Sometimes They Come Back
I’m just gonna say it: when Stephen King dives directly into the occult his work suffers. “The Mangler” was a great metaphor for working class animosity toward the machines they work with everyday...until it became a bizarro buddy exorcism story. Similarly, “Sometimes They Come Back” is a promising mind-fuck of a tale, solidly in the vein of The Twilight Zone, until the protagonist, Jim Norman, finds a convenient occult tome that guides him toward a demonic solution to his paranormal problem. Perhaps the issue is that, with so much imagination at his disposal, demonic possession and standard Catholic solutions, seem somehow beneath Stephen King. They seem like cop outs, basically.
I suppose given the zeitgeist into which both “The Mangler” and “Sometimes They Come Back” were published, the public’s relationship with demonic possession was much keener. Kinda like zombie tales a few years ago, and vampires a few years before that, demonism was a hot thing in the 1970’s, so King can be forgiven for leaning into a trend early in his writing career. But for the modern reader, it makes for a disappointing ending to a whizz bang of a start.
“Sometimes They Come Back” has a lot of things going for it: a solid protagonist, a compelling premise, and natural tension given the unreliability of the main character. But eventually King writes himself into a corner that he seems unwilling to think himself out of, so he leans on the well-trod trope of demon summoning, essentially pulling a rope-a-dope on the audience that is both unsatisfying and disingenuous. What the reader is left with is a cynical and depressing story where the hero is victimized not once, not twice, but three times for no good reason at all. King didn’t have to add a happy ending to the story, but he could have given Jim some sort of flaw that justified all his suffering. As it is, we’re left with the sense that life is terrible all the time and for no reason. That’s a worldview, to be sure, but one us Constant Readers aren’t used to seeing from Stephen King.
There were a couple of other things that really popped out to me as I read “Sometimes They Come Back.” First, Jim seems like a practice run at Jack Torrance, a teacher with a haunted background, applying for a new job to start his life over, but finding he can’t escape his past. There’s also more than a passing resemblance to the events of Rage, with classrooms becoming the setting for unspeakable violence, and social upheaval. In some respects, it’s like Jack Torrance got stuck teaching a class attended by Charlie Decker.
Second, and this is only a little thing, but the police officer in the childhood scenes is named Mr. Nell, a name that would be reused a decade later for another beloved Irish cop. One has to wonder whether Nell is the only Irish name King knows, or whether there’s a particularly personal story there somewhere in King’s own history. Regardless, it’s a nice little Easter egg for the Constant Reader.
Last, I couldn’t help but find parallels between the narrative arc of the story and many of the tales of sexual violence Judge Kavanaugh’s hearing, and the #MeToo movement more generally, have teased to the surface of our national dialogue. In both real life and in the story, the victim is retraumatized years later by the original perpetrators, and feels unable to confess their trauma because of how higher-ups will view and/or punish them. In “Sometimes They Come Back,” Jim is left to fend for himself in an increasingly hostile environment because he knows his story will sound crazy to the administrators at the school. So, in order to rid himself of his tormentors, he releases something he doesn’t quite understand. The evil spirit-busting demon may be a decidedly unfulfilling bit of deus ex machina, but it works beautifully as a metaphor for the traumas of sexual violence, wherein the victim, absent healthier alternatives, finds bigger and worse ways of dealing with their pain. The demon could be drugs, alcohol, depression, suicide, or sexual promiscuity, or it could simply be the monster that stalks at the edges, always there, always coming back.
I’m 100% certain Stephen King wasn’t writing about rape when he wrote “Sometimes They Come Back,” but that’s the brilliant thing about well-written stories. Sometimes they come back, and when they do, they aren’t always in the same form as when they started.