Wednesday 14 September 2011

Short Story Corner | Mile 81 by Stephen King

Stephen King has spent what seems a disproportionate amount of time and energy writing about evil cars.

Not, I think, the strongest of concepts in the first place - though there is, admittedly, a certain material menace to these multi-tonne monsters with metallic grilles for grimaces - nor have any of Christine, Under the Dome, From a Buick 8 and so on and so forth convinced me that I'm missing something pivotal. In any event King has systematically mined this minor idea for what little it's worth, and then some.

And then a modicum more! 

And yet. In Mile 81, an exclusive e-book released this September to whet appetites for 11.22.63, the latest tome to come from the undisputed King of pop horror, the man's at it again; albeit on a much more minor scale. Mile 81 is at heart the story of one Pete Simmons, a little fella to his chagrin abandoned by the rapscallions his big brother runs with. Thus on his lonesome one afternoon, and armed only with a magnifying glass which he may or may not use to terrorise ants, Pete steals along to a legendary rest stop he's heard whispers about - signposted as per the title of this short story, and of course abandoned to the hijinx of experimental children - where who knows what adult delights await him?

In fact he finds a half-full bottle of vodka on the road there, and more spread-legged centerfolds pinned to the walls of the rest stop - an eerie Burger King gone to grime - than a ten year old (going on eleven) could ever imagine. Pete takes in his fill of both of these things and promptly falls asleep, sated.

But in the parking lot an old station wagon rolls up, with an unholy appetite fit to put Pete's to shame. Covered in muck and empty, so far as anyone can tell, the car's door creaks open... but no driver steps out.

Mile 81 he is long enough by short story standards, but only that because in place of proferring a single victim to demonstrate the inhuman hunger of this vile vehicle, King devotes one, then another, then a practically a whole family, by which point the point has been so belaboured as to test one's patience. Only then do we return to Pete, who's slept like a baby through all this awfulness. Saying that, Pete has a trick or two up his sleeve, and for once the last of Mile 81's six quick chapters claws an amount of the narrative's early mystery and tension back from the great car showroom in the sky.

Mile 81 is never, however, better than it is during that first chapter, which brings - yes - The Body (aka Stand By Me) to mind, and moments of Joe Hill's Horns. But this short story is also symptomatic of the worst of Stephen King: count among some truly terrible product placement, including tips of the hat to Christine - the film rather than the novel - and the comic book American Vampire, which King is of course also involved in. I could have stomached these metatextual references with little ill will... even the heads-ups to Harry Potter and Doctor Who have their place, I suppose.

But this:

"The beauty of the parked cruiser, at least in Maine State Trooper Jimmy Golding's opinion, was that you didn't really need to do anything [...] All his attention was on the iPad propped against the lower arc of the steering wheel.

"He was playing a Scrabble-like game called Words With Friends, his Internet connection provided by AT&T."

I'll thank you not to do that EVER AGAIN, Stephen King!

I am not much amused, obviously. But Mile 81 does feature an excerpt of 11.22.63, King's forthcoming tome about time travel and the assassination of JFK, and it's actually not half bad. So there's that.

That and the first chapter, which for all my criticisms is legitimately interesting. Would that Mile 81 had remained so...


  1. This sounds like all of King's pacing problems squeezed down into an uncompact short story. Then again, I've a not-so-hidden hesitancy towards anything King's written lately for exactly those reasons, so perhaps I'm biased towards crying out doom.

  2. It is. Which is unfortunate: King is usually much better about pacing in the short form. Not here, though.

    Doesn't exactly bode well for his forthcoming door-stopper, does it? Mind you, I'll be reading 11.22.63 one way or another; it's practically a tradition of mine. Keeping up with the Kings! :)

  3. How could you leave out Maximum Overdrive?

  4. Anonymous has a point.

    There are others, too. And that's to say nothing of all the short stories featuring evil machines, cars in particular. Man has a preoccupation!