Review: In the Tall Grass (short story)

In the Tall GrassIn the Tall Grass by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Buyer’s note: This is a long short story, not a full novel (or even a novella). Consider this before spending your $4.99. I used a gift card because I was curious to see how the second King/Hill effort shook out. Plus the title is just plain interesting. What could be in the tall grass? The mind boggles at the endless list of awful things that could be there.

Spoiler note: I’m spoiling the story. If you want a quick take, read the rest of this paragraph then skip the rest: “In the Tall Grass” is much like the other father/son collaboration King and Hill did (“Throttle”) in that it’s a solid, entertaining read, but nothing more than that. There is no re-inventing the wheel, no characters that will stay with you for days or weeks after reading. It’s a tight horror story that preys on a fear most of us have: getting lost.

Specifically, the people in the story get lost in a huge field of tall grass that grows next to a creepy church somewhere out in Kansas. Brother and sister Cal and Becky are driving cross-country so Becky can carry her giving-up-for-adoption baby to term with at their aunt and uncle’s home. The journey is unremarkable until they approach the grass and hear a boy calling out for help. Being good sorts of people, they park and separately enter the grass to find the boy. For a time they hear what may be the boy’s mother warning them to stay away but of course it is too late by then, for the mother and, well, everyone.

The field and the grass seem to shift, creating an ever-changing maze where escape can be only feet away yet still impossible. Eventually Cal is found by the boy, who leads him to a strange, large rock in a clearing. Touch the rock and you suddenly know your way out but never want to leave because that rock is crazy and it loves spreading the crazy around.

It all ends horribly for everyone and the postscript has an RV full of potheads (the pot aspect is emphasized to a strange and almost absurd degree, maybe for comedic effect?) being lured in like Cal and Becky, suggesting the grass will continue to feed for some time to come. Or at least until winter, because a lush field of tall grass in the middle of a Nebraska winter is bound to draw a little attention from people maybe not so willing to dive in feet-first.

Oh, and don’t ask what happens after Becky gives birth in the field to her three-month premature baby. You don’t want to know, especially if you’re pregnant. Or eating. Or sane.

“In the Tall Grass” does a nice job of playing on a fear many might have–wading into a large field of grass or some other maze-like structure, becoming lost, and realizing we have no reliable way to navigate out. Then comes the crazy and cannibalism. Well, or maybe you just use your cell phone to call for help–except that doesn’t work, of course. And other than being decent but not compelling, that’s probably my only other nitpick with the story. Everything that might help the doomed siblings is waved away. Of course the cell phone loses its signal. Of course they immediately separate instead of heading into the grass together. It’s convenient but feels a little lazy. I’m not asking for Cal to have loaded a flamethrower in the trunk of his Mazda. I suppose I’m just not fond of watching helpless victims be helpless as they march to their inevitable demise. It’s more depressing than horrifying.

Well, except for the baby. That was definitely horrifying.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend dropping five bucks on “In the Tall Grass” but if it shows up in a collection it will make a fine addition. It’s a classic horror tale, just one that does nothing new or extraordinary.

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