Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Stephen King's "A Death" was originally published in the March 9, 2015 issue of The New Yorker.
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Oh boy. Stephen King and I go way back, but it’s been decades since I paid him much attention. Through those years, though, he’s published periodically in The New Yorker, and I’ve read and been unimpressed with them. Perhaps this week it will be different. I’ll have thoughts up soon.

In the meantime, please feel free to comment below.

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By |2015-03-09T01:13:27-04:00March 2nd, 2015|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Stephen King|Tags: |32 Comments


  1. Lee Monks March 2, 2015 at 10:13 am

    I thought the dialogue was sublime. I also go way back with King, so I know what clinkers he can produce. But this isn’t one, for me. I loved it. I look forward to your take!

  2. Trevor Berrett March 2, 2015 at 1:27 pm

    Oh, that’s good to hear, Lee!

  3. Amelia March 2, 2015 at 7:18 pm

    I thought it was terrible, and I normally adore his prose. His sentences lacked variation or style, and while the plot dragged me along to the anticlimactic ending, it felt dry, mediocre, and unsatisfying. I’m so disappointed.

  4. Jan Wilkens March 2, 2015 at 8:19 pm

    I too did not enjoy the story. I have been pretty choosy about King stories and believe he is a writer for whom less is more. The length of his novels can be daunting but he is a master of tone and setting. This story was mostly just…I guess gross. The isolated and weird main character was for a stretch kind of a sympathetic soul. The cavity search in the jail however was cringe-worthy and the discovery of the silver dollar was simply awful.
    At the stories conclusion I wonder what the point was other than to show small town life and drama.

  5. Lee Monks March 3, 2015 at 4:22 am

    Wow, maybe I have a King blind spot after all…

    I felt that both the use of idiom, and the characterisation through dialogue, were expert. It’s quite a nasty little piece, a macabre frisson really, but I had a blast reading it. I may well be in the minority!

  6. fred f March 5, 2015 at 1:59 pm

    I thought it was great. Yeah, it was graphic and the dialog rough, but it conveyed what I would imagine life in a frontier town to be like. Anticlimactic ending ? Like most of life.

  7. themusedr March 5, 2015 at 2:16 pm

    I agree with you, Lee. I found the story a subtle statement on the psychology of group-think and how quickly people judge. This “justice system” of the Wild West may not be different than one today, with a judge and jury of one’s peers and inconclusive evidence. Innocent people are executed even today. [“Just Mercy” is a great book on this subject.]

  8. Jan Wilkens March 5, 2015 at 6:02 pm

    Fred, I thought it was a great Stephan King story, but not a great NYorker story. As I commented easier he does an excellent job with setting and regional details. It’s well written, well formed. It does not offer however any insight into the human condition. I hope I didn’t miss something about “group-think” because i believe it revealed he was the one who had committed the crime. Right? Wasn’t he?

  9. fred f March 5, 2015 at 7:30 pm

    Well, Jan, guess that’s what makes a clever book. Me ? When I read the scene where they found the dollar, my first thought was that it was planted and that the story would end with a later discovery of a similar crime indicating that they’d hung an innocent man and that the killer was still among them. Who knows, maybe King will write a sequel to this story at some point and that’s how it will play out.

  10. Dave March 6, 2015 at 10:07 am

    Call me thick but I didn’t get it. What didn’t the sheriff know that the whole town new? Who killed the girl?!

  11. Jay March 6, 2015 at 1:33 pm

    I thought it was quite cleverly structured, and the simplistic/minimalistic style and tone reflected something rustic and unsure, and perhaps even also a sense of defeat. The fact that you get to the end and think ‘what was the point’ feels deliberate, as you’re left in a similar position to Barclay. Yet I don’t think the ending is as black and white as it seems; we become implicated in the judgement, even though there is some evidence, easy enough for both characters and readers to overlook, that Hines was the guilty party. He is present from the very beginning, and both when he is driving the cart and when he is in court he makes a comment about the silver dollar, and of course Barclay tells Hines that the dollar’s absence is what prevents him from believing Trusdale’s guilt. Also, why would Trusdale hide his hat under the girl’s skirt? Of course that’s just a theory, but either way we are left without any real facts or evidence that isn’t circumstantial. No matter what judgement we come to, it is complicated and subjective, and I think that’s probably part of the point of the reader feeling ‘what was the point’ at the end. A great, thought-provoking story overall – The Bazaar Of Bad Dreams should be an interesting (if not eclectic) selection!

