Sometimes, a good story can horrify without any hints of anything remotely supernatural. After all, man is a wolf to his fellow man (and woman). Anyone who watches the evening news will realize this almost immediately.
And anyone who reads a Stephen King book. The Master is known for his monsters. Pennywise the Clown, Randall Flagg, and Tak are all scary, but they are not human. Henry Bowers, Norman Daniels, Eldred Jonas and Charles Burnside are also scary, but they are not supernatural creatures, but are “human”, at least in appearance. And often, the “human monsters” make for the more intriguing story line. When I read a book like It, Pennywise the Clown has the ability to scare me into a change of pants, no doubt. But that book, along with most other King books, is also filled with intriguing “human monsters”, most of which make a clown living in the sewers seem like small potatoes by comparison. And that is some good writing right there!
And once again, in his collection Bazaar of Bad Dreams, King has created a story, Morality, where humans are pitted against their fellow humans, with nary a supernatural creature in sight. And this story is guaranteed to be as unsettling as King’s tales of clowns that live in sewers. Perhaps more so.
Here is my recap and review of Morality.
The story centers around Chad and Nora, a couple living in New York City. Chad works as a substitute teacher while he attempts to write his first book. Nora works as an in-home nurse to a man known as Reverend George Winston, or “Winnie.” Winnie has suffered stroke and needs constant, round-the-clock care. Chad and Nora’s financial situation is precarious, as they often struggle to make ends meet and are also seriously in debt to several credit card companies.
Nora has let her employer know of her financial situation, and comes home one night to tell Chad that Winnie has a proposal for her: Nora will commit an act of transgression, and if she can give evidence to Winnie that this act has been performed, she will receive at least $200,000. We are not told what the act is, but it is clear that she struggles with the decision, as does Chad. Winnie tells Nora that no matter what happens, there will be no hard feelings and he will give her an excellent reference. Winnie also tells Nora that he wishes to commit sin because he has (in his own mind) lived a life of virtue and is curious about what it is like to commit sin. We also learn that Winnie is extremely rich, as he has inherited wealth from his father.
Nora continues to struggle with decision, as does Chad. Chad tells Nora that his book may help them out of their financial struggles, but there is no guarantee. Nora does not like the decision, but decides that she will commit the act of sin for Winnie. She tells Winnie of this, but is not happy. Nora worries about the legal implications, but Winnie says that she would likely only receive probation if caught.
Chad obtains a video camera to record evidence of the sin, and Nora dyes her hair so that she will not be caught. They go to a park in the city, and Chad records Nora committing the sin. Nora hops into a cab, per their pre-arranged plans, and meets Chad at their apartment once the deed is committed.
We learn that the sin Winnie wanted Nora to commit was to punch as child in the face. And Nora has committed that sin, which Chad has record of because he has recorded it on the video camera. Almost immediately, Chad and Nora make love. Nora demands that Chad hit her in the mouth while they make love, and becomes aroused by the act of violence.
Nora gives the video tape to Winnie, and immediately receives the money from him. She also immediately resigns from the position, and takes another job as a nurse to a woman in her building. Chad is also able to cut back on his hours as a substitute teacher, and begins to work on finishing his book. Nora also receives a visit from a police officer, but it is in regards to an overdue library book, not the incident that was filmed for Winnie.
Chad and Nora’s love life begins to take on a violent twist, as Nora becomes aroused when Chad hits her. They also prepare to move to Vermont, and are able to purchase a house with the proceeds from the act of sin. Nora is also unfaithful to Chad, sleeping with the police officer who had paid her the visit in regards to the overdue library book.
The marriage of Chad and Nora begins to dissolve, even after the couple moves to Vermont. Nora also finds out that Winnie has passed away. Nora believes that Winnie actually committed suicide, even though the autopsy states that he suffered from kidney failure. Nora also worries about the video and whether or not she will be incriminated in the act.
Nora also receives a postcard after she and Chad move to Vermont. The postcard is from Winnie and dated the day before his death. Chad’s book is published, but Nora mocks him, and Chad punches her in the face. The couple soon divorce, and Chad returns to New York. He does not ask Nora for any of her money in the divorce settlement.
The following summer Nora finds a full-time job at the local hospital and takes up gardening as a hobby. She finds a book titled “The Basis of Morality”, which is a book she had seen in Winnie’s study when she was employed by him. Nora spends the summer reading the book cover to cover, but finds no new useful information.
Dear Sai King,
What the actual fuck? What the fucking fuck?
Morality has to be one of the most fucked up pieces of writing I have ever read. And I have been reading you for over 25 years now!
Keep up the good fucking work, sir!
Your (delighted) Constant Reader .
Seriously, I just do not have words for this story…
Again, this story got to me, and there were no supernatural elements at all.
First of all, I identified with Chad and Nora. I have said it before, and I will say it again: Stephen King is a master at including elements of reality in all of his stories, both supernatural and “real.” Chad and Nora’s situation is something I identify with. I have lost my job, my husband has lost his job, and yet we still had bills to pay. When money gets tight, things get scary really quickly. Almost as scary as a Stephen King book…
Another thing about this story. The bad guys…
As in, I really don’t think there was one. I can’t call Nora and Chad “bad”. Sure, they engaged in doing something that was pretty bad (slapping a kid is not cool, even if it’s one of Bebe’s offspring), but they didn’t kill anybody. I would not say there were any lasting effects on the victim. The ones who were actually hurt the most (other than the kid and his mom), were actually Chad and Nora. After that incident, their lives took a downward turn and they did NOT get a happy ending (in typical King fashion).
And I don’t even think that I can call Winnie a bad guy either. It appeared that he had spent much of life his life trying to do good deeds. He used his money for humanitarian causes as well. I think that he was perhaps a bit jaded, or maybe even a bit naive, but he did not strike me as “bad”, either. And it appeared that he suffered after the incident as well, as he committed suicide.
As stated before, this story did not have a happy ending. But I still thought that the ending was great. It was realistic ending. Pretty much everything I expected happened: Nora got the money, she and Chad moved and she and Chad divorced. So it was a little predictable, but I enjoyed it. I was also not surprised that Nora developed the odd “fetish” that she did. Again, I enjoy the realism in King’s stories, and this one delivered on that front.
I also liked that Nora read a book that had actually been a part of Winnie’s collection on the subject of morality, but was not able to find any satisfying answers in it. After all, is life ever really that simple? Like Nora, even if you can write a book on a particular subject, does that really mean that the book will contain all the answers that you seek? But reality is never that cut and dried anyway, as much as we wish it was.