Friday, October 8, 2010

Morality by Stephen King

Tucked away in Stephen King's recent mini-book "Blockade Billy" was a disquieting little story called "Morality," worthy of a 19th century Russian author.

In a few short pages, King introduces us to Nora and Chad, a couple living in New York in the midst of the recession, scrambling to pay bills. Chad is an aspiring writer who hopes to finish a non-fiction collection and bring in some extra money. But this is just a prayer, and even though our young couple are earnest and believe in each other, reality rarely yields up the answer to a prayer the way one hopes. The solution to their money problems, though, comes through Nora, a nurse who works with a retired minister, Winston. The old clergyman, who conveniently has a horde of ready cash, is a stroke victim who has had a lot of time to ruminate on what he's been missing out in his life.

The story contains a few tropes familiar to any longtime King reader. Chad is a smoker, and when Nora asks him for a puff, he knows she's been shaken, since she constantly harps on the money going out to pay for his habit. Not only is this a well-documented crib from what we know of King's early married life as a struggling writer, it is also a hallmark of King stories that the passing of a cigarette is a symbol for temptation or moral laxity. The other easily recognizable King image is Winston himself, for he comes in the form King has sometimes used in the past for his men of the cloth - that of the tempter. Winston, with his "long sheep's face" and sheep eyes, is a wolf, or a dog "that bites and runs away." The biography he recounts, of simple selfless service, seems like a spectacular lie in light of what he reveals about himself later through his actions.

Nora reaches for a cigarette because Winston has offered an ungodly amount of money to Nora if she will help him do something his condition denies him - he wants to commit a sin. "This is not about sex," he assures her, and King slyly waits until the moment the sin occurs before he reveals just what it is Winston wants her to do. With Chad standing nearby holding a video camera to record the event, Nora is to go to a playground, pick out a child, and punch the child hard enough to draw blood. The meaningless act of violence will satisfy the terms of his bargain, and give the couple enough money to restart their lives away from the city, pay all their bills, and chase down Chad's dream of publication.

King's choice of "sin" is interesting. Strictly speaking, it is assault. Motiveless violence. The fact that a child is the victim touches on the violation of innocence that is the heart of this story. We like Nora, and we like Chad, because they are familiar, striving, young people who are beginning to feel the injustice of life, where no one will pay them for their good intentions but reward criminals in skyscrapers who make millions on empires of lies. Winston, obviously, is no ordinary clergyman, but he is diabolically good at this sin business. And he knows forgiveness is open to him even after the deed is done. But Winston, though it is never stated in the story, seems to miss the power of the pulpit. "We hold out heaven, then make people understand they have no hope of achieving it without our help," he tells Nora, and we see that his bet is a weird, negative recreation of his years of ministry. He warns her that he doesn't want to wallow in sin, but dive headlong in, regardless of whether he is chained to the life of a walking invalid. Winston perceives innocence in his nurse, and he means to destroy it.

The offer has the desired effect. Chad calls it a "bridge to nowhere," but during a sleepless night, the two contemplate how they might carry it out, and what they can do with the money. And suddenly, this proposition does indeed seem to be about sex, because the two of them are aroused by it. The effect, though, is that they are being spiritually violated by Winston, with the consequences to come. Nora delivers the punch, much harder than she intended, and releases something inside her in the process.

The child who receives the punch isn't seriously harmed, but Nora nervously keeps rewinding and watching the image of her delivering the blow. Chad and Nora's relationship is now rougher, coarser, harsher toward each other. The hostility they have unleashed is now aimed at each other. Winston revels in the damage he has wrought. After he watches Nora watching herself punch the child, he asks "is feeling dirty always a bad thing?" Nora, an agnostic, asks Winston how he intends to square this with God.

"If a sinner like Simon Peter could go on to found the Catholic Church, I expect I'll be fine."
"Did Simon Peter keep the videotape to watch on cold winter evenings?"

The sin of Simon Peter was denial - the denial of Jesus at the moment of his betrayal and condemnation. What we can glean from the Bible is that Peter needed forgiveness is order to be useful to God with the founding of the church. He understood that his faith was his only means of salvation. Winston, the only believer in this story, sees faith merely as a diving bell - which allows him to view the depths of human experience while still within a life-sustaining cocoon. Though this story is very old in its sensibilities, it's interesting that King uses the motif of the video image - record, rewind, rewatch, commit to memory - to facilitate the sin. This sort of spiritual pornography is what Winston wants to gorge on, with the help of his accomplices.

Once the deed is done, Nora leaves her job with the money in hand. In the end, Winston either dies or kills himself, but Nora wonders if he had set up a video camera to record his own exit. She indulges in wild sex with anonymous men and her marriage dies as Chad's bookish ambitions run aground. They have fled the city, but the money has not fulfilled them - not as much as their brush with iniquity. They are not happier. We understand, at story's end, that Nora knows something about the nature of morality, but King chooses not to tell us what it is. We don't know whether he expects us to know, or believes each individual reader will find an answer.

Other posts about Stephen King's work here and here

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.

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