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.