“This is a story about the genesis of insanity.” – Stephen King, The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet
PROLOGUE: LOADING THE GUN
If I try really hard, I can remember it all.
If I close my eyes and really concentrate, it’s almost like I’m right there. I can nearly smell the smells, and hear the sounds of what it was like. The soft elevator music that played in the lobby, and those halls that reeked of aged bodies. I can see myself as a 12 year old boy, visiting my great-grandmother in the old folk’s home. I can recall how she thought my mother was her daughter, or that it was December in the heat of June.
My great-grandmother, once a brilliant conversationalist, no longer knew which was which, and who was who. To see her descent was not an easy thing for any of us, but the one thing I remember feeling above all else when visiting her in that square little room was not sadness, nor was it nostalgia.
No, what I remember feeling the most was fear. Fear.
There was a single question that repeated itself over and over, bouncing like a rubber ball against the walls of my brain. Walls that if I looked closely enough might show they were beginning to crack.
Is it contagious?
PART I: THE BALLAD OF THE FLEXIBLE BULLET
“Madness has to start somewhere,” writes Stephen King in his novella, The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet. “And it has to go somewhere too… like a road, or a bullet from the barrel of a gun.”
The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet was first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science-Fiction in 1984, and a year later it would become one of the longest pieces in Stephen King’s 1985 collection of stories, Skeleton Crew.
It is a story-within-a-story. At the start, we are taken to the depths of a most morbid dinner party conversation amongst friends. One of the party’s guests is a young writer celebrating his new success having recently become published. The guests, jokingly at first, begin referring to the litany of authors who have either gone mad or committed suicide as a result of such success. The topic takes an even darker turn when another guest, a former magazine editor named Henry, proceeds to tell the group of how he once personally knew an author who went mad, and how he himself nearly went mad by proxy.
The editor’s tale begins with receiving an unsolicited story from a little-known writer by the name of Reg Thorpe. As an editor, Henry believes that Thorpe’s manuscript is a masterpiece, and immediately reaches out to him. Through their correspondence—mostly letters, written back and forth—he learns of the writer’s many paranoid delusions and fantasies, one of which is that there are gremlin-like creatures living in his typewriter called Fornits. Thorpe believes it is the Fornits who are responsible for his talent as a writer, and so he must feed them—dropping little pieces of food into his typewriter throughout the day. His wife is the one actually cleaning up the typewriter. She indulges his fantasy, and no doubt enjoys the money that the writing is bringing in.
Henry too indulges Thorpe’s fantasies for a time, but the more they continue to correspond, the more he begins to buy into the writer’s big bucket of crazy. He is also busily building paranoia of his own, almost as if the madness were contagious. It doesn’t help matters that Henry is a raging alcoholic. Soon he finds himself unplugging every phone, microwave, and other electronic device in the house, for fear that they are the cause of all illness and cancers, emitting destructive radioactive waves. Eventually, he can hardly leave his home or carry on a conversation in public without getting a headache.
In one of my favorite passages, the editor and guests begin to wax philosophical on the idea of madness as a bullet.
“Forced to define irrational subconscious, I would say that it is a small padded room inside all of us,” the editor says, “where the only furnishing is a small card table. And the only thing on the card table is a revolver loaded with flexible bullets. When you change course on the sidewalk to avoid the ladder or step out of your apartment into the rain with your furled umbrella, part of your integrated self peels off and steps into that room and picks the gun up off the table. You may be aware of two conflicting thoughts: Walking under a ladder is harmless, and not walking under a ladder is also harmless. But as soon as the ladder is behind you—or as soon as the umbrella goes open—you’re back together again.”
“That’s very interesting,” the young writer responds. “Take it a step further for me, if you don’t mind. When does that irrational part actually stop fooling with the gun and put it up to its temple?”
The editor concludes, “When the person in question starts writing letters to the op-ed page of the paper demanding that all ladders be taken down because walking under them is dangerous. Having taken it that far, I suppose I ought to finish. The irrational self has actually fired the flexible bullet into the brain when the person begins tearing around town, knocking ladders over and maybe injuring the people that were working on them. It is not certifiable behavior to walk around ladders rather than under them. It is not certifiable behavior to write letters to the paper saying that New York City went broke because of all the people callously walking under workmen’s ladders. But it is certifiable to start knocking over ladders.”
If madness is a flexible bullet, well then it just barely grazes our editor Henry, who climbs out of his dark hole when he decides to stop drinking. For Thorpe, however, the bullet is lethal. In a thrilling climax I’m not about to ruin for those of you who haven’t read the story, Henry reveals Thorpe’s wild roller coaster of a demise.
At the conclusion of The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet, the young writer who was celebrating his newfound success at the beginning of the story, walks out of the party arm-in-arm with his wife. She asks him, “There are no Fornits in your typewriter, are there?”
PART II: “TAKE IT A STEP FURTHER FOR ME.”
I had a good laugh over The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet. … At first.
I mean, Fornits in typewriters! Who would believe such a thing? No, there are no gremlins in my laptop, and I do not carry delusions of grandeur that electronics are causing me (too much) bodily harm.
But something did happen shortly after I read The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet. Something I haven’t quite been able to shake, I’m afraid.
It all started simply enough, with a cracker that just didn’t taste quite right to me. I’m a fan of the Pepperidge Farm Trios, you know? Those little butterfly crackers? They’re the best. And yet, as I ate one of them on this otherwise perfectly ordinary day, I couldn’t help but detect something was off. After a long while of thinking (and eating a few more crackers), I realized that what I tasted was distinctly mint in flavor. It was subtle, yes but there was no doubt about it. The cracker tasted like mint.
