Tuesday, November 1, 2011
Four Past Midnight by Stephen King
Four Past Midnight
By Stephen King
In his introduction to this collection of novellas, Stephen King reflects on his career as he enters middle age. He was 42 years old when he published Four Past Midnight.
He compares his career with that of Milwaukee Brewers Hall of Famer, Robin Yount, who, at that time, was entering the twilight of his great career. Yount broke into the majors the same year King published his first novel.
Robin Yount came up as a shortstop. King started his writing career with an emphasis on children bedeviled by various monsters (with a few exceptions like The Stand). To extend his career, Yount made a position change to outfielder. King, too, changed as he got older and expanded to more adult oriented horror with much of it centered around writers bedeviled by their books and by their fans.
In 1994, Yount was old by major league standards, but still playing top notch baseball. King seemed to feel that he was entering a transition in his career as well. He closes by saying that Yount isn’t quite done yet and neither is he.
One Past Midnight: The Langoliers
Captain Brian Engle is taking a deadhead flight from New York to Boston where his ex-wife has just died in a fire. He falls asleep in the first class section of the plane shortly after takeoff. He is awakened by a shrieking girl.
The girl is Dinah Bellman, a ten year old blind girl who is on her way to Boston with her aunt to have surgery performed that will restore her sight. She awakens to find that her aunt, who serve as her eyes, is not in the seat next to her. She gets out of her seat and starts walking forward, calling out for somebody to help her.
She continues forward and starts feeling in the seats. That’s when she realizes there’s nobody aboard the plane. When she grasps a wig lying in a seat, she thinks she’s grabbed human hair. She starts shrieking loudly and awakens the remaining passengers on the flight.
There are ten of them. Captain Brian Engle; Dinah Bellman; Fifth grade teacher Laurel Stephenson, who is making a trip across the country to meet a man she has corresponded with via personal ads, Nick Hopewell who is in the employ of the British government; Don Gaffney, a retired tool and die maker, businessman Rudy Warwick; Albert Kraussner, a teen violin prodigy on his way to the Berklee School of Music in Boston; Bethany Sims, a 16 year old girl on her way to a drug rehab center; Bob Jenkins, a mystery writer; and Craig Toomey, an investment banker on his way to the Boston Prudential Center to explain to his investors how he lost $43 million of their money.
The remaining passengers introduce themselves to each other and immediately begin to take stock of the situation. Brian and Nick go forward to assess the situation in the cockpit. There, they find the cockpit empty and the plane flying on autopilot.
The passengers search the plane and note that odd objects are left behind. Radios, watches, dentures, surgical pens, and other travel flotsam. As they each tell their story, the deductive mystery writer determines that the one thing they all had in common was that they were asleep when whatever happened, happened.
In the cockpit, Brian tries to raise Denver tower and finds the radio devoid of traffic. He looks out the window at where Denver should be, and it’s not there. He decides that the best thing they can do is to continue east but land at the less congested Bangor Airport as opposed to Logan.
When Toomey hears that he will not be going to Boston, he flips out. That’s when we learn that Nick Hopewell is not a mere attaché to the British Embassy. He takes the badly behaving Mr. Toomey and puts him in a nose lock and promises to send him to unexplored realms of pain if he doesn’t shut up and behave. Mr. Toomey returns to his seat and begins slowly and methodically shredding magazines – a nervous habit that helps him calm down.
Brian delivers the plane and passengers to Bangor, but it is deserted. Immediately, Dinah notices that the air tastes funny and sounds don’t have resonance. They proceed into the passenger terminal to find some food and ponder their problem.
They find the food tasteless, the beer and pop flat. Looking outside, they notice that their plane, colorful and bright, stands in sharp contrast to the surroundings which seem to be dulling in color. The matches in the terminal won’t light. Nothing in this world is any good. Meanwhile, off in the distance, they can hear a strange noise, like milk poured on Rice Krispies. . .and the sound is getting closer.
While the other survivors are pondering what happened to the world, Mr. Toomey sneaks off to find a gun with visions of forcing Brian to take him to Boston so he can make his meeting at the Prudential Center. He gets his gun from airport security, sneaks up on Laurel and puts a gun to her head and demands to be taken to Boston. Albert sneaks up on him, but Toomey sees him. Just as Albert clouts him on the head with his violin case, Toomey shoots Albert.
But the powder in the bullets don’t ignite any better than the matches and the bullet harmlessly bounces off Albert’s chest. Nick ties up Toomey and leaves him lying on the floor while they deliberate some more.
