Of Love and Skill: The Woman in the Room—Stephen King’s First Masterwork

Closing King's 1978 collection Night Shift, "The Woman in The Room" is one of those very special stories that do it, that make you nod your head, Yes, that is the way of it, that is exactly right, exactly rendered...knowledge I've sought has now been given to me, knowledge I possessed has now been affirmed.

When a story merits that response, I deem it literature, uppercase "L." That astute man of letters Cyril Connolly, wrote, "Literature is the art of writing something that will be read twice."

And should be.

And needs to be.

•••

I came to Night Shift in 1978, the year of its publication. While I liked King's writing and even studied it (he was selling regularly to Cavalier, while the men's magazine was only occasionally using my work), I was no more expecting to find "real literature" in a Stephen King collection than I would have Beef Wellington on the menu at McDonalds.

Indeed, on more than one occasion, the "early" Stephen King said he saw himself as a "fast food" author. In his "Aw, shucks, I'm just a storyteller" manner. King maintained it was all about "the story," what-happens-next, accompanied by the shudder and gasp and culminating in the "gotcha" moment. "Yeah, freaked me out!" King writes in his "Foreword" to Night Shift, "...the story value holds dominance over every other fact of the writer's craft..." Although King does not truly offer a definition for "story value," when he alludes to Edgar Rice Burroughs as a master storyteller, we can assume that the "story value" aesthetic is "plot based."

Yet plot is hardly the root of "The Woman in the Room"; plot is unquestionably the story's simplest element. Johnny visits his terminally ill mother, opts to help her end her life/end her life with her cooperation, and does so in a way that he hopes will not lead to charges of matricide.

In this simple and realistic tale. King has admitted that there are strong elements of autobiography (he returns to this thematic concern in "Riding the Bullet," a story less successful than "Woman"). In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, King writes of his mother's last moments which he shared with his brother Dave.

Mom's eyes went from Dave to me, Dave to me, Dave to me. She had gone from one hundred and sixty pounds to about ninety. Her skin was yellow and so tightly stretched that she looked like one of those mummies they parade through the streets of Mexico on the Day of the Dead. We took turns holding the cigarette for her, and when it was down to the filter, I put it out.

"My boys," she said, then lapsed into what might have been sleep or unconsciousness.

It is not imagination but remembrance that informs the following moments from "Woman in the Room":

Her lips grip the straw in a way that reminds him of camels he has seen in a travelogue. Her face is scrawny...

He shakes a Kool out of one of the packages scattered on the table by her bed and lights it. He holds it between the first and second fingers of his right hand, and she puffs it, her lips stretching to grasp the filter. Her inhale is weak. The smoke drifts from her lips.

—I had to live sixty years so my son could hold my cigarettes for me.

—I don't mind.

She puffs again and holds the filter against her lips so long that he glances away from it to her eyes and sees they are closed.

—Mom?

The eyes open a little, vaguely.

—Johnny?

—Right.

—How long have you been here?

—Not long. I think I better go. Let you sleep.

—Hnnnnn.

We've all heard the adage that "all good fiction is to some degree autobiographical," and surely the fiction of such diverse writers as Harry Crews, James Agee, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Eudora Welty, and Dorothy Allison springs from their experience in the world, but everyone's life includes death and pain and loss, yet not everyone can use these universals in an artistic and forthright way.

As Ernest Hemingway, a man who wrote his life, has it: "Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to be hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt, use it—don't cheat with it."

In "The Woman in the Room" King uses the memory of hurt honestly. Though he has sometimes been accused of going way over the top, giving us melodrama rather than drama, King is here a model of restraint, even understatement. He understands that the significant occasions of life pack their own power and need neither hyperbole nor contrivance on the part of the author to ensure the reader's "getting it."

Johnny has given his mother the pills that will end her life, and now the story ends:

He feels no different, either good or bad.

He starts out of the room and thinks of something else. He goes back to her side, takes the bottle out of the box, and rubs it all over his shirt. Then he presses the limp fingertips of her sleeping left hand on the bottle. Then he puts it back and goes out of the room quickly, without looking back.

He goes home and waits for the phone to ring and wishes he had given her another kiss. While he waits, he watches TV and drinks a lot of water.

This is King fully in control, with a protagonist who might be thought the classic Hemingway hero, exhibiting "grace under pressure." King understands that the most powerful emotions are usually best and most memorably rendered in the least emotional manner.

In the past decade, Stephen King's short stories, novels, and non-fiction have won critical respect from the literati who obviously consider him something far more than "just a storyteller."  It's likely he agrees with that, in that his work now appears in The New Yorker and Antaeus (not Naked Tushy Girls!), and he received the 2003 National Book Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

But way back when, with "The Woman in the Room," King showed himself a Maker of Literature: an unfeigned artist who understood that immortality is not a gift but a reward.


A former stage hypnotist, folksinger, and high school teacher, Mort Castle has been a publishing writer since 1967, with hundreds of stories, articles, comics and books published in a dozen languages. With Ray Bradbury's biographer Sam Weller, Castle edited the award-winning anthology Shadow Show: All New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury (2012, William Morrow) and also with Weller, Carlos Guzman, and Chris Ryall, the graphic novel anthology Shadow Show: Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury (IDW, 2015). Castle has won three Bram Stoker Awards®, two Black Quill awards, the Golden Bot (Wired Magazine), and has been nominated for The Audie, The Shirley Jackson award, the International Horror Guild award and the Pushcart Prize. In 2000, the Chicago Sun-Times Newspaper Group named him one of "21 Leaders in the Arts" for the 21st Century. He teaches in the creative writing program at Columbia College Chicago and at writing conferences and seminars throughout the country. Castle and Jane, his wife of 45 years, live in Crete, Illinois.

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Comments

I love Night Shift. Do you have a favorite King short story? I know, so many. Impossible to pick.