Mile 81 by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The novella is an underutilized genre, in my opinion. While the epic of Harry Potter might indeed require seven large doorstop-sized volumes to tell in full, and while Stephen King's Insomnia might well be worth reading a text the size of Anna Karenina, the discipline of telling a story that is too long to be considered "short," yet does not require even 100 pages, is fading from American letters.
The temptation to stretch a story past its necessary, or even desirable, length is not a new one. Consider The Scarlet Letter, for example. You could tell that story in perhaps 50 pages, even with a length interlude in the forest. It is Hawthorne's desire to drive his point into you with a rivet gun that stretches that story well over 200 pages. The introduction, The Custom-House, is over 30 pages on its own -- and most readers just jump right over it and go to the story.
In other words, it is important to let stories be stories. And this is where the ebook format may help writers. Publishers may not want to front the cost of an 80-page release. It doesn't really look like a novel, and so readers may walk past it to something that looks better, just because it's longer.
But did stretching the economical "Heart of Darkness" into that marathon "Apocalypse Now" improve the story that much? Granted, the classic Duvall line didn't appear in Conrad's novel, but then again there was no napalm in the days of colonial Africa.
The novella in ebook form goes right to your e-reader, or to your computer screen, without the bias of looking smaller than its peers in the ranks of the novel.
Which brings us to this story. Young Pete Simmons, age 10, is spending the day in the care of his older brother, but his brother wants to go play with his friends at the town gravel pit, and Pete is just too "little" to be cool enough to hang out with the 13-year-olds. So, he tells Pete to entertain himself for a couple of hours and goes off.
Pete doesn't go home and play his XBox all afternoon, though. Instead, he heads off to get into the type of adventure that will impress his brother, and he heads down to the abandoned rest stop at Mile 81 of Interstate 95 in Maine. Boarded up, what had been a Burger King is now rife with stained mattresses, cigarette butts, soda and beer bottles, and the other detritus of bored teenagers looking for some thrills. He tries some hits off a bottle of vodka that he finds, and soon he is fast asleep on one of the filthy mattresses.
Meanwhile, a strange station wagon pulls up to the rest stop, and the driver door opens. No one, however, gets out. The grown-ups who try to solve the mystery of this station wagon pay the price for being a Good Samaritan and seeing if the station wagon's owner needs help -- to tell you anything else would spoil it.
This would have been a great story to let my son read. He's 12, likes scary stories, and this would be a great introduction to Stephen King. I'm normally not on the side of those who protect kids from content, though, but the language that Pete has in his internal monologue may be in my son's as well, but it's not something for a father and son to share -- at least for a few more years.
As far as a tale told in the true Brothers Grimm tradition, though, the station wagon stands along side the Gingerbread Man and the Big Bad Wolf in the pantheon of childhood villains. The way that the station wagon's owners succeed in bringing horror to this sunny Maine day is an indictment on the ways that too many adults turn off their minds when they forget what being a child is like. So while the story seems to warn against being a Good Samaritan, the true lesson is that it is never a good idea to stop, at least completely, seeing the world like a child does.
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