“Sneakers” a short story by Stephen King in “Nightmares & Dreamscapes”

“Sneakers” is one of those ghost stories that is mainly about the living. It’s filled with dark humour, low level but persistent dread and slowly dawning awareness. I guess, in that respect, it’s much like everyday life.

It tells the story of a sound recording engineer/music producer who, while working in the old Music City building, sees a pair of mislaced sneakers, surrounded by dead flies, under the door of the first stall in the third-floor bathroom. He sees them for months. The number of flies grows as does his obsession with the sneakers. Yet, he is unable to bring himself to talk about what he sees or to confront what he thinks he might find if he pushes open the stall door.

Although this is a ghost story, with a real ghost in it, the story is really about the man seeing the ghost. It seems to me that Stephen King has a thing for names so I doubt that it’s accidental that the hero of this story of a man confronting his fear in a toilet stall is John Tell.

Tell’s biggest problem isn’t the ghost, it’s his unwillingness to confront the reality of who he is and what he wants. John Tell does not allow himself to speak the truth. There’s a secondardy character in the story, a man who is so firmly in the background people forget he is there and speak freely in fornt of him. He knows many things because of this but when he tries to say what he knows he becomes afflicted with a stutter, blushes deeply and cannot continue. John Tell’s stutter is mental rather than physical. He loses time. He starts things he can’t finish. This story is about how John finally lets himself see the truth.

I think the title is playful. Yes, the first and for a long time, the only thing we see of the ghost is its sneakers but I think the title also refers to those things we know about ourselves and the people around us that we try not to admit we know but which sneak up on us anyway.

In John’s case, one of those things may be his own sexual orientation. He is an isolated man who has difficulty making friends and who, when he talks to other men, is often read by them as gay. John constantly affirms that he is not gay but it’s not clear to me that he’s entirely sure. This uncertainty extends to other parts of his life. I think it’s this mixture of doubt and denial that allows the ghost to call to him.

The story ends with John finally confronting the ghost. Neither the ghost nor John’s reaction are typical ghost story material. The story closes with John acknowledging the difference between being something and knowing that you are that something. He describes the difference as a “revelation”. This act of knowing, this revelation, allows him finally to embrace being alive. What better ending could you have to a ghost story.?

“Sneakers” is the ninth story in “Nightmares & Dreamscapes” and is read with great dexterity by David Cronemburg.

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