“It was quarter past ten and Herb Tooklander was thinking of closing for the night when the man in the fancy overcoat and the white, staring face burst into Tookey’s Bar, which lies in the northern part of Falmouth.” ~ Stephen King, “One For The Road,” from the collection Night Shift.
One of my all-time favorite short stories ever. I’m a fan of the entire canon of ‘Salem’s Lot, which includes this short story, the short story “Jerusalem’s Lot,” and of course the novel ‘Salem’s Lot. All are worth a read.
But Road really sticks with me, decades after the first time I read it. Why?
First off, let’s start with King’s economy. If you’ve taken any of my classes or read any of my writing on writing, I talk about economy quite a bit. It’s not a word often attributed to King’s doorstoppers, but bear with me on this:
Notice how economically he starts the story: Never mind the “white, staring face” for the moment. The man, Lumley, didn’t just walk in, or amble, or prance – he burst in. It’s a small but important word. With one simple, relatively innocuous word, the night is off to an interesting start. Then our narrator, Booth, specifies the man is wearing a “fancy overcoat.” Booth doesn’t notice that he uses this phrase. Why? Because if you regularly wear a fancy overcoat, you don’t point out other people wearing them, which reveals something (or implies it) about Booth: he’s not a man who wears fancy overcoats, and probably has some ideas about people who do. So this one moment is the moment everything changes; there’s a hint of tension socially as well as physically (using the words “fancy” and “burst.”)
And not one word about vampires in that opening sentence. In fact, we won’t hear it until about halfway through the story. That’s economy. And I bet you anything King did not slave over those opening words. (Statistically, at that point in time, he may well have been high or hammered or both at the time, but hey.)
I also love the slow burn. I’m a fan of slow burns, provided the pacing is good — the two are not synonymous. Booth/King drops in phrases like these early on without elucidating:
~ “The lot. Oh my god.”
~ “I’ve got my bible on the shelf. You still wear yor Pope’s medal?”
~ “Everyone in town has something. Crucifix, St. Christopher’s medal…something.”
Long before Booth says anything about “vampires,” we’re sucked in. (HA! Sucked in! Get it? Sorry.) Phrases like these three trip our internal sensors. What’s “the lot?” Why are you talking about Bibles at a bar? Why does everyone in town have a crucifix? Without saying much, Booth/King has told us a lot, and we have to keep reading to find out more. What is not said is as frightening as what is not seen. Booth/King keeps the reader at arm’s length even though it’s first person; he forces us to take the role of Lumley because he won’t give us any details right away. The narrator isn’t unreliable — he just doesn’t say much, in a sense. Although Booth is telling us a story, he also keeps his own counsel about it. We won’t get anything from him until he’s good and ready to say it.
Then there’s setting. On its surface, the setting is trite: it’s a dark and stormy night, for heaven’s sake! But it works here, and it wouldn’t work any other way. It’s cold dread on a cold night. In the snow, we see a slumped form slithering away from the Jeep; a little girl standing on top of the snow instead of sinking into it doesn’t work without . . . well, snow. Lumley’s family must rely on his car heater to stay alive, so there is ample tension and motivation for him to ask these two old locals for help. The dark and stormy night works on a number of plot levels (and King never says “dark and stormy night,” people.)
“One for the Road” partially inspired Hellworld, by the way. The question, as they usually are, was simple: Could a ‘Salem’s Lot-type of place exist today? It was easy to create and maintain such a hamlet in the late ’70s when the story came out; that was before iPhones and Google Earth. Sure, there are places like the forest we see in movies like The Blair Witch Project, but seriously, how hard do you have to try to get eaten by vampires these days? Pretty hard, I think. Not that a cell phone can save you from hungry nosferatu, but are there any surprises out there in the world for us anymore? I’m not sure. So I set out to see if I could find that place. Find it I did: Desert caves. Nothing good happens in there, friends.
“One for the Road” can be found in King’s collection Night Shift, and is also a not-too-bad little short film available on IMDB.com. Check it out!