Stephen King’s “N” Short Story about how Stonehenge and OCD can be connected

It’s been a while since I’ve read a good psychological thriller that brings the Dark Tower world slowly back into focus. “N” is the story of a patient suffering from severe OCD symptoms and strong hallucinations who decides to seek psychiatric help and ends up “infecting” everyone he hears his story with his “bug”.

The story begins with the wife of the now-deceased doctor sending his case notes to an old childhood friend asking him for his opinion. She had read the notes marked as “Burn This” and was already planning a trip in the countryside to find the places mentioned in the story.

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I love this. A story within a story within a story. So Stephen King!

Let’s start with John Bonsaint and his patient “N”.

Psychiatrists are spelunkers, really, and any spelunker will tell you that caves are full of bats and bugs. Not nice, but most are essentially harmless.

N 1_0006The sessions with N start quite harmless. “N” is discussing his psychological problems and he indicates a starting point after visiting a specific field during dusk time. The doctor decides not to pursue the field and instead starts asking “N” different questions about his condition. One thing I liked about this story is how well OCD is documented and for any psych-grad student, this book can prove a golden ore.

I ask him if he counts things.

Of course I do, he says.  The number of clues in the New York Times crossword puzzles and on Sundays I count twice, because those puzzles are bigger and double-checking seems in order. Necessary, in fact. My own footsteps. Number of telephone rings when I call someone. I eat at the Colonial Diner on most workdays, it’s three blocks from the office, and on my way there I’ll count black shoes. On my way back, I’ll count brown ones. I tried red once, but that was ridiculous. Only women wear red shoes, and not many, at that. Not in the daytime. I only counted three pair, so I went back to the Colonial and started again, only the second time I counted brown shoes.

The different coloured shoes reminded me of the yellow and red cars in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon Book Review so I started wondering whether “N” was autistic as well?

One day, when I was counting my way back to the office, I passed a man with one leg cut off at the knee. He was on crutches, with a sock on his stump. If he’d been wearing a black shoe, it would have been no problem. Because I was on my way back, you see. But it was brown. That threw me off for the whole day, and that night I couldn’t sleep at all. Because odd numbers are bad. He taps the side of his head. At least up here they are. There’s a rational part of my mind that knows it’s all bullshit, but there’s another part that knows it absolutely isn’t, and that part rules. You’d think that when nothing bad happened in fact something good happened that day, an IRS audit we were worried about was cancelled for absolutely no reason the spell would break, but it didn’t. I’d counted thirty-seven brown shoes instead of thirty-eight, and when the world didn’t end, that irrational part of my mind said it was because I not only got above thirty, I got well above thirty.

When I load the dishwasher, I count plates. If there’s an even number above ten in there, all is well. If not, I add the correct number of clean ones to make it right. Same with forks and spoons. There has to be at least twelve pieces in the little plastic caddy at the front of the dishwasher. Which, since I live alone now, usually means adding clean ones.

As the doctor is trying to find the underlying issue, he asks a question – whether “N” is looking for a cure or just for some relief – and he hits the nail on the head as “N” seems to relax immediately. He knows that his issue can’t be fixed but some relief would be nice.

Something that has been crying out for articulation has finally been spoken aloud. These are the moments I live for. It’s not a cure, far from it, but for the time being N. has gotten some relief. I doubt if he expected it. Most patients do not.

I loved the description that the doctor gives “N”‘s disease. Mental illness is a serious matter and be it OCD or depression, it sometimes hangs like a dark cloud or a flock of predatory birds ready to pick the person clean.

N 1_0003I have seen many cases like N. during the five years I’ve been in practice. I sometimes picture these unfortunates as men and women being pecked to death by predatory birds. The birds are invisible- at least until a psychiatrist who is good, or lucky, or both, sprays them with his version of Luminol and shines the right light on them, but they are nevertheless very real. The wonder is that so many OCDs manage to live productive lives, just the same. They work, they eat (often not enough or too much, it’s true), they go to movies, they make love to their girlfriends and boyfriends, their wives and husbands – and all the time those birds are there, clinging to them and pecking away little bits of flesh.

“N” is suicidal but has the will to go on living at least until he can tell the doctor the whole story of how he came to be. In the meantime, he tries to make order of the world around him, by arranging books, flowers and even the doctor’s items.

And he’s rearranged the vase and the tissue-box so they are again connected on a diagonal. The flowers are white lilies today. Seeing them that way, laid out on the table, makes me think of funerals.

Please don’t ask me to put them back, he says, apologetic but firm. I’ll leave before I do that.

“N” tells his story and he’s aware that ever since he’s been into Ackermans Field he has been suffering mentally. And he fears he might be infectious and dangerous to the doctor.

I tell him I’ll take my chances, and say that in the end – more positive reinforcement.  I’m sure we’ll both be fine.He utters a hollow, lonely laugh.

