Last Updated May 2, 2017
When Ubris published Stephen King’s Cain Rose Up, an early short story within King’s body of short fiction, the timing was odd. The nation was only around one and a half years removed from the University of Texas Tower Shooting. The real act was committed by 25-year-old student Charles Whitman. There is not much doubt about the relationship between the mass shooting and King’s fictional Cain Rose Up.
This is meant to be a detailed analysis of the fictional short story. This story appeared in the University of Maine’s literary journal in the Spring of 1968. Any analysis of it must begin with a brief look at school shootings.
We live in a sensitive age, and therefore, I believe that a disclaimer is in order. Wikipedia tells me there were well over 100 school shooting incidents before Charles Whitman’s mass killing. At its time, August 1, 1966, it was the worst school shooting in history. Since then, there have been worse, and there have been over 300 more. Sure, a small portion of those are mass killings. But a shooting at a school is an extraordinary event, regardless of the outcome.
There is a fair chance that somebody affected by a school shooting is reading this. If that is the case, know that it is not my intention to offend you. Though I loathe the term, consider this your “trigger warning.”
The United States has a history of school shootings stretching back to the 18th Century. Whitman’s rifle shooting from the clock tower at the University of Texas at Austin was the first truly mass killing. From the top of the tower, he killed 14 people and injured 31 others over the course of 96 minutes before he was shot dead by police. The story, from the perspective of those on the ground that day, is well-told in the documentary film Tower, released just last year. This documentary is good. Very, very good. I can’t recommend enough that you see it. As Mike D’Angelo put it:
“[Director Keith] Maitland’s boldest decision, though, is to withhold virtually any information about Whitman, even though the gunman’s story is fascinating enough to fuel an entire movie of its own, told from his perspective. (Whitman’s murder of both his wife and his mother, which took place the night before the shooting, is never even mentioned.)”
45 years after Cain Rose Up, the Sandy Hook massacre prompted Stephen King to publish the essay Guns in 2013. The profits from its sale benefit the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. In Guns, King tried to use both humor and sorrow to appeal to reason:
“I read a jaw-dropping online defense of these weapons from a California woman recently. Guns, she said, are just tools. Like spoons, she said. Would you outlaw spoons simply because some people use them to eat too much? Lady, let’s see you try to kill twenty schoolkids with a fucking spoon.”
He also could not resist using horror:
“One only wishes Wayne LaPierre and his NRA board of directors could be drafted to some of these scenes, where they would be required to put on booties and rubber gloves and help clean up the blood, the brains, and the chunks of intestine still containing the poor wads of half-digested food that were some innocent bystander’s last meal.”
And it is horror that King uses in Cain Rose Up. This is his literary reaction to Whitman’s killing of 19 (first his mother and wife, then three people inside the tower, then 14 more once he was poised at the top).
This brings us back around to Stephen King’s Cain Rose Up. Ubris published Cain Rose Up in its Spring 1968 issue, which also contained another early King short story, Here There Be Tygers. That story will be discussed in a separate article.
King later revised and collected Cain Rose Up in the short story collection Skeleton Crew in 1982. I am unsure of what the revisions were or how extensive they were. As Rocky Wood pointed out in his literary companion, it is very, very difficult to purchase a copy of the original publication. One way to get it is to go to the library at the University of Maine at Orono and make a copy of the original. My best guess is that they maintain a full collection of Ubris.
I am unwilling to go to those lengths for this post. I might do that some day, and if that day comes, this post will be updated. Until then, I’m writing about the version of Cain Rose Up published in Skeleton Crew. Besides, the story is so short, at only around 12 pages (depending upon which edition you have), that it is difficult to imagine there would be a lot of revisions.
In order to appreciate this analysis, you need to read Cain Rose Up. If you haven’t done that, go do it now. It will only take you 10-20 minutes.
The narrative driving Cain Rose Up is simple. A college student finishes his last final exam of the school year and returns to his dormitory. After some interaction with students, he retrieves a rifle from his dorm room. He then aims the rifle out the window and starts to shoot anybody he can. If anybody tries to tell you that’s all there is to it, that same person probably believes that Carrie is the story of a teenage arsonist. In terms of the narrative, yes that’s all that happens. But there’s a lot more to it packed into these 12 or so pages.