After much pondering and discussion, the mystery writer employs his powers of deductive reasoning and determines that they have traveled to the recent past where everything and everybody has moved on. Brian tells them that there were a strange weather phenomena over the Mojave and perhaps that is where they encountered their “rip” in time. Nick suggests they fly back from whence they came, the way they came.
The problem is that they are almost out of fuel and the fuel in Bangor of this time is certainly no good. Bob Jenkins, again deploying his outstanding deductive reasoning skills surmises that perhaps if objects are taken aboard the plane, which is a temporal anomaly in Bangor, perhaps those objects will work once again. Brian, Nick, Albert, and Bob set off to test this hypothesis.
Dinah is left in the terminal, accompanied by Laurel, Gaffney, and Warwick to keep an eye on Toomey. Toomey tells them that the Langoliers are coming. The Langoliers are little creatures with quick little legs who chase down and eat slow and dull children, or so his father told him. Craig Toomey lives his life as a type A personality, driven by the childhood fears of Langoliers that will eat him should he slow down.
The group wanders away from Toomey to get away from his horror stories. They walk to the windows to watch what’s going on out at the airplane. While they are not looking, Toomey slips loose and gets to a food counter where he grabs a knife. He then surprises Dinah and stabs her in the chest and takes off running.
On the plane, Brian and his friends find that the objects and material brought aboard are restored to their earlier properties. Brian says he can use the plane’s engines to pump fuel from a fuel truck and get the plane ready for takeoff.
Nick returns to the terminal to see to Dinah who has a punctured lung and is certainly dying. He dispatches Albert and Gaffney to find a stretcher so they can move Dinah back to the plane. As Nick is seeing her to her wounds, Dinah implores Nick to not kill Toomey, telling him that they still need Toomey.
Gaffney and Albert find airport emergency services and walk in. Albert immediately spots a stretcher and moves toward it. But Toomey is lurking behind the tour and ambushes Gaffney, stabbing and killing him. Albert, armed with a toaster wrapped in a blanket, swings his makeshift sling, and knocks Toomey unconscious.
The group gets Dinah on the stretcher and heads for the airplane as Brian makes ready the engines and the fuel truck. They begin the long, slow process of pumping the fuel into the plane. Meanwhile, the ominous crunching sound is a lot closer and they can see trees and power towers falling in the distance.
Dinah is delirious, but has a mental connection with Mr. Toomey. She implores him to get up, telling him that the Boston bankers have come all the way to Bangor to hear his important presentation. Toomey struggles to rise and get to his meeting. He sees visions of his father, accusing him of laying down on the job. He runs through the terminal and out onto the tarmac where he sees a boardroom table with men waiting to talk to him.
As they are reaching the final stages of fueling, the group gets their first look at the Langoliers who are literally eating existence. They are little black balls with huge, sharp teeth that zig and zag as they make their way through matter. They make their way past the plane to Mr. Toomey, who stand before an imaginary board of directors, explaining how he lost $43 million in bad foreign currency investments.
When he sees the Langoliers, Toomey begins to run. The Langoliers pursue, giving Brian time to get the plane started and taxiing. The Langoliers catch Toomey, cutting him off at the legs and then turning to finish him off as he pleads with them that he’ll be a good boy from now on.
After being sure that Mr. Toomey has diverted the Langoliers long enough to allow the plane a chance to take off, Dinah dies from her wounds.
Brian launches the plane down the runway as the Langoliers begin to turn their attention to the airport and its environs. He manages to get the plane aloft before all of Bangor falls into non existence.
The group flies across the country, or what’s left of it down below as the Langoliers do their work of eating the setting of times past. They reach the temporal anomaly and Brian prepares to fly them through and hopefully, back to their own time at LAX. Just then, it occurs to the deductive Bob Jenkins that they have forgotten that they must be asleep lest they disappear into nothingness just as the other passengers did. Brian turns the plane around and enters a holding pattern as they discuss what to do next. Meanwhile, their fuel supply dwindles.
Brian tells them he can put them all to sleep by depressurizing the cabin, but that somebody – namely him – has to be awake to land the plane. Nick Hopwell, who feels he has a lot to atone for from his bloody work of fighting for Her Majesty, agrees to take the oxygen mask and stay awake to start cabin repressurization in time to wake up Brian to land the plane.