  12. Lee Monks March 6, 2015 at 2:39 pm

    For what it’s worth, I think the final appearance of the silver dollar is akin to a magician’s sleight of hand. But there are no rabbits or hats. I think you’re meant to be muddied right there. I have my take, but a ‘take’ is not the point. The inconclusivity is, I think, the point. And after a re-read I still think the story is masterful.

  13. Donna Marino (@dominos55) March 6, 2015 at 3:30 pm

    I wondered if the sheriff put the quarter in the accused’s last meal so that it would later turn up after he was hung.

  14. […] dialogue, I though.  But what do I know about how people in farming towns talked 150 years ago?   Mookse offers some excellent commentary, as […]

  15. lotusgreen March 6, 2015 at 8:50 pm

    [As always, written before reading the above.]

    This story is SO STUPID I mean — hunh??? Anyone here didn’t know exactly what the ending would be before they were half-way through reading it? Please! And even so…. What…. Is…. The…. Point???? Or is this just another bow to the stars that be; was this a play for the ghoul crowd?


  16. Roger March 7, 2015 at 1:26 am

    The dialogue, setting, and mood were terrific, and I liked the the character of the sheriff, Barclay. He’s decent, fair, serious about his responsibilities, and open to doubt, unlike anyone else in the town. But I found the ending disappointing and wondered whether the dollar had been planted. My frustration grew when I read the page-turner interview. King says it doesn’t really matter who committed the crime and that the interesting part is Barclay’s change from presuming innocence to joining everyone else in believing Trusdale was guilty. I didn’t see enough of how this affects Barclay to find much dramatic payoff in his change of mind. Maybe the point is that even a good man like Barclay can easily be persuaded to abandon his belief in Truman’s innocence based on some suspicious late-arriving evidence? That by the end, he’s no better than the townspeople we readers have all been condemning as we read?

    On a nitpicky note, I’m skeptical the town would have seen to it that Trusdale had someone to represent him, even badly. This seems historically unlikely and at odds with the rough frontier “justice” that allows the judge to also serve as prosecutor.

  17. Roger March 7, 2015 at 10:06 am

    *Trusdale, not “Truman”….

  18. lotusgreen March 10, 2015 at 2:10 pm

    To tell you the truth, I feel a little awkward here; apparently not everybody saw that uh, end, coming. Here’s what tipped me:

    “To see what you’d say. That hat is all settled. What I really want to know is where you put the girl’s silver dollar. It’s not in your house, or your pockets, or up your ass. Did you get to feeling guilty and throw it away?”

    These questions continue to the end:

    “What are you saying?” Dave asked. “That you think he’s innocent?” “I’m saying I wish we’d found that cartwheel.”

    So I see that uh, elimination of all the possible places it could be and I think of the one place that wasn’t mentioned.

  19. Myrna Gottlieb March 10, 2015 at 11:44 pm

    I enjoyed the story, but I was curious about the dimensions of the coin that may have been swallowed. The common coin of the old West was the Morgan silver dollar. And it was about 1 1/2 inches in diameter. (slightly larger than a half-dollar)) Possible I suppose, but could an object this size have been swallowed repeatedly and without getting stuck in the trachea?

  20. Trey Clarke March 11, 2015 at 12:12 pm

    Hmmm… The size of the “cartwheel” greatly reduces the possibility of being shoved up the butt or swallowed; repeatedly.
    Why “black liar”? Regional lingo? Trusdale was black?
    Big hat “under” the small dress? Why not over the victims face, hiding her accusing eyes?
    Man accused, tried and convicted before ever entering trial proceedings?
    Swift execution?
    The silver dollar, the big hat; the only physical evidence are metaphors, somehow.
    Finding the silver dollar at autopsy?
    Remember when Trusdale was concerned about being hung too soon, before his meal could “work itself thru”?
    Assuming he knew the silver dollar would show up, he would have had to have known that it wouldn’t have changed the outcome.
    I think the sheriff planted it during the body cavity search.

