A few years ago, I decided that I needed to read a Stephen King novel and see what I was missing. The problem that arose is that I am not a fan of horror stories, so I was in a quandary. Luckily, Mr. King had just published 11/23/63: A NOVEL, a counter-factual approach to the Kennedy assassination that I found fascinating. I did not attempt another King novel until his most recent work, BILLY SUMMERS about a hit man who victimized bad people, another excellent novel. Since I still have not gotten over my aversion to horror novels I chose THE GREEN MILE, another King novel that cannot be categorized as part of the horror genre. The story takes place in 1932 with the United States in the midst of the Great Depression. In true King form it provides a number of fascinating characters along with phrasing and descriptions that are intriguing, sarcastic, and at times humorous.
In 1836 Charles Dickens, the English novelist published THE PICKWICK PAPERS by serializing segments in magazines and smaller volumes called chap books. The process was very successful and lucrative for the author. That serialized format went out of style for novels, but 20 years ago Stephen King revived it for his project THE GREEN MILE a book, which focuses on the magical powers of death row inmate John Coffey and was released in six segments one per month throughout 1996. The process was an immediate hit and in 2018 King and his publisher rereleased it as a complete novel which greatly benefited his reading audience.
The novel itself focuses on John Coffey, a giant of a man who supposedly murdered and raped nine year old twin girls Cora and Kathe Detterick absconding with them from their farmhouse in Trapingus County Louisiana. Once caught and convicted he was sent to Cold Mountain Penitentiary where he was housed in Section E or death row waiting to meet what King labeled as “Old Sparky,” the electric chair. The narrator, Block Superintendent Paul Edgecombe who had overseen 72 executions during his career tells his story from the perspective of his later years in a Georgia nursing home delving into Coffey’s the character of a number of other prison employees and inmates. Coffey was a large man, with the mind of a child whose traits and behavior would challenge many of Edgecombe’s beliefs formed over decades working in prisons.
Throughout the novel we are presented the inner workings of the prison, the staff that was in charge and conducted policies along with a number of inmates who were waiting to walk the “green mile” to their deaths. Even in prisons politics rears its ugly head as guard, Percy Wetmore, a political appointee due to family connections acts with extreme brutality towards prisoners carrying his baton/hickory stick like a badge of honor alienating everyone including his fellow guards. At one point Edgecombe thought of resigning because of him but realized in the midst of a depression it was not the best time to quit.
Aspects of the novel are vintage King including his description of Coffey’s capture, certain absurdities like the adventures of a mouse named Mr. Jingles, character descriptions of prisoners on E block such as Edvard Delacroix who cherished his trained mouse, Arlen Bitterbuck, a Native-American Chief and member of the Cherokee Council who was executed with dignity, and “Wild” Bill Wharton, a nineteen year old kid who Edgecombe described as the “new psychopath” when he arrived at Cold Mountain, a man who didn’t care about anything who was similar to “back country stampeders” who passed through the prison and were “dullards with a mean streak.”
Edgecombe interfaces his personal life with his prison occupation as he sits in the Georgia Pines Nursing Home solarium writing his memoirs seemingly suffering from PTSD after witnessing over 70 executions. The job of prison guards at Cold Mountain created a community of insanity among the guards as they took their roles in the executions that King describes. But nothing they experienced would compare with their interactions with John Coffey.
The key element to the novel is a scheme hatched by Edgecombe to assist Warden Hal Moores wife Melissa who is dying of cancer. Edgecombe is convinced that Coffey is God’s conduit on earth to provide healing to those who suffer. His evidence is being touched by Coffey to relieve his excruciating urinary infection, saving Delacroix’s pet mouse who was crushed by Wetmore’s boot, and his belief that he was innocent of the crimes of which he was convicted. Edgecombe hopes to bring Coffey to Melissa believing he has the ability to cure her. The last third of the novel centers on this scenario.
King’s use of Georgia Pines Nursing Home outside of Atlanta is perfect for resident Paul Edgecombe to serve as a purposeful narrator for prison life and his retirement. In a sense living in a nursing home is similar to working in Block E at Cold Mountain – you were just waiting to die, and there was even a version of Percy Wetmore at the old age facility in the person of Brad Dolan! This juxtaposition has a great deal of truth in it and King’s commentary on both lifestyles is eye opening. THE GREEN MILE is a superb read and I look forward to another non-horror novel by Mr. King.