“The Little Green God of Agony” by Stephen King
From A Book of Horrors edited by Stephen Jones
Cemetery Dance/PS Publishing, 2012
Stephen King continues to churn out plus-sized books at a remarkable rate (recent novels Under the Dome and 11/22/63 combine for nearly 2,000 pages in paperback), yet he can be lean and mean when he wants to be. For proof, look no further than “The Little Green God of Agony,” the first story in the new anthology A Book of Horrors.
“Agony” reads like Night Shift-era King, back in the days when he was churning out “one reel horror movies” that were always quick, to the point, and wildly entertaining. King seems to have regained his appetite for short fiction over the last several years, reaching back to his stint editing the 2007 edition of The Best American Short Stories, and stories like this one, “The Dune,” and “In the Tall Grass” (co-written with his son Joe Hill and reviewed by me here and here) show that he’s still got the chops for it.
In “Agony” we meet Katherine MacDonald, a nurse providing physical therapy to Andrew Newsome, plane crash survivor and “the sixth richest man in the world.” MacDonald has been with Newsome for two years and has seen little progress in her patient – not because of a deficiency in her services, but rather because Newsome is, in her eyes, unwilling to put in the real work and sweat it takes for people in his situation to fully recover. MacDonald is an experienced nurse and prides herself on being able to distinguish between physical pain and the phantom pain people often conjure up to get out of doing something tough. Newsome, she believes, is haunted by such phantoms, and he’s determined to overcome them with money rather than effort.
Reverend Rideout, on the other hand, feels that Newsome is haunted by something far more tangible, and he’s come to Newsome’s palatial estate to cast that something out. This immediately puts him at odds with MacDonald, who views him as a charlatan who will only relieve her boss of a sizeable chunk of his money.
King portrays all three of the principal characters as people of unwavering faith. MacDonald’s faith is in science, while Newsome’s faith is in his buying power. Rideout, of course, has placed his faith in the holy power of God. Before the night is over, one of them is going to have their faith shaken to its core.
King’s masterful character work is on full display here. Rideout could have easily come across as a cliche’, a Bible-thumping holy man of flash and swagger. Instead, King writes him as a blue collar worker (he even shows up in work boots and carries a lunch box), a man who confronts his task with the weary resignation of someone who knows the job is hard and that only he can get it done. Newsome is confident in his ability to get what he wants, but he’s far from the cackling egomaniac he could have been. And MacDonald is someone who is tired of having her efforts devalued by a man who only wants a quick fix, which is something that she will not ever be able to provide.
In describing Newsome’s predicament, King draws on his own experiences (and, perhaps, frustrations) with physical therapy stemming from the 1999 accident in which he was struck and nearly killed by a van. For the rest of the story, he draws on his innate ability to close the doors, dim the lights, and scare the living fool out of anyone who dares stay in there with him. That’s a skill he didn’t buy; rather, it’s something he’s honed over decades of hard work. The results of his dedication are on full display here, and horror fans are in for another treat from the Master.