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Black House

Welcome to Coulee Country

Right here and now, as an old friend used to say, we are in the
fluid present, where clear-sightedness never guarantees perfect
vision. Here: about two hundred feet, the height of a gliding
eagle, above Wisconsin's far western edge, where the vagaries of
the Mississippi River declare a natural border. Now: an early
Friday morning in mid-July a few years into both a new century and
a new millennium, their wayward courses so hidden that a blind man
has a better chance of seeing what lies ahead than you or I. Right
here and now, the hour is just past six a.m., and the sun stands
low in the cloudless eastern sky, a fat, confident yellow-white
ball advancing as ever for the first time toward the future and
leaving in its wake the steadily accumulating past, which darkens
as it recedes, making blind men of us all.

Below, the early sun touches the river's wide, soft ripples with
molten highlights. Sunlight glints from the tracks of the
Burlington Northern Sante Fe Railroad running between the riverbank
and the backs of the shabby two-story houses along County Road Oo,
known as Nailhouse Row, the lowest point of the comfortable-looking
little town extending uphill and eastward beneath us. At this
moment in the Coulee Country, life seems to be holding its breath.
The motionless air around us carries such remarkable purity and
sweetness that you might imagine a man could smell a radish pulled
out of the ground a mile away.

Moving toward the sun, we glide away from the river and over the
shining tracks, the backyards and roofs of Nailhouse Row, then a
line of Harley-Davidson motorcycles tilted on their kickstands.
These unprepossessing little houses were built, early in the
century recently vanished, for the metal pourers, mold makers, and
crate men employed by the Pederson Nail factory. On the grounds
that working stiffs would be unlikely to complain about the flaws
in their subsidized accommodations, they were constructed as
cheaply as possible. (Pederson Nail, which had suffered multiple
hemorrhages during the fifties, finally bled to death in 1963.) The
waiting Harleys suggest that the factory hands have been replaced
by a motorcycle gang. The uniformly ferocious appearance of the
Harleys' owners, wild-haired, bushy-bearded, swag-bellied men
sporting earrings, black leather jackets, and less than the full
complement of teeth, would seem to support this assumption. Like
most assumptions, this one embodies an uneasy half-truth.

The current residents of Nailhouse Row, whom suspicious locals
dubbed the Thunder Five soon after they took over the houses along
the river, cannot so easily be categorized. They have skilled jobs
in the Kingsland Brewing Company, located just out of town to the
south and one block east of the Mississippi. If we look to our
right, we can see "the world's largest six-pack," storage tanks
painted over with gigantic Kingsland Old-Time Lager labels. The men
who live on Nailhouse Row met one another on the Urbana-Champaign
campus of the University of Illinois, where all but one were
undergraduates majoring in English or philosophy. (The exception
was a resident in surgery at the UI-UC university hospital.) They
get an ironic pleasure from being called the Thunder Five: the name
strikes them as sweetly cartoonish. What they call themselves is
"the Hegelian Scum." These gentlemen form an interesting crew, and
we will make their acquaintance later on. For now, we have time
only to note the hand-painted posters taped to the fronts of
several houses, two lamp poles, and a couple of abandoned
buildings. The posters say: fisherman, you better pray to your
stinking god we don't catch you first! remember amy!

From Nailhouse Row, Chase Street runs steeply uphill between
listing buildings with worn, unpainted facades the color of fog:
the old Nelson Hotel, where a few impoverished residents lie
sleeping, a blank-faced tavern, a tired shoe store displaying Red
Wing workboots behind its filmy picture window, a few other dim
buildings that bear no indication of their function and seem oddly
dreamlike and vaporous. These structures have the air of failed
resurrections, of having been rescued from the dark westward
territory although they were still dead. In a way, that is
precisely what happened to them. An ocher horizontal stripe, ten
feet above the sidewalk on the facade of the Nelson Hotel and two
feet from the rising ground on the opposed, ashen faces of the last
two buildings, represents the high-water mark left behind by the
flood of 1965, when the Mississippi rolled over its banks, drowned
the railroad tracks and Nailhouse Row, and mounted nearly to the
top of Chase Street.

