Herron’s expectations came to pass. In 1996, King won the prestigious O. Henry Award for his short story ‘‘The Man in the Black Suit.’’ The 1999 car accident that severely curtailed his writing output made several critics look back on his career with appreciation. Sometime around the 2000 publication of King’s book about his literary theory, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft the literary establishment lost any remaining reluctance to give King due recognition for the literary value of his work. In 2004, he was awarded a lifetime achievement award, the Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, by the prestigious National Book Foundation. At King’s induction speech, novelist Walter Mosley said, For his part, King noted in his acceptance speech that the foundation had taken a great risk in presenting the award to someone who was looked down upon by the literary establishment. In 2007, J. Madison Davis, considering the controversy over the lifetime National Book Award and King’s recognition, at the same time, as a ‘‘Grandmaster’’ by the Mystery Writers Guild of America, pointed out that Kelly is a writer who teaches creative writing and literature. In this essay, he examines the question of motivation in ‘‘Sorry, Right Number,’’ and whether it is necessary to know why the events of this horror story take place.
King’s 1987 teleplay ‘‘Sorry, Right Number,’’ as published in his 1993 collection Nightmares and Dreamscapes , suffers from a malady common to supernatural stories in general and King’s stories in particular: that of questionable motivation. Readers can be amazed at the events that take place in the story, but their amazement does not mean much if, in the end, all they are left with is a sense that something occurred in a work of fiction that they have never seen happen in real life.
The story concerns King’s image of an ordinary family. The children bicker over control of the living room television set, the wife gossips with her sister about a mutual acquaintance, and the husband struggles with writer’s block on the night that the film of his first novel, presumably having worked its way through theaters and video, is being broadcast on commercial television. Every good story has a complication. In this one, the wife, Katie, answers a phone call on the second line. She does not know who the terrified, unintelligible caller is, but she is certain that it is someone in her family. This conviction kicks off a frantic search for female members of her family who might be vulnerable on this particular night, but it eventually turns out that they all are secure. The payoff of the story is that five years after her husband Bill’s fatal heart attack, Katie dials the telephone in a hypnotic trance, and her voice reaches back through the years to that fateful night, though she is able to get out only a few terrified, unintelligible words before being cut off. She sobs then, realizing that the voice she heard on the phone that night was in fact her own, trying to warn her former self about Bill’s imminent attack.
The motivations that drive the characters in this story are clear enough. Katie, horrified by the crying that comes to her over the phone line, is driven to find the source of the panic. Bill is not initially upset, but as he spends time helping Katie contact family members, her fear rubs off on him, until he finally admits to her that this bit of reality has gotten beneath his skin. The youngest son, Jeff, wants to experience the thrill and pride of watching his father’s horror story brought alive in a movie, the oldest brother wants to experience the power of denying Jeff that pleasure, and the daughter in the living room just wants to lose herself in television watching. The daughter who is away at school wants decent grades and a date to the dance, and Katie’s sister Dawn wants to rest after a day with her active toddler. Nobody seems to have the sort of psychological drive that would normally trigger a supernatural event.
Before giving up and saying that what happens is just something that the author has tossed in without cause, it would be worth considering other controlling factors. King’s script points a finger at a supernatural, potentially conscious, being—the telephone. His first stage directions call for a close-up on Katie’s mouth, inches from the receiver, and soon the phone itself is examined. Attention is drawn to its ‘‘one not-quite-ordinary thing,’’ the buttons it has allowing for two lines. There is nothing particularly suspicious about the phone in this first scene. Still, the emphasis on any such irregularity in the phone system in a story called ‘‘Sorry, Right Number’’ is a point to be watched.
At the end of the story, the telephone reveals its true sinister nature. The final image is of the phone, again. King indicates that this shot should be an extreme close-up that makes the phone look ominous. Indeed, the telephone does seem culpable in the Weiderman family tragedy. When Katie tries to warn her former self to beware of Bill’s hidden heart condition, the line goes dead before she can get to the words needed to explain herself; then, when realizes that she can change history and calls back, the magic connection to the past is no longer available to her. It even makes sense to say that this telephone that looks ominous in the last scene is responsible for taking Bill’s life, since it is only because of the first call from the future that he spends a tense evening driving through the night and creeping through the door of a young mother’s home, gun in hand. The night’s activities are certainly contributing factors, if not the main causes, for Bill’s heart giving out.