  21. j peterson March 12, 2015 at 12:01 am

    Not a masterpiece, but a miss. No one else found this trite, glib, or just plain dumb? King wrote one of the best books on writing I’ve found, and he is undeniably a writer, but a pale Cormac McCarthy or clunky “Ox-bow Incident” is mere finger exercise. I would so much rather read a strong, fresh piece by an emerging writer, New Yorker.

  22. lotusgreen March 12, 2015 at 12:33 am

    You must have missed my comments.

  23. Dan March 12, 2015 at 7:48 pm

    Looks like I’m a salmon this week (I guess it’s last week now), swimming against a very strong current. Alone with Lee, I rather liked this piece. I admired its understated simplicity, as well as the ambiguity of the ending. At first I thought it was an interesting twist on the “innocent man” trope, in this case showing the poor innocent to actually be guilty, just as the townspeople all assumed. But with further thought, I see the ambiguity.

    [Sorry for threadjacking here, but it’s sort of relevant:] In contrast, I quite disliked the Murakami. I was too cowed by what would have been my solitude there, but I saw that as a cliche-ridden exercise in Murakami-ism. Cats? Check. Unsolved mystery? Check. Narrator with no affect? Check. Unlike in this story, that one really left me wondering–as I so often do with Murakami–what the hell the point of it all was. I have often likened reading Murakami to eating a bag of potato chips: while going along, it seems inevitable and enjoyable, but when I finish I feel like I’ve wasted my time on a dirty useless act.

  24. Rod Owen March 19, 2015 at 12:50 am

    The bag of chips image is excellent, I think.
    Perhaps it’s just that writers that excel at setting a scene are often quite unsure of where the story is going,
    or what it means. So we can only wind up with empty, unconvincing endings dressed up with a little magic.

  25. Julia Gautreau March 21, 2015 at 5:22 pm

    From a storytelling perspective I see it absolutely as commenting on the “human condition” as it relates to belief and mercy. The key character in the story is Abel Hines. I don’t think it’s supposed to matter whether Jim did it or not. What matters is what the people around him believe and how it affects them. The silver dollar is the smoking gun that is missing, and that is why Barclay is tormented by doubts about Jim’s guilt. Hines pities Barclay – remember when they see each other on the eve of the execution, and Hines asks Barclay, You believe him, don’t you? And he sees Barclay carrying a pail of beer to the condemned and can see how troubled he is. Everybody including Hines believes in Jim’s guilt, but whether they are right or wrong is beside the point in this story. They know they can’t prove it b/c of the missing coin, but they still believe in the justice of what they’re doing, but Barclay needs more and Hines recognizes that. So Hines takes mercy on Barclay by planting a random silver dollar in the excrement – the proof Barclay must see with his own eyes to know that he did not push an innocent man through a trap door. And Barclay sees the coin and immediately seizes the opportunity to believe what everybody else does, even to the extent of imagining the ludicrous notion that that poor idiot would think to keep swallowing and crapping out the missing evidence. He’d rather think himself a fool than a coward. That’s why the filth is necessary to the story and has to be referenced from beginning to end (har har). Anyway, that’s how I took it.

  26. Roger March 21, 2015 at 7:37 pm

    That’s a very interesting way to read the story, Julia. This interpretation makes the story better, if that makes sense. I want to see the story this way, too. My only additional thought is that If King intended this meaning, I wish he would have been a little more overt about it. Just a passing thought from Barclay near the end might have been enough.

  27. Sean H March 21, 2015 at 8:06 pm

    It feels like an oblique response to contemporary American racial issues, and also a rebuke to reactionary politics in general. The ending really opens an interesting perspective about race, ignorance, religion and the empathy to at least consider that someone is not what you initially think they are (a particularly piquant point in this age of insta-verdicts being levied on social media based on partial evidence at best).