Laurel, who has fallen in love with Nick is horrified. She boarded a cross country flight to take a blind chance on finding love, but found it aboard the plane. Now, she is going to lose it. Nick says he has a lot to atone for and this is his way to do it. He asks Laurel to visit his father in England and tell him that, in the end, he got redemption.
Brian depressurizes the cabin and everybody goes to sleep except Nick who is using an oxygen mask. As the plane heads toward the time rip, Nick starts to repressurize the cabin. When it passes through the rip, Nick disappears, his watch falling to the floor.
Brian awakens and begins the approach to LAX. He is out of fuel and has to take the plane in hard. He lands the plane and coasts down the runway, eventually crashing into a gate. They come to rest and look out the window. They immediately notice that LAX looks just like Bangor. It is abandoned. The passenger and their captain despair.
They get out of the plane and enter the terminal. They notice some distinct differences between Bangor and LAX. LAX seems more “there.” The colors are more vivid and the sounds resonate. They also hear a humming sound that is growing louder.
Deductive wizard Bob Jenkins tells them that they have actually moved a few minutes into the future and that time is catching up with them quickly. He forces them up against a wall so they’ll be out of the way when the moment arrives.
The passengers watch as the world quickly appears around them. A kid notices that the passengers have appeared out of thin air and tells his dad about it. But nobody else notices. The passengers of the aborted flight leave the airport to resume their lives.
When I first read this story, the mystery really had me intrigued. King gives us scant clues as to what is happening, but it is exciting. There’s also the element of the locked room mystery. Whatever occurred on the plane occurred in a sealed environment.
However, as the nature of their predicament becomes apparent, there is a real let down. I was expecting something much more ominous and exciting than merely traveling back in time a few minutes to find an empty airport.
Also, much too much time is spend with mystery writer, whom King develops as a second rate Sherlock Holmes, always making sure he has an audience while he dispenses his brilliant deductions, some of which he correctly arrives at despite having scant information.
The characters recognize early on that time is of the essence in solving their problem. Yet they continue to provide their rapt attention to Jenkins as he has them conduct experiment after experiment to reveal what has happened. There was way too much deliberation and not nearly enough well paced action in the story.
King cleverly overcomes the obstacle of how to put the passengers to sleep and that lifts the second half of the story, perhaps salvaging what was an otherwise average effort.
This story spanned 240 pages and could have easily been published as a novel. Had it been a stand-alone novel, it would have ranked as below average. While there was much to like about it early on, when the nature of the problem presents itself, it becomes much more dull.
Two Past Midnight: Secret Window, Secret Garden
Author Mort Rainey is awakened from a nap by a knock on his door. At his door is a man named John Shooter who accuses him of stealing his story.
Rainey is beside himself with anger because plagiarism is the worst charge that can be leveled at a writer. Shooter says he’s from Mississippi and he picked up a copy of Rainey’s short stories in a bus station and discovered the story that he claims to have written. He leaves a copy of his manuscript and promises their business is not completed.
Rainey tosses the manuscript into the garbage, but his housekeeper pulls it out, thinking that Rainey has thrown it there by accident. When Mort finds the manuscript later, he reads some it and notes the striking resemblance to his story Secret Window, Secret Garden. Now he’s ticked that someone has stolen his story.
He encounters Rainey one day while on a walk. Rainey asks Shooter when allegedly wrote this story. Shooter says he wrote it in 1982. Mort feels a moment of triumph as he tells Shooter that the story was first published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 1980 – two years prior to when Shooter says he wrote the story. Shooter is thrown off stride by this and tells Rainey he has three days to produce the magazine and prove that he did not steal the story.
Mort knows he has a copy in the study of his home back in Derry where his recently divorced wife still lives. He calls his ex-wife and tells her he’ll be down tomorrow to get the story. He then takes a long nap. When he awakens, he finds his cat stabbed to death with a screwdriver and pinned to his back door.
He also learns that his former home has been burned to the ground during the night. It is an obvious case of arson and the fire started in his old study where the magazine was allegedly stored.
Growing more desperate, he contacts his publisher about getting a copy of the magazine Fedexed to him. Meanwhile, he contacts the local police about his dead cat and the man threatening him. He asks the sheriff to talk to a local care taker who saw Rainey talking to shooter near the beach.
Mort, meanwhile, must deal with the arson at his former home. He meets his ex-wife and her new lover at the insurance adjustor’s office. While there, he realizes he still has feelings for his ex-wife, even after catching her in bed in a no-tell motel with her current lover. They go over all that they lost that represented their lives together and Mort is devastated, as is his wife, Amy.