Accepting that the phone could come alive and make a conscious choice to attack the Weiderman family is still a far cry from understanding why it would. King’s fiction is full of inanimate objects coming to life, as in the 1993 novel Christine , about a car that comes to life and kills. The field of science fiction is rife with stories about machines, often computers or their human-like counterparts, such as androids or robots, making sentient decisions. In The Science of Stephen King: From ‘‘Carrie’’ to ‘‘Cell,’’ the Terrifying Truth behind the Horror Master’s Fiction , Lois H. Gresh and Robert Weinberg examine the 1978 story ‘‘Trucks,’’ which, like Chris, concerns killer vehicles. Taking the premise seriously, they conclude, ‘‘There is no believable explanation why trucks gifted with artificial intelligence would want to kill their builders. This leads us to conclude that the machines in ‘‘Trucks’’ are not the product of artificial intelligence but instead are the victims of possession.’’ Such speculation is fine, but a theory involving demonic possession only throws the question of motivation aside, rather than answering it. Inanimate objects kill, it says, because they are evil, and killing is what evil does.
Motivation is an important question for determining whether ‘‘Sorry, Right Number’’ is an effective story or merely a series of coincidences imposed by the author. There may be people who feel it would be fine to leave this question alone, but these are often people who fear that any curiosity about a work constitutes over-thinking. A good story cannot be damaged by asking questions about it, and if there is any one question it would be fair to ask of a story, it is why the events take place.
There is a simple answer to why the telephone would cause Bill’s death. It lacks complexity, but then, horror fiction does not necessarily need depth, just basic plausibility. The only ‘‘not-quite-ordinary’’ thing in the Weiderman household, as mentioned before, is the fact that the phone has a second line. Whether King intended it so or not, the phone represents some sort of duality, a division in the Weiderman family. The family’s squabbling may be no worse than that in other families, and the father’s obsession with the macabre might even give him a healthy connection to the concerns and fantasies of children, but in the end, that unusual telephone configuration represents some kind of aberration. It might represent Bill introducing his business into the family dynamic, or it might represent a family that is splintering, so that several members need to reach out to people beyond the household at once. Either interpretation can help make sense of what has happened. If Bill has done something to deserve the wrath of the universe, then the malicious telephone is simply the instrument the universe uses to punish him. It tricks Katie into phoning her former self and thereby being instrumental in Bill’s heart attack.
Although this explanation helps explain most of the events in the story, the ending of the story invalidates it. In the last scene, Bill’s voice comes out of the phone, speaking from beyond the grave. He nudges Katie toward learning a lesson from these events, asking, ‘‘Who would you call, if it weren’t too late?’’ He is in on the scheme. Whatever it was that allowed Katie’s voice to travel back in time, its intent was not to punish Bill; Bill’s death seems to just be one part of a larger plan designed to teach Katie a lesson.
The message for Katie, based on what Bill says through the magical telephone, is that she should stop and think about life, looking deeper for what she feels is really important. However, what is most important to Katie at the start of this story is Bill, her ‘‘big guy,’’ and he dies in the process of bringing that message to her. Maybe Bill’s message was meant to tell her that she should seize the day, give up on mourning for the husband who died five years ago and get on with living her life, but then, what was act 1 for? Katie was not looking toward the past until supernatural forces began the process of teaching her the folly of doing what she was not doing already. If her own voice had not traveled through time to drag Katie and Bill out into the night, it is possible that he might have died anyway, but if that is the case, then the supernatural intervention is spectacularly irrelevant.
The ability to speak from the future seems intended to run Bill into the ground or drive Katie crazy. It cuts her off before she can communicate a coherent message, and then, five years later, the phone brings advice from Bill, telling her to think about who she would like to call just moments after she was unable to save his life. It would be one thing if Katie had spent the ensuing years planning the exact message she would tell her younger self, when the time to speak through time came, but as it is, there is no real irony, just an unpleasant surprise.
Using the screenplay format for this story allows King to remain at arm’s length from the action. He does not have to say that it is Katie who thinks the phone looks ominous in the last scene, or why: instead, the phone just looks evil in general. King implies that this evil telephone has given Katie limited ability to talk to the past, but the story does not work if readers are not given any reason why it would do that. There are many possibilities: The power behind the call could intend to punish Bill for bringing his work into his family life, or it may be teaching Katie a carpe diem lesson. It could just be that a malicious universe decided, this one night, to break all known rules of physics in order to play a weird prank on an unsuspecting, undeserving family. However, if uncaused, disjointed events were acceptable, then anything any writer might choose to put on paper would be good. All writers, even Stephen King, have to account for what they say.
David Kelly, Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 30, Stephen King, Published by Gale Group, 2010