"Morality"

Esquire magazine, initial publisher of Stephen King’s story, "Morality," features at the top of its July 2009 issue this headline: STORIES OF OUR TIME. "Morality" falls squarely (and uneasily) into that category, focusing on a young married couple – Chad and Nora – being hit hard with America’s current recession. King, using his rediscovered compact storytelling voice, sums it up best six paragraphs in: "Two years ago they’d talked about having a kid. What they talked about now was getting out from under and maybe enough ahead to leave the city without a bunch of creditors snapping at their heels." Since his earliest stories, King has drawn portraits of people against the canvas of the time they’re occupying. Effortlessly, he draws us into Nora and Chad’s tale by making them imminently relatable, and putting this unintended question on the table: did the person reading this magazine buy it, or is he reading it in the store so he can save three bucks?

Ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, that has been always King’s bread and butter, and with "Morality" he’s brought the whole loaf. Chad is a substitute teacher and intermittent writer whose future employment is in doubt. Nora’s faring a little bit better as a home nurse to a wealthy man recovering from a stroke. They are struggling, and the only glimmer of hope is a possible buyer for Chad’s book ... which, in order to finish, requires time off they can’t afford. Nora and Chad are struggling ... until her wealthy employer, a former minister, strikes a deal with her. In another story, this is where the rich old man proposes sex for a price, or, in a more sinister tale, asks his charge to murder someone for him. But that’s not what’s on this man’s mind: no, at the end of his pious life, he wishes to sin ... and be forgiven.

Drawing Nora into this act – which I wouldn’t dream of revealing here – creates the crux of this story’s main argument: how easily can a person let go of his or her morality? At what price is sin, even a little bit of sin, allowable? King rarely offers answers to these questions, only situations, and it is to his credit that the situation here plays out so realistically, and so darkly. In his recent fiction (Bag of Bones, Lisey’s Story, and Duma Key specifically), King has explored darknesses that lie at the heart of marriages; here we get to witness that darkness taking seed, and flourishing.

King’s recent short fiction may be the best of his career. Just After Sunset was an exemplary return to form after the uneven Everything’s Eventual, and the recent Kindle-specific "Ur," was exciting and fun (even if I didn’t quite enjoy the larger implications). "Morality" is King writing in his hushed voice, the one he used for "All That You Love Will Be Carried Away" and "Harvey’s Dream," the voice of simmering unease that doesn’t have to scream to scare.