The next day, Mort finds that the caretaker and the man he asked to help him have been murdered with tools from Mort’s shed. They lie dead at the exact spot where Rainey met Shooter the day prior.
Mort returns home and Shooter calls and is angry that Mort involved outsiders in their private business. Shooter promises to show up the next day to see the copy of the magazine. Mort, mentally exhausted, falls asleep again.
He awakens and obsesses over the situation. He remembers that he might have stolen a story once, but it was many years before and it certainly wasn’t Secret Window, Secret Garden which he recalls was inspired by a window in his wife’s study that looked out on a small garden hidden from view from the house.
Mort goes to the post office to retrieve the package that contains the magazine. He finds that his story has been excised from the magazine, along with the table of contents that had his name in them. He rushes home to figure out what he’s going to do about the maniacal John Shooter who is supposed to be arriving that afternoon to see the magazine.
He falls asleep and dreams of his college days in creative writing. In his creative writing class, there was a student by the name of Dellacourt who was a brilliant writer of stories – better than Rainey. But the student dropped out of the class and was never seen again. Mort was bitterly jealous of the young man’s writing ability.
Several months later, after receiving several rejection letters for his own work, Mort comes across a manuscript written by Dellacourt. He decides, as a joke, to submit the manuscript as his own work, just to prove that Dellacourt would also be rejected. However, the magazine accepts the manuscript. At first, Mort resolves that he will withdraw the manuscript, but ultimately doesn’t and it is published. He then spends the next year living in mortal fear that he will be out\ed as a plagiarist. No one ever learns of his duplicity.
He awakens and walks to his study. There, he finds his word processor smashed and replaced with an old Royal typewriter which he used to write on. As he looks at the typewriter, he realizes that there never has been a John Shooter, that he is John Shooter. His conscience has come back to haunt him and he has killed all these people and burned his own home.
At this time, Amy arrives to find out why Mort has been acting so weird. She encounters Mort, now dressed and acting like John Shooter. Shooter says he has to kill her. He pursues Amy through the house and she runs out the back door. Just as Mort is about to stab her, he is shot by the insurance investigator who has been following Amy as part of his investigation into the arson.
The story concludes with the insurance investigator explaining how he figured out that Mort had set the fire at his house. Amy theorizes that Mort became two people, with Shooter’s personality finally taking over.
This was the strongest story in the book. That Mort and Shooter are the same person becomes apparent early on and King is making only token efforts at shielding that. Every event transpires while Mort is taking one of his many naps. But that’s not the crux of the story.
The reader is engaged in wondering how it’s all going to play out. Mort and his agent are both confident that the story does exist in the magazine. The reader believes it too and this is a masterful red herring. It’s not until the end that King reveals the reason why Mort Rainey has come unraveled.
Three Past Midnight: The Library Policeman
Rotary member Sam Peebles is asked at the last minute to give a speech before his local club. Sam is not a practiced speechfier and needs help.
He drafts a speech and has his secretary, Naomi, look it over. Naomi tells him it is full of good information, but is dry. She recommends that he spice it up by adding a joke or two as well as some inspirational poetry. She tells him to go to the library and pick up a couple reference books to help him find the right material.
The thought of going to the library fills Sam with dread, although he has no idea why. When Naomi mentions the idea, his mouth fills with the taste of red licorice, which he’s never tried, but hates. A single line, spoken by a man with a lisp also runs through his head” “Come with me, thun, I’m a poleethman.”
Sam goes to the library. He takes a look around and notices how retro the whole library looks. He is taken aback at the posters in the children’s library and the sign at the entrance that reads, “SILENCE!” The standard posters advising kids of the joys of reading and warning them of stranger danger are not nice, sunny pictures to inspire joy. They are fearful posters that Sam is sure would inspire terror rather than motivation. As examines these posters, he comes across the fearful visage of a shadowy, creepy creature dubbed, The Library Policeman. He’s the guy that comes to get the kid who does not turn in his books on time. For reasons unknown to him, his anxiety returns.
As he’s taking in the posters at the children’s library, he is approached by the librarian who introduces herself as Ardelia Lortz. Sam describes his predicament to Ardelia who is able to help Sam find two reference books that will meet his needs. Sam checks out a book of poems and an old book called, The Speaker’s Companion.
