Tuesday, 9 June 2015

'N' by Stephen King

I don't mention Stephen King very often. I think he's a fine writer of supernatural horror.  but he doesn't really need my help to sell books. However, I recently happened across a novella by King that impressed me as a prime example of how a writer can pay tribute to his influences while writing an original story.

'N.' is a nested story-within-a-story concerning a psychiatrist who tries to help a patient, referred to as N in the former's notes. N is obsessive-compulsive, which means that his life is dominated by the ritualised counting of words and objects. Not surprisingly, OCD is ruining the man's life. But there is of course more to it than that, as Dr. John Bonsaint discovers. In trying to get to the root of his patient's disorder Bonsaint is infected by it.

It transpires that N, an accountant by profession, is also a keen amateur photographer. It was during an excursion in rural Maine that he first came across Ackerman's Field, an apparently normal patch of farmland. However, in the field is what seems to be a stone circle. This is, N thinks, a natural geological formation that just happens to resemble a prehistoric monument like Stonehenge. But when he starts taking pictures of the notices something odd. Sometimes there are eight stones. Sometimes there are just seven.

This is a sly reference to the tradition that the Rollright Stones can't be counted. (The idea was used by Ramsey Campbell in his story 'The Sentinels', published in the Seventies, a story King will surely have read.) There's a more explicit reference to the story's antecedents, though. When N first starts unburdening himself to Dr. Bonsaint he asks him if he has read 'The Great God Pan' by Arthur Machen. This, coupled with the title 'N', more than hints at the kind of horrors to come.

Without giving too much away, N's OCD is a kind of numerological occultism dedicated to stopping a monstrous being breaking into our reality via Ackerman's Field. This being is called Cthun, an obvious nod to Lovecraft. Some numbers are good, while some are bad. N believes that he must generate as many good numbers as he can and this compulsion is destroying him. Eventually he commits suicide. Then Dr. Bonsaint finds himself drawn to the field, and the mysterious circle.

If you want to know what happens, there's an animated version of the story here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I regard Mr. King as an entertaining purveyor of horror at best, and a mediocre writer with bags of nauseous sentimentality at worst. S.T. Joshi's criticism on King, I think, is quite on the mark; he often dances uneasily betwixt B-movie horror and highbrow mainstream fiction that it seems he cannot choose either. N, however, is a fine and capable piece of weird writing, but despite King's emphasis on the Machen influence, it seems to me more reminiscent of Lovecraft than any other writer. Also, I suffer from OCD, so I can relate to this tale.