King’s new story, “The Little Green God of Agony,” screams with pain. It’s a little shocking how different this is from his recent short work: “Premium Harmony” seems of a piece with King’s more existential Everything’s Eventual work, “Ur” is optimistic science fiction, and while both “Morality” and “Herman Wouk Is Still Alive” are jolting, its horror comes from human choice and desperation. It would be an error to call this “a return to classic horror” for King – both Just After Sunset’s “N.” and the Full Dark, No Stars addendum, “Under the Weather” are very much in the horror wheelhouse – but “Green God of Agony” finds King very much in the realm of the Gothic story for the first time in awhile. All the “Fall of the House of Usher” indications are here: there’s a big, rambling mansion; a thunderstorm powerful enough to shut all the lights; a wise older character who knows things, in direct opposition to our rational, modern character who trusts science and the things she can see. (Oh, and the older fellow is a healer, and his name is Rideout, as in “ride out the pain”; King hasn’t used a name this symbolic since Max Devore in 1998’s Bag of Bones.) In the middle of it all, we have the injured, agonized Mr. Newsome, who only wants his pain to go away.
There’s also a monster. While it is introduced symbolically, the little green god of agony is very much a real monster, plunging into King’s spooky-cozy Gothic story and transforming it into a creature feature. It is to King’s immense credit that this shift in tone and intent is just gradual enough that the changes feel organic. He’s also using one of his best weapons here: classic, effortless characterization. We identify at once with caretaker Katherine MacDonald, who believes much of Mr. Newsome’s pain is psychosomatic, and we are fascinated with Rideout, who doesn’t want the ten million dollars Newsome offers to cure him Ö only enough to repair his church. The meat of stories like this is in the details, and King draws out enough of them so that we believe in each of these people without being bogged down in minutiae.
The finale is one of King’s best last beats; like the epilogue of Pet Sematary, the last sentence is, literally, dreadful. It’s not that one doesn’t expect scary from Stephen King, but moments like this remind us just how scary he can be when he wants to be. In some senses, “The Little Green God of Agony” recalls classic body-horror stories like “I am the Doorway,” and “Gray Matter,” but in final estimation is very much its own dark tale. It’s refreshing that King’s take on “traditional” horror seems so fresh, so unique, and so viscerally frightening.