Yes, it’s hearts and flowers day, the annual celebration of the “people in pairs” that make up a big segment of our civilization. Hey, I’m all for marriage. A good marriage becomes the third part of a romantic relationship and it nurtures the people in it as well as those around it. It brings out the best in the partners. But people are limited and, despite our prayers and best wishes, not every romance becomes a good marriage. Listen, if you go by Stephen King’s volume of that name, you may rethink Valentine’s Day altogether. If a good marriage is the base of the best of all worlds, you’ll find nothing but hell in the bad.
The title tale is one of King’s famous “what if” thoughts that popped up during an article on BTK. You remember him? I do. I, and later my mother, lived in Wichita during the years that serial killer was free. His actions were terrible and one of the bad parts when they caught him was he looked so ordinary, which is part of King’s point. If monsters look and talk and dress pretty much like everyone else, how can the sane person pick one out? The answer is, sometimes we can’t. In real life, Paula Rader couldn’t because, even in a good marriage, one spouse can’t know the other completely. A Good Marriage explores what might have happened if she had. Here, Darcy Anderson is a middle-aged housewife, comfortable with a her empty nest home, devoid of drama. Then a discovery in the garage leads to research and an inescapable conclusion: her quiet, Scout-leading, coin-collecting husband is actually one of those unseen monsters, a torturing serial killer. To Darcy’s credit, she realizes that none of her husband’s past awful actions are her fault but what happens next falls on her. If she turns him in, what will that do to her just-grown children and those who, like her, knew only his good side? If she doesn’t can she live with what she knows? Can she trust her husband won’t kill or again or that he will let her survive? Darcy is a good woman who, one way or the other, has to do a really bad thing. What she does makes the story worth reading.
The companion tale, 1922, looks at love and murder from a different perspective, one that owes much to one of his earlier tales, Delores Claiborne. If you remember, Delores Claiborne had to confess she killed her husband, Joe St. George, to escape being charged with a murder she didn’t commit. Well, imagine if Joe murdered Delores and you hear the story from his perspective. That’s closer to Wilfred James in 1922.
Wilfred is a man with two dreams, to farm and live life as he likes. By the way, one of the best parts of this story is how the isolation of the prairie is captured. The middle of the Great Plains can feel like the back edge of nowhere and those who live there begin to crave the endless space or they hate it. My mother hated it and so does Mrs. Wilfred James, so much so she’s willing to sell her inherited land to a food processing concern and move to a city like Omaha. Wilf needs the farm and he knows any processing plant that goes in will ruin the water that feeds his acreage, so he can’t let her sell it. An unsolvable problem, especially since Wilf can’t come up with the bucks to buy out his wife, not that he would. As far as he’s concerned, the inherited land should be his, an asset of the marriage and no judge is going to break apart the land or his relationship.
Now everyone knows the wage of sin is death, like they know Stephen King writes scary stories so don’t be surprised when I say 1922 is not something to read late at night. Like an idiot, I did and more than one unpleasant image showed back up in my dreams. 1922 is an entertaining, if predictable tale and I’m sure I’ll re-read it but when the sun will be high for hours. I can stand a lot of King’s spookier creations trolling around in my subconscious (hell, I love Bag of Bones and It) but I draw the line at rats. ‘Nuff said.
So if you’re in love this Valentines Day, I’m happy for you. Go celebrate it. If not, I hope you’re a happy singleton (to steal a word from Armistead Maupin) and please celebrate your life as it is. Either way is good. Just remember that “to love” is an active verb and the basis of any good marriage is two people actively working together to make a love that nurtures them both. If you forget that, you’re looking for trouble. Find it and you might end up down the well, with the rats.