King refers to the story’s subject, Curt Garrish, only as “Garrish.” We only hear his first name, Curt, from the dialogue of other characters. I’m not sure if this is an intentional technique by King to avoid personalizing Garrish.
Garrish is returning to his dormitory. It is May, and school is about to end. When he gets inside the dorm, King describes the dorm housemother as looking like Rudolph Valentino. That’s Valentino over there to the left. This is an odd description in a number of ways.
King was a 20-year-old college student in 1968. Rudolph Valentino was a very popular Italian actor, but he only worked during the silent film era and died at the age of 31 in 1926. Why King would think that anybody would understand the reference is unknown, even when he wrote Cain Rose Up nearly 50 years ago. Valentino would have been dead for over 40 years, and dead around 20 years before any student at the University of Maine was born.
Garrish interacts with Harry the Beaver upon entering the dorm. They talk about how hard the exam was, and how Beaver was tempted to cheat off of Garrish. This is our first indication that Garrish is known to be a good student. Garrish sees an anonymous student apparently off to a calculus exam, “…his lips moving in a rosary of logarithms,” and for the first time, Garrish thinks of death. And no, not death as in Death, but death as the end to life. Specifically, he wonders if the student would be better off dead.
Garrish heads up to his fifth floor dorm room and talks to his floor counselor, Rollins. He also imagines Rollins dead, and he thinks, “You either ate the world or the world ate you, and it was good either way.”
We find that Garrish’s room is now half empty. His roommate, Pig Pen, is gone, leaving behind a small replica of Rodin’s The Thinker (that’s the original over there on the right).
Garrish is described as a very neat individual, keeping things nice and tidy, while Pig Pen is apparently sloppy. As an aside, the Neil Simon 1965 Broadway play, The Odd Couple, would still have been fresh, and it was about to become a very popular film by the same name, released in May of 1968.
There are two notable items left behind in Garrish’s room. The first is a poster hanging on the wall of Humphrey Bogart holding two guns and wearing suspenders. I’m pretty sure that’s it over there on the left. Garrish recalls that Pig Pen thought that guns and suspenders were symbols of impotency. Garrish doesn’t agree.
The other item is a .352 Magnum rifle, which apparently does not actually exist. We learn that his father, a Methodist minister, gave it to him for Christmas.
Deeply Premeditated Murders
This is where the story becomes interesting to me, in terms of how carefully King crafts the depth of the premeditation of these murders. After Garrish’s father gives him the gun at Christmas, we find out that the following succession of events occur (remember that the story takes place at the end of the school year in May):
- Garrish buys a scope for the gun in March
- Garrish takes the gun to school with him and leaves it in gun storage with the university (apparently “gun storage” was a thing at school back then)
- He signed it out of gun storage the day before
- He kept the gun in a waterproof container hidden out of site outside of the dorm
- He then brought it into the dorm at 3am when nobody was around and kept it locked in his closet until he brought it out
As you’re reading this story, at first encounter, this might seem like a lot of unnecessary detail. There’s an argument to be made that King is over-explaining here. However, I take this as King telling us how premeditated Garrish’s murder spree is.
Garrish is Crazy
King makes it utterly clear that Garrish is not well, mentally speaking.
Garrish sits with the rifle in his lap and cries. King does not make it known why he is crying. Garrish then breaks the replica of The Thinker on the floor because he sees it looking at him. This is when another student, Bailey, comes to the door.
Garrish considers Bailey to be stupid with “no future,” and like he does with others, imagines him dead. Bailey wanted to buy The Thinker and is disappointed that it’s broken. I find this to be some sort of commentary that the allegedly smarter of the two individuals breaks the statue the stupid one wanted to buy. But I’m not sure of exactly what King is trying to say. This could also be King’s attempt at symbolizing Garrish’s complete mental break.
After that, Garrish gets on with it. He takes out three boxes of ammunition and cleans the gun. He locks his dorm room door.
