Over My Dead Body: What STAND BY ME Reveals About Stephen King

Of all of Stephen King's protagonists, has there ever been a more perfectly Stephen King protagonist than Gordie Lachance?

In honor of Swiss Army Manwhich you can buy tickets for here, we're proud to present Over My Dead Body, a week-long series of articles on films that prominently feature corpses.

“The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away.” – Stephen King, “The Body”

Stephen King writes himself. Again and again, his protagonists are writers, middle-aged men, fathers, husbands, residents of Maine. “Writing is necessary for my sanity. As a writer, I can externalize my fears and night terrors on paper, which is what people pay shrinks a small fortune to do. In my case, they pay me, for psychoanalyzing myself in print. And in the process, I’m able to ‘write myself sane,’ as that fine poet Anne Sexton put it,” King said in a June 1983 Playboy interview. We can track Stephen King’s demons through his work: addiction, daddy issues, “white-liberal guilt” as he phrased it in the same interview.

And of every Stephen King protagonist Stephen King has ever written, we can learn the most about him from twelve-going-on-thirteen-year-old Gordie Lachance, from King’s novella “The Body” in the four-part anthology Different Seasons. The novella was adapted with unusual fidelity in Rob Reiner’s 1986 film Stand By Me, and Gordie was played by the fourteen-year-old, fresh-faced Wil Wheaton, an actor who, with his sharp eyes, dark brows and beard, grew to bear a passing resemblance to King himself.

Gordie’s a kid aimlessly moving through his summer vacation in Castle Rock, Maine. He’s a writer, a smart kid with small dreams – taking shop courses and putting little stock in school – in large part because his father has no faith in him. His big brother Dennis was the star of the family, a man who distinguished himself in the Army and won the lion’s share of Mr. Lachance’s attention. When Dennis died in a Jeep accident, Gordie became “the Invisible Boy.” “He hates me,” Gordie says in a heartbreaking scene with River Phoenix’s Chris. Chris' reply is both comforting and somehow worse: “He doesn’t hate you. He just doesn’t know you.”

King’s own history with his father may differ in details but remains the same in consequence: his dad split on him when he was a kid, and never showed any interest in following his life, even his career once he became a wealthy, internationally famous author.

He said, literally, that he was going out to the grocery store for a pack of cigarettes, and he didn’t take any of his things with him. That was in 1949, and none of us have heard of the bastard since…The wound itself has healed, but that doesn’t preclude an interest in how and why it was inflicted.

from King's June 1983 Playboy interview

Like King, Gordie was bullied, hounded to misery by thugs like Ace Merrill, Billy Tessio and Charlie Morgan. Hounded to violence, as he points a gun at the thugs after being pushed to his absolute limit (though in the story, it’s Chris who wields the weapon, protecting Gordie from the older kids).

…I often felt unhappy and different, estranged from other kids my age. I was a fat kid – husky was the euphemism they used in the clothing store – and pretty poorly coordinated, always the last picked when we chose teams. At times, particularly in my teams, I felt violent, as if I wanted to lash out at the world, but that rage I kept hidden.

We see so much of King in Gordie, a young, troubled but talented boy with what King calls "a morbid imagination." Gordie, with his neatly typed out or spontaneously spun tales that entertain his friends on their long journey. "I'd been writing since I was twelve, seriously if pretty badly at first," King said of himself, and despite his otherwise unambitious tendencies, Gordie takes his craft just as seriously, even if his parents and teachers don't. But above all more subtle similarities, there’s one unmissable quality that “The Body” and Stand By Me share with King's real life, and it’s the tragedy that works as a seed for both stories.

Gordie and his friends – and the bullies that follow them – are searching for the body of Ray Brower, a kid their age from a town forty miles away, who had been picking blueberries when he was hit by a train and killed. His body wasn’t recovered, and Gordie, Chris, Teddy and Vern (Corey Feldman and Jerry O’Connell) set out to find what was left of this boy they never knew, this boy very like them. They think this discovery will make them famous – “They’ll probably pin a medal on you, Vern.” “Everybody is gonna be so jazzed about what we found!” – but their search soon becomes something more personal, a way to fight against the injustices of their own lives, a way to speak for a kid who can’t speak for himself anymore, in a time when no one listened to kids anyway.

