She took Stella’s other arm and they moved forward again. Other figures came out of the snowy night (for it was night now). Stella recognized many of them, but not all. Tommy Frane had joined Annabelle; Big George Havelock, who had died a dog’s death in the woods, walked behind Bill; there was the fellow who had kept the lighthouse on the Head for most of twenty years and who used to come over to the island during the cribbage tournament Freddy Dinsmore held every February – Stella could almost but not quite remember his name. And there was Freddy himself! Walking off to one side of Freddy, by himself and looking bewildered, was Russell Bowie. . . .
They stood in a circle in the storm, the dead of Goat Island, and the wind screamed around them, driving its packet of snow, and some kind of song burst from her. It went up into the wind and the wind carried it away. They all sang then, as children will sing in their high, sweet voices as a summer evening draws down to summer night. They sand, and Stella felt herself going to them and with them, finally across the Reach. There was a bit of pain, but not much; losing her maidenhead had been worse. They stood in a circle in the night. The snow blew around them and they sang. – Stephen King, “The Reach”, in The Dark Descent, ed. by David G. Hartwell, p. 29
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us – Hebrews 12:1
It was Garage Sale Day in our subdivision yesterday. Along with a Bloom County anthology, my wife brought home David Hartwell’s massive anthology of short horror fiction The Dark Descent. The very first story is “The Reach”, which originally appeared in Stephen King’s own collection Skeleton Crew. That was where I first read it, some thirty years ago now. I was surprised this story was included in an anthology that has “The Call of Cthulhu”, “The Rocking Horse winner“, and so many other stories that range from creepy to terrifying. When I first read “The Reach” all those long years ago, I understood it wasn’t scary at all. There was something beautiful about this tale of death, of love both of people and place, and most of all of a life lived without either pretense or shame, greeting the end with courage even as fear seemed so ready to swamp you.
What I didn’t get, however, was just what King was doing at the end. It would be five years before I could name it. Five years and a year of theological education, however, made me realize that, whether he knew it or not, King was offering an example of “that great cloud of witnesses” that have gone before us. When I learned that, this story that I had always enjoyed became so much more. It became something that I love, and love to share, reading it out loud to a chosen few, like my family last night at dinner.
The story is a simple-enough one: Stella Flanders has lived her whole life on Goat Island, Maine, never once crossing “the reach”, which we learn is the body of water between to bodies of land. In the autumn of 1979 she celebrates her 95th birthday, surrounded by friends. Suddenly her husband, dead 13 years now, is sitting there and asks her when she is going to cross the reach. She is too terrified to speak. Other appearances occur; these events are interspersed with her trying to form the words she knows her geat-grandchildren will not understand as to why she never once visited the mainland. When the end comes, she puts on winter clothing, straps on boots, and heads out for a walk across the winter-frozen Reach for her first and last trip to the mainland. She is found after a winter storm passes, frozen, sitting on some rocks above the tide line.
It’s seems a simple enough story. The ghostly appearances of Stella’s long deceased husband don’t really seem all that frightening. It is Stella’s fright, however, that makes us afraid. As she heads down to the small bay on the island, she sees her husband out on the ice, waving and encouraging her to come across. About half-way, a winter storm hits, blinding her. The cancer that is killing her, combined with the weather, is weakening her, physically and emotionally. Then, her husband is there, lifting her to her feet as she is about to fall. Then, her best friend, long dead, emerges from the swirling snow. They are joined by so many others. The reason Russell Bowie is looking a bit abashed is his death was from pure stupidity: he was riding his snow mobile on the ice before it was thick enough to hold the weight, broke through and was never seen again.
The symbolism here is clear enough, the sentiments about life lived deep rather than wide are important, and that final scene so perfectly drawn that one does not need to be a Christian or use my particular interpretation as a guide to finding so much wonder and joy in this story. It is clear enough to me, however, that King found some residue of his Methodist upbringing to create a portrait of a good death of a good woman, greeted by those she had known and loved who help her cross the Reach without fear. I have held this story close to my heart for many years, even though – or perhaps because! – I find it not just beautiful in the telling, but comforting and reassuring as it offers a glimpse of our most basic hope: that our death will not result in nothingness, that those we’ve known and loved will show love for us, not allowing us to die alone.
Instead of all the corny bourgeois “Christian” films that seem to be coming out recently, I think an adaptation of this story, particularly by King’s best interpreter, Frank Darabont, would offer viewers a chance to see and hear something theologically, Scripturally, and just emotionally uplifting and powerful without it being connected to our middle-class belief that Christianity exists to support our pet institutions. One can hope, I suppose.