A man in his eighties should be well past the terrors of childhood, but as my infirmities slowly creep up on me, like waves licking closer and closer to some indifferently built castle of sand, that terrible face grows clearer and clearer in my mind’s eye. It glows like a dark star in the constellations of my childhood.
In those days before the Great War, most of Motton was woods and bog–dark long places full of moose and mosquitoes, snakes and secrets. In those days there were ghosts everywhere.
“The Man in the Black Suit” is a short story written by Stephen King. The story was originally published in the 31 October 1994 issue of The New Yorker, and subsequently won the 1995 World Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction and the 1996 O. Henry Award. The story was later included in King’s 1997 collection Six Stories, as well as his 2002 collection Everything’s Eventual.
The story tells of Gary, a nine year-old boy, whose brother had died not long before due to a bee sting. One day Gary goes out fishing and falls asleep. When he awakens, he finds a bee is hovering near his face. Due to the allergy he shared with his brother he is very scared, but then he hears a clap and the bee dies. He turns around and he discovers a man in a black three-piece suit with as is described in the story, glowing, burning eyes, as if there’s a fire inside him, looming over him, with pale skin and claws for fingers, and horrible, sharp, shark-like teeth when he grins.
The man – whose body odor smells like burnt match heads (sulphur) – tells Gary terrible things: that his mother has died while he was away, and that the man intends to eat him. Sam does not believe at first, but soon realizes that this man is actually the devil, and makes his escape by throwing his caught fish at the stranger; he then runs off as the creature swallows the fish whole and pursues the boy to the outskirts of the forest. The things the man said were false, but Sam is still haunted by the incident for the rest of his life.
Sam tells the story from his perspective as an old, terrified man. He is haunted by his belief that he only escaped from the devil by either pure luck or his own skill. At the end of the story, he is frightened by the possibility of death. Will he go to God, whom he has prayed to all his life? Or will the man in the Black Suit return to take him away, now that he is too old to run away from him again?
That day in the woods is eighty years gone, and for many of the years in between I have never even thought of it–not awake, at least. Like any other man or woman who ever live, I can’t say about my dreams, not for sure. But now I’m old, and I dream awake, it seems. My infirmities have crept up like waves that will soon take a child’s abandoned sand castle, and my memories have also crept up, making me t
hink of some old rhyme that went, in part, “Just leave them alone / And they’ll come home / Wagging their tails behind them.” I remember meals I ate, games I played, girls I kissed in the school cloakroom when we played post office, boys I chummed with, the first drink I ever took, the firs cigarette I ever smoked (corn shuck behind Dicky Hamner’s pig shed, and I threw up). Yet of all the memories the one of the man in the black suit is the strongest, and glows with its own spectral, haunted light. He was real, he was the Devil, and that day I was either his errand or his luck. I feel more and more strongly that escaping him was my luck–just luck, and not the intercession of the God I have worshiped and sung hymns to all my life.