Where Chase rises above the flood line and levels out, it widens
and undergoes a transformation into the main street of French
Landing, the town beneath us. The Agincourt Theater, the Taproom
Bar and Grille, the First Farmer State Bank, the Samuel Stutz
Photography Studio (which does a steady business in graduation
photos, wedding pictures, and children's portraits) and shops, not
the ghostly relics of shops, line its blunt sidewalks: Benton's
Rexall drugstore, Reliable Hardware, Saturday Night Video, Regal
Clothing, Schmitt's Allsorts Emporium, stores selling electronic
equipment, magazines and greeting cards, toys, and athletic
clothing featuring the logos of the Brewers, the Twins, the
Packers, the Vikings, and the University of Wisconsin. After a few
blocks, the name of the street changes to Lyall Road, and the
buildings separate and shrink into one-story wooden structures
fronted with signs advertising insurance offices and travel
agencies; after that, the street becomes a highway that glides
eastward past a 7-Eleven, the Reinhold T. Grauerhammer VFW Hall, a
big farm-implement dealership known locally as Goltz's, and into a
landscape of flat, unbroken fields. If we rise another hundred feet
into the immaculate air and scan what lies beneath and ahead, we
see kettle moraines, coulees, blunted hills furry with pines,
loam-rich valleys invisible from ground level until you have come
upon them, meandering rivers, miles-long patchwork fields, and
little towns-one of them, Centralia, no more than a scattering of
buildings around the intersection of two narrow highways, 35 and

Directly below us, French Landing looks as though it had been
evacuated in the middle of the night. No one moves along the
sidewalks or bends to insert a key into one of the locks of the
shop fronts along Chase Street. The angled spaces before the shops
are empty of the cars and pickup trucks that will begin to appear,
first by ones and twos, then in a mannerly little stream, an hour
or two later. No lights burn behind the windows in the commercial
buildings or the unpretentious houses lining the surrounding
streets. A block north of Chase on Sumner Street, four matching
red-brick buildings of two stories each house, in west-east order,
the French Landing Public Library; the offices of Patrick J.
Skarda, M.D., the local general practitioner, and Bell and Holland,
a two-man law firm now run by Garland Bell and Julius Holland, the
sons of its founders; the Heartfield and Son Funderal Home, now
owned by a vast, funereal empire centered in St. Louis; and the
French Landing Post Office.

Separated from these by a wide driveway into a good-sized parking
lot at the rear, the building at the end of the block, where Sumner
intersects with Third Street, is also of red brick and two stories
high but longer than its immediate neighbors. Unpainted iron bars
block the rear second-floor windows, and two of the four vehicles
in the parking lot are patrol cars with light bars across their
tops and the letters flpd on their sides. The presence of police
cars and barred windows seem incongruous in this rural
fastness-what sort of crime can happen here? Nothing serious,
surely; surely nothing worse than a little shoplifting, drunken
driving, and an occasional bar fight.

As if in testimony to the peacefulness and regularity of small-town
life, a red van with the words la riviere herald on its side panels
drifts slowly down Third Street, pausing at nearly all of the
mailbox stands for its driver to insert copies of the day's
newspaper, wrapped in a blue plastic bag, into gray metal cylinders
bearing the same words. When the van turns onto Sumner, where the
buildings have mail slots instead of boxes, the route man simply
throws the wrapped papers at the front doors. Blue parcels thwack
against the doors of the police station, the funeral home, and the
office buildings. The post office does not get a

Excerpted from BLACK HOUSE © Copyright 2001 by Stephen
King and Peter Straub. Reprinted with permisison by Ballantine
Books. All rights reserved.

Black House
by by Stephen King

  • Genres: Fiction, Horror
  • Mass Market Paperback: 672 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0345441036
  • ISBN-13: 9780345441034