Admittedly, I experienced Stephen King's N. under utterly ideal conditions, which might explain why I consider it such a marvelous short story – one of King's best. I was driving to northern California for a weekend of camping and whitewater rafting (the Cal Salmon river – just an hour or so south of Oregon). It got dark just as I left the highway and hit the winding, narrow country backroads; no headlights, no cars. I happened to be listening to King's recent Just After Sunset short story compilation, where N. – one of the longer pieces in the set – appears in the middle, taking up discs 8 and 9 in their entirety. The story started just as I hit a series of switchbacks going up a mountain. The twisty roads, the oppressive darkness, the (seemingly) complete emptiness, and Stephen King in his Lovecraftian unknowable-cosmic-terror mode... I'm probably lucky to be alive and not in a ravine somewhere.
Actually, King denies that Lovecraft was the inspiration for N. Instead, he cites Arthur Machen's classic horror story The Great God Pan, which you can (and should) read in its entirety right here. Either way, N. is terrifying – a story of unspeakable horrors lurking just beyond the thin veneer we know as reality. Better yet, it's not – like some of Lovecraft's tales were – all concept. King's got a couple of great hooks: first, the story is told through letters, journal entries and newspaper clippings, somehow amplifying the atmosphere of impending doom. Second, King provides a clever alternative explanation for obsessive-compulsive disorder. It seems that all that counting, touching, and insisting that things be arranged just so isn't mental illness, but an attempt to save the world: to keep the evil out.
N. is not, I'm afraid, in line for a big-screen adaptation, though I think it would make a terrific film if someone smart fleshed out the story. Instead, N. became a 25-part series of online animated shorts, which you can find here. Illustrated by Marvel comic book artist Alex Maleev, along with Alan Moore collaborator Jose Villarrubia, they're beautiful works of cut-out animation, telling King's story a couple of minutes at a time.
The shorts are a bit literal-minded, translating King's prose into conventionally ghastly horrors rather than the utterly alien sights that sprung up in my imagination when I listened to the story. And they rush through a few parts that were frightening precisely because King took his time with them. The result is that some of this comes off a little silly. (I mean really – the vision of the monster gnawing on a dude's head was a bit much.) Still, though, this is haunting stuff – and a great time-waster if you've got 45 minutes to kill. If you have a little more than that, then I of course recommend reading the source material – or better yet, listening to the fantastic audiobook production, which uses, like, five actors. If you're in the California backwoods at night, it plays even better.
I realize this is unusual fodder for this column, since N. is not coming to a theater near you. But hey, we're not exactly in a position hereabouts to look down on new media. And in a way, this is a continuation of my other columns about Stephen King: 1408 and The Mist. Those stories (and movies), and now N., are, I think, what makes King so valuable. He's not just another pop novelist churning out airport reading. He's not even just another author churning out worthwhile literature. No: he's one of the few storytellers out there who genuinely knows from scary.
That said, I've probably beaten this subject to death at this point, so this'll be my last King column for a while. But just give N. a shot, would you?