Thoughts on Stephen King’s story “A Death” in the New Yorker

Stories like Stephen King’s “A Death” in the March 9 issue of the New Yorker go a long way to explaining why I love short fiction. I have this sense–perhaps a false one–that while there is no such thing as the perfect novel, there is a perfect short story. It is as rare as a perfect game in baseball, but it is achievable. Of course, it is not quantifiable the way a perfect game in baseball is. To twist an oft-used expression: I can’t say exactly what makes a story perfect, but I know it when I see it.

I can probably count perfect stories I’ve read on one hand. Ray Bradbury’s “The Rocket Man”; Harlan Ellison’s “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore”; and Stephen King’s “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” are three. After reading “A Death” I think I could add it to the list of perfect stories.

What makes a story perfect? Again, it’s hard to say. For me, the voice plays a big part of it, but not all of it. Another element is efficiency, or perhaps a better word is “compactness.” I don’t mean length. I mean the story has just the right amount of each ingredient, not a grain more or a drop less. That, plus the voice, are the two things that jumped out at me when I finished reading “A Death.”

Stephen King has often said that in his second drafts, he takes out everything that isn’t story. “A Death” is a great example of that. There is nothing I could find in it that isn’t story. Everything, every word, every image, every line of dialog contributes to the telling of the whole. It is a story that rests in a precarious balance, like a pitcher who has two outs in the 9th inning of perfect game, and full count on the batter. Take away anything from the story, and it is no longer perfect. Add anything to the story, and it is no longer perfect.

In many ways, while reading “A Death,” I kept thinking to myself that it is a Writer’s story. I enjoyed the story as a reader. But almost enjoyed more as a writer. I enjoyed in the same way a rookie ball player might look over at a seasoned veteran and see the smoothness of their swing, the fluid motion they make ranging for a ball in the field, and think, I want to be able to do that one day. Recognizing this as a writer means that you also recognize that you have the individual skills to make it happen, but not yet the experience to put them together in the right combination to achieve that level of perfection.

Beyond the entertainment value of “A Death,” beyond my awe at the seemingly effortless execution, I finished it thinking, man, I want to be able to do that one day. It’s why I keep reading. And it’s why I keep writing.

12 thoughts on “Thoughts on Stephen King’s story “A Death” in the New Yorker

  1. I agree that the story is beautifully crafted, but didn’t you find the subject matter disgusting? I finished it and felt as if I’d taken a swim in a cesspool. My mother would have called it “unedifying” and that it certainly is.

  2. Hi Jamie, thanks for your great post. I completely agree–Stephen King’s “A Death” could be considered a perfect story. I just finished it and was very struck by it. The story is compactly written, has a unique writing voice, and has realistic characters. I was surprised by the end and am still a bit jarred by the story. Will have to read again to pick up previous clues leading to the ending. Thanks again for your post!

  3. Those are your only thoughts on the story: that it’s “perfect”? (I guess “perfection” doesn’t require analysis?)

    Leaving aside whether “A Death” fails or succeeds as a story, I disagree that the details are perfectly chosen. King may be the expert, but I wonder if a finger-rectal probe would really make a “popping” sound… also whether the phrase “pissing like a dog on a fire plug” was used in the 1880’s.

    Hate to nitpick, but “perfection” invites that kind of thing.

  4. Thoughts on the ending (spoilers):

    I’m not sure if King intended this, but I think that Trusdale is innocent and the killer is Hines, the undertaker. Sheriff Barclay rightfully doubts that Trusdale would have spend the silver dollar after taking it from the girl, but he didn’t. And the thing that he left his hat under her skirt is doubtful (it was actually “hidden”). Trusdale’s motive if he would have been a killer would be robbery for the further drinking.

    Hines could kill the girl not for the money, but for the kill. He took the dollar as a trophy. And hid the stolen hat on the scene. In the end he found out that the sheriff is having strong doubts about Trusdale’s guilt:

    Quote:
    Hines looked at him. “You really don’t think he killed her.”
    “If he didn’t,” Barclay said, “whoever did is still walking around.”

    So, he decided that it would be dangerous to leave Barclay with these doubts which may lead him to the another investigation, and he decides to get rid of the dollar by putting it in Trusdale’s post mortem excrement. At first Hines wanted to keep the dollar (otherwise he would have plant it in the Trusdale’s shack in the beginning of the story). But sheriff’s doubts made him get rid of it in order to keep himself safe and make Trusdale truly low and evil in the eyes of Barclay.

  5. Mikhail, if the undertaker did murder a ten-year-old girl just “for the kill”–and kept her silver dollar as a trophy, like a serial killer–he must be a total psychopath. You’d think his small-town neighbors would have noticed that before now.

    Also, when he shows the sheriff the recovered silver dollar, he says, “I don’t understand it… Son of a bitch was locked up a good long time.” Why would he question his own (planted) evidence like that?

    Agreed, it makes no sense that the killer’s hat would be hidden underneath the girl’s skirt. But it makes even less sense that a man who habitually wears a hat could walk four miles on a very cold day without noticing that it wasn’t on his head.

    The “mystery” of the missing silver dollar never rang true to me. Trusdale could easily have slipped it into a crack in the boards of his house. (More nitpicking, of course.) In any case…far from a “perfect” story, imo.

  6. David, as I said in the post, it’s one of those things that I know when I see it, but it’s difficult to put a finger on exactly what makes a story perfect. For me it is more of a feeling. That said, in the case of “A Death” a lot of it comes from the craft as opposed to the story itself (which, I’ve since learned, is a kind of homage to Clark’s The Ox-Bow Incident). Part of what impressed me was the compactness of the story. I once recall reading that the job of a short story is to imply everything that came before and everything that comes after, and I think King did that very well in such a compact piece.

    Sure, there are things in the story that might not ring true to all readers, but even a perfect game in baseball might have a wild pitch or an ugly play now and then. So long as no one ever reaches base, it is still perfect.

  7. I saw Hines as a second potential killer. And therein lies the storycraft: In allowing multiple plausible conclusions, the piece echoes life.

  8. A simple story? Yes.

    A straightforward linear plot? Yes.

    A small cast of characters? Yes.

    A subject matter familiar to most? Yes

    A syntax and lexicon familiar to most? Yes.

    So I could have written this story if only I had put my mind to it and dedicated the appropriate time to it? No Way!

    And therein lies the craft and talent of a master story-teller.

    I’ve read this multiple times now – I cannot imagine this story being presented in any other way, with its ambiguities and ‘multiple plausible conclusions’ mentioned above, so, therefore, yes I agree, a perfect story.

    Thanks for bringing this to my attention Jamie.

    Best Wishes
    David (based in the UK)

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