You don't know what to expect when you see a title like this one. Stephen King certainly hasn't been shy about unusual titles in the past - witness "Luckey Quarter," "The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates," and of course, "That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is in French." King's weird titles, though, have the tendency to transcend their weirdness once you're inside the story; they work hard to justify their idiosyncrasy. With "Batman and Robin Have an Altercation," however, the title doesn't have to work hard to justify anything; it simply resonates, deeply.
The story concerns Doug Sanderson, adult child of a father suffering Alzheimer's disease. The elder Sanderson's disease affects him in various ways: he often confuses Doug with his deceased brother, Reggie, forgets his and Doug's weekly trips to Applebee's, and goes through a bout of kleptomania he now seems to be getting over. To his credit, Doug isn't suffering his visits with his father; he's one of King's good guys, with no real meanness or hidden agenda (a shift from the main characters in King's recent short fiction, such as "The Dune," "Face in the Crowd," and "1922.") When we first see Doug and his father, Pop Sanderson is having something of a good day, remembering a time when he and Doug were both much younger, and went trick-or-treating together as Batman and Robin – when his father was nothing more than his hero.
Genuinely delighted by this recaptured memory, Doug is distracted at two crucial moments; King uses such cunning sleight of hand that one of these distractions isn't readily apparent until the story's denouement. When things turn suddenly violent, the persistence of this memory becomes crucial.
King has worked with the themes of unlikely heroism often, as early as ’Salem’s Lot, and especially in novels like The Dead Zone, It, Bag of Bones, and Duma Key. More recently, King explored this concept in his short story, "Rest Stop," the tale "Batman and Robin Have an Altercation" most closely resembles ... but which is, emotionally, its opposite. The right tone is vital in a story like this, and the one King adopts is unlike almost anything he has attempted before (excepting perhaps the recent "Herman Wouk Is Still Alive"). There's nothing supernatural about it, and nothing of the surrealism of, say, "Premium Harmony." While it's a realist story, the senses of encroaching doom and cynicism King used so effectively in "Morality" is absent.
What King manages with "Batman and Robin Have an Altercation" is singularity - an entirely new sort of story for him. Relying only on the strength of his characters and his terrifically elastic storytelling voice, Stephen King has crafted one of the finest short works of his career.
"Batman and Robin Have an Altercation," by Stephen King is published in the September 2012 issue of Harper’s Magazine
Kevin Quigley is a novelist, critic, and blogger. He has written several chapbooks about Stephen King for Cemetery Dance, including "Chart of Darkness," "Drawn Into Darkness," "Blood In Your Ears," "Ink In the Veins," and "Wetware," as well as the upcoming A Good Story and Good Words: The Many Worlds of Stephen King.