Category: stephen king

My Favorite Stories: The Man in the Black Suit

From the collection EVERYTHING’S EVENTUAL.

Stephen King writes of his short story The Man in the Black Suit: “I thought the finished product a rather humdrum folktale told in pedestrian language… When it won first prize in the O. Henry Best Short Story competition for 1996, I was convinced someone had made a mistake… Reader response was generally positive, too. This story is proof that writers are often the worst judges of what they have written.”

What’s strange in writing a blog post in which I claim this to be one of my favorite stories is that I don’t disagree with Stephen King, here. To me, the story doesn’t pop because of its language, or even because the story itself is all that strong or interesting.

What I love about it is two main things: 1) The trauma of the characters, and how it continually haunts them and 2) a frightening, unique take on the Devil (to me, anyway).

I’ve written about this story before, in my post about how Stephen King uses trauma to inform his characters, so I won’t rehash those specifics. What I will say is that as someone that’s always been afraid of bee stings, I can relate to Gary’s fears in the story. This passage sums up the effects of trauma pretty well:

A terrible idea came to me: that this was the very bee which had killed my brother. I knew it wasn’t true, and not only because honeybees probably didn’t live longer than a single year (except for the queens; about them I was not so sure). It couldn’t be true because bees died when they stung, and even at nine I knew it. Their stingers were barbed, and when they tried to fly away after doing the deed, they tore themselves apart. Still, the idea stayed. This was a special bee, a devil-bee, and it had come back to finish the other of Albion and Loretta’s two boys.

the man in the black suit; stephen king

As a character, I’m immediately inclined to root for Gary and his family, and the story does an excellent job of setting up his love for his mother:

Now he turned me around to face my mother, who was standing at the marble counter in a flood of strong morning sunshine falling through the double windows over the sink. There was a curl of hair lying across the side of her forehead and touching her eyebrow–you see how I remember it all? The bright light turned that little curl into filaments of gold and made me want to run to her and put my arms around her. In that instant I saw her as a woman, saw her as my father must have seen her.

The Man in the Black suit; stephen king

So when the Devil emerges from the wood and uses Gary’s greatest fear to trick him into thinking the thing he loves most was taken away–you feel it. And you feel Gary’s relief when he learns it was a lie. Simple but effective storytelling.

I also love how the Devil is personified in this story. Human-like, but not human at all. Or better yet, something trying to be human and failing. The imagery used to describe him is so strong it becomes very easily to visualize how uncanny he is:

A man was standing above me, at the edge of the trees. His face was very long and pale. His black hair was combed tight against his skull and parted with rigorous care on the left side of his narrow head. He was very tall. He was wearing a black three-piece suit, and I knew right away that he was not a human being, because his eyes were the orangey-red of flames in a woodstove. I don’t just mean the irises, because he had no irises, and no pupils, and certainly no white. His eyes were completely orange–an orange that shifted and flickered. And it’s really too late not to say exactly what I mean, isn’t it? He was on fire inside, and his eyes were like the little isinglass portholes you sometimes see in stove doors…

The man who had come out of the woods on that Saturday afternoon in midsummer was the Devil, and inside the empty holes of his eyes, his brains were burning.

the man in the black suit; stephen king

He conjures a memorable, creepy image to contrast against our young protagonist and the beauty of nature. To round out the creepiness, the Devil is given a playful, toying personality. The Devil is mean in a childish way, singing a rhyme when he realizes that Gary has (understandably) peed himself: “Opal! Diamond! Sapphire! Jade! I smell Gary’s lemonade!” From there, the creepiness elevates until Gary feeds the Devil a raw fish as a distraction and makes a run for it.

So, even though this is a straightforward, simple story without a lot of bells and whistles, it’s still highly effective. I’m drawn to the characters and their traumas, and it all comes together in a satisfying way.

Stephen King and Trauma

Belle prefers Jackson to King.

I recently read Stephen King’s short story collection JUST AFTER SUNSET and noticed something of a pattern to the way he builds characters. King layers trauma into them, but only occasionally does it relate directly to their current problem. There is a tendency to believe that any major piece of a character’s history, especially any types of trauma, should play into their current conflict–maybe even build to some sort of epiphany or resolution for the character. This often isn’t the case for King.

For example, the main character of his short story THE GINGERBREAD GIRL, Emily, recently lost her daughter. The main thrust of the story is her discovery that a man in the neighborhood of her father’s vacation home, where she’s staying as she recovers from her loss, kidnaps and murders children. As I read, I kept expecting her story to be about saving one of the little girls the man has kidnapped, metaphorically saving her own daughter. But that’s not where the story goes, nor is it the point. SPOILER: Emily fails to save the girl, instead discovering her body after the fact and getting caught herself in the process. The story then becomes about her needing to save herself. Which, considering where she was at the start of the story, is completely apt.

In another example from a story out of JUST AFTER SUNSET, one called A VERY TIGHT PLACE, our protagonist Curtis Johnson is still feeling the trauma of losing his beloved pet dog because of his vindictive neighbor. This trauma ties more directly into the story, but not neatly. Curtis doesn’t get revenge on his nemesis, Tim, at least not in a way that feels “eye for an eye.” Instead, the death of his dog at the hands of his neighbor is used to illustrate the intensity of their feud.

There are innumerable examples like this in King’s writing. Young Gary from THE MAN IN THE BLACK SUIT lost his brother to a bee sting, and then is saved from a bee sting by the Devil himself. Roland Deschain of THE DARK TOWER series was traumatized by his premature battle with Cort. On and on it goes.

So what purpose do these traumas serve if they’re not always tied into the story at hand? Often it’s used as a shortcut toward getting us to connect with them, and in every case it’s integral to who they are. Understanding the traumas of the characters, especially early on, not only connects us to them but illuminates why they’re making the decisions they make throughout the story. Emily isn’t sure she has the inner-strength to get over the death of her daughter until she needs to physically save herself from a killer. Curtis refuses to let his neighbor get the upper hand on him, even when trapped in a porta-potty. Roland tries to protect Jake’s innocence and is wracked with guilt when he allows him to die.

These types of shortcuts are useful to authors, especially in short stories, because they can convey a lot of information in few words. And King, despite his reputation for wordiness, is a master at that kind of character work.

© 2021 Craig Gusmann

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