As Ardelia is processing his library card and checking him out, she reminds him that these particular books are only one week loans and he must have them back on time. Her tone and domineering posture make it clear that she’s not joking.
Sam delivers his speech and it is a rousing success. He sees business at his insurance and real estate business soar during the week after as the accolades continue to flow. Sam is basking in his glory and his new cash flow when it dawns on him that the books are due.
He rushes home from the office and looks for the books. They are not to be found. His anxiety is cranked high. Thoughts of the dreaded library policeman run through his head and the taste of licorice flood his mouth. He searches his office and can’t find the books. Finally, he reaches a conclusion: Dirty Dave has taken his books.
Dirty Dave is a town drunk that goes around and collects newspapers and other recyclables to sell for money to live on. Sam is now dreadfully sure that he picked up the books when he bundled the newspapers for Dave to take.
That evening, as Sam spends and uncomfortable evening at home, pondering the fate of his two lost tomes, there is a knock at the door. When Sam answers it, he finds a tall, looming figure dressed in a trench coat and wearing a fedora. He forces his way into the room and takes Sam into his firm grasp. He says with a lisp that he’s the Library Poleethman and he’s here for the books. Sam’s mouth fills with that red licorice taste again as he trembles and tells the man that he does not have the books. The Library Policeman tells Sam he’d better come up with him or things will go badly. Later, Ardelia Lortz calls and tells Sam she’s going to give him an extension to return the books. She adds with great menace that, if he does not return the books, he’ll regret it.
The next day at work, Sam raises the name of Ardelia Lortz with Naomi who has a visceral reaction when Sam mentions her name, but doesn’t provide him any clues as to why, dismissing it as something that happened a long time ago. Later, when Naomi’s mother calls, looking for her, Sam asks her about it. The woman is filled with anger at the mention of the name, and she chides him for bringing it up before she hangs up on him.
That evening, Sam heads for the area shelter where Dirty Dave lives to ask him if he has the books. He inadvertently walks into an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. There, he sees Dirty Dave along with Naomi and a couple of the town’s leading citizens who, during the day, Sam is sure would not give Dirty Dave the time of day. He is unobserved, so he waits patiently outside for the meeting to break up. He approaches Dave who tells him that he’s already taken the day’s load to the recycling center.
Hoping against hope that his books will still be intact, Sam heads for the recycling center. After an extensive search of the detritus from the day’s haul, Sam finds the water laden dust jacket of one of the books. Anxiety turns to terror for he knows he can not return the books and the Library Policeman will be paying another visit.
That evening, he calls the shelter to ask Dave if he knows anything about Ardelia Lortz. The mere mention of her name sends Dave into an absolute panic and he keeps telling Dave what happened with Lortz wasn’t his fault. Then someone takes the phone away from Dave. It is Naomi, who is known to residents of the shelter and to her fellow A.A. members as Sarah. Naomi tells Dave he is a horrible, hateful man to bring up Ardelia Lortz to Dave and that she will never work for or speak to him again and hangs up the phone. Dave feels all alone now, facing the problem of the psychotic librarian and her henchman.
The next afternoon, Sam goes to the library, planning to tell the librarian that he’s lost the books and offer to pay for them. When he arrives at the library, he finds the interior does not remotely resemble the library he visited earlier. It is modern, with the old skylights covered with a drop ceiling and the scary posters replaced by happy posters. The sign that once demanded, “SILENCE!” has been replaced with a friendly greeting. He finds the library staffed by teen volunteers, none of whom have ever heard of Ardelia Lortz.
Sam decides to research the old newspapers to ascertain what he can about the library’s history. He comes across a section of the newspaper from several years prior that documents the library’s history on its 50th anniversary. He reads the roster of prior librarians and the years they served. He notes a gap in the documented history of the library in the late 1960s. Ardelia Lortz is not among those listed as having served as librarian.
As he’s pondering this, he is taken by surprise as Naomi approaches him from behind. She tells him that she has come to apologize for having been so abrupt with him, realizing that he must not have known about Ardelia Lortz, her horrendous crime, and Dirty Dave’s connection to it. She invites him to come to the shelter that evening because Dave wants to tell his story and do what he can to help Sam.
They go to the shelter and Dave tells his story. Back when he was a young man in the 1960s, attending church, he met the town’s new librarian, Ardelia Lortz at a Sunday worship and was immediately smitten. He was drinking then, but still a respected artist and sign painter who did a good business in the town. He started spending more and more time with Ardelia, in her bed and with her at the library. Ardelia put his talents to work, drawing the scary posters Dave saw. He tells them that he learned that Ardelia Lortz was not human, that she was an evil creature who fed off of the fear of children.
