when Kelly stopped him.

“I didn’t know you had plans tonight, Jack. I’m sorry. Let me make it up to you by cooking you dinner tomorrow night.”

Jack looked down at her curly auburn hair and her large green eyes. He thought again of how much he really did like her. He thought of their similar interests, of her pretty face, of her beautiful body.

“Come one, you’re not going to turn down a free meal, are you?”

And of her wonderful personality.

Jack smiled. “Okay.”

“Super,” Kelly said with a smile of her own. “Drop by around seven.”

Jack stepped outside and closed the door behind him. He looked up at the sky and saw the mighty hunter, Orion, forever locked in battle with Taurus the Bull. He remembered how he had felt as a child, staring up in wonder at the stars; dreaming of what they could be and what mysteries they could hold. And now that he could pass those distant worlds off as mere balls of hot gas, now that he knew what they were and what powered them, he realized he still felt that same childish sense of wonder.

+ + + + + + + + +

It was fifteen minutes before seven when Jack reached for the revolver. He methodically opened the cylinder, dropped in four hollow point bullets, spun the cylinder, and flicked it shut. His thumb drew back the hammer and he placed the muzzle against the roof of his mouth.

He paused.

He thought of Kelly. He thought of her trying to call after he had not shown up at her place and listening to nothing but the phone ring time and time again. He thought of her eventually working up the nerve to come over here, once she had convinced herself that something must have happened to him. He thought of her knocking more and more loudly on his door and then walking in cautiously after trying the knob and finding it unlocked. He thought of her calling his name out through the empty house and of her finally finding him here on the floor with half his head splattered on the wall.

But I’ve already decided to commit suicide, Jack told himself. After all these years of lying to myself, of brainwashing myself into thinking that things might get better, how can I forget the promise I made to myself and go back to my deluded life? I know this feeling I’m experiencing now. It shows up whenever there’s the possibility of a new relationship. It’s a dream-like sensation. It tells me that things will turn out the way I want them to this time and that I won’t get hurt. It tells me that this will finally be the one that works. It fills me with hope by dangling love in front of my nose like a carrot on a stick. Oh yes, I know this feeling well. It’s the one that lies to me.

Jack squeezed the trigger.


Jack slowly removed the gun from his mouth. He opened the cylinder and took out the bullets. I’ve beaten the odds one too many times, he thought. By this time tomorrow, I’ll be dead.

Jack wiped the gun off with the rag and then used it to wipe the sweat off his forehead.

+ + + + + + + + +

“I’ve been staring up at the stars for as long as I can remember,” Kelly said before she took a slow drink from her wineglass.

Jack was staring at her. He couldn’t think of a time when she had looked better than she did that night. Her auburn hair fell in locks to the shoulders of a dress only a shade removed from the color of her eyes. Shadows from the flickering firelight danced across her delicate facial features, and her smile was more warming than the fire.

“When I was twelve,” she said, “I asked for a telescope for my birthday. I got a Viewmaster instead.”

Jack laughed, and Kelly quietly joined him. The night had gone well. The meal was good, and the conversation was better. I think I’m falling for this girl, Jack told himself. She’s so different from all the other women I’ve known.

“How about you, Jack?” What got you into astronomy?”

“I think I was born with it,” Jack said. “My father was a backyard astronomer, and as soon as I was able to stand I was out there helping him. I was photographing galaxies before I was reading, and once I learned how I simply read everything I could find on the subject. When I was eleven, I built my own four-inch Newtonian reflector. It was crude, but it worked.

“I missed more than my share of school because of staying up late nights trying to catch elusive quasars or periodic comets. A lot of people thought my behavior was obsessive, and it more than likely was, but that never bothered me.”

Jack saw Kelly smile and nod her head as if she knew exactly what he was talking about.

“Realistically,” Jack said, “those twinkling lights in the sky are all I ever really cared about.”

Jack and Kelly sat looking at each other for a long moment in silence. Kelly’s eyes were watering, making them sparkle in the firelight.

Jack felt his heart swell within his chest. This is it, he told himself. The moment is right. Tell her how you feel.

“I love you, Jack.”

Jack almost didn’t hear her. “What did you say?”

“I said, ‘I love you.’ You’re so different from all the other men I’ve known. They weren’t looking for a girl like me. All they wanted was to hear how great they were in the sack. They didn’t want to hear the theories of Einstein or lectures on the physical universe. Or, God forbid, any original idea I might have about anything. So, when Mister All-American discovered he needed a dictionary to hold a conversation with me, he dropped me and picked up a bubblehead.”

Jack searched his feelings. He believed he loved Kelly, and he wanted to tell her that, but he just couldn’t bring himself to say it. He opened his mouth but nothing came out.

“I understand,” Kelly said. “I know your life hasn’t been easy for you. You’re afraid to give up your love because of how much pain that’s caused you in the past. It’s okay. I know. I feel the same way sometimes.”

Jack’s mind reeled. She was reading his thoughts. He didn’t have to tell her he loved her. She already knew it.

Kelly took Jack’s hand. “We really do have a lot in common.”

Jack held back a tear and kissed her.

+ + + + + + + + +

Kelly woke before dawn the next morning, still in Jack’s sleeping embrace. She felt the rise of his chest against her back with each peaceful breath and the warmth of his body against hers. Their lovemaking had been more than physical. They had shared something intimate, something they both had been searching for all their lives.

Kelly carefully crawled out of Jack’s grasp and slowly out of the bed. She stood nude before the large bay window and could see the Summer Triangle, which would be high in the sky in the coming months, twinkle at her from the horizon. Cygnus the Swan floated on the river of the Milky Way again. Summer was on the way.

Kelly sat down on the edge of the bed and watched her new lover dream. She knew she had found happiness. She knew that her turn had finally come. She and Jack would live the rest of their lives together and never run out of love.

She sighed.

And most of all, she knew she would never again find herself with the muzzle of her twenty-two caliber pistol pressed to her temple.

+ + + THE END + + +