It took me a few more minutes (and a few more crackers) before I finally remembered. When I had taken the crackers out of the pantry, they were sitting next to a sealed box of peppermint tea.
Isn’t that something? I thought to myself. These crackers weren’t IN the box of tea. They weren’t even ON the box of tea! Hell, the box of tea was completely sealed, and yet still the crackers had somehow absorbed just a tinge of this flavor merely by being next to it.
An interesting observation to be sure, and one that a saner individual might have let go at that.
I, however, am a writer, and so I could not.
I started to think about the nature of physicality, how all matter has an ability to influence other matter.
After all, any scientist worth his salt will tell you that everything is energy. If the crackers had somehow absorbed the energy of the tea, the real question I was inevitably led to was: What exactly am I then absorbing?
I went to the DMV later that afternoon and despite the hours-long wait, refused to sit in a chair. I couldn’t help but wonder who had sat there before me, and how I might “pick up” whatever juju they had put down. Someone coughed next to me, and I nearly jumped out of my skin. I decided to wait outside in the open air where I could breathe a whole lot better until my number was called.
But even outside, there was a couple fighting. I couldn’t hear what exactly they were arguing about, nor did I care. What concerned me was that the energy of anger might affect me, if I let it. Is it contagious?
I saw a billboard in the distance for a pair of blue jeans and thought to myself, “Hey! I need to buy myself a pair of those!” before realizing if I hadn’t seen that billboard, the desire would not have been there at all. I had plenty of blue jeans, and no need for another pair. The billboard upon which my gaze had stumbled influenced me. What else had an influence on me? The media? The news? The foods I was eating? The people who handled the foods before I purchased them?
I began to see myself as a milk carton that had been left open in the big, wide refrigerator of the world. What flavors had I already unknowingly adopted as my own, and how could I possibly rid myself of them now?
We come into this world as blank slates and within moments the virginal purity of our canvas is written upon, often in indelible ink. From the words first spoken into our ears, to the latest headline, news program, tweet, or text message we have most recently digested, our canvas becomes influenced, soiled by such cosmic tattoos.
I had once heard at a church sermon that: Everything affects everything. What a thought. It had been used to inspire the masses to rise up to their greatest potential, to become the best version of themselves in the understanding that yes, you can change the world simply by being a better person. That if we are all interconnected in some way—one soul, around the world—then everything we do affects the whole.
But what is the flip side of that coin?
If everything affects everything, then everything is affecting me and thee.
My thoughts drifted back to The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet.
“Take it a step further for me,” the young writer had asked the editor. And now I felt as if something were asking the same of me.
Take it a step further…
How could I not be affected by everything? I could stop watching television, I suppose.
I could grow my own food if I really wanted. I’m a writer, so I could work from home, and never have to see anyone whose energy I don’t want to contaminate mine. I could just speak to those people by phone.
And if they speak of something I do not wish to hear, I can simply move the phone away from my ear.
If I accidentally hear or see something I shouldn’t, I could say “God forbid,” and if it’s something really bad I could say “God forbid, hash va’shalom.” I could say it 13 times. I could say it 13 times and add, “to infinity times infinity.”
Take it a step further…
But how thick would the walls need to be to keep the energy of the next door apartment from entering my own? I could nail mattresses to the walls.
Take it a step further…
I could tin foil the windows.
Take it a step further…
Put towels beneath that crack under the front door.
A step further…
Unplug the phone.
A step further…
Unplug it NOW. Unplug the phone, and unplug the microwave.
A step further…
Is it contagious?
Will it hurt me? I can’t let anything hurt me. Must control.
Oh God, will it hurt me?
God forbid. Hash va’shalom.
To infinity times infinity.
“There are no Fornits in your typewriter, are there?”
When it comes to sanity, I believe the majority of the world has one foot towards an empty grave and the other on a banana peel. You don’t need the news to tell you that. You just need the nearest mirror. The sum total of all your fears will find you there. All the superstitious and paranoid activities of the mind we can either engage in, or choose to ignore, but they cannot be destroyed. They can only be out created.
That is why I write.
Stephen King taught me that.
I do believe that everything affects everything, and I believe that—like most things in life—there are two flip sides to that coin, one of them light and one of them dark. The side where we choose to direct our focus is the side upon which we build our lives. To all things there is positive and a negative. If you choose to engage the positive, you’re sure to experience it. If you choose to engage the negative, well… that way lies madness, I guess.
The mind is who we are. It’s where we live, breathe, play, work, fight, and love. As a force of consciousness, the mind can enslave or empower. It carries the skeleton key that can lock us away, or lead us to our freedom. It is one of our most powerful of human weapons, and as such when turned against itself, it becomes like a loaded gun.
A gun Stephen King would say is loaded with many a flexible bullet. …God forbid.
“What I Learned from Stephen King” is a Cemetery Dance Online exclusive series of articles about the wisdom, spirituality and life lessons found within the works of Stephen King. Jason Sechrest began his career at 15 years old as a full-time staff writer for Femme Fatales magazine. Sechrest’s official web site, SechrestThings.com, is dedicated to his musings on Stephen King and all things horror, sci-fi, and fantasy. He tweets as @JasonSechrest and posts often on Facebook.