If you’re looking for a good scary story to celebrate Halloween, Big Ross has nothing but praise for this oldy but goody from the master of horror.
N. is a novella written by American author and horror maestro Stephen King. It was published as part of the collection Just After Sunset in 2008. I discovered an audiobook version of it, I am somewhat ashamed to admit, on YouTube. I don’t understand how copyright law applies to YouTube, or if King got any money from my or the other almost 56,000 times someone listened to it. I hope so. Because it is good. It is very good. I’ve listened to it two additional times, and it has quickly become one of my favorite King stories ever. Read on for some in-depth analysis, but maybe first go read it (or IMHO, even better, listen to the audiobook version of it). SPOILERS FOLLOW!
N. is a story about suicide, obsessive compulsive disorder, the relationship between patient and psychiatrist, delusions and the doubting of one’s own sanity, and hideous, horrible monsters in a parallel, alien universe separated from ours by very thin, very vulnerable membrane. About that last element King has gone on record saying that he wasn’t inspired by H.P. Lovecraft but Arthur Machen, specifically his novella The Great God Pan (1894), which King called “one of the best horror stories ever written. Maybe the best in the English language.” Given that Lovecraft cited Machen as one of the primary influences of his writing (specifically what became the Cthulhu Mythos), and that I’ve never read Machen but have read a lot of Lovecraft, I’m prone to recognize N. as Lovecraftian rather than Machenian. I would argue that since Machenian isn’t a word, but Lovecraftian is, most would tend to agree with me.
Regardless of the influence, with N. King goes full-on cosmic horror, a genre he doesn’t often write in. Check that. While King has written cosmic horror before and since (It, From a Buick 8, Revival, just to name a few), N. seems to me to be the most blatant riff on Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. In fact, to me it seems so obviously an homage, a love-letter to Lovecraft and his Great Old Ones of The Shadow Over Innsmouth, At the Mountains of Madness, and The Call of Cthulhu that I was surprised to read King’s contention that it was Machen, not Lovecraft who he was channeling for N..
If you’ve never read Lovecraft and “Cthulhu” elicits nothing more than a quizzical raising of one eyebrow, you can still enjoy N.. It is incredibly well written, wonderfully creepy, and (being a novella) relatively short. I consider this last a plus as, IMHO, King’s work often (though not always) suffers from lack of a strong editor willing to pare down his, at times, bloated narratives. But if you’re coming at N. as a fan of Lovecraft, if you’ve read and enjoyed his Cthulhu Mythos works, N. is even more enjoyable as a wonderful piece of Lovecraftian Horror. Don’t know what that is? Courtesy of Wikipedia:
Lovecraftian horror is a subgenre of horror fiction that emphasizes the cosmic horror of the unknown (and in some cases, unknowable) more than gore or other elements of shock, though these may still be present.
The name comes from the aforementioned writer, who sort of invented it. There are many elements and themes that were common to Lovecraft’s stories that became part of the Lovecraftian signature/style/formula, and while King doesn’t check them all off with N. foregoing Lovecraft’s old-timey writing style and embarrassing racism, he does hit upon several of them.
Lovecraft’s protagonists (I hesitate to call them “heroes” as Wikipedia does) tended to be isolated individuals. They also tended to be white men because Lovecraft was something of a sexist and racist, unfortunately. They also were usually academics and/or scholars. The two main characters of N. are the titular character, his name redacted to an initial in the notes of his psychiatrist, Dr. John Bonsaint. Both men are somewhat isolated. N. is divorced and Dr. Bonsaint seemingly single; both live alone.
And both are surely of an academic bent. Dr. Bonsaint is a psychiatrist, as already mentioned, and N. is “an accountant by trade, a photographer by inclination.” I find this of particular interest. In many of Lovecraft’s works, the protagonists are academics and/or men of science, but many are described as “antiquarians,” students of antiquities or things of the past. It is typically while on some antiquarian errand, often in Lovecraft’s own backyard of New England, that one of these protagonists stumbles onto some discovery that reveals the terrible, cosmological horror of the nature of the universe.
