Short Story Review: 'In the Tall Grass' Part One, by Stephen King and Joe Hill


The news blindsided people, even though they'd been expecting an announcement like this for a while.  The conspicuous absence of a fall novel pointed the way to a short story – perhaps several short stories – but with fans so plugged into news sites (Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr) the fact that a new story could simply sneak up on them was unfathomable.  The many steps of fan reaction to a new Stephen King work were accelerated to the point of intensity, breaking media-speed records and going to warp.  Day one: "I heard from a friend of a friend that King might be releasing a new story in a magazine."  Day two: "It's not just King, it's King with Joe Hill, and it's coming out next month.  No, I don't know the title." Day three: "I have the title!  It's ‘In the Tall Grass,' and it's in Esquire.  I think it's a two-parter, but I don't know when exactly it's coming out." Day four: "Part one is out now! Go buy it! OMG!"  

And thus it was: the first part of Stephen King's newest collaboration with his son Joe Hill, "In the Tall Grass," is now out on newsstands as part of an ongoing Esquire push for "men's fiction."  Esquire editor-in-chief David Granger states:

"It's a struggle, because especially during the recession, we lost so many pages," he said. "Fiction begins to feel a little bit of a luxury."

His definition of men's fiction? Work that is "plot-driven and exciting, where one thing happens after another," he said. "And also at the same time, dealing with passages in a man's life that seem common."

King has often spoken of the shrinking market for short fiction, so Esquire's goal here is a laudable one.  The June/July issue of the magazine contains three stories: one by Lee Child (famous for his Jack Reacher novels), one by Colum McCann (winner of the National Book Award for Let the Great World Spin), and the first part of "In the Tall Grass."  While the fiction was meant to be released simultaneously on newsstands and through the Esquire iPad app –  no online version will be available – the tablet version is still forthcoming.

What of the story, then?  Those expecting another King/Hill collaboration like "Throttle" will be a little shocked.  We start off in what seems to be John Irving territory, learning in brief, colorful sketches of Becky and Cal DeMuth, an unusually close brother and sister.  At the start of the story, Becky is pregnant, and the two of them are driving cross-country together.  Here's where it starts feeling like Stephen King country: the two of them are in Kansas when they start to hear the little boy's voice calling from the field of tall grass.  They stop.  They investigate.  And then they get lost.  

If the setup seems familiar, it is; a horror trope explored by everyone and everything from The Twilight Zone to Shirley Jackson and beyond.  King himself has dipped into this well more than once: it's the platform on which his stories "Rainy Season," "You Know They Got a Hell of a Band," "Children of the Corn," and especially his novel Desperation are built.  But fans of King's and Hill's know that a story steeped in horror tradition doesn't mean it stays traditional.  Concern slips into dread within paragraphs; in the tall grass, Cal and Becky begin to understand how fragile their lifelong closeness really is.  It works as a metaphor, but it works even better viscerally, as the concepts of time and distance become meaningless, and the sheer intangible panic of being lost grips them – and us.

King's somewhat recent return to classic horror has been exciting to watch.  "The Little Green God of Agony," "The Dune," and "Under the Weather" are like streamlined terror engines, revving on full throttle.  At the same time, it's fascinating to watch Joe Hill's take on a story like this; where "Throttle" seemed an anomaly for both writers, "In the Tall Grass" seems very much in Hill's wheelhouse.  His novels Heart-Shaped Box and Horns were brilliant, scary works (as is his comic series Locke & Key), and "In the Tall Grass" seems like a perfect stepping stone to what comes next in his young career.  

What's next for "In the Tall Grass"?  Part Two comes out in the August issue of Esquire; an interview with Hill (with addendum notes by King) points the way.  "We talked about a high point late in the story to aim at," Hill says.  "Considering how the story unfolds, maybe we should talk about it as a low point."  Adds King: "Gross is good!"  That this is coming from a man who wrote "A Very Tight Place" – which involved a slimy escape from a portable toilet – should either thrill you or worry you very much.