The Distortion of the Story of Cain and Abel
Before getting on with the killing, he tells the biblical story of Cain and Abel to the Humphrey Bogart poster:
“Let me tell you something… God got mad at Cain because Cain had an idea God was a vegetarian. His brother knew better. God made the world in His image, and if you don’t eat the world, the world eats you. So Cain says to his brother, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ And his brother says, ‘Why didn’t you listen?’ And Cain says, ‘Okay, I’m listening now.’ So he waxes his brother and says, ‘Hey God! You want meat? Here it is! You want roast or ribs or Abelburgers or what?’ And God told him to put on his boogie shoes. So… what do you think?”
I am pretty sure that King’s intention here is to again establish that Garrish’s mental break is complete. It is doubtful that King means this to be commentary on religion.
Garrish is using the story of Cain and Abel from Genesis as some sort of justification for killing. This is clearly not the meaning behind the story of Cain and Abel. Bryant Burnette pointed out in his analysis that this might be Garrish’s commentary on eating meat.
Where Does the Horror Come From?
The horror in this story is that Garrish’s insanity is nearly entirely internalized. He interacts with three people on his way into a communal living area he has presumably been at the entire school year. He secreted a rifle into that living area in the middle of the night. Nobody noticed.
The horror of this story is that we don’t always know insanity when we see it. There may be warning signs here or there, but it is sometimes hidden, as was the case with Garrish (and Breivik, and Holmes, and Cho, and Harris and Klebold, and on, and on, and on).
Look at the story from the perspective of those killed – especially the first few people. Bullets flew from out of nowhere. They had no idea it was coming. One moment they’re enjoying a pleasant day on a college campus, and in an instant, it’s all over.
That is terrifying.
Comparison to Rage
Comparisons can be made between Cain Rose Up and other King works. The comparison most readily made is to Rage. Though written while King was still in school, Rage wasn’t released until 1977 under King’s pseudonym, Richard Bachman.
After Rage at least mildly inspired various school shooters, King responded by pulling Rage from publication. King has not acted likewise with Cain Rose Up. Once might ask why that is, but to me, the explanation is simple. It is that nobody demonstrated that somebody killed because of Cain Rose Up.
Rage is quite a different story, despite the root “school shooter” comparison. In Rage, Charlie Decker is known to be crazy. This is not so with Garrish. Also, Garrish’s clear motive is to raise the body count as high as possible, but Decker has other motives.
Comparison to Carrie
What I have yet to read, though I suppose somebody may have written this at some point, is that the internalized rage in Cain Rose Up is similar to that in Carrie. Further, the isolated madness in Cain Rose Up is similar to the hidden talent of telekinesis in Carrie.
Another comparison can be made between Garrish’s misinterpretation of the story of Cain and Able and Margaret White’s religious practices.
Comparison to We Need To Talk About Kevin
Another comparison could be made to Lionel Shriver’s very good novel We Need to Talk About Kevin. These three novels demonstrate the near complete lack of character development in Cain Rose Up. We simply don’t know why the young man kills as he does. Rage, We Need to Talk About Kevin, and Carrie make varying levels of attempting to explain the violence.
Wrapping Things Up
In 2007, Stephen King recognized that times had changed, and that this sort of writing would raise red flags today. He wrote,
“Certainly in this sensitized day and age, my own college writing – including a short story called ‘Cain Rose Up’ and the novel Rage – would have raised red flags, and I’m certain someone would have tabbed me as mentally ill because of them…”
But back in 1968, this sort of work was published in a state university’s literary journal, and that was within the two-year period following something like this actually happening. I find that amazing, I don’t see that happening today.
With regard to Cain Rose Up, saying that there simply isn’t much to it is too simplistic. If you are speaking strictly of the narrative in the story, that statement is true. But there is a lot to be said about Cain Rose Up. In all, it is far from King’s best short story work. That much is plainly true. Stephen King has written well over one hundred short stories. This is one that probably ranks in the bottom quarter of those. But it’s not nothing either. It cannot be brushed aside.
Speaking in terms of length alone, Cain Rose Up lines up with stories like The Glass Floor and Here There Be Tygers, both of which I have analyzed. However, though all three are horror stories to some degree, Cain Rose Up is easily the most frightening.
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