Despite knowing her nature, Dave could not break away from her spell. He began to drink more and more and before long he lost his business. But he still had Ardelia. One evening, as Dave lay in his cups, Ardelia flew into a rage about the town’s police chief who was starting to question Ardelia’s methods of running the library and how she was treating the children. She planned to kill him and then to “hibernate.” To hibernate, she needed to kill a couple children to fuel herself on their fear. She tells Dave that he, too, must kill a child and join her in hibernation.
Ardelia goes on to kill the police chief, causing him to have a heart attack. She then abducts two children and kills them. Dave, still under her spell, stalks a child, but at the last minute has a moment of clarity and cannot go through with it. He’s left behind with the knowledge of Ardelia’s true, supernatural nature and the guilt of two dead children on his conscience.
Dave tells Sam that he’s in deep trouble because Ardelia will need to kill again and hibernate before she is discovered again. Dave tells Sam that there must be something in his past, a “Library Policeman” that Ardelia is exploiting to create terror in him. Sam assures him that there is not. Dave tells Sam to acquire new copies of the books he lost and to present them to Ardelia after the library closes. Dave hopes that that will make things even for Sam and put the matter to rest.
They are able to locate the books they need at a book store more than 100 miles away in Des Moines. Dave says he has a friend who has a private plane that owes him payback for a huge favor done many years prior. Dave tells them to fly to Des Moines and return with the books and he will meet them at the library after it closes.
Naomi and Sam fly to Des Moines with Dave’s friend who tells them that he does indeed owe Dave a favor so large that he’s willing to drop what he’s doing to fly them. They acquire the books at the bookstore. On the flight back, Sam falls asleep and has a terrifying dream that brings back to memory a past trauma.
He’s a young man on his way to the library, eating sticks of red licorice, his favorite candy. He is going to return a book that is four days past due. He approaches the library and on the steps, he sees a man dressed in a dark trench coat, wearing sunglasses and bearing a large scar on his face. He stops ten year old Sam and asks him if his book is overdue. Sam tells him it is. The man then says, “Come with me. I’m a poleethman and you have to pay a fine.” He takes Sam to a secluded area near the library and rapes him. Sam awakens terrified with just hazy memories of the dream, but a clear idea of what must be done at the library.
Naomi and Sam return and head for the library. Along the way, Sam purchases several packages of red licorice and wads them into balls for no reason he can understand, just knowing that that is what he must do to fight Ardelia and her policeman. They arrive at the library to find Dave waiting for them. They wait outside as the last of the library’s patrons and real, current staff leave for the night. They then enter through the delivery door. They find the library as it looked circa 1960.
The Library Policeman is there to ambush them. He grabs Dave and tells them that the librarian has a score to settle with Dave who left her alone all those years ago. Sam says that may be, but Sam has a score to settle with the policeman. The policeman tosses Dave across the room where his head strikes a fire extinguisher and he falls unconscious. He then grabs Naomi. He plants a taunting kiss on her neck. Sam orders the policeman to let Naomi go and to deal with him. He tosses Naomi aside.
Dave tells the policeman that he has the books and past fines are all paid. He then attacks the policeman, striking him with the books he has acquired. The policeman is stricken and begins an abrupt change from something resembling a human into a dwarf like creature with a long proboscis. This is Ardelia’s true nature. She attacks Sam and holds him. She enchants him with her eyes. He is paralyzed. She then extends her proboscis and begins to lick the strange, pinkish tears from Sam’s face.
Sam realizes that she’s feeding on his fear and is able to find his resolve. He takes one of the balls of licorice and plugs the proboscis with it. Ardelia stumbles about, trying to get her nose unplugged, but can’t. She finally explodes with guts and tissue flying all over the room.
Naomi and Sam go to Dave whose obviously sustained a substantial skull fracture. He’s barely conscious, but he tells Dave to remember that Ardelia finds a way to go on through time; that she survives and for Sam to make sure she is gone forever. He then dies.
A couple days later, Sam attends a memorial service for Dave at the shelter. He notices that Naomi has left the room. He goes out back to find her standing, contemplating the railroad tracks. She tells him that she doesn’t feel well and that, for the first time in a long time, she wants a drink. Sam hears a train approaching and knows what Naomi is contemplating.
