Short Story Saturday: “Gray Matter”

Hello again, friends! Today I’m going to talk about a story that, for some reason, was required reading for two of my high school English classes. And that story is Stephen King’s “Gray Matter,” from the anthology Night Shift.

So strap in folks, because things are about to get pretty spooky. And kinda gross.

We open on a small general store in Bangor, Maine, during a snow storm. There is a group of older gentlemen in the store, including the unnamed narrator and the store’s owner, Henry. They’re all just hanging out, shooting the shit, when a young boy enters the store, there to buy beer for his dad.

The narrator recognizes him as Timmy Grenadine, the son of the local drunk Richie. He also notices that the kid is absolutely terrified as he begs Henry to deliver the aforementioned beer to his dad so he doesn’t have to go back. Henry leads Timmy into the back so he can tell him what’s going on as the others continue their conversation.

Of particular note here is that no one’s seen Richie Grenadine for several months, not that anyone particularly minds as he’s not the most pleasant of company. After some time passes, Henry leads Timmy back out and tells him to go upstairs and get some food. He does and one of the men, Billy, asks the shaken Henry if Richie’s been beating his kid.

Henry says that’s not the case, but doesn’t want to tell the whole story right now because he’s having trouble wrapping his head around it. He does, however, show the money that Timmy used to pay for the bill. It’s covered in some horrible gray slime that he tells the others not to touch before he goes and washes his hands.

Henry then recruits the narrator and another guy named Bertie to help him deliver the beer. While one the way there, he notifies them that he brought his gun before launching into the story that Timmy had told him.

See, several months ago Richie brought home some beer, which was not unusual. While drinking said beer, Richie complained that it tasted awful. This doesn’t stop him from finishing it, though, because alcoholism. Timmy then took a look at the can, and noted two things about it: 1) it smelled absolutley horrible, and 2) there was a small amount of gray slime around the top of it.

After this, Richie started changing. He began to become very sensitive to light, and becoming a bit more…blob-like as the weeks went one. Everything came to a head the day the story takes place, however, when Timmy saw the thing that was once his dad reach up and eat a dead cat. That, in fact, was what prompted the boy to run away, and why he doesn’t want to come back. Which is understandable.

Anywway, the three of them make it to Richie’s floor, which is also covered in the horrible gray ooze. They knock, and Henry tells Richie that he’s brought his beer. Richie answers by asking where his son is, but his voice is now utterly inhuman, and now sounds gurgly and thick.

This freaks the three men out, but Henry continues, letting him know he’s at the store. Richie tells him to pop the tops and slide the beer through the door, and Henry says he’ll do that but wants to know how Richie’s been doing. Richie says to not mind that, and just give him the beer.

This prompts Henry to ask, “IT ain’t just dead cats anymore, is it?” This prompts the narrator to make a connection between all this and some disappearances that have happened in the past couple weeks. Which is not a good sign.

Richie then bursts through the door, but isn’t Richie anymore: instead, he’s become a giant, four-eyed gray blob. A giant, four-eyed gray blob that appears to be undergoing a division. Henry shoots at him as the other two flee to apartment back to the store, where they wait for someone to come back.

The story ends with the narrator saying, “I hope it’s Henry. I surely do.”

So, one of the things that I first noticed about this story is the sense of ambigiuity. There’s an implication that the beer Richie drank was tainted with something, but we don’t know what it was or how it caused Richie to transform so dramatically. It also ends ambiguously; the narrator has no idea if Henry will be back or if Richie killed him. There’s also the implications of Richie’s mitosis, and the utter disaster that would bring.

This is not something that’s new in horror stories, and is, in fact, what makes the genre so effective. Resolutions bring relief, which is kind of the opposite of horror.

I also find it interesting that beer is what causes everything to go so horribly wrong, given King’s own history of substance abuse.

So, sleep tight, and maybe thing about this the next time you decide to crack one open.

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