THE GREEN MILE by Stephen King (1996)
This is a curious hybrid of a novel combining horror, crime fiction, social realism and fantasy.
There’s even a hint that it is intended as a religious allegory.
King himself admits that the novel is an experiment. It originally appeared in six installments in the New York Times with each part needing to end in a way that left the “constant reader” wanting more.
This is the way novels of old, notably those of Charles Dickens, were presented to the public and King was curious to see if he could get modern-day audiences hooked in the same way.
It helps ,of course, that he loves to surprise and shock in fictional works that are always strongly plot driven.
He’s not the kind of writer given to navel gazing reflection or to go wildly off at tangents. He doesn’t waste time on unnecessary detail or bother much with sex scenes. Here’s an example of his dispassionate style:
“Come to bed”, my wife said at last. “Come to bed with me, Paul” So I did, and we made love, and when it was over she went to sleep”.
Raunchy, it ain’t!
While you understand that there will be many twists and turns along the way, you know that the narrative will have a conventional start, middle and end; and in that order! This is not to say that the characters are secondary. On the contrary, you have to be interested in the personalities for a story like this to hold the attention. The characters in the Green Mile are vividly drawn and memorable.
The main events of the novel occur in 1932 at Block E Cold Mountain state penitentiary where six cells detain killers awaiting execution by an electric chair euphemistically known as “Old Sparky” . The walk to the killing chair is called the Green Mile because of the color of the linoleum lined corridor that leads there.
The story is told in the form of a memoir by 104-year-old Paul Edgecomb written from a nursing home. He recollects his time as chief guard in Block E and, in particular, when inmate John Coffey arrived.
Coffey is a gigantic black man who despite his size is both gentle and vulnerable. He is afraid of the dark and cries himself to sleep every night. He has been condemned to death for the brutal rape and murder of two young girls. This seems like a cut and dried case since he was found by a search party cradling the bloodied corpses of the dead sisters mumbling what seems to be a confession: “I couldn’t help it. I tried to take it back but it was too late”.
This apparently open and shut case is, however, shrouded in mystery since nothing is known about Coffey prior to this horrific crime. “It is like he dropped out of the sky” says one investigator.
Further doubt over his guilt is raised after he performs three apparent miracles – curing Edgecomb’s urinary infection, reviving a prisoner’s pet mouse from the brink of death and extracting a brain tumor from the wife of a chief warden.
Is he some kind of oversize black angel? Is this God moving in very mysterious ways? We will never know and King is not predisposed to enlighten us. Make of this what you will seems to be the author’s attitude – I just think up this stuff, I don’t have to explain it. King comments only that “magic is dangerous” and leaves any other interpretation hanging.
As a consequence, what we are left with is an incident packed story like one you might find in a pulp magazine like Weird Tales or see in an episode of The Twilight Zone. Stephen King knows how to write books that are hard to put down so you always want to know what happens next even when the plot is as contrived and ridiculous as this one.