He also notices a large welt where the policeman kissed her. He recalled Dave’s final warning about Ardelia finding the means to maintain her existence. He find one of the balls of licorice left over from his earlier encounter in his coat. He grabs Naomi who he now knows is no longer Naomi – but Ardelia. He places the ball of licorice against the welt. Ardelia screams and the ball of licorice swells and pulses. Sam removes the licorice from Naomi’s neck and places it on the track where it is promptly run over by the train. Naomi screams and collapses.
She awakens a short time later to find that she’s her old self again. Naomi and Sam are now confident that the creature that was Ardelia Lortz and the Library Policeman is truly dead. They live happily ever after.
This story was weak, but was compensated with exceptionally strong characters.
The story was weak because King leaves a couple important details unresolved. At one point, Dave describes the Library Policeman as Ardelia’s henchman. But the end leads us to believe there was but one being. This inconsistency is never rationalized.
The other glaring plot hole was in the incident that lead to the books being lost. Had Sam not made the error of placing the books out with the recycling, he’d have returned them on time and nothing would have happened. The event that triggered the crisis was caused by human accident. We are lead to believe that Sam was targeted by Ardelia because of his past fearful association with the library. But she took no action to bring Sam back to the library, instead leaving it to chance. I know it’s a small issue, but it did take away from the story.
What is fantastic is the character development of Dirty Dave. The concept of the noble drunk is a cliché to be certain. However, King takes the time in a short novel to give this character incredible depth. The tale that Dave tells about his past association with Ardelia Lortz takes up nearly one third of the book and succeeds in making the gifted artist turned town drunk into a tragic character.
When the pilot tells the tale of a younger Dave, a younger drunk, but still a functioning artist, painting the portraits of the Kansas City Royals on baseballs and getting them autographed for the pilot’s dying son, it adds tremendously to the sympathy the reader feels for this unwashed, unkempt man who once had a great talent and was respected for it. King invests many pages in telling this tale as well.
This story should have been expanded into a novel and the creature that was Ardelia assigned a backstory to make her more terrifying. Knowing King’s proclivity at character development, he could have made Ardelia Lortz and the Library Policeman into something truly terrifying.
Four Past Midnight: The Sun Dog
All Kevin Delevan wants for his 15th birthday is a Polaroid Sun 660 Camera. That is exactly what he gets. But excitement turns to disappointment – and eventually horror – when he finds that it does not take pictures of what it is pointed at.
Kevin takes his first picture which is supposed to be of his family. Instead, what comes out is a picture of a black mongrel dog walking on a sidewalk with a dilapidated picket fence in the background. Kevin considers taking it back to the store to exchange it, but it is damaged at his birthday party, making it impossible to return.
Kevin’s father recommends that he take the camera to Pop Merrill, the owner of Castle Rock’s pawn shop. He is known to be pretty handy with fixing mechanical devices. Kevin decides to pay a visit to Pop.
Pop inspects the camera and the photos Kevin brings in with him. He notices that each photo is just a little different – that the dog is moving and that, in one shot, it is clearly evident the photographer (whoever he or she is) has adjusted to keep the dog in the frame. Pop tells Kevin that he can’t even open the camera because it is plastic and designed to never be opened.
Pop is curious about the camera and sees a potential profit in it. Kevin is haunted by the images of the dirty mongrel because there’s something sinister about it. He says he’s considering smashing the camera. Pop tells Kevin he can do just that right there in the shop, but Pop proposes and experiment before they dispose of the camera.
Kevin purchases a packet of fifty exposures and over the next three days takes pictures at regular intervals. At the end of those three days, he takes the camera back to Pop and they examine the pictures together. It is evident that the dog is moving and is starting to turn. Kevin wants to destroy the camera. Pop tells him to hold off a little longer and to come back to the shop tomorrow.
That day before Kevin’s arrival, Pop Merrill runs some errands. He takes the pictures to a friend of his who transfers photographs to videotape and has the pictures converted. He stops by a department store and buys an identical Polaroid Sun 660 Camera. He plans to frighten Kevin a little more so he’ll want to get rid of the camera and he’s scheming to get his hands on it so he can sell it to collectors of supernatural artifacts.
Kevin and his dad show up at Pop Merrill’s shop the next evening and Pop has laid his plan well. Prior to their arrival, Pop has smashed the Polaroid he just bought and stowed the pieces out of sight in his shop. When Kevin and his dad arrive, Pop takes the camera from them for another “examination” and sets it down precariously close to the edge of the counter. He then invites Kevin and his father upstairs to view the videotape.
