Sunday, September 11, 2011

Anatomy of a Weird Tale--"The Things They Left Behind"

"The Things They Left Behind" by Stephen King

The reader who comes to this Stephen King tale fresh, with no prior knowledge of the content, is instantly struck by curiosity.   Because the title (aside from its distinct echo of Tim O'Brien's Vietnam war story "The Things They Carried") is tantalizingly vague: to what/ whom exactly do those generic signifiers "things" and "they" refer?  The novella's narrator, Scott Staley, isn't very forthcoming, employing the same terms in his opening sentence: "The things I want to tell you about--the ones they left behind--showed up in my apartment in August of 2002" (218).  Further clarification is immediately forestalled by a several-page digression in which Scott recounts his first meeting with Paula Robeson.  Scott reels his reading audience along with hints of future complication ("But it was later that she told me about her husband being in import-export.  On the day when it was my turn to ask her for help" [219-20]) and serious inner conflict ("And I certainly didn't tell her that I was trying to forget all I'd known about rural insurance.  That I was, in fact, trying to forget quite a lot of things, including about two dozen faces" [220]).  It's not until the final paragraph of the opening scene--"And I knew these things happened in the late August of 2002, not quite a year after a piece of the sky fell down and everything changed for all of us" (221)--that one realizes King and his narrator Scott are wrestling with the tragedy of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.

Still, the novella continues to hold information in abeyance.  Scott discovers a pair of sunglasses in his New York City apartment, but the reader can't understand why Scott is so dismayed by the mundane item.  Suddenly overwhelmed by "that sense of horrified shame you feel when you know you're about to be caught in some act you will never be able to explain" (222), Scott flashes back to an incident from adolescence when he was nearly caught masturbating into his sister's panties.  Again, Scott waits several pages to reveal the import of the sunglasses (and the other "things" found strangely littering his apartment: a baseball bat, a whoopee cushion, a conch shell, a steel penny in a Lucite cube...).  These objects formerly belonged to Scott's now-deceased colleagues, who were working for a 110th-floor insurance company on the fateful Tuesday morning when the Twin Towers were leveled.

From here, the narrative makes all the right moves, addressing all the interpretive possibilities.  Scott wonders if he has merely hallucinated the objects (until his doorman confirms the tangible reality of the sunglasses).  He considers that someone might be playing "a nasty practical joke" (233) on him.  He even allows that his undeniable survivor guilt (feigning illness, Scott had called out from work on 9/11) has unhinged him, and that he could have blocked out the memory of purchasing these things himself.  But when the various articles beat Scott back to his apartment after he tries to discard them in a dumpster, he is forced to acknowledge
"some supernatural origin" (252).  As Scott continues to be haunted by the objects even after stashing them in his closet--"First the things talked (in low voices), and then the people who owned the things replied (in slightly louder ones" (238)--the tale veers into "twilight zone" (251) territory.  Moreover, it forms a modern variant on the traditional ghost story, an idea that King hints at when he has Scott find an unnerving Punch doll under his sofa, its black eyes "staring out from amid the ghost bunnies" (241).  When first spotting the telltale sunglasses, Scott frames the experience in similar spectral terms: "I don't believe in ghosts, but I'm sure at that moment I looked as though I had just seen one" (224).  King
appears to invoke the familiar bogies of horror fiction in order to distinguish his tale's ostensible antagonists; the undead invading Scott's bedroom and disturbing his sleep are of a different breed than the lusty Victorian "vampire [who] appears at midnight" (222).

"The Things They Left Behind" no doubt builds to an optimistic conclusion, with restoration forming the central theme.  Scott realizes the titular things have been left to him so that he can personally deliver them to the respective families of the victimized co-workers.  Performing such good deeds also enables Scott to regain emotional balance.  His closing paragraph points to the marked improvement of his sense of self-worth and outlook on life:
It occurred to me that other things might show up, in time.  And I'd be lying if I told you I found that possi-bility entirely unpleasant.  When it comes to returning things that people believe have been lost forever, things that have weight, there are compensations.  Even if they're only little things, like a pair of joke sunglasses or a steel penny in a Lucite cube...yeah.  I'd have to say there are compensations. (261)
Yet for all the heartwarming nature of the ending, one cannot ignore the darker aspects of the overall tale.  The images that linger here are the horrific ones from the 9/11 attack--Sonja D'Amico (erstwhile wearer of the joke sunglasses) leaping from a 110th-floor window and plummeting from a smoking sky; Roland Abelson (who'd adorned his work station with the Lucite cube) crying and crawling under his desk with his hair on fire as the office fills with screams and the stench of jet fuel (256).  Also, the events of the novella destroy Scott's budding relationship with Paula.  She had tried to help him by storing the encased penny in the safe in her apartment, but three days later she insists Scott take the object back, and then declares that she never wants to see him again.  Paula's stunning transformation--her complexion's "a sickly shade of yellow-white," her eyes are rimmed by "dark brownish purple arcs," her hair's a disheveled mess, and her "well-kept nails" have been chewed right off (254)--after being haunted by the vision of Roland's death underscores the devastation caused by the suicide bombing of the World Trade Center.  The incident was utterly faith-shattering, as Paula bitterly relates: "They [the terrorists] did it in the name of God, but there is no God.  If there was a God, Mr. Staley, He would have struck all eighteen of them dead in their boarding lounges with their boarding passes in their hands, but no God did.  They called for passengers to get on and those fucks just got on" (257).

In his endnote to "The Things They Left Behind" in Just After Sunset, King states that this story represents his effort "to understand both the event [9/11] and the scars such an event must inevitably leave behind" (533).  Paula Robeson--whose name sounds echoes of Roland Abelson's--embodies such scarring, and serves as a reminder that healing (in the case of Scott's recovery) can come at a painful cost.  The inclusion of this negative development--the fallout between Scott and Paula--signals King's refusal to settle for a facile ending; his narrative is committed to dramatizing emotional complexity, and does not underestimate the challenges posed by 9/11 and its equally-tragic aftermath.  Ultimately what King has left behind is a poignant tale of guilt and grief, death and survival, one that should be required reading for every American citizen.

Work Cited

King, Stephen.  "The Things They Left Behind."  Just After Sunset.  New York: Pocket Books, 2008.  218-61.

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