For some reason, I just love books, short stories, movies, television show, you name it, that make me cry. And the uglier the cry, the better. And don’t ask me why this is the case, although my monthly Netflix subscription fee that allowed me to binge-watch Sons of Anarchy over several weeks could be argued (well, actually it is) to be much cheaper than a therapist’s hourly bill.
Divorce got you down? Uncle Stevie to the rescue! Job sucks? Uncle Stevie has the best cure for that! You just need to shut out the world for a bit and ignore all other living beings? You guessed, Stephen King has a cure for that!
And his short story, Summer Thunder, part of the collection The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, provides exactly the kind of cathartic release I needed (I didn’t know I needed it actually, but who am I to question The Master): it is short and sweet, but still packs a power punch. In other words, the ugly cry you have been looking for is right here in this story.
Summer Thunder centers around a man named Robinson, who is a survivor in a post-nuclear war. Robinson has lost his wife and only child to the nuclear disaster, and has only a stray dog named Gandalf for company. Robinson rescued Gandalf sometime after the great disaster, and caring for another living creature has given him something to live for, even though he knows that he will eventually die from radiation sickness, like the rest of the population.
Periodically, Robinson and his dog visit a man named Howard Timlin, the only man who chose to stay in lakeside cottage that he lives in. The rest of inhabitants fled for Canada, and are presumably dead or will die soon from radiation sickness. Robinson notices that animals in the surrounding woods are dying off, likely victims of the radiation.
On Robinson’s visits to Timlin, Timlin would pull at Gandalf’s fur, and marvel that the dog did not seem to be affected by radiation sickness. Robinson and Timlin also talk about a motorcycle that is still in Timlin’s possession, that he was supposed to give up the next summer, on his 50th birthday.
Finally, on one of his visits, Timlin notices that Gandalf is beginning to lose his fur. Robinson denies that his dog is ill, although he has to carry Gandalf back to his house. However, Gandalf’s symptoms worsen, and it is clear that he is a victim of radiation sickness.
Robinson drives into the nearby town of Bennington to pick up a battery for his motorcycle. Robinson then visits his neighbor Timlin, who has become very ill with radiation sickness. He tells Robinson that he plans to end his own life so that he does not have to experience the pain of radiation sickness, and gives Robinson a hypodermic needle so that he may end Gandalf’s life humanely. Robinson also realizes that he himself is beginning to suffer from radiation sickness.
After Robinson returns home, he struggles with the decision to euthanize Gandalf, but follows through in the end, so that his friend will not suffer. Robinson hears a gunshot in the distance, and knows that Timlin has ended his life as well. When he awakens the next day, Robinson notices more symptoms of radiation poisoning on himself.
The next day turns out to be a beautiful one. Robinson gears up his motorcycle for his final ride and remembers better times before the nuclear holocaust. Robinson shakes his fist at the sky, in a moment of final exultation, and travels to a sign marked Dead Man’s curve at a deadly speed. He is able to just hit fifth gear on his bike before he perishes.
Three days later and this story is still stuck with me. And that is a sign of some good writing right there!
This story really got to me, so let me try to talk about why it did.
First of all, the subject matter.
I am not a child of the 1950’s like my parents. My parents (and probably King, as well) grew up in the shadow of the Cold War. My parents recall the drills, and the propaganda films that they were subjected too as children. I, myself, grew up at the tail end of that era, and was a mere child when the United States boycotted the Olympics.
So, as you can imagine, I heard a lot about nuclear war as a child. It was the subject of more than a few popular movies, and it seemed that almost every YA book I read as a kid dealt with the subject in some manner (Judy Blume in particular stands out, and there was also the book Z for Zachariah, which frightened me more than anything Stephen King ever wrote).
As you can imagine, I had (and still have) a horrified fascination with the subject. In fact, when reading about the symptoms of radiation poisoning in this story, my stomach did a little flip-flop (gee, thanks, Uncle Stevie) and I felt compelled to make sure that I didn’t have any funny rashes on my person…and here I was thinking that only Web MD, and not The Master, was responsible for hypochondria!
And yes, Gandalf…
No, not that Gandalf. I am talking about the dog in the story…
Remember that ugly cry that I didn’t know I needed? Well, the story of Gandalf life with Robinson, and his death gave me that, and then some.
I really had hope, at the beginning at any rate, that Gandalf would make it. But then his fur fell out. And the tears fell out of my eyes.
And Robinson having to do that final act of compassion for his friend…don’t even get me started. I had to do a final act of compassion on my friend, Igloo, earlier this year. Like Robinson, I knew it was right thing. I knew it was the best thing. And I was glad that she was no longer suffering, as Gandalf was suffering.
But it hurt. Did it ever hurt. I knew that it would, don’t get me wrong. But you can know something in an academic sense. That does not prepare you for the actual experience. Like Robinson, I was unprepared. And like, Robinson, I felt my life was being ripped from me, and that I was truly alone now.
Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Sons of Anarchy.
Yes, Sons of Anarchy. It is a well known secret that Kurt Sutter and Stephen King are fans of one another, and it shows in this story. I loved it.
Some would say to go out with a bang. Pull out all the stops. And all that. Robinson certainly did pull out all the stops, just like my hero, Jax Teller. I can’t say that I blamed him…after all, like Jax, what did he have to lose?
Sometimes, the finale can be a bit sad. But it can also be glorious. It can be beautiful, as there is often beauty in pain. And if it absolutely must end, then it should end gloriously, so that we forget the pain of it ending, at least momentarily.