In Danse Macabre, King’s non-fiction book about horror, he relays the following story, first told at an Ides of Mohonk panel in March of 1979:

During the course of the panel discussion I told a story that my mother had told me about myself – the event occurred when I was barely four, so perhaps I can be excused for remembering her story of it, but not the actual event.

According to Mom, I had gone off to play at a neighbor’s house – a house that was near a railroad line. About an hour after I left I came back (she said), as white as a ghost. I would not speak for the rest of the day; I would not tell her why I’d not waited to be picked up or phoned that I wanted to come home; I would not tell her why my chum’s mom hadn’t walked me back but had allowed me to come alone.

It turned out that the kid I had been playing with had been run over by a freight train while playing on or crossing the tracks (years later, my mother told me they had picked up the pieces in a wicker basket). My mom never knew if I had been near him when it happened, if it had occurred before I even arrived, or if I had wandered away after it happened. Perhaps she had her own ideas on the subject. But as I’ve said, I have no memory of the incident at all; only of having been told about it some years after the fact.

There’s a moment, in both “The Body” and Stand By Me, that is one of the most vivid, resonant passages Stephen King has ever written. It has always struck me as dreadfully true, an observation plucked from experience rather than imagination, even an imagination as lively as King’s.

It’s the thing with the Keds.

His feet were bare, and a few feet behind him, caught in tall blackberry brambles, I saw a pair of filthy low-topped Keds. For a moment I was puzzled – why was he here and his tennies there? Then I realized, and the realization was like a dirty punch below the belt. My wife, my kids, my friends – they all think that having an imagination like mine must be quite nice; aside from making all this dough, I can have a little mind-movie whenever things get dull. Mostly they’re right. But every now and then it turns around and bites the shit out of you with these long teeth, teeth that have been filed to points like the teeth of a cannibal. You see things you’d just as soon not see, things that keep you awake until first light. I saw one of those things now, saw it with absolute clarity and certainty. He had been knocked spang out of his Keds. The train had knocked him out of his Keds just as it had knocked the life out of his body.

That finally rammed it all the way home for me. The kid was dead. The kid wasn’t sick, the kid wasn’t sleeping. The kid wasn’t going to get up in the morning anymore or get the runs from eating too many apples or catch poison ivy or wear out the eraser on the end of his Ticonderoga No. 2 during a hard math test. The kid was dead; stone dead.

It’s easy to chalk up everything Stephen King has ever written to this tragic, forgotten moment of his childhood, especially these two paragraphs, heartbreakingly real, too believable to be dismissed. But King doesn’t want to let us off that easy. From Danse Macabre:

I offered my train story mostly so the questioner wouldn’t be totally disappointed, finishing just as I have here, by saying that I could not actually remember the incident. To which the third panel member, Janet Jeppson (who is a psychiatrist as well as a novelist), said: ‘But you’ve been writing about it ever since.’

There was an approving murmur from the audience. Here was a pigeonhole where I could be filed… here was a by-God motive. I wrote ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, and destroyed the world by plague in The Stand because I saw this kid run over by a slow freight in the days of my impressionable youth. I believe this is a totally specious idea – such shoot-from-the-hip psychological judgments are little more than jumped-up astrology.

Well, he’s the boss, and if he says this early trauma has nothing to do with Salem’s Lot, The Shining and The Stand, I believe him. But “The Body”? It seems far less specious to suggest that Ray Brower was inspired by that unnamed chum of four-year-old Stephen King, or that Gordan Lachance grew up to be King himself…or that The Dark Tower’s Blaine the Mono is the train that knocked a little boy out of his Keds sixty-five years ago.