  28. ethanbaobarker April 1, 2015 at 3:16 am

    Roger and Julia – i do think julia’s interpretation would make the story much more interesting – I think it is quite weak without. Everything is cleanly delivered, yes, but in such an expected and uncomplicated (imo) way. I think the story’s undoing here is actually king’s interview, which prevents me from reading it the way julia is. he says, “I was mostly interested in the sheriff’s progression from a presumption of guilt to a reluctant belief in Trusdale’s innocence. Whether Jim Trusdale actually did kill Rebecca Cline was less interesting to me than Barclay’s change of mind.”
    First, as an aside, if the story wants to be doing this and wants to analyze “group think,” (as mentioned above) the reader needs more to feel the sway of Barclay’s mind. As a crime story, the reader will always be wondering “who dunit?” Up to the presentation of evidence (or lack of evidence) all the reader has is Barclay’s opinion and sudden change of mind. But before this, the reader can’t really make even an educated guess about trusdale’s guilt. we are waiting for evidence or emotions to be given to us so we can gain some sort of opinion of our own, and suddenly Barclay changes his mind.

    Anyways, back to julia’s point, I think if king wanted us to look into Barclay’s switch back to believing Trusdale was guilty, he would have mentioned it in this section of the interview, but he says he was interested in Barclay’s switch of opinion from guilty to innocent (and I don’t think there is much in the story that makes this change of mind interesting or even traceable). Unless he is trying to steer readers clearly way from the “true” (julia’s) reading of the story, which doesn’t make sense to me.

    I’m rereading more as I write my comment. I do think that ” ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do with it’ ” lends to Julia’s reading – that we (reader and barclay) can start to believe (we don’t know), despite our gut feeling, that Trusdale might be guilty. There is an emphasis on “not knowing” at the end of the story.

    However, maybe the reading depends on the narrative point of view. “He was the only one who hadn’t known. Fool that he was.” If this was from Barclay’s point of view, we could see him convincing himself of something he knows is not true (so that he can be relieved of his cowardice), and the reader could more easily be left to their own judgment/interpretation. But since it’s from a third person omniscient (forgive me if that is not the technical term for the narrative style – I am not good with these terms), this seems to be the author reaffirming that yes, in fact, Trusdale really was guilty and the sheriff was a fool. The sheriff’s belief in Trusdale’s guilt (at the end) is less interesting if it is rooted in facts than if it is rooted in his desire to escape cowardice.

    Lastly, the final line, “it was the doxology” seems to be the author’s blessing on the outcome of the trial – in that a guilty man was hanged and we can rest in peace (wink wink). No matter how you read this line though, I think we are left feeling dirty, which I feel was the point of the piece, at least in part. If not, it is certainly a horrendous side effect.

  29. alan May 9, 2015 at 5:57 pm

    I thought the story was second-rate and would not have been accepted if submitted by a less famous writer.

  30. Myrna Gottlieb May 9, 2015 at 10:10 pm

    I agree with Julia’s interpretation that it is not believable that Jim would be swallowing and excreting the silver dollar multiple times while in the lockup. And that a different silver dollar was shown to Barclay. Not saying that Jim didn’t do the crime; just that this last bit of incrimination evidence was planted.
    Btw, just received a renewal notice from The New Yorker. A year’s subscription is up to $89, and I’m torn. I mainly read the short fiction, and I’m debating. Any thoughts?

  31. Zack December 20, 2015 at 10:22 am

    Abel Hine did the crime. King left enough clues, but intentionally left the ending “seeming” ambiguous. It would seem like a “bad story” to those who don’t “get” it. The points advanced by others in this thread become more potent when you realize that justice was NOT served, that Trusdale did NOT swallow the coin multiple times. Hine planted the coin, showed Barclay
    Because he is the only one in the town who didn’t “fall for” Abel’s lie easily and totally.

    Many of the negative responses in this thread exhibit exactly the kind of immediate, surface (lack of) evaluation and critical thought by the majority which the story is intimately critiquing. King requires you to do the thinking yourself, or “conclude” the surface appearance is correct, and condemn the story….

    Just as the town condemned Trusdale.

    I don’t think “black liar” is a race reference. I just think it is the aggrieved family member’s way of cursing/condemning Trusdale.

  32. Jim Allman February 16, 2016 at 3:32 pm

    At the end Hines suggested they not give the coin back to the Clines because . . . He didn’t say why, but he may thought the Clines would know the date and if he planted a different coin than the coin the daughter was given, they would know something was not right.

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