The Woman in the Room and The Last Rung on the Ladder
As has been discussed elsewhere on this blog, and by the Master of Horror himself in his foreword to Night Shift, horror is a genre that is uniquely positioned to encompass the wide range of the human experience. Horror can be funny, nausea inducing, and of course scary. But perhaps no other emotion pairs so nicely with horror as grief. Perhaps it’s because sadness, like it’s more violent counterpart anger, stems so often from fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of the future, of the dark and unknowable blankness that awaits us all at the end of the road.
The grand irony of human life is that the very thing that brings us the most joy and comfort—family—can also be the source of some of life’s worst traumas. So there’s no wonder why so many of the great horror stories center on the brutality family members can show toward one another. Perhaps it’s a function of intimacy. No one can hurt you more than those who know all your weak spots. From Hamlet to this year’s bumper crop of instant-classic domestic horror shows (Hereditary and the most recent adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House are two of the most winning examples), storytellers have needed little more than four walls and few brothers and sisters to craft genuinely terrifying tales.
The truth of this was driven into me this past week as I finished Hill House, the first season of SyFy Network’s erratic but enjoyable anthology series Channel Zero, and also Stephen King’s short story collection, Night Shift, which ends with two of his most pointed family dramas, “The Last Rung on the Ladder” and “The Woman in the Room.” All four of these works dissect the trauma in the expectations family members place on each other. The intimacy of family engenders an expectation of closeness that simply isn’t always there. Hill House shows how seven people can all arrive at very different viewpoints even though they share the same experiences, and the damage caused by those viewpoints grinding against one another in the forced closeness of domesticity. Candle Cove is another peek at the supernatural bond of twinhood, showing how even when two people share the exact genetic sequence, they can still hold wildly different thresholds for darkness.
King’s two stories predate both of these shows, and while it’s impossible to say whether they influenced the them, it’s clear that King was thinking a great deal about family, and the horror of family life in the mid-1970s. Between Carrie and The Shining, Rage, and these two beautiful shorts, King’s early work takes a zoom lens to the grinding gears of domesticity.
While “The Woman in the Room” preoccupies itself with the awful mundanity of terminal illness, offering the protagonist the tragically common choice of murdering his ailing mother or letting her suffer, “The Last Rung on the Ladder” shows how the ineluctable weathering of life can make the meaning of a single event change over time. Neither story is easily classified as horror—there are no ghosts or ghouls—yet as is so often the case with King, sometimes the most horrific sequences have nothing to do with the supernatural.
I imagine “The Woman in the Room” would have been much darker to its original audience, when attitudes toward euthanasia and end of life treatment were considerably more puritanical. But to a modern audience, much of the grimness of the story is leached away, revealing a deeply sad tale that is all too common. Is it right to let your loved ones suffer with no hope of relief? Is it better to let them go on their own terms? When the narrator finally pulls the trigger and poisons his mother with painkillers, the horror stems less from him murdering his ailing mother, and more from the tragedy of the need for the decision itself.
“The Last Rung on the Ladder” is simply put one of King’s best short stories. He packs so much tragedy and excitement into a small package I had to actually put the book down after I was done reading so that I could take some time to reflect before moving on. The events of the story are fairly simple: in the wake of his sister’s suicide, the narrator, Larry, reflects on a childhood event that has suddenly taken on new meaning.
Life is long. Memories and events stack on top of each other, and the pressure of each new memory distorts and alters those that came before it until even previously happy memories can take on a stain of nostalgia or pain or even sadness. “The Last Rung on the Ladder” shows this process in real time, as a once happy memory shared between siblings, over time, becomes a source of pain. For the sister, her childhood moment of rewarded faith grows into the mocking gesture of a cruel world. As she ages, the faith that saved her on that fateful day in the barn is tested and broken until she realizes that her brother’s childhood heroics were the exception not the rule.
For Larry, he never could live up to that single moment of heroism, and it becomes a blunt object to bludgeon him, to make him feel simultaneously responsible for his sister and also unable to protect her in the way he once did. Adulthood is far more complex and nuanced than childhood, and the things that are enough as children become laughably insufficient as adults. There was no haystack large enough for Larry to save his sister from her swan dive off the hotel roof because it wasn’t the hay that saved his sister all those years ago, it was him. And as they aged he went off to pursue his own fortune, growing apart from his sister and consequently removing her safety net.
As children it is easy to be there for each other because we’re always around. As adults it requires effort and sacrifice. In that barn Larry could could build a haystack in the moment, unthinking and reactive. But the years pass and things get harder. To save the woman his sister became he would have had to start bringing the hay many years before, strand after strand until she never would have jumped in the first place. By the time he saw that the ladder had broken and she was holding onto the last rung, it was too late.