The Man in the Black Suit
The first stop on my adventure is the short story “The Man in the Black Suit” by famous American horror writer, Stephen King. I am not very familiar with King’s work, but I really like this story. According to the Wikipedia entry on this story, “The Man in the Black Suit” won King an O. Henry Award for Best Short Fiction in 1996. And I can see why, since this is a fantastic story. As one who loves linguistics and word humor, I appreciate that King creates words like “troutiest” (407) and “gaggy” (413) because that is exactly how nine-year-olds think, and it makes for better reading. The dialogue is very believable all-around, including one exchange in which Gary’s mother corrects his grammar.
Story summary to follow. *SPOILER ALERT* You have been warned!
This macabre tales begins as a reflection told by Gary in his old age as he recounts an episode that happened in his youth. Gary recounts a fishing expedition one day in which he catches several fish before he falls asleep. When he awakens, he is frightened to discover a bee perched on his nose, primarily because his brother Dan recently died of a bee sting. Suddenly he hears a loud clap and the bee falls dead into his lap. Gary turns to see the terrifying figure who clapped to kill the bee, a man dressed in a long black suit with flaming pits where his eyes should be. Gary is immobilized with fear as the figure, whom he intuits to be the Devil, approaches him. The Devil tries to convince him that his mother just died from a bee sting, so therefore Gary should allow the Devil to eat him and end his misery. Gary offers the Devil one of the gutted fish that he caught before he runs away, and the Devil gives chase. The Devil disappears after a long chase and Gary finds his father, who returns to the stream with Gary to collect his fishing gear and assure him that his mother is alive and well. The reflection ends, and the present Gary reflects that he lived a normal, happy life despite this incident, although now at death’s door he begins to fear once more a meeting with the Devil.
I chose this story because I am intrigued by how the terrorizing and calming aspects balance each other in interesting ways. The ending maintains the fear built up through the story, but also illustrates Gary’s struggle against his fear, which was successful in that he lived a long, fruitful life. I am not frightened easily, but while reading this alone at night in my room, I jumped when the phone rang. I was also tempted to choose this story because its creepy, morbid tone is so perfect for a Halloween posting.
King was heavily influenced by H. P. Lovecraft and Nathaniel Hawthorne. King is said to have named Hawthorne’s story “Young Goodman Brown” as the direct inspiration for “The Man in the Black Suit” (Wikipedia). But unlike Lovecraft and Hawthorne, King paints a more redemptive vision of mankind overcoming evil.[i] In King’s story, Gary’s parents are there to protect him, to scare away the Devil. I appreciate that King contrasts suffering caused by evil versus more natural causes, ex. the bee that kills Dan. Also, it’s worth noting that the Devil kills the bee on Gary’s nose. I think King does this to make a clear distinction between the pure evil of the Devil and natural harm, an interesting juxtaposition between man and nature. The bee that killed Dan acted out of instinct and didn’t realize what it was doing, but the Devil is evil for putting Gary through intentional suffering (something which neither plant nor animal nor mineral, but only mankind can do).
Just before he meets the Devil, Gary says “If I had accepted this as gift enough for one day and gone back, I would not be writing now,” but he didn’t, and so he meets the devil (409). This statement sets a suspenseful mood for the reader, who has no idea what dangers will soon arise, and says a lot about the author’s belief in the nature of good and evil. The author and narrator both view Gary’s meeting the Devil as blind luck, just like the bee sting. Gary does not meet the Devil as punishment, nor as a cog in a machine, but rather through random chance.
And while meeting the Devil was bad luck, escaping from him was good luck. At the end of the story, the author reaffirms this position through Gary’s reflection that as the years pass, ”I feel more and more strongly that escaping him was my luck – just luck, and not the intercession of the God I have worshipped and sung hymns to all my life” (423). Yet King’s portrayal of loving, kind parents who take an active role in protecting Gary – such as when his father takes him to see his mother and face his fears – suggest that perhaps mankind is not always victim to pure luck. King seems to suggest that good people can and will protect the innocent (i.e. children), and more broadly that good will triumph over evil.
And on that pleasant note, Happy Halloween! 😀
[i] King, Stephen. “The Man in the Black Suit.” Telling Stories: An Anthology For Writers. Ed. Joyce Carol Oates. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998. 387, 388, 405-423.