‘‘Sorry, Right Number’’ is at heart a suspense story, and as such it relies on elevating the reader’s feelings of anxiety. The mysterious call Katie Weiderman receives at the beginning of the story is not just strange, it is terrifying. The sound of a woman crying would be disconcerting to anyone, and King makes it even more terrifying by making the voice that is crying familiar to Katie, but not familiar enough for her to know whose voice it is. Katie’s uncertainty fuels the reader’s fear, and the suspense builds as the story progresses.
King uses the comfortable domestic setting to amplify Katie’s fear. As soon as she hangs up from hearing a person in panic, Katie is faced with her children. They are oblivious to her experience, and Katie does what she can to keep them from knowing about her fear. She struggles to project a sense of calmness, though they can sense that something is the matter. She later apologizes to Bill for being ‘‘a hysterical idiot,’’ and Bill, who previously told Jeff that his job as a horror writer made him immune to fear, admits that he was scared for Dawn’s safety as well.
The story’s worst tragedies occur when characters are no longer afraid. Bill dies in the night, alone, sitting comfortably in an easy chair. Katie makes the frantic phone call to the past in a reflective moment after Polly’s wedding, when she is alone. In both cases, the movie of Bill’s story Ghost Kiss is on the television, showing a distinction between scary fiction stories and the fear that comes from real-life vulnerability. In this story, as in King’s other works, bad things do not happen to fearful people, they happen to the people who least expect them.
There are two major supernatural elements in this story. One is Katie Weiderman’s absolute certainty that the voice she has heard on the other end of the phone is someone related to her. Bill feels that this hunch of hers can be explained as a naturally occurring event, likening it to an ordinary case of mistaken identity. ‘‘There are sound-alikes as well as look-alikes,’’ he tells her, trying to convince her that the feeling she has, while unusual, is not really all that strange. Katie is resolute, however. She cannot explain why she thinks it is someone related to her, but she is absolutely convinced that she is just somehow capable of knowing that it is.
The other supernatural element is the driving force for the entire story, its reason for existing: the phone call that the present receives from the future. King does not have any character explain this link out loud. He does not offer viewers of a television or film version any reason for what has happened, but he does have the stage notes explain this impossible occurrence to people reading ‘‘Sorry, Right Number’’ as a printed text. ‘‘On some level,’’ he says, Katie ‘‘understands that the depth of her grief has allowed a kind of telephonic time-travel.’’ King does not explain how grief could cause this; he leaves it as an unexplained, supernatural event, which readers must accept if they are going to accept the story.
One element that critics often mention about King’s writing is his ability to maintain psychological realism in his stories, even when they are based on fantastic, other-worldly premises. In Carrie , for instance, a high school introvert develops telekinetic powers; in The Stand , almost all of civilization has been destroyed; in , an unidentified entity murders children; in the award-winning short story ‘‘The Man in the Black Suit,’’ a boy meets a man who turns out to be the devil incarnate. Despite the stretches of reality in these basic premises, King’s characters always respond to the situations in realistic ways. The strangeness of events in his stories does not affect the reality of his characters’ emotions.
This realism can be seen frequently in ‘‘Sorry, Right Number.’’ One example is Katie’s embarrassment about calling attention to what she feels without a doubt to be true. She honestly believes that the voice on the other end of the phone is someone she is related to, someone who is in danger, but she alternates between panic and self-doubt. Bill has the same kind of ambivalence.
He proves to have been worried about his family’s safety long before the start of this story, when he bought and licensed his pistol, but the current dilemma forces him to face his doubts. King also implies an interesting psychological conflict between Polly and her stepfather, Hank, but he does not explore it in the story. Readers learn about the tension between them only after it has been settled, when Polly tells Hank, at her wedding, ‘‘I’m sorry I was a creep for so long.’’ The tension between a girl whose father has died and the man who arrives to replace him is so common that King has no reason to explore it further than this one line, since readers are likely to recognize the situation.
‘‘Sorry, Right Number’’ does not give a specific cause for Bill Weiderman’s heart attack, but it does show him to be carrying a burden that goes beyond the events of the story. He is a creative writer who cannot create anything new. In the story’s first line of dialog, Katie makes light of this while on the phone with her sister Lois, telling her that Bill is going through an ordinary cycle in his writing process, a phase that includes being overly worried about his own health. His inability to create is confirmed later, when Jeff goes to see Bill in his study and finds him staring at a blank computer screen. The fact that the film adaptation of his first novel, Ghost Kiss , plays on television on this night only serves to remind Bill of the promise he once had, making his inability to write more bitter.
On the night of his heart attack, Bill does not go to bed along with Katie because he wants to remain in his study, in case an idea might come to him. One of the last things she says to him is how tired he looks. By the time she finds out that anything is wrong with him, he is already dead. King implies that the inability to write could be a cause of his heart attack, as much as the stress of racing to Dawn’s house, thinking she was in danger.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 30, Stephen King, Published by Gale Group, 2010