Sanity’s Fragility and Vulnerability
That very thing happens to N., a student not of the past but of the present. Fond of photographing landscapes, particularly of his native New England, it is while out on a jaunt through the countryside that he comes across a dirt road leading up a hill. Seeing that it appears there is field at its top, one from which a view of the nearby Androscoggin river (a parallel with Lovecraft’s famous, if fictional Miskatonic River, perhaps?) would be fantastic, especially at sunset, N. goes up to investigate. There he finds the beautiful view he was anticipating, and something more.
There is a group of standing stones between 3 and 5 feet in height in a sort of circle. He counts seven stones. He looks through his old-fashioned film camera to snap a picture of them, and he sees eight stones. He looks with only his eyes and sees seven. Looks through his camera and sees eight. Looks with his eyes and sees seven, and a darkness, a thinness in the center. Then he sees things much more…monstrous. Terrible. Impossible. Hideous. Maddening. Thus begins N.’s battle with obsessive compulsive disorder, and if he is to be believed, things much darker and more maligned.
As Lovecraft writes in his masterwork, The Call of Cthulhu:
…someday the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
Indeed, almost invariably in a Lovecraft Cthulhu tale, the protagonist or some other character succumbs to madness after his glimpse of the “terrifying vistas” and “all that the universe has to hold of horror.” Sometimes this is immediate, as happens to Danforth at the end of At the Mountains of Madness. Other times it is the strain of trying to cope with what they witnessed that proves impossible to bear, and eventually insanity takes hold.
N. is firmly in the grip of madness when, after a conversation with his daughter, he decides to try and get help. This brings him to Dr. Bonsaint and a series of sessions in which N. describes the nature of his OCD and what he believes is the cause (and what Dr. Bonsaint is convinced is the nature of his delusions). To quote Sir William, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.”
Although Lovecraftian heroes may occasionally deal a “setback” to malignant forces, their victories are temporary, and they usually pay a price for it. To go back to The Call of Cthulhu again (really you should go read that too, it’s amazing), by the story’s end the narrator has realized that an earthquake felt in New England; a bout of madness afflicting artists and patients of insane asylums alike around the world; horrible idols and the dark, secretive cults that worship them; and the odyssey of a particular ship sailing out of Australia, are all connected. From the story:
They worshipped, so they said, the Great Old Ones who lived ages before there were any men, and who came to the young world out of the sky. Those Old Ones were gone now, inside the earth and under the sea; but their dead bodies had told their secrets in dreams to the first men, who formed a cult which had never died. This was that cult, and the prisoners said it had always existed and always would exist, hidden in distant wastes and dark places all over the world until the time when the great priest Cthulhu, from his dark house in the mighty city of R’lyeh under the waters, should rise and bring the earth again beneath his sway. Some day he would call, when the stars were ready, and the secret cult would always be waiting to liberate him.
What the narrator realizes, what he discovers to his absolute horror, is that the indeed “the stars were ready,” and the dead city of R’lyeh rose from the depths of the ocean, and Cthulhu was awoken, not by his devoted cultists, but inadvertently by seafaring men that came upon R’lyeh by accident. One man, the lone survivor who barely escaped with his life if not his sanity, seemed to thwart Cthulhu’s return, perhaps preventing the completion of the ritual. And though he undoubtedly saved the world, the true horror experienced by the narrator is that it is only a matter of time before the stars are ready again. And the cult that never dies will await their god, ready to resurrect him.
So too, in N., the main characters find themselves locked in a struggle, a battle that has perhaps always been. Eight stones complete the circle and the seal that keeps the nightmares from entering our world. But the human eye takes away the eighth stone, essentially opens the gateway, or at least leaves the door unlocked. The afflicted N., and later Dr. Bonsaint after him, must periodically go to the field and turn seven into eight. The rest of their days are filled with their OCD behavior. Counting things, touching things, and placing (balancing, really) things all around them. Odd numbers are bad, and even are good. The counting, touching, and placing (balancing) help maintain the seal, keep the monsters at bay, but eventually the circle weakens, the eighth stone vanishes and, as Dr. Bonsaint quips, “a house call becomes necessary.”
