Tuesday, August 12, 2014

We Killed All the Plants, But At Least We Saved the Greenhouse: A Look At Stephen King's "The End of the Whole Mess"

I must say I was really looking forward to re-reading "The End of the Whole Mess," the second story in Nightmares & Dreamscapes.  It most certainly did not disappoint. This bittersweet tale of two highly intelligent brothers (one is really smart while one is a certifiable genius) and their ambitions of wiping away evil from our world is a sad one, and honestly . . . I'm not even sure where to begin in telling you guys about it.

Our narrator, Howie, is the older brother -- he's very smart, but his younger brother Bobby is the genius and the focus of our story. Howie was a freelance writer before things went wrong, and "The End of the Whole Mess" is his first-person account of growing up with Bobby, and how Bobby got the idea to make people nicer -- the end the world's pain. We are told within the first couple of pages that Howie has killed his younger brother -- at Bobby's request -- by shooting him up with his own discovery a few hours prior. We get the impression all hope is lost and something terrible has happened, even though we don't really even know what's going on yet. Soon after, our narrator tells us after he "turned on the radio, dialed through four bands, found one crazy guy, and shut it off," he shot himself up. While he's waiting for the eventual symptoms to come, he decides to write the story down for whoever -- or whatever -- happens to find it. 

Quick note: while I usually don't care for first-person narratives where the person telling the tale is waiting to die, in hiding, etc., King pulls it off quite well, so I can dig this one. I'm not sure why I don't tend to like those kinds of stories, though -- such is life.

After we're introduced to our narrator and he tells us of his "dead-line" he goes back to his childhood and gives us a few stories about what it was like growing up with a younger brother who graduated high school at age ten and graduated college at age sixteen. The two have a normal childhood and act like brothers do -- they don't always get along, but they have each other's back. Things are simply hyped up a bit with Bobby's experiments and inventions and his bouncing from chemistry to physics to archaeology to anthropology. 

"Guys like my brother Bobby come along once every two or three generations, I think -- guys like Leonardo da Vinci, Newton, Einstein, maybe Edison. They all seem to have one thing in common: they are like huge compasses which swing aimlessly for a long time, searching for some true north and then homing in on it with fearful force. Before that happens such guys are apt to get up to some weird shit, and Bobby was no exception."

The story moves quickly through the boys' teenage years. They soon leave their loving parents and branch out on their own -- Bobby begins working on "The Calmative" and isn't heard from for three years; Howie becomes a published author and does pretty well. After three years, in the then-futuristic year 2006 (this story was written in the mid-80s, mind you), Bobby shows up at Howie's door with a bee-hive and a wasps' nest in glass boxes. After a long while of studying the water in La Plata, Texas (according to research done by the genius, it is the most non-violent town in the state -- in America, for that matter), Bobby has distilled a chemical that can -- perhaps -- eradicate the world's violent tendencies once and for all. It's an ambitious plan, but Bobby -- with the help of his older brother -- pulls it off by dumping his invention into a volcano that is expected to blow. It works perfectly -- the chemical works its way into the world's water, and slowly . . . mankind as a whole steps down. There are no more wars, no more barroom fights. For a short while, Earth is a peaceful place, a Garden of Eden . . . until people begin acting "silly" and start dropping like flies. In a way, this story is like The Stand on another level of the Tower. 

Our narrator begins experiencing the symptoms of the Calmative -- dry throat, forgetfulness, silliness -- and we're left with the nearly-incomprehensible (by this time the affects have taken away Howie's ability to form coherent sentences or even think logically) sentiment that he doesn't blame Bobby for what happened -- how was anyone to know what would happen when they released the Calmative? He tells Bobby he forgives and loves him, and signs the story "for the whole world." It's a pretty brutal ending, and it's a bit chilling, too -- I can't help but imagine this guy sitting in an arm-chair in a darkened room, the only light coming for a single lamp, and the corpse of his brother lying nearby. Perhaps Howie is the last living thing on Earth because of this experiment meant for good that went horribly, horribly wrong. Depressing, isn't it? 

Stephen King really offers up some excellent social commentary here. The world is growing increasingly violent every year . . . and what are we going to do about it? Eventually let ourselves as a species be ended prematurely? It's a hard question to ask because there might not be anything we can do. Maybe mankind will improve eventually, but it's a long shot. Along with earlier short stories "The Jaunt" and "I Am the Doorway," King shows with "The End of the Whole Mess" he can write convincing, note-worthy science fiction just as well as he can write horror . . . or any genre, for that matter. 

I'll probably read the next story in the collection tonight and write my entry on it tomorrow. Said story is, of course, "Suffer the Little Children." It's not a lengthy one, so I doubt my post will be long unless I find I have a lot to say about it. See you then!


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