The cover of the new Esquire magazine – bright yellow, and featuring Jeremy Renner – heralds the conclusion of the Stephen King/Joe Hill story, “In the Tall Grass,” with this tagline: “NOW IT GETS WEIRD.” And boy howdy, are they not kidding.
Catch up: Cal and Becky DeMuth are the closest of siblings. In the wake of Becky’s accidental pregnancy, the two decide to take a cross-country trip together. Midway through Kansas, they pass a field of tall grass and hear a young boy crying out inside it. They go in to investigate ... and get lost.
It’s a simple setup, and a creepy one. As Cal and Becky get separated, they begin to lose sense of distance and time; the entire first segment of “Tall Grass” is a study in disorientation. We’re reminded of “Children of the Corn” a little, and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon.
In a sidebar discussing the story in last month’s issue, King gleefully cheered, “Gross is good!” Those concerned that the finale of the story would be something along the lines of King’s recent “A Very Tight Place” (perhaps the most gorge-rising exploration of toilet horror in King’s canon) needn’t be worried. Everyone else should be worried. We have entered Jack Ketchum/Edward Lee territory here, and the finale of “In the Tall Grass” is one of the most shocking and disturbing things either King or Hill has ever put to paper.
I won’t spoil what King and Hill classify alternately as a high point and a low point, nor can I compare this story to a much earlier King work without giving things away (though if you’re familiar with the term “shock trauma,” you might have some indication as to what you’re in for). I will say that there’s a sequence that recalls King’s very scary recent tale “N.,” in its depiction of ancient horror and its effect on modern Americans; while the black rock here is more a MacGuffin than the circle of stones in that story, King and Hill wring a lot of effective scares out of it. Another scene, in which Cal tries to burn the tall grass down, is almost as unsettling; his frustration and desperation at failing to destroy his prison is palpable.
One of the great pleasures of “Tall Grass” is in its ability to shift into different areas and levels of terror. The sense of disorientation and the fear of getting lost in part one don’t begin to hint at the tribal horrors or the stomach-churning denouement in part two, yet they blend seamlessly, horror stacking upon horror. There’s a lot of under-the-surface stuff, too – defining Becky and Cal’s relationship by its closeness before separating them first physically then emotionally is a fantastic thematic touch; King and Hill explored unusual family dynamics in “Throttle,” but what’s here is at once more subtle and more intense. Structural and stylistic choices – like Becky’s unsettling dream sequences involving the conception and future of her unborn child, and a lengthy stream-of-consciousness sequence that gives a fantastically off-kilter feel to the story – strengthen an already strong tale.
“In the Tall Grass” is an excellent story, proving that “Throttle” was not just a one-off fluke. It also proves that the story engine driving both King and Hill is far from worn out. “Tall Grass” explores new ideas and pushes boundaries (in a mainstream periodical, no less!) beyond anything that either King or Hill has tackled before, and that’s an exciting prospect for the future.