Brief encounters: “I Am the Doorway” by Stephen King

From Night Shift

Night Shift by Stephen King

“The dividing line between fantasy and science fiction (for properly speaking, fantasy is what it is; the horror genre is only a subset of the larger genre) is a subject that comes up at some point at almost every fantasy or science fiction convention,” writes Stephen King early in his 1981 overview of the horror genre, Danse Macabre. “It’s a trap, this matter of definition, and I can’t think of a more boring academic subject.”

It is perhaps unsurprising that King, who cut his teeth on 1950s sci-fi/horror movie hybrids like Them! and The Thing from Another World, as well as the 1960s television series The Outer Limits (“Nominally science fiction, more accurately a horror program,” King writes, succumbing if only briefly to that crushingly boring academic business of drawing generic distinctions), should feel protective about the possibilities of blurring genres. One of King’s key literary influences – H.P. Lovecraft – mixed science fiction and horror liberally and unapologetically and King himself has done likewise in novels such as The Tommyknockers and Under the Dome.

The categories can prove incredibly slippery. King is probably correct when he calls Alien a horror movie, not a science fiction film. Similarly, the 1997 cult movie Event Horizon, though set in outer space many years in the future, is nevertheless a generic ghost story (and a hell of a lot better than many critics give it credit for being).

“I Am the Doorway,” from King’s debut story collection, the 1978 volume Night Shift, is a case in point. The protagonist is Arthur, a former astronaut rendered paraplegic after a botched re-entry following a mission to the orbit of Venus. Though Arthur has lost the ability to walk as a result of the deep-space excursion, he has gained something else: a bizarre, parasitical alien life-force that manifests as a series of eyes embedded in the skin of his fingers and palms. The eyes are kind of interstellar view-finders through which the alien lifeforms observe the people that surround Arthur, who frequently appear to them as hideous grotesques (an idea reminiscent of a classic Twilight Zone episode).

The extraterrestrials use Arthur as a vehicle not only to see the Earthbound world around him but to interact with and influence it. Arthur has already been the instrument by which the aliens killed an itinerant boy (in a highly Grand Guignol manner that resembles the fate of Louis Del Grande’s character in the movie Scanners). “I am the doorway, can’t you understand that?” Arthur demands of Richard, his friend and confidant. “They killed the boy, Richard! They moved the body!”

For at least two-thirds of the story, Richard represents the skeptical stand-in for a reader who might find Arthur’s narrative too unbelievable to credit. And there are good reasons to question Arthur’s version of events. Confined to a wheelchair, he lives by the Gulf of Florida so that he can watch the rockets take off from Cape Canaveral. His proximity to the space program that changed his life, combined with his increasingly hysterical tone, should raise at least a few red flags.

As should the reference to a fellow named Cresswell, who works for the Naval Department. “He checks up on me once a year,” Arthur informs us. “I don’t know just what it is he looks for; a shifty gleam in the eye, maybe, or maybe a scarlet letter on my forehead. God knows why.” God, and perhaps a certain strain of incredulous reader.

When Richard accompanies Arthur into the dunes to exhume the body of the boy the aliens apparently murdered and buried, they find no corpse in the sand. After Arthur pulls off the bandages covering his hands and displays them for Richard, the latter runs off in horror. Arthur lifts his hands to the sky, where we are told a bolt of lightning strikes and kills Richard. But the next morning when Arthur awakes, the sand is “virginal” and there is no indication that Richard was ever there.

It is axiomatic that any first-person narrator is unreliable; how much more so if that narrator is a wounded ex-astronaut suffering severe PTSD from a violent flight that almost ended his life? Certainly, there is enough in the story to accept Arthur’s account at face value, if a reader so desires. But like Henry James in “The Turn of the Screw,” King leaves the door of ambiguity propped open just far enough that a reader who wants to interpret Arthur’s tale as the ravings of a delusional lunatic is also free to do so.

When Richard mutilates himself at the climax to rid himself of the scourge growing in his hands, the moment appears horrific regardless of the interpretation an individual reader gives to the story. And the final coda is either a classic horror ending or a testament to the cyclical nature of severe mental illness.

If the alien infestation is real, we would appear to be in the realm of sci-fi, with a strong dollop of body horror tossed in for good measure. If, on the other hand, Arthur is insane, we have entered the realm of extreme psychological horror. So, in the final analysis, is “I Am the Doorway” a work of horror or science fiction? In the final analysis, why does it matter?

Brief encounters: “I Am the Doorway” by Stephen King
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