Wouldn’t that be nice, he says.

It all started when he went into Ackermans field to take some pictures (he was an amateur photograph and occasionally printed his best shots as calendars which he gave away to this business partners and friends)

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The issue came when he tries to count how many stones there are and ends up with seven. Through his lens, he sees eight and while his mind can’t comprehend what’s going on, he starts noticing faces that are etched in the stone that look like they’re laughing or screaming very hard. This is one of those places on earth where reality is a veil that is too thin and (I’m assuming here) where the Dark Tower world comes through. Like a demon circle that Roland found in the woods.

Reality is a mystery, Dr. Bonsaint, and the everyday texture of things is the cloth we draw over it to mask its brightness and darkness. I think we cover the faces of corpses for the same reason. We see the faces of the dead as a kind of gate. It’s shut against us but we know it won’t always be shut. Someday it will swing open for each of us, and each of us will go through.But there are places where the cloth gets ragged and reality is thin. The face beneath peeps through but not the face of a corpse. It would almost be better if it was. Ackerman’s Field is one of those places, and no damn wonder whoever owns it put up a KEEP OUT sign.

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I thought it was the quiet screwing with my imagination, and the isolation, and the bigness of it how much of the world I could see laid out in front of me. And how time seemed to be holding its breath

Counting and touching the stones seems to stabilize them into reality and by the time he goes away, almost running, there were eight visible stones. The wrong had been put at least partly right by touching the stones and looking at them again.

Because it’s how we see the world that keeps the darkness beyond the world at bay. Keeps it from pouring through and drowning us. I think all of us might know that, way down deep.

It’s only when he’s about to leave that he sees a dark presence in the center of the stones. A monster made of smoke, with pink eyes that were watching him. He manages to escape but that fateful day is etched in his memory and he starts counting when he gets back home, a way to put order back into the world. He counts books, doors, locks, steps. He starts repeating his actions when he’s unsure he’d done it right. He decides to go back to the field to make sure he hadn’t dreamt the whole thing up and he’s not crazy and everything seems to be OK until he reaches the spot – just to find out it had been locked with a chain and more warning signs were added – possibly just for his sake.

He ignores the signs and goes in and he sees the stones again. And the darkness that seems to be just within their borders. And the malevolent force that tries to come outside.

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SKN_2_FP_CPS_007“N” receives a key from a mysterious sender who symbolically gives over the Ackerman field to him. He goes back there more often now, and the stones do not look like a circle anymore, more like random outcroppings or stones brought up by a flood. He also sees the eight stones and realises that there are seven when a human lo

 

oks at them, eight when an act of order is performed to put the stones back in.

The discussion shifts to Stonehenge and what it might have been built for.

Did you know that Stonehenge may have been a combination clock and calendar?

The people who built that place, and others like it, must have known they could tell time with no more than a sundial, and as for the calendar   – we know that prehistoric people in Europe and Asia told the days simply by making marks on sheltered rock walls. So what does that make Stonehenge, if it is a gigantic clock/calendar?

A monument to OCD behavior, that’s what I think – a gigantic neurosis standing in a Salisbury field. Unless it’s protecting something as well as keeping track of hours and months. Locking out an insane universe that happens to lie right next door to ours. I have days – many of them, especially last winter, when I felt pretty much like my old self again – when I’m sure that’s bullshit, that everything I thought I saw in Ackermanss Field was in my own head. That all this OCD crap is just a mental stutter.

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Sometimes I think there’s a whole chain of ruined universes behind that force, stretching back untold eons in time like monstrous footprints

SKN_2_FP_CPS_024“N” does’t come to his last session and an obituary tells the doc that he’d stopped fighting his demons. He’s invited to his funeral by his family and he goes and cries for his lost patient. At this point, the doctor is thinking that maybe some of the OCD had been transferred to him from his patient, as it’s not unheard of – psychiatrists suffering from the same condition as their patients in a form of transference.

The doctor decides to see for himself what’s the real thing – to put a new set of eyes on what his patient experienced versus what the reality was. But after seeing Ackerman’s field and experiencing a disturbing encounter with an eye staring at him from the ground, he begins to suspect that “N” wasn’t delusional.

That only shows the strength of the delusion that captured poor N. Explains his suicide in a way no note can. Yet some things are best left alone. This is probably just such a case. That darkness… That funnel-tunnel, that perceived…  In any case, I’m done with N. No book, no article. Turn the page.

He starts suffering from OCD as well and ends up taking his own life by jumping off a bridge.

The darkness. Dear Christ. It was almost complete. And something else.The darkness had an eye. How that eye haunts me. Floating in the gathering darkness.

The doctor’s wife sees the stones too and in a short while, she commits suicide in the exact spot and in the exact manner that her husband did

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