Stephen King’s work doesn’t lack in terrible parents. Jack Torrance in The Shining, Margaret White in Carrie, Al Marsh in It (heck, basically ALL the parents in It are shitshows), would all make the cut in a worst parent of the year contest, but Lester Billings in the Night Shift short “The Boogeyman” might actually be one of the most terribly relatable.
“The Boogeyman” tells the tale of a father seeking psychiatric help after his family falls prey to an unspeakable beast. It’s a relatively cliche scenario even by early horror fiction standards, but what makes the story memorable is the psychological tension at its heart. While the horror genre is littered with tale after tale of parents struggling—sometimes in vain, sometimes not— against otherworldly creatures bent on killing or possessing their children, “The Boogeyman” plays on what is a common fear among parents...that when the time comes they will be unable or unwilling to protect their children.
The central trauma of “The Boogeyman” is that the father, when faced with the choice of saving himself or his child, decides to run, leaving his child to the horror from the closet. It’s the type of tale that could only come from the mind of a parent of young children, rife as it is with the private psycho-Atrocities that so often invade the thoughts of the recently parented. When my first son was born, I spent many a night lying awake worrying over increasingly Byzantine scenarios where I would be subjected to this most horrible of parental tests, and would be unable to come through. Visions of falling asleep with my infant child in my arms, watching him walk off a pier into rushing water, falling down the stairs, even this truly horrific scenario so traumatically limned by David Foster Wallace filled my head, making my son’s violent death, and my unwilling complicity in it, seem like almost an eventuality.
In interviews after The Shining’s release King talked openly about the frustrations and violent, horrific feelings associated with young parenthood, and it shows in his stories from the time that he was working through some feelings. Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, Rage, Cujo, Pet Semetary, and “The Boogeyman,” just to name just a few, all involve children meeting tragic ends, and many a terrible parent complicit in the child’s death.
“The Boogeyman” may be one of the worst versions though, since the horror stems less from the monster, and more because of the Sophie’s choice the creature hoists on Lester. He goes to the psychiatrist in a play for absolution, or perhaps just confession, but the story closes with the psychiatrist revealing itself to be the creature from the closet, here to finish what it started. It’s a silly, Twilight Zone-ish ending to a tense, difficult read, but it discloses a great deal about parental shame. Though one can leave one’s children and sins in the past, the guilt, in the end, will always be there.