The tape frightens Kevin and his father. It is evident that the dog has taken notice of the photographer and his making ready to turn and attack. Pop dismisses himself as Kevin and his dad review the tape again, goes downstairs, and feigns a crashing sound. He hides Kevin’s camera and scatters the pieces of the other Polaroid on the floor. He tells Kevin and his father that they won’t need to smash the camera after all. It has met an unfortunate, accidental end in their shop. The Delevans are relieved.
That night, Kevin starts having recurring nightmares about living in a two dimensional world inhabited by two dimensional people – people who live in photographs. They are trying to tell him something. Eventually Kevin figures out that Pop Merrill has swindled him out of his camera. He also knows that if that dog gets lose, it’s coming for him because, regardless of the possessor, the camera is his, as is the dog.
Meanwhile, Pop Merrill is getting caught up in a mania of his own. He’s convinced that he can get thousands of dollars from some customer interested in supernatural material. But his “mad hatter” customers are not interested. Each has a different reason. One dismisses it as uninteresting and unremarkable. Another thinks it’s too horrifying. Another sees it as useless.
At each stop, Pop Merrill takes a few pictures. The dog has turned and is prepared to launch itself at the photographer. Now Pop, not the most imaginative of people, is concerned about that camera and that dog. He resolves to destroy the camera himself. But he’s too late. He’s under the spell of the camera and the dog.
He stops on his way home to buy pipe tobacco. Instead, he unknowingly buys Polaroid film. Meanwhile, Kevin and his father are making a few purchases of their own. They buy another Polaroid 660 Land Camera and a packet of film.
Back at his shop, Pop resolves to take the camera to his back yard and smash it. Instead, he puts the camera on the counter and takes a cuckoo clock out back to smash. Now that he thinks he’s put the nasty camera business behind him, Pop returns to his shop to tinker on a clock. In reality, he’s snapping picture after picture, bringing the dog closer to the photographer and to our world.
Kevin and his dad arrive at Merrill’s shop to find that he’s exhausted his film. Stacks of pictures lay on the counter. One, however, is starting to take on a third dimension. The picture pulsates and it appears as if something is trying to escape from it. Finally, a dog’s head bursts through and rips into Merrill, killing him. It continues to try to push its way out.
Inspired by his dream, Kevin aims his camera the way a hunter aims his gun – to kill. Kevin is careful to get the entire dog, now more than halfway out of its birth from Polaroid Land to the real world, into the frame of the picture, and snaps the shot with his new camera. The dog disappears, trapped once again inside a Polaroid camera.
In the story’s epilogue, Kevin receives a word processor (back when word processors were stand alone devices) as a gift. He is excited about his new toy and sets it up. He types in the typist practice phrase, “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy sleeping dog.” What appears on the screen is entirely different. Kevin reads the monitor with horror, for written there is, “The Dog is loose again. And it is not sleeping. It is not lazy. It’s coming for you, Kevin and it’s very hungry. And it’s VERY angry.”
In its introduction, King tells us that this story is meant to serve as a bridge to what he says will be the final Castle Rock story. We met Sheriff Alan Pangborn in The Dark Half and he makes a token appearance in The Sun Dog. We also see Deputy Norris Ridgewick and there are several mentions of the town selectman, Dan “Buster” Keaton and Polly Chalmers, owner of the You Sew and Sew. Each will play an important role in the final Castle Rock story, Needful Things.
We also learn that Pop’s nephew, Ace – the antagonist from The Body – is doing a stint at Shawshank Prison for an armed robbery, put there by Sheriff Pangborn. This sets up one of the conflicts coming in Needful Things. We also learn that Pangborn’s wife died in a car accident and that before she died, she’d learned that she had a brain tumor.
Needful Things is a long book, so having a novella to introduce a few characters and set up the coming conflicts and subplots served King’s needs.
The story is enjoyable, if not particularly compelling. A great deal of effort went into developing Pop Merrill as a character integral to the life of the residents of Castle Rock, just to have him die at the end of the story.
Four Past Midnight was the second of three volumes of novellas published by King. It is not nearly as good as Different Seasons and its stories are not as good as those published in Full Dark, No Stars. While Secret Window, Secret Garden ranks as one of King’s better stories, the book in its entirety ranks far down the list of King’s works.