But it is all for naught. First N., and Dr. Bonsaint after him, realizes that he can’t keep it up for long. The stress on his mind is too great. The task is too daunting, too taxing. He is slowly broken down to the point of being convinced that suicide is the only option. It will either fix the eighth stone in its position (at least until the next person stumbles into the field and sees the stones), or if it really is all just a delusion, it will end his misery.
What goes Around Comes Around
One of the things I love about The Call of Cthulhu is the story’s structure. It begins with a quote from renowned author of ghost stories, and major influence on Lovecraft, Algernon Blackwood. But before that, in parentheses, as if Lovecraft doesn’t want the reader to pay much attention to it at first, is the following:
(Found among the Papers of the Late
Francis Wayland Thurston, of Boston)
And then the quote from Blackwood and then Chapter I: The Horror in Clay and one of the bleakest, most awesome openings of any story ever. You quickly forget that brief parenthetical. You’re caught up in the story and the growing horrors discovered by the narrator. The narrator never even mentions his own name within the text of the story, and I think of him more simply as “the narrator” than Francis Wayland Thurston. But then near the end, there is this:
But I do not think my life will be long. As my uncle went, as poor Johansen went, so I shall go. I know too much, and the cult still lives.
And then you remember that parenthetical. Or you’ve still forgotten it until a re-reading of the story and it hits you. His papers were found. The research of Professor Angell, the bas relief of Cthulhu, his own manuscript. Although Thurston wrote again and again of the need to destroy the cursed collection, that mankind is better off living in ignorance of the cosmic horror he has discovered, he failed to heed his own advice. Or, like his great uncle, thought he had more time until the cult would strike.
I find this exquisitely effective at reinforcing the sense of despair at the heart of The Call of Cthulhu. The sense of inevitability. Lovecraft had a very poor opinion of humanity in the face of the cosmos. We are pitiful, pathetic, short-lived creatures. With respect to the enormity of the universe, we are little more than ants. We do not save the day. We do not snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Those jaws snap down, rend us in two, and consume us.
N. very much mirrors this, which is another departure for King. Often in King’s short fiction darkness triumphs, if for no other reason, perhaps, than it makes things scarier. But more often in his novels, light wins out over darkness: Salem’s Lot, The Stand, It, The Shining, Duma Key, Doctor Sleep, Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, and more. Part of what I love about N. is how much it shares with The Call of Cthulhu in structure.
N. begins with a letter from Dr. Bonsaint’s sister Sheila. He has committed suicide, and among his personal effects she has found notes on a patient, N., and a manuscript. She finds it all very disturbing and has sent it with the letter to a childhood friend, now doctor. She asks him to read it, and offer his opinion. We then launch into Dr. Bonsaint’s notes, an accounting of his sessions with N., and N.’s encounters with the stones. Then we transition to the manuscript. Starting out as the makings of an article or book on obsessive compulsive disorder, it rapidly devolves into an account of Dr. Bonsaint’s own struggles with the same obsessive compulsive behavior as N., the same delusions (if they are delusions), and the same descent into madness and, ultimately suicide.
The story then shifts to near present day. I’ve included enough spoilers in this essay, and I don’t want to spoil the ending. But there is another letter from Sheila, a newspaper article, and an email from the childhood doctor friend. I will simply say that that same palpable sense of despair and inevitability that pervades The Call of Cthulhu fills the climax of N.. It’s really great, and a wonderful story for Halloween. I can’t speak to the other stories of Just After Sunset, but N. is worth the price alone. And again, I highly recommend the audiobook version. It’s a multi